Remember what it was like when you first fell in love? Everything was magical, perfect and effortless. Your heart felt totally nourished. You were swimming ecstatically in the sea of NRE – New Relationship Energy. NRE is a term coined by author Zhahai Stewart1 in the 1980s and describes a state of mind experienced at the beginning of most significant sexual and romantic relationships, typically involving heightened emotional and sexual feelings and excitement. It is natural for NRE to then fade over a period of months to years in most relationships.
At that stage there is the possibility of NRE evolving into a deep, flowing stable state of loving as long as both partners are willing to invest the best part of themselves into the relationship. Not doing anything and relying simply on love to sustain the relationship inevitably leads to staleness, disillusionment and even conflicts.
Why does this happen? We believe there are 5 main obstacles to long-term relationships working out:
1) Routine clips love’s wings: falling into routine and mindless habits of relating can create a state of numbness where there is no room for love to be felt. The relationship becomes the acting out of an endlessly repeating script in which each partner becomes attached to the routine of the status quo rather than being present to what is actually arising to be felt in every moment. This can particularly be an issue when a baby comes. However happy the couple are at the new arrival, new baby-centred roles and routine are soon established. Submerged in the cycle of routine there is a likelihood that both partners lose any real awareness of themselves, each other and their relationship.
2) Stage-managing to avoid conflict: when one person becomes afraid to express their truth and their needs fall into the pattern of always appeasing their partner to avoid conflict or rejection, this is “stage-managing”. Why would anyone do this? The simple answer lies with a deep unconscious fear of being judged, rejection and abandonment. In effect the one doing the stage-managing stops showing up in the relationship as a real team player and becomes a puppet of their insecurity. On the surface they can appear loving, helpful and accommodating, but inside they can be seething with resentment and frustration, and even grief since they are not honouring themselves. For men this is the classic “Mr Nice Guy” syndrome, detailed by Dr Robert A. Glover2.
3) Dumping your shadows onto your partner: we all carry old wounds that still affect our behaviour today. Your partner may do or say things that poke at these old wounds without being aware of the effect on you. For instance, if someone was terrorised as a child by an authoritarian and judgmental father, they may react to even a mild criticism from their partner by regressing back to a frightened and withdrawn child. Their reaction has nothing to do with the present situation and everything to do with unhealed wounds from the past. The relationship can deteriorate into a playing out of the past without either partner realising what is going on, while they endlessly go round the same repeating patterns.
Another way “dumping your shadows” occurs is when you avoid meeting what is arising within you and throwing it back at your partner instead. A female client had been molested by her brother as a child. Whenever her partner tried to initiate sex, she would become angry, push him away and accuse him of being a sex maniac. It wasn’t until she realised her pattern of avoidance, and decided to let go of her past trauma and feelings of being a victim that she managed to turn this around.
4) When sex is not working out: many couples assume that good sex will just happen of its own accord, and never really acknowledge or explore their individual sexual needs. We are continually amazed how little many couples really know each other sexually. Without openness, communication and even a sense of adventure, sex can become mechanical and focused on release rather than intimate sharing and heart connection. If either partner feels unsatisfied sexually, they may zone out of the experience of love making, or become overdemanding and pressure their partner into performing they way they want, or even be tempted to fulfil their sexual needs elsewhere. Because sexual difficulties carry such an intense charge, they have the potential to create a lot of instability in the relationship.
5) When your partner falls from their pedestal: we often have an idealised image of our partner. After all we fall in love with them when they present their best side to us! This ideal image creates strong expectations of how we feel they ought to be, and the perfection they should embody time after time. This situation is unsustainable and unrealistic. You are bound to become disappointed when your partner turns out to be merely human with their own flaws and ups and downs. This can lead to you focusing on everything that is not “right” about your partner and ignoring what attracted you to them in the first place. For the partner placed on the pedestal, this can also feel like an enormous burden where they are not allowed to be themselves any more, leading to frustration and resentment again.
So why continue the relationship? At the deepest level the light of love is still present. The feelings that brought you two together are longing to be felt again free from the drama and messiness of life. The difficulties we have listed above obscure and distort the energy of love but do not have to destroy it.
