The Relationship Workout

Alison Manheim

Imagine having to go through puberty with no advance warning that you would suddenly sprout hair under your arms (and in other places, too). Thanks to sixth grade health classes, most people know that those changes are normal and to be expected. If only we could weather the changes in our relationships with such aplomb.

According to Seana McGee, MA, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist, couples counselor, and co-author of The New Couple: Why the Old Rules Don't Work and What Does (Harper San Francisco, 2000), people in relationships often experience rude awakenings simply because they don't know that relationships, like people, go through stages.

The Three Stages of a Relationship
"If you don't know to expect them, these changes can be pretty scary," says McGee. The three stages of relationships are

  • Intoxication: The giddy, magical first stage when you can't get enough of each other.
  • Power Struggle: The period when the "magic" has worn off, and you realize you have to live with the person who leaves wet towels on the bed.
  • Co-Creativity: In this stage, couples have learned to resolve conflicts. They enjoy emotional intimacy, and are able to tackle major projects, jointly, or separately.

The intoxication stage is the one that most people think of when they hear the word "relationship." "Those 'days of wine and roses' are heady stuff. Pop culture tells us that the first phase is a healthy relationship. We think that any change from that means that we are falling out of love," says McGee.

The length of the intoxication period generally depends on how many times you have been around the block, says Maurice Taylor, MA, McGee's co-author (and husband). It can last anywhere from two weeks to two years. Problems arise once the intoxication phase ends, as it inevitably does, and the couple lacks the necessary skills to deal with the realities of the next phase (power struggle).

Keeping Your Relationship in Good Shape
By practicing a little prevention in the form of a three-part relationship workout, couples, married or not, can up their chances of making their relationship last. Taylor and McGee are proponents of the following behaviors that can help couples navigate the "power struggle" period. They are:

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