In part 1 I discussed the loss of passion in relationships, and how I believe it is the leading contributor to affairs, divorce, and unhappy relationships (or at least relationships that are less happy than they could be). Loss of passion is somewhat inevitable in long term relationships, but that doesn’t have to be the case, and there are ways to try and rebuild it when it’s diminished or gone.
I was planning on talking about “ways to rebuild” in part 2, but as I started writing I realized there was something important to cover first about loss of passion. So I’m going to cheat a bit here. Instead of part 2, I now present you with Part 1 1/2!!!
Relationships are like small groups, or teams, and in the mid 60’s a guy by the name of Bruce Tuckman came up with a theory on the stages of group development. Tuckman believed there were four stages that all groups or teams can go through; forming, storming, norming and performing. Here’s a brief explanation of each stage:
- Forming. This is when a team comes together. This stage is characterized by excitement, optimism and anticipation of what the future will bring.
- Storming. At this stage reality sets in and it doesn’t quite match what was expected. Members may become dissatisfied and/or frustrated. There is some anxiety as they are adjusting to the fact that the team isn’t working out quite the way that they thought it would. At this point there is a resistance, conflict and emotions tend to run high. Members may start looking out for themselves instead of doing what is best for the team.
- Norming. At this stage the team has worked out most of the issues. They understand the idea of shared goals, and have learned to cope and accept each other. There is a sense of relief and lowered anxiety, as the members are engaged and supportive of each other.
- Performing. At this stage the team is performing at a very high level. They truly understand each other, and have a strong sense of teamwork and cohesiveness.
If all teams go through these stages, isn’t a relationship really just a special type of team? Let’s take a closer look at these stages in the context of a relationship.
The Forming Stage
All of us have our own idealized views of what our perfect relationship looks like. Looking at traditional gender roles (which by the way I don’t buy into), young girls may have this idea that they will meet their “handsome prince”, who will sweep them off their feet and lead them off to a life of romance. That’s how the fairy tale romances are depicted by Disney anyhow. The traditional gender roles for guys are a wife who takes care of both them and all the domestic stuff.
Whether or not you buy into the “traditional roles” we all have some sort of idealized view of things. One problem about with an idealized view is that it is almost always a selfish view. It is about “what this relationship will do for me”.
In the early years of a relationship, there is the excitement of the new, and the promise of what the future could look like. In the early stage of a relationship things seem perfect, and it’s easy to overlook the “flaws” in your partner.
It seems clear that this love is real, and will last forever. And if nothing else we all expect that no matter what happens in our life with our chosen partner, we will always be happy together. Eventually reality sets in, and we find that reality doesn’t quite match what we expected.
The Storming Stage
This is where the fun begins. In this stage we realize that our chosen partner is actually a regular person. They may still be wonderful, and a great match for us. But they have flaws just like anyone else. And not just that, but our idealized vision of a life together isn’t quite correct. Most of our time is still taken up with jobs, and the need to pay bills. We may still have dreams that we want to accomplish together, but most of our life is actually pretty mundane.
I believe much of our enjoyment and appreciation of life is based on expectation. A while back I wrote a post on expectations in relationships. I think it’s probably one of my most important posts, but sadly is one of the least viewed. Here’s a simple analogy for expectations:
A few years ago Marvel Studios was just getting it’s start, and they put out Iron Man and an Incredible Hulk movie (with Edward Norton) in the same summer. I was in full “daddy mode” at the time so I didn’t get out to the theater much, but I heard all the hype – both from buddies and from reviews. From everything I was hearing, Iron Man was a fantastic film while the Hulk, ehhh, it was alright.
That fall I finally got a chance to see them, and I enjoyed Iron Man but I really didn’t think it was amazing. I also found that I enjoyed the Hulk much more than I expected to. You see, my expectation for Iron Man was high while for the Hulk it was low. As a result my enjoyment of the films was colored by my expectation.
We do this in all aspects of life. Our happiness or enjoyment of something in some ways is related not to what something actually is, but to how it met expectations.
ALL relationships go through this storming stage. And this storming stage is really a collision between our expectations of what we believed our partner and relationship should look like, and the reality of the situation.
Our level of disappointment at this stage is really about how big the gap is between reality and expectations. If the gap is small, then it’s not a big deal. If the gap is large though, trouble ensues. Because this gap is based on your own expectations, it will be different for each person. As a result one person may be quite happy in the relationship, while the other person isn’t.
As one or both partners become dissatisfied and frustrated they may start turning away from the relationship, and start looking out for themselves. This period of dissatisfaction can lead to conflict and high emotions, and put enormous strain on the relationship.
