Charting the cycle of intimacy, distance in a couple's life

June 16, 1993|By Elizabeth Mehren | Elizabeth Mehren,Los Angeles Times

They met at that safest of singles' sanctuaries, a supermarket. He liked the laughter in her eyes. She noticed that his cart was teeming with healthy food. They caused a small traffic jam when they lingered to chat near the check-out counter.

But after they had lived together for almost three years, two of them as husband and wife, their symmetry began to shatter. There was no single great "issue" -- no boyfriend, girlfriend, job loss, fight over pregnancy or huge dispute over money. Instead it was as if they were out of step. "It's a phenomenon we've observed over and over again," said Barry Dym, a psychologist in Cambridge, Mass. "Couples fall out of sync with each other, and with their expectations."

Experts contend that couples go through cycles. They say a growing recognition of the cyclical nature of intimate relationships is changing the way many people look at domestic partnerships.

"I don't think that the life cycle of couples has been fully understood until very recently," said Dr. Frank Pittman, a psychiatrist in Atlanta and the author of "Turning Points: Treating Families in Transition and Crisis" and the upcoming "Man Enough." Among couples, said Dr. Pittman, "there is a predictable, spiraling need for closeness and distance."

Further, said Los Angeles psychiatrist Dr. Mark S. Goulston, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center, couples almost require those cycles to advance in their relationships.

Social scientists have long understood that individuals pass through measurable stages in the course of their psychological development. That couples could have a similar trajectory is not so much a revelation as a confirmation of a truism so obvious it was all but overlooked.

Phoebe Prosky, a family therapist in Freeport, Maine, has begun drawing road maps for couples in the form of articles published in professional journals. Ms. Prosky holds that intimate relationships can almost always be assessed as a three-step process. The initial courtship -- what Dr. Pittman called "temporary insanity" -- is replaced eventually by a period of fault-finding, when differences between threaten to overwhelm the similarities that brought them together.

A "complementary relationship," said Ms. Prosky, will use this stage as an opportunity to assess and appreciate individual differences.

Resolution and acceptance can follow, Ms. Prosky said, providing a foundation for couples who are at once autonomous and intertwined. "The couples that I see who are the happiest are the ones who have spent a lot of time together -- and a lot of time apart," Ms. Prosky said.

But not all partnerships withstand this second phase. For many couples, Dr. Pittman said, the realization that being together "is not a constant state of ecstatic perfection means, 'Oh my God, I must have married the wrong person.' "

The depth to which disappointment can plummet during this phase intrigued Mr. Dym and his colleague Dr. Michael Glenn, a psychiatrist. Their conclusion that "our expectations are really out of joint, because we expect a couples relationship to be a cure-all" is at the core of their new book "Couples: Exploring and Understanding the Cycles of Intimate Relationships."

Following the period they call "expansion," which launches a relationship, Mr. Dym and Dr. Glenn describe a phase they call "contraction." Couples of recent generations have had particular difficulty with this phase, they say, because "we have fewer tools" to deal with disappointment.

In recent generations, Dr. Goulston said, "it has seemed almost un-American to compromise."

"What we have learned is to externally gratify. For some time now, we have confused gratification with satisfaction."

For a culture weaned on the notion of knowing "how to get it right," the concept of accepting phases in relationships may not be so easy.

"We've set ourselves up with the idea that perfect happiness is the objective, and that happiness is the end product of uninterrupted fun," Dr. Pittman said. "That isn't the way it works."

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