The Subtle Shift That Causes Stress in Long-Term Relationships

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’ve fallen in love.

You’re out at your favorite health food store and out of the corner of your eye you spot Pat. You and Pat lock eyes — and it’s on.

That night you’re sharing your favorite Kombucha and telling Pat how you feel like your whole life has led to this moment and Pat agrees. Sparks fly, sweet love is made, and your life is heaven.

You see Pat a few times a week and when you’re not together you miss each other. You love that feeling of yearning for the next time you get to meet and press your bodies up against each other.

Months go by — and you and Pat are really getting serious. One day Pat suggests that you move in together, and you enthusiastically say “yes”!

You rent the U-Haul, pack up your things and move in with Pat.

After a few months you notice things are different, but you can’t understand why. Pat occurs to you as clingy and says that you are becoming distant. You’re wanting more time with your friends but don’t want to offend Pat, so you don’t ask for exactly what you want.

You’ve experienced “the shift”, and you don’t even know it.

The Subtle Shift

When a couple first meets, they are in what I’ll call the “dating” phase.

Then at some point — usually when moving in together — the couple will switch into “relationship” phase, and while no one ever agreed to it, there is an unspoken assumption as to what that means for the time they spend together.

In the dating phase, your life is completely up to you, and you make plans to spend time with your partner. When you’re not together, you live your own lives.

In the relationship phase, what often happens is the couple assumes they will be together, unless they make plans to be apart.

This is almost never done consciously, and it’s worth pausing to point out how radical of a shift that is. You go from assumed autonomy to assumed togetherness. All the white space in your life is now owned by your relationship.

Regardless of whether or not you believe this is a good or bad thing — I think we can all agree that it’s a significant shift and should be done with as much consciousness as possible.

Ships Passing in the Night

So the saying goes when describing a couple who is disconnected and out of love —they are like two ships passing in the night — but maybe that saying is not all bad. From what I’ve seen, the happiest couples are the ones who deeply love each other, but can also give each other a significant degree of sovereignty.

Sometimes they do in fact pass each other like ships in the night, and that’s actually a sign that they respect each other’s space.

While it may be considered un-romantic, I’d like to suggest that maybe the reason we’re so happy in the “dating” phase of our relationship is because there is no expectation to be together — so all the time we do spend together is special and cherished.

Who says anything should change because we move in together? Or get married?

There are also many side benefits to not assuming you will be spending all your free time with your partner, and one of them is you’re forced to get a life outside your relationship. You’re forced to cultivate your friendships, to be more engaged in your hobbies, and not make your relationship the sole provider of your emotional needs.

That’s a good thing, but it can be scary for some people who derive their sense of security from co-dependence.

Like We First Met

Every couple wants to experience their relationship like when they first met, but almost no couple is willing to actually replicate the conditions under which that actually happened.

As Esther Perel so brilliantly writes about in her book Mating in Captivity, things like passion, eroticism and sexual desire don’t have to fade with time — they are functions of a relationship that values things like sovereignty, space and each person having a full life outside the relationship.

When we can start to uncover the shifts we are unconsciously making in our relationships, we can begin to align our choices with the values we actually want for our relationship — instead of the habitual patterns we’ve been handed by culture and society.

Wouldn’t that be nice?


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