Normal, what on earth does that even mean? In so many contexts, it’s not only a flawed baseline, but clumsy and quite misleading.
This post could branch off in any direction, ‘normal’ behaviour, ‘normal’ levels of mood, ‘normal’ job and ‘normal family’. Normal and average are interchangeable and very beige. I am reigning this in to talk about ‘normal’ relationships, in terms of the work I do with families and individuals, but primarily couples and relationship challenges.
The ‘normal’ benchmark of relationships is so distorted within society that when reality kicks in we panic and react. The only normal in relationships is there isn’t any such thing, and the sooner we acknowledge the difference and celebrate what diversity brings to our relationships, the sooner we get to experience a deeper and more fulfilling relationship. Many academics and seasoned therapists past and present suggest 3 phases to a couple’s relationship. This contrasts a fair bit to the romantic notion of love and how that is what love looks like from the very start to our passing days.
The Romantic phase. You can’t help but love this phase. Colours are brighter, the bird song serenades your effortless skipping through each moment and day. Time apart is unimaginable, thanks to endorphins flying around your body. That feel good sensation is fuelled by the brains ‘high 5’ of approval through the release of dopamine and norepinephrine. An awesome duo of neurotransmitters that bathe the body in a sense of wellbeing. This is a period, both conscious and unconscious, where we put our best foot forward…we wear aftershave and everything! Now, this phase can last for seconds to a couple of years, and has to come to a transition point at some stage. It’s at this point we navigate towards the second phase, being the power struggle. This is usually around the time of a definite commitment, such as getting engaged or moving in with our partners. Now, this is like enjoying life as a fun runner, in dress up and face paint to leaping into an Olympic event. They certainly don’t hand out Speights (beer) and a sausage at the end of these big shows (I imagine this is something quite unique to Kiwi events).
Harville Hendrix, suggests ‘it’s like the wounded child takes over. I’ve been good long enough to ensure this person is going to stick around, now lets see the payoff’. The expectations of each partner well and truly step up a gear and the performance each is giving steps down. Being attractive, clever and fun-loving aren’t enough. Partners are now expected to satisfy unmet childhood needs, complement lost self parts, nurture and be forever available.
“Seldom or never does a marriage develop into an individual relationship smoothly without crisis. There is no birth of consciousness without pain” C G Jung. The power struggle sets the stage for growth and the third stage, conscious love. Here the how, why and when’s can’t be done justice within a few sentences, so if this flicks a switch for you check out one of the many texts by Harville Hendrix. At this stage we-ideally- move from, ‘what can I get from this relationship?’ to ‘what does the relationship need from me?’ It’s a bitter pill to swallow, as holding on for dear life to the romantic phase of the relationship, sits far more comfortably in the sphere consumed by the me, myself and I. Rather than being a hindrance, it is only after you pass the romantic phase do you start to explore and nurture a deeper, longer lasting relationship and love. The key is to send the mantle of relationship expectations based on a perceived social norm on its sweet merry way. It is essential that we embrace, not fear difference and begin celebrating each others uniqueness. As it is this uniqueness that has been unconsciously hand picked to continue your personal growth and emotional maturity, through a relationship. Many folk search tirelessly for a mirror reflection of themselves. Time is better spent looking for someone that extends our strengths and reduces our weakness and vice versa. Much of which is informed by past scripts and our experiences of our own caregivers. Some refer to this as an Imago match. I learnt this lesson over a decade ago in my second year of counselling. Whilst at a colleagues retirement dinner I was genuinely fascinated when I found out he had been happily married for 42 years to his first love. Fresh to life as a married man myself I wanted to know the secret. Straight off the bat his response to my question was ‘we have similar interests but very different hobbies’. I’m sure he undersold the ingredients fully to his impressive marriage, but he didn’t harp on about how they finish each others sentences and have been tennis partners since school, as this was far from the case, it was they acknowledge and support each others differences but their values and beliefs bring them back to a central point of connection.
I scribbled this down recently when talking to folk about identifying potential relationship matches. The first image being what many of us think is a good match and the second is quite often the best match.
There is no secret as far as I know, some folk are making a pretty penny from what amounts to little more and a short lasting pep talk. However, what I would say is that it can offer a huge shift to simply acknowledge difference in your relationship and ignore any thoughts of pursuing ‘normal’. Celebrate the wonderful uniqueness each person brings to the party. Know that difference isn’t as alarming as it may feel or incompatibility, but in fact the foundations for growth, personal and relational. Unsettling at times, but you will do well to embrace it with open arms. I must add that, just in case it may not be obvious, i am in no way including abusive relationships, and I hope this is a context that will not be diffused or associated within this post.
I don’t see these three phases as lineal, but cyclical as we navigate through life and all the highs and crappy bits. There will be conflict, whether overt or covert, it’s making a conscious commitment to the relationship and developing communication that continues to strengthen relationships and enable growth.