Yes, I’m waiting for my honeymoon. But before you fall off your chair, no, I haven’t gone and got married. Nor am I even remotely close. I don’t think exchanging a few emails with a couple of random guys on an Internet dating site counts as much progress.
No, this post isn’t about the prospect of spending three weeks in a luxury hut in the middle of an aquamarine sea or canoeing up the Amazon (whatever you’re fancy).
I’m talking about the period at the start of a relationship when you’re floating on a purple cloud (I prefer purple to pink), when everything is hunky dory and when the man you’re dating seems the best thing since Kellogg’s Special K Red Berries (I don’t eat that sweet stuff anymore but I was crazy about it when it first came out).
There are conflicting views on how long this honeymoon period can last – from months to years, and it likely depends on whether you’re married or not. According to the Urban Dictionary, though, three months is “the maximum period between a person’s entry into a new situation and a person’s complete screwing up of said situation or essential elements of it.”
Whatever the norm, frankly I’d be happy with just a few weeks.
I know I’m growing out of this – thankfully, and about time – but there’s a common thread running through my relationship history. It has involved, pretty much from the outset, questioning whether the guy was right for me and focusing far too much on the cons rather than the pros. I have experienced the purple cloud, but that was generally in the period before our lips – or even our eyes – met. I’ve admired men from afar, built them up in my imagination, but once we’ve got close, my scrutinising has taken off.
My nitpicking has ranged from his choice in shoes, to the size of his hands or width of his shoulders, to the noise he made when crunching his cornflakes. The ‘Is he? Isn’t he?’ debate has reached such a crescendo in my head that an imminent explosion has seemed likely.
Of course, today I see this approach for what it was: a foolproof strategy to ensure I never had to make that scary decision to commit my heart to anyone – with all its potential for rejection and pain.
It also indicated a lack of acceptance of my own flaws and failings. If I didn’t like the width of his shoulders, chances are I hadn’t accepted the shape of my thighs. If I didn’t approve of his eating habits, it’s likely I hadn’t come to terms with mine.
The good news is that awareness is the first step on the road to change. Today I have that gift of awareness, in bucket loads, but I’m always ready for more.
Which is why I found a talk by psychotherapist and addictions specialist Paul Sunderland so fascinating, informative and helpful: Recovery & the Couple Relationship. It’s about an hour long so if you’re interested in watching it, set aside some time. You may not think it’s for you, particularly if you don’t identify yourself as having an addiction, but if you’re in a relationship or would like to be in one and make it work, I’d say it’s worth an hour of your day. And I also reckon most of us are a little bit addicted and/or codependent anyway.
For the time-challenged, I’ll summarise the parts that really spoke to me.
Sunderland talks about relationships having three phases: the Ideal, the Ordeal and the Real Deal. The Ideal phase is the honeymoon period, the falling-in-love stage that, he says, generally lasts from 18 months to 3 years. The Ordeal phase, as its name suggests, is the tricky period when couples start to discover things about each other they don’t like and they have to negotiate boundaries with each other. If you make it through the Ordeal, you’ll get to the Real Deal – true partnership and intimacy based on acceptance of each other’s flaws and a good negotiation of boundaries and personal space.
If you’re reading this and you’re single, you may think you’ve never met The One. But maybe you’ve never made it through the Ordeal. I’m no expert but I’d say that’s the case for me.
The Ordeal is a tricky phase. It involves getting close and confronting one’s fears of abandonment and rejection, compromising and learning to love things about your partner you really want to hate. It’s no surprise, then, that many of us prefer to get out when the going gets rough and return over and again to the Ideal. When we start disliking aspects of the person we’re with, we assume he or she isn’t right and we go in search of the purple cloud again. When we hit choppy waters, we jump ship and go and find a sun-kissed desert island – until the storm clouds close in once more and we seek out another life raft. Of course, the case may be that he or she wasn’t the right guy or girl, or it wasn’t the right time, but it’s worth being aware of our patterns.
Sunderland explains that some of us are more prone to continue this cycle, to repeatedly flee from the Ordeal stage, than others. The Ideal phase can induce a drug-like state, which, for anyone with addictive or compulsive tendencies, can be incredibly difficult to resist. We search for a pleasurable high – through food, alcohol, drugs or in this case, love – because we want to escape reality.
Our childhoods often affect our ability to negotiate successfully the Ordeal. If we didn’t feel safe or secure as children, we can develop codependency, which Sunderland describes as “an addiction to security at all costs” and a block to intimacy.
He notes that 75 percent of a child’s wellbeing depends on a mother’s ability “to tell an emotionally coherent story” and how quickly children pick up on their parents’ moods. He also tells a moving story about a young child who asked, “is Daddy leaving because of the way I eat my crisps?” (his father was an alcoholic who angered easily when drunk). A child’s default position is to think it’s all their fault. They learn to tiptoe around their parents and say and do all the right things because neglect, rejection or abandonment, to a little person, can feel life threatening. But once this pattern begins, it can spread to all relationships and continue into adult life.
Codependency stops us from being true to ourselves in relationships and acts as a bar to honesty and intimacy. We contort ourselves, lose ourselves and do everything possible to put the other person at ease – in order to manage our own deep anxieties about abandonment and rejection. We attempt to become what we think our partner wants us to be – we’re so scared of being separate that we try to merge with another.
As you can imagine, this doesn’t make for a healthy relationship. As Sunderland explains, in order to be one (ie. a true partnership), you need to be two. The goal is to strive for separateness first – autonomy, if you like – so you can then come together as a couple. Of course, some of us can take this separateness to extremes, turning it into the compulsive avoidance of relationship, intimacy and love.
Thinking about Sunderland’s lecture, it’s nice to see how far I’ve come. I’ve worked hard over the years on my own codependency, my compulsive search for the Ideal, my fear of intimacy and issues around rejection and abandonment and on creating a life in which I feel autonomous and free to be me. I don’t always get it right but I’m encouraged by my progress, even over the last few months.
In early June, I blogged about my sadness. The tears had been flowing really fast for quite a few weeks, even months. Of course, I held it together pretty well on the outside but I was seriously worried about myself. I talked to my GP about anti-depressants and gave them a lot of thought.
Three months on, however, and without taking any pills, I feel – dare I say it – happy. I feel content, hopeful and excited. I feel grateful and loving towards myself and my fellows. Yes, I feel good.
I have nothing against medication and know many people who’ve come through rough times with the help of anti-depressants. I can, however, be stubborn as a mule and insistent on doing things my way. This time, it appears to have worked.
I took the rather enlightened step of changing the things that were making me unhappy. I stopped working like crazy on projects that didn’t fulfill me or give me space to express my creativity. I took some time off and spent whole afternoons lying in the sun (when it came out) or swimming in ponds or the sea. I spent time with friends and family. And I began writing my book, something I feel incredibly passionate about, that gives me a purpose and that allows me to be creative.
These are exciting times.
Most importantly, though, I learned – first-hand rather than from reading it in a book – that my happiness is in my hands and nobody else’s and that by changing my thoughts and behaviours, I can change my mood.
As a fully paid-up member of the human race, I’m sure I’ll slip back on occasion into doing things that drag me down but hopefully, with the gift of experience, I’ll be able to lift myself up.