In reality, all the frustrations, resentment and conflicts are the flipside of the longing for love. These strong “negative” feelings arise because deep down you want the relationship to work and love to flow again…
The obstacles that arise between you are also an opportunity for growth. They are signals that it is time to face up to your own shadows and move forward. Your most intimate partner is going to be your greatest ally because they, more than anyone else, will highlight to you where you are resisting love, where you have forgotten to love yourself, and where limiting patterns hold you back.
What needs to be present in a long-term relationship for a couple to allow love to flower and be sustained? Our experience of working with couples and individuals, as well as our own relationship history, points to four key actions that lead to successful long-term relationships:
1) Face up again and again: avoidance leads to stagnation. For your love to keep alive you have to honour what is arising, rather than running away or putting your head in the sand. This may be uncomfortable at times, but the rewards far outweigh the discomforts. You become real and fully present to yourself and your partner. This needs to be done without antagonism, blame or judgement, but with compassion and a mutual understanding you face up to the dark and messy painful places for the good of the relationship. This is about “feeling your fears and doing it anyway” as Susan Jeffers3 first described in her famous book!
2) Own your own stuff: The “stuff” that your relationship throws up is a gift, an opportunity to become empowered and take ownership of your own issues. Each partner needs to recognise the wounds, past traumas, limiting beliefs that have shaped them into the complex individual that they are. It is your responsibility to do your work on these shadows. You need to bring them out of the unconscious realms into your full awareness. Once they become conscious they will no longer control you and no longer sabotage your relationship.
Owning your own stuff also means being clear about your personal values and boundaries and respecting them. Often we fear rejection if we stand by what we know is right for us and say “No”. In fact the opposite is true and a relationship is more likely to thrive if both partners show up in their truth honouring their boundaries.
3) Be willing to be vulnerable: this means letting yourself be seen too in your darker moments of doubt and confusion, not just when you are on a high. Vulnerability takes courage and trust, it is also about embracing all that you are and be willing to share that with your partner. Allowing vulnerability in your relationship is one of the cornerstones of intimacy.
We recall how one client in his late 50s had been hiding all his married life the emotional pain he was carrying inside due to a physical disability. He recognised how this had created a canyon between him and his wife. Embracing his deep vulnerability, he courageously shared his burden with the love of his life. He was truly amazed at how much love and understanding she showed him. Here are his words: “I see now that one never truly knows the strength of the bonds with another human being, until one completely opens up to them – all defences removed.”
4) Learn to communicate! Good communication is a skill that is often neglected. Problems frequently arise simply because partners don’t know how to express themselves. Take time to work out what it is you want to share, then use clear, honest words to convey your message, not forgetting to clarify how you are feeling too. A tool we can particularly recommend here is the non-violent communication approach championed by Marshall Rosenberg4 for nearly 20 years. Good communication supports understanding and a willingness to work through issues as they arise within the relationship, without pre-guessing any outcome. Partners who communicate are also more willing to make time for each other and use these same communications skills in the bedroom too!
We believe that couples who bring these recommendations into their relationship will ride more smoothly through the difficulties that inevitably arise. They will also lay strong foundations for the evolution of the New Relationship Energy they experienced initially, into that deep, flowing stable loving that is a hallmark of a truly wonderful long-term partnership.
Supporting individuals and couples through this challenging terrain is our passion! We offer a safe yet direct and powerful way to explore masculine-feminine dynamics to extract you from being stuck… If you want to start exploring how you can blossom into loving connection with your partner, bring your brightest inner light to your relationship and explore healthy boundaries while being deeply open to receive, why not join us on our forthcoming workshop, Loving You, Loving Me on 9th to 11th February 2018 in West Yorkshire? This is pre-Valentine offering to bring your focus back into what really matters in your love life. All details are here.
We have enjoyed bringing our focus and energy together to create this blog. If you found it helpful and feel it would serve others, please share! Blessings <3
Kalyani and Nick
- Stewart, Zhahai (2001). “What’s all this NRE stuff, anyway?” published in Loving More #26, 2001
- Dr Robert A. Glover, No More Mr Nice Guy
- Feel your fear and do it anyway, Susan Jeffers, 2007
- Nonviolent communication: A language of Compassion, Marshall B. Rosenberg, 1999