Partnering Up: Falling From Space (or Grace)

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Stages of Courtship

I realize this is a rather lax stage theory of courtship, so forgive me in advance for using a rocket analogy to describe how relationships get off the ground. But understand, I’ve had rockets on my mind for several years while thinking about success and failure in courtship.

Helen Fisher, a brilliant biological anthropologist, expert in the neurobiology of courtship and romantic love, and all-around lovely person, has written extensively on courtship. Please read her articles and books for more on this subject. Others have written on this topic. Harville Hendrix (another wonderful person) comes to mind for his early writings on Imago and stages of coupling. And of course John Gottman, another friend and great guy, has talked about the deleterious effects of testosterone on new lovers’ judgment. So, without further delay, I give you my rocket analogy of courtship.

During the first stage (booster) of partnering, we’re on drugs: dopamine, noradrenaline, oxytocin, vasopressin, and testosterone (to name a few). Nature (biology) does much of our work for us. The phenomenon of novelty (the brain loves strangerness); the process positive projection (“I love who I think you are, and I love who you think I am”); and those endogenous love drugs (“You look, sound, smell perfect to me”) make us want to be together despite our natural inclination to be insecure, shy, judgmental, or contact averse. For many yet-to-be couples, the booster stage marks the end of that particular ride. For others, it’s on to the second stage.

Sadly, the sense of novelty doesn’t last, and nature soon pulls out, ending the booster stage of courtship and leaving us alone with our inherent attachment expectations, which can include fear of being smothered or fear of being abandoned or both. Positive projections give way to negative ones and to a more reality-based knowledge of each other. Good times.

Our first big fight may happen in the second or in the third stage of courtship, but it will happen, and many will not make it beyond this point and will fall back to Earth. We may worry that we’re with the wrong person, and we may be, depending upon the attachment values revealed during and following that fight. We may discover that we cannot effectively regulate each other during distress. Often, the first big fight is the same fight we’ll have in the ensuing years ahead. Poorly done now, and poorly done 5, 10, 15 years from now. Relationship failure at this point can sting more than at other stages because enough fantasy and lack of authentic knowledge still exist between partners, causing them to idealize the relationship beyond what is real.

But it’s only when the relationship becomes more permanent, at least in our minds, that our early attachment expectations (especially those that are unpleasant) really begin to surface. This is the third stage of courtship, and in the case of insecure partners, it sometimes continues into marriage, though it should not. By now, strangerness is fully replaced by familial-arity. That is, we think we know each other, even though we probably don’t. We know what we recognize, what is familiar to us, and much of that knowledge is derived from remembered experience prior to the start of the relationship. In other words, we become deep family.

Relationship failure at this stage generally results in a slowish return to Earth because we’re already too far out of Earth’s atmosphere and gravity exerts less of a force. We may circle reality for a while, orbiting somewhere between anomie and full recovery with readiness to begin again. Insecures may rue the day they ever allowed themselves to get this far and may even consider giving up love relationships altogether. I recommend they remember the words from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam:27, 1850, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

The real test of the third stage of courtship—and what I’m calling “on the way to mature love”—is our ability to form a secure-functioning relationship. Under secure-functioning conditions, we have resources to spend on other things, such as our career, our extended family, our children, our personal development, and ourselves. Insecure conditions, on the other hand, draw resources from us. We become preoccupied by our relationship status. Partners who are insecure use most of their internal resources to handle their moment-by-moment feelings of being untethered, unloved, and unwanted.

We could say that no one looks very good when they feel insecure in their relationship. When we feel insecure, we don’t perform well. The worst of us comes out. Our negative attributes become amplified and obscure our positive ones. If we are insecure and what PACT therapists call wave-ish (ambivalent, angry, resistant), we may threaten security by over-focusing on our partner’s signs of distancing, insensitivity, and avoidance and by over-focusing on our fears of abandonment. If we are insecure and island-ish (avoidant, dismissive), we may threaten security by over-focusing on our partner’s physical, psychological, or intellectual flaws and by over-focusing on our fear of being smothered, intruded upon, or co-opted.

Whether we are waves or islands, we are likely to create insecurity in the third stage (and beyond) by having only one foot in the relationship, while holding out for something or someone better. In doing so, our partner falls from grace, and so do we.

If you want to avoid this, I suggest you keep the rocket analogy in mind. To soar into space, the first two stages have to fall away completely. Launching is just the beginning. The third stage must inaugurate a process of principled relating, with each partner behaving in a secure-functioning manner. Partners must form a couple bubble—an agreement to provide mutual assurances and reassurances of absolute safety and security—and protect it at all costs. This, and other secure-functioning principles, are what you will need throughout your long journey ahead. Safe (and secure) travels!

* For more information about secure functioning, take a look at Wired for Love and listen to Your Brain on Love.


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