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The Cycle of a Relationship

Events in a relationship follow a common pattern.

When a couple first enters into a life-partner relationship, it usually has an intoxicating glow. Each partner sees the other in a very positive light, and is eager to do nice things for them. When one asks for a cup of coffee, the response is likely to be "Sure, sweetie: do you want cream and sugar with that?" However, the reality and disappointments of being with the other person day in and day out gradually start to shade their initial rosy picture of married life. Frustrations develop, as the other spouse's flaws become apparent. After about a year or two, a request for coffee is likely to be met with "Get your own coffee."

A significant milestone in many relationships is the birth of the first child. The husband can suddenly feel that he is on the sidelines, now that his wife's attention revolves endlessly around their infant. The birth of the second child can amplify this feeling even more. His wife is even more busy and exhausted. She has less time for him and much less interest in, or energy for sex. Meanwhile, the children are noisy, messy and leave their toys everywhere.

Numerous studies have found that marital happiness drops sharply with the arrival of children. When they leave the house, it tends to pick up to previous levels.

For many couples, the demands of raising kids are so great they have little time or energy to enjoy their relationship. The husband may retreat into his work to find a sense of fulfillment, reward and recognition. The wife may devote herself excessively to the children, meeting their needs first and foremost. Little wonder then, that relationship happiness drops.

The stress and conflicts of the early years of a relationsip take a real toll on many couples. Statistics show that most divorces occur after four to six years of marriage. After that, the rate of divorce drops and remains fairly stable fo the next decade. Then comes a second, smaller spike in divorces, corresponding to when the children leave the home. The couple discovers that they have grown apart over the years, nurturing the children instead of their partnership.

If the couple stays together, a new phase begins with retirement. Frequently, the husband retires first (since men tend to be the older partners in the relationship). This may be a difficult adjustment, especially if the wife keeps working. He may feel guilty that he is no longer the "breadwinner." The couple has to adjust to spending moe time with each other in retirement. This can lead to divorce for some. For other couples, it can be a fulfilling time, free of demands and responsibilities.

The transitions that take place during a relationship are only part of the story. What's more important is how the couple works through or deals with them. After all, both happy and unhappy couples must deal with the same issues: money, sex, kids, in-laws. How the couple handles them ~~ and the process of marriage itself ~~ is what differentiates successful marriaages from those that succumb to divorce.

Dr. John Gottman, a Seattle-based psychologist who has conducted groundbreaking research on marriage, found that couples who stay together use five times as many positive statements as negative statements when they discuss tough issues in their marriage. When couples use more negative statements than positive, they were fare more likely to divorce. In fact, based on his criteria, Gottman caan predict who will divorce and who will stay together with 94-percent accuracy.

Gottman has pinpointed certain behaviours that lead to marital disaster. When spouses repeatedlhy resort to criticism, contempt, and defensiveness in heir conflicts, get flooded and stonewall, or completely shut down, the wounds in their relationship accumulate and never get a chance to heal.

Defensiveness prevents a couple from reaching resolution, because neither is willing to admit what they did was wrong, or that their behavour needs to change. They feel more isolated from their spouse, allowing distance to creep in between them. The isolation increases, and they begin leading increasingly separate lives.

A growing sense of distance from one another often serves as a pretext for affairs, which is the most commonly cited cause for divorce. Yet having an affair is not so much a cause as a symptom of underlying isolation that partners feel in a foundering relationship.

On the other hand, if a couple learns to handle conflict well, then virtually any marital problem can be overcome. If the wife raises a touchy subject with a gentle segue, instead of an attack, then the discussion stands a better chance of going well. If the husband is willing to accept at least some of the points his wife is making, then the couple will be more apt to come to an agreement.

Successful couples persuade each other and try to see things from the other's point of view. As the two learn to work together, they feel closer to each other, and their affect and respect for each othter increases. The result is a fullfilling partnership.

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