Relationships at this stage are testing the water. New couples take pleasure in sharing experiences and getting to know each other. Excitement builds as partners imagine what might lie ahead. In many ways, this is the fantasy stage.
The relationship isn’t real yet, but it’s powerful because our hopes and dreams are real and our desires are intense. Relationships are fueled by the need for connection. The initial challenge is to negotiate the rules of engagement and find a way to manage differences. Most of us keep our guards up pretty high at the beginning.
These early rhythms rest delicately on first impressions. We test each other out to see whether each person will live up to the image we’ve formed in our minds. With each interaction, a foundation is built that will later eventually either succeed or fail to support the tougher challenges that happen in the relationship. This phase usually includes some conflict as partners figure out their rules of engagement. After all, if they are going to make a commitment to move forward together, they must forge a common vision for their future and agree on what’s most important. As these points get hammered out, every relationship sets its own unique rhythm.
This is where the opportunity of discovery begins. In the first stage of the cycle, partners decide how to invest in each other. The goal is to become attached. Because loss is a common experience, the earliest steps toward closeness are cautious. Plenty of testing is needed to figure out whether the connection is worth the challenges that all relationships experience.
Every partnership has its own rules and idiosyncrasies. They are as unique as the personalities that form the partnership. Paying attention to these nuances builds a gradual foundation as partners test out new behaviors and share more and more of themselves with each other.
Over time, partners choose to engage in a level of dependency that houses these and future negotiations.
Strong relationships have clear agreement on the rules, boundaries, and behaviors that guide day-to-day interactions. The job of building a foundation of relationship norms is labor intensive. Unless both participants are ready to undertake the challenge, their energy will be steered toward the unfinished old business rather than refocusing on the new circumstances. A new connection has a chance to define its own rhythms and routines. As this unfolds, day-to-day interactions become living examples of the norms that define the unique creation of the connection.
Effective partnerships enjoy clear agreement on roles, responsibilities, and direction. When people struggle with alignment, it’s often because they have significant differences in key areas. Perhaps they have dissimilar morals and values. Maybe they have diverse views on religion, politics, or parenting style. Whatever the differences, finding alignment requires a blend of acceptance, tolerance and open communication. Depending on the couple’s commitment to embracing differences as strengths, they can either become irritants that support separateness or enrichments that support togetherness. Differences strengthen a relationship when they are acknowledged and appreciated. At best, they create a balance of opposites that help relationships stretch in new directions.
Healthy relationships value and engage in productive, respectful conflict. When people mismanage conflict, an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of differences has been lost. The art of conflict is rooted in fairness and respect. When partners become disrespectful of each other’s viewpoints, the goal of the exchange is to protect your own interests rather than to seek understanding or compromise. In extreme situations, a triangle forms between the relationship partners and some other entity (e.g. intrusive in-laws, addictions, financial pressures, work demands) where the third party governs the priorities of the negotiation. Healthy conflict requires clear rules and solid problem-solving techniques.