The Perfect Valentine's Day Gift: A new picture of your partner!
What’s your favorite picture of your partner? Most of us have a special picture in a nice frame that brings out the best in our partner. Perhaps a picture during a sunset by the ocean, or one with your children in a moment of joy, or perhaps in the midst of an athletic event. Whatever your favorite picture is, it brings out the best of your partner and the frame you select makes it look even better. No one looks for the worst possible picture of their partner and then proudly displays it in a gaudy frame. In reality, we do the opposite!
Unfortunately, that is not necessarily the way we live out our relationships. While we all have several pictures that we enjoy, there are other pictures that we hold onto that are far from flattering and might even be destructive. Let’s take a look at how relationships progress and where the danger of locking into negative pictures of one another comes about:
- Stage 1: Idealization - Relationships tend to begin with some level of idealization as we show and see the best in one another. This is an easy phase that feels picture perfect!
- Stage 2: Widening the Picture - After moving through the idealization phase, we settle into enjoying the process of learning more about our partner and enjoying time deepening our relationship. This phase may bring mild challenges, but remains pretty picture perfect… just enough “flaws” to feel real.
- Stage 3: De-idealization - After a few years, and after the stress of everyday life begins to take its toll, we start noticing annoyance or frustration with our partner’s flaws. Maybe they talk too long on the phone with their friends, leaving you out. Maybe they ask for too much time together, not leaving you enough space to breathe. Maybe they’re really sloppy and don’t take on their fair share. This is the stage that can begin to form negative pictures of our partners, which, if we’re not careful, can become fixed beliefs about who they are. Add to this the additional stress of a new baby, a sick parent, a job loss, etc., and we’re even more likely to get stuck in this phase.
- Stage 4: Mature Love - This last stage is not achieved by everyone, unfortunately, as it takes significant work together, and the ability to remain self aware, open and vulnerable to one another. Mature love allows you to see your partner as “good enough”, and it keeps the picture open, never fixing on one picture, but instead allowing yourself to see a collage of ever shifting pictures.
So, how, you may be asking, do we work through the de-idealization process and navigate toward mature love?
- Allow yourself to be confused. When we assert that we know why our partner is doing something, we lose the ability to see our partner. For example, saying, “He is such an angry person!” misses other important details that would allow you to understand your partner as a whole person. Instead, allowing yourself to not know might be acknowledging, “My partner is angry a lot lately and I’m not sure what’s going on.” This allows you to explore with your partner, and perhaps hear that they are actually very hurt. Remind yourself there are a number of explanations for every behavior, and that your explanation may not be reality.
- Be careful of attributing intentionality!! That is, deciding that what your partner did was intended to hurt you. Once this happens, pictures become even more negative
- Ask questions and be curious! Next time you have some time together, reflect on what you’ve been noticing with your partner and ask about it. For example, if you’ve been feeling shut out of your partner’s life, you might start a conversation by saying, “I have been feeling more distance between us lately, and I was wondering what you’re feeling?” A slow and non-confrontational/non-assumption-based start will help create space to explore together without blame.
- Keep self-focus at the forefront of your attention. Check in with yourself and what you’re feeling. Ask yourself how your behaviors or communication style might be negatively impacting your partner. Recognize these with your partner.
- Reality check: don’t have conversations in your head. Try talking, with awareness of how you present yourself, to your partner about your concerns without anticipating what their reaction might be.
- At the end of the day, remember what you fell in love with and try to bring it out. Staying grounded in what you love about your partner will help you stay open to seeing the whole kaleidoscoping picture of who they are.
This Valentine’s day, in honor of St. Valentine and his rebellious fight for love, fight for the health of your own relationship by opening up your picture of your partner with the steps above.