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Without guidelines, without a map to help them understand what’s happening, couples often blame themselves and each other for their difficulties. This book is intended to provide such a navigational map, which can help couples weather the bad times and linger a bit less warily when things are good.
In order for a couple to endure, the partners must resolve the problems that emerge in their relationship. No couple does this by moving in a straight line; instead all pass through series after series of endlessly spiraling three-stage cycles. The three stages are Expansion and Promise, Contraction and Betrayal, and Resolution.
Couples first move through times of positive hopes and experiences, then through times of trouble and disappointment—perhaps the positive experiences were not deep enough, perhaps they did not last long enough; then into some middle ground between the two opposing conditions. Each cycle reflects their effort to recognize and reconcile a conflict: the freedom and promise of the early relationship versus the crushing defeat that invariably follows; the value of individual development versus the collective needs of couples and families.
Initially, two people first come together enough to form a lasting relationship. This is the task of the first Expansive Stage. According to today’s Cultural Narrative, couples should begin in a burst of romance, exploration, and sexual attraction. But not every couple, and not every partner, falls in love. Instead, couples commonly begin with a shared experience of expansiveness and promise, which may include romantic love, but which may also arise from a warm and respectful friendship.
In this stage, individuals feel somehow larger, more witty and charming; stronger yet more vulnerable—in short, closer to their ideal selves than ever before or after. The developmental trajectories of men and women converge for a moment, so that men take time to talk and understand, while women appear more independent. Each partner’s appreciation spurs the other to expand his or her capacities. Early relationships lack the constricting patterns that eventually emerge. They are spacious instead, encouraging both exploration and experimentation.
The Expansive Stage is one of the few times when we tell our whole story to another person, who bears witness to it and helps shape it further. The two individual narratives are then woven into a couple narrative, which takes on a life, an identity, of its own. People will say, "This is how we do things," and "That is just how we are." In this way, individual identity becomes inextricably bound to the character of the couple.
But couples must also find a way to include the fears and insecurities, the ineptness and even the cruelty that figures prominently in their lives. Introducing this material into the relationship is the task of the Stage of Contraction and Betrayal.
This second stage begins when one partner pulls back to routine and familiar ways. The withdrawal may be neutral, not angry; but the person who is left inevitably feels abandoned and betrayed. When she—it is almost always the woman who stays connected longer— objects, he may feel controlled and withdraw further; she may then be both frightened and furious, insistently asking that the person she had gotten to know reemerge. In response, he may build his shell thicker, and so the sequence grows.
This nightmarish cycle makes caricatures of the two partners. The great potential of the Expansive Stage, when men and women shared "male". and "female" attributes, dissolves into cruel stereotypes. Each partner feels trapped, diminished, and betrayed—not only by the other but also by himself or herself. More than anything, people wish to remain the person they were in the Expansive Stage, the person they had striven to be through years of dreaming and preparing. Now they feel immensely let down by their own failures. They blame both self and other, and a mood of accusation permeates this stage. Just as the Expansive Stage brings us closer to our ego ideal, so the Stage of Contraction confronts us with our greatest fears and our poorest self-image.
During this stage, distinctive, repetitive struggles form and consolidate. They seem to define the whole relationship. The struggles are so distressing, the couple may draw someone, like a child or parent, or something, like alcohol or excessive work, into the relationship to buffer the conflict. Patterns of "triangulation," "complementarity," and many others become integral parts of the couple’s moments together.11 These patterns recur throughout the life of the couple; they become as familiar and distinctive as the implicit promises of Expansion.
In order for the couple to move on, it must climb out of the Stage of Contraction without entirely excluding its messages. It must at least partially reconcile the first two stages. This is the task of the third stage, the Stage of Resolution.
This is a stage of compromise, negotiation, accommodation, and integration. The partners struggle to be reasonable and maintain perspective, to affirm complexity and to handle difficult situations with competence and maturity. In contrast to the intense, narrow focus on one another that characterized the first two stages, the couple now opens up more to family and community. Having a child, for example, may serve as a bridge of common concern to repair long-strained relationships with parents; it may become a rite of passage into a more durable adulthood.