When a large gap exists, the question becomes why? What exactly is wrong? Is it an issue of unrealistic expectations? Or is the relationship somehow lacking? In all likelihood it is a mix of the two. The situation may actually be pretty good, but it doesn’t match up to expectations and so it is seen as unbearable.
Because our expectations are partially formed by experience you can also see the opposite happen. If someone has been treated very poorly in the past, then may find a new relationship where someone treats them marginally better (but still poorly), and this may be seen as acceptable. It’s very hard to judge things for “what they are”, as our expectations always determine our level of contentment.
All relationships go through this storming stage, and it can be a very difficult time, sometimes lasting years. In some cases people are able to close the gap between expectation and reality. People may realize their expectations were unrealistic and find a way to re-frame them, or they may find ways to improve the reality by working on improving the relationship.
In other cases the gap between expectation and reality is too large, and the relationship fails. Not all relationships make it through this stage. And honestly, not all should.
The Norming Stage
I believe the norming stage of relationships is where true love blossoms. It may not be the stuff of fairy tales, but it is a deep, mature love.
At this point in a relationship both partners have “weathered the storm”. The couple that comes out on the other side is different, but stronger. They have learned strategies for coping with their differences (which may or may not be healthy strategies), and they have come to accept each other for who they truly are, and not just who they wish they were.
Most people will agree with the idea that perfection doesn’t exist. But saying they agree, and accepting it in your own relationship are two different things. A while ago I came across a great quote that sums up the norming stage well. I didn’t write it down, but I believe it went:
Choosing a partner is about choosing a set of problems you can live with.
It sounds terrible, but it’s true. Perfection doesn’t exists, and all people have traits that are hard to get along with sometimes. But we need to find a match that works for us.
Continuing with the super hero movie analogies, there’s a great scene in X-men: Days of Future Past. Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Magneto were close friends when they were younger, but became enemies for a number of years. Now older and wiser, reflecting on the past Magneto says:
All those years wasted fighting each other, Charles… but at least we got a few of them back.
In some ways the storming stage IS wasted time. It is a power struggle and a time where the “me” gets in the way of the “we”. But it’s an important (and necessary) stage for all couples to go through. Of course some couples take longer than others, and the severity of issues may be worse in some cases then others.
The norming stage is when people realize it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation – they can be both “me” and be part of a “we”, and they are able to strengthen their bond moving forward.
Some couples slip through these stages a few more times, but for many once they have figured it out, they are able to maintain their relationships and truly commit “till death do us part”.
I’ve heard people describe this process in their own relationships, saying they came to a point where they weren’t sure if the relationship was what they really wanted. But after some time and soul searching (and usually frank conversation with their partner), they were able to recommit and make their relationship stronger than it had ever been.
The Loss of Passion
Bringing these stages back to my original topic, the loss of passion, it is in the storming stage that passion breaks down. It’s pretty hard to maintain passion for someone who at least on a subconscious level comes across as a disappointment. And it’s also hard to maintain passion when the relationship feels like a struggle.
The hard part becomes rebuilding that passion once they have been able to weather the storm and recommit to each other. The difficult in rebuilding passion is based on two factors:
First is the length of time that the storming stage has gone on, and the severity of the issues encountered and damage done during this time.
The second factor is the attitude people bring into the norming stage. Some people stay together because it’s what they know, they feel it’s best for the kids, or because they are scared to be alone. When this happens it’s almost impossible to rebuild any passion, and I think it’s better for both parties to just let the relationship end.
Others stay together because they realize that they truly do love each other, warts and all. And they want to continue to build their life with their partner. If that is the reason for staying together, then passion doesn’t have to be rebuilt. It’s already there, and it just needs to be nurtured.
The Performing Stage
You may have been wondering, hey, what about the performing stage? I left this for last on purpose. This is where the team is working at a very high level, and has a strong sense of team and cohesiveness. One interesting thing about Tuckman’s theory is he believes most successful teams plateau at the norming stage, and very few ever go on to achieve the performing stage.
I think the same can be said of marriages and long term relationships. Many go through the hard years, and come to some sort of peaceful coexistence. But how many are TRULY happy? How many achieve something closer to their initial idealized view (tempered by reality)? Or how many simply accept that what they have is “good enough”.
I’m a big believer in continuous improvement, and I believe that regardless of the state of your relationship currently, it can always be better. You can always find ways to communicate better, and come to understand each other better. Passion should never die. You should be able to feel just as passionate about your partner at 80 as you did at 20.
To me this is the goal. This is the sort of love we all aspire to. It may not be the stuff of fairy tales, but it’s the real life version of fairy tales.
So how do we get there? Next up, my ideas on this. I promise this time