Partners are now able to go out on a limb and explore. They’re ready to make a commitment, get engaged, get married, have kids, launch careers, and explore the world.
Now, the partnership can begin capitalizing on differences in the same way it leveraged commonalities in earlier stages. The foundation of connection and cohesion creates a platform for exploration and development. Fueled by growth, differences are illuminated as partners find a way to be independent and together at the same time. In most relationships, this is the first time that separateness is woven into the fabric of day-to-day activity. Moving in different directions can either strengthen or weaken the connection.
In addition to the thrill of new abilities, growth usually includes some struggle. In contrast to the togetherness of the previous stage, all relationships eventually crave some individuality. While it feels good to be joined as one, healthy relationships create enough space for exploration and creativity. Strong connections are based on more than togetherness. They also rely on an appreciation of differences. The payoff for all of the effort expended during the discovery and intimacy stages is the safety to explore new experiences with the confidence that the relationship will adapt to whatever changes happen to unfold.
Relationships that are able to take smart risks and leverage the strength of different perspectives are marked by growth and change. While sometimes scary, there is a level of excitement that comes with creativity. Partners need to be willing to stumble in order to innovate. By sacrificing the comfort and safety of closeness, couples create opportunities for growth that would be otherwise impossible. The inevitable consequence of growth is change. Monitoring the overall wellness of the relationship during this stage is essential. If the norms and values that created the foundation of the connection are lost, the relationship can become vulnerable. On the other hand, attention to the rules of engagement that originally anchored the relationship can serve as a keel of stabilization when waters get rough.
Partnerships that evolve find comfort when moving into new areas and experimenting with new ideas. When people struggle with risk, they are often either reacting to past events or are anticipating the most negative consequences of the chance they are about to take. It is normal to experience caution whenever you stretch your limits or try something new. The healthy apprehension that reminds you of the consequences usually gets mixed with the fun and excitement of anticipation.
Taking smart risks brings excitement and adventure to the life of a relationship. When two people embark on a risk together, decisions are driven by either the most fearless or most fearful member of the relationship. Fearless partners push their apprehensive counterparts forward. Fearful partners pull their more confident partners back. This dynamic push and pull generates creative tension in the relationship that forces either growth or stagnation.
The symptoms most likely to appear when risk is being negotiated represent both the eagerness for and the resistance to the consequences of the change. If the more fearful partner is pulling, the couple will be affected by issues like resistance to change, fear of failure, or a simple lack of resources. If the more fearless partner is pushing, the couple will be influenced by feeling over-extended, daring, or “out on a limb.” Of course, both fearlessness and fearfulness have value, depending on what’s at stake. In relationships, risk-taking must account for the consequences on all parties involved.
Thriving relationships value and encourage different perspectives to promote growth. When people struggle with differences, it is often an inability to consider an alternate perspective to their own. Sociologists use the term “equifinality” to describe how many paths can lead to the same destination. Unfortunately, many relationships are ruled by an approach that gives power to one partner while removing it from the other. The unfortunate result of this power play is the relationship’s ability to change becomes limited by having only one opinion. All other possibilities are disabled, even if they might create more resources, less cost, greater learning, better efficiency, stronger growth, or simply increase the fun and excitement in the relationship.
Differences, by their nature, increase the pool of options. They elevate more ideas for consideration. Leveraging difference is the ultimate show of respect toward a relationship partnership. Communicating appreciation for a perspective other than your own informs your partner that their thoughts, feelings, and ideas are important to you.