The early desire for fusion in the Expansive Stage gives way to close, bitter struggles in the Stage of Contraction. Paradoxically, the blaming and rejection may eventually lead to a sense of perspective. For example, a statement uttered in close, angry combat, like "I’m not at all like you," may usher in a realization of genuine difference: "We really are different." With this realization comes first alienation, then at least toleration and possibly acceptance, followed by a flood of relief. For a moment the struggle seems over. What had seemed mean in one’s partner now seems tolerable. Relief follows, and renewed optimism often comes in its wake. At this point the couple frequently moves forward into another Expansive Stage; but just as quickly, they can be thrown back into Contraction, with each partner feeling disappointed, as if the whole experience had been an illusion or a setup.
This moment of increased perspective represents a "foray" into Resolution (the concept of forays will be further explored in Chapter 11). The accumulation of these moments of realization, these forays from Contraction into Resolution, puts the couple past a threshold that consolidates their transition. As the forays overwhelm the experience of contraction—which comes to seem like such a crabby, limited view—the couple move ahead to the next stage.
Couples try to hold onto their new perspective and onto the optimism and expansiveness that follow, but they invariably fail. The progression of Expansion, Contraction, and Resolution is a spiral through time: stages cascade one after the other. The character of the couple, as distinguished from the character of the individual partners, is shaped more by the overall cycles than by any single stage. (This concept of couple character will be elaborated in Chapters 8 and 10.) Cycles can be precipitated by a wide number of crises and events.
At first, the promise of the Expansive Stage and the fears of the Stage of Contraction remain relatively separate; but with each turn of the cycle, they become more integrated. Each revolution brings new information into the couple’s domain. One partner’s terrible and characteristic rages, for example, may suddenly emerge after years of life together, and eventually become acknowledged and worked into their ways of being together. Memories of childhood trauma, long repressed, may surface after a particularly difficult time sexually; and this, too, will gradually be integrated into the couple’s shared identity. So, too, with many positive traits, such as capacities that only emerge in response to dangerous or tragic situations.
For those couples who survive many turnings of the cycle, the Stage of Resolution tends to broaden in content and lengthen in time. Couples spend more and more time in it, and its qualities of tolerance and accommodation increasingly come to define their character.
The character of couples is shaped as much by the rhythm of the cycles as by the content of their stages. In this, couples vary greatly. Some couples, for example, move through wild swings: everything’s great, then everything’s awful; then there is a brief moment of reconciliation, after which everything’s better (or worse) than ever. For others, the stages pass more subtly, and their cycles are relatively smooth. Some couples move very slowly out of one stage into another; others seem to be cycling all the time.
Every couple has a Home Base, a stage in which they generally reside. This habitual stage represents both its public persona (how others perceive them) and its evolved self-image, but not, as we have implied, its full character. Those who reside on Contraction, for instance, think of themselves as conflicted and troubled, even though they have moments in Expansion and Resolution. Once a couple has settled into a stage as its Home Base, its cycles will tend to begin and end there. The couple in Contraction might climb out through one compromise or another, relax momentarily in Resolution, which feels good enough to revive some old romantic feelings reminiscent of Expansion, but with its first minor disappointment, fall back to their familiar Home Base in Contraction.
After the first few cycles the stages in each couple’s repertoire become more like different states of being. The couple can enter them, know them as familiar, and then move off. In this sense the stages become a relatively constant, autonomous reality in the relationship.
A couple’s characteristic patterns usually stem from their first time through the cycle. For example, we develop our characteristic ways of loving and being loved, of being warm and affectionate, in our first time through Expansion. Subsequent expansive moments will usually bring back the memory and flavor of these patterns. Similarly, the fights we had in our first cycle usually recur over and over again through our relationship. They become our characteristic fight. No new fight seems all that new, but looks like a variation on the old one. Later, in our first passage through Resolution, we develop our characteristic ways of solving problems—our distinctive ways of talking, negotiating, tolerating, and accepting.
Reflection Exercise #10