Why our intimate relationships hold the key to our growth


Long term relationships are not easy yet it is precisely these relationships that hold the key our growth.

“We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we must heal in relationship.”

Harville Hendrix

Changing attitudes

We are living in an era of changing social attitudes, with more people cohabiting prior to getting married. Nevertheless this year divorce rates have increased for the first time in a decade. The statistics attribute this to the increase in the number of ‘silver splitters’ – those aged over 50. Whilst men are increasingly more likely to ask for divorce, the phenomenon is largely attributed to longer life expectancy and the greater financial independence of women. Divorce is not easy – it is a process often loaded with conflict, fear and anxiety.

Divorce is not the only option

However it does not have to be the only option. Intimate relationships are complex systems and sometimes we will need some help to navigate them. This is equally true whether of same or opposite sex couples, cohabiting or married, monogamous or polyamorous relationships.

People growing machines

Our closest relationships are actually people growing machines. In that, unconsciously, we ‘choose’ our partner to heal our historical ‘wounds’ and help us become the person we can be, complete. What attracted us to our partner is often outside of our conscious awareness and beyond the obvious physical characteristics. Nevertheless that very attraction often becomes that which ends up bugging us about them. The shy man who marries the extraverted woman, and who then gets tired of the continuous social diary. The needy woman who lives with her strong partner and then is triggered into jealousy or insecurity with his independent nature. The creative female who marries the logical and rational man, but then they both start to get on each other’s nerves.

The 3 phases of relationship

Intimate relationships go through three recognised phases:

  1. romantic love
  2. the power struggle
  3. and finally (for the lucky few) the real deal of a truly conscious relationship.

The romantic love phase, where we are infatuated, or ‘in love’, with the other takes up the first six to 18 months of a new relationship. Then we hit the ordeal phase where conflict increases and we experience the power struggle. This is a phase where the other becomes the ‘enemy’, we see their faults and there is increasing conflict. Conversely, some couples experience this phase as increasing distance and withdrawal. In this case they feel like they are ‘drifting apart’.

For our relationship to grow into the final stage of a conscious relationship we need to embrace and navigate the necessary conflict of the power struggle phase. Moreover in this ‘real deal’ phase  we become equals, and experience a deeper and lasting trust, and a more enduring love where we feel comfortable and secure.  It goes without saying that most couples need some help with this.

Why couples therapy is so important

Couples therapy has an important place in many couples’ lives. Not least this is because ‘romantic love’ does not last (we have been brainwashed by Hollywood!). Nevertheless if couples don’t use this current relationship, with all of its conflicts and difficulties, to work through the issues they will just find themselves repeating the same pattern in their next one. Working through this phase in a relationship is certainly not the easy option. In fact, such work requires each party to be an active partner in the process of change.

To be able to grow and move to the ideal phase requires us to access thoughts, feelings and emotions that we may prefer to keep buried – such as guilt, shame, anger or sadness. It is difficult and challenging work, as all personal change is. But if, perhaps with some help, we can be brave and (sometimes) brutally honest with ourselves and the other we can own our unhelpful patterns, heal the past and move to real love.


Sue Tupling is a psychotherapist at Embodied Counselling in Stafford.

This article was first published in the Staffordshire Newsletter

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