The Relationship Workout

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:

  • Deeply listening to each other.
  • Practicing emotional literacy, or knowing how to identify and communicate feelings.
  • Resolving conflicts and anger.

According to McGee, these relationship maintenance skills are just as useful to a young couple in a new relationship as they are to an older couple trying to salvage a failed marriage. Young people may even benefit more because they tend to be less resistant to change, says Taylor. They also don't have to unlearn as many deeply held beliefs about relationships (such as the idea that a relationship doesn't require routine maintenance).

"Young people are more evolved about relationships these days," says McGee, "They're not so starry-eyed. They may have grown up with divorced or unhappily married parents, so they've seen that the old way doesn't work."

You may think that giving your relationship the same kind of workout that you would give your body sounds like a drag, but the skills are fairly easy to learn. "This takes less effort than going to the gym," promises Taylor, "After two to three months of practicing these essential skills, they become natural."

But don't wait until you and your partner are in a rut. The time to work on a relationship is before it's needed. "Begin to use these techniques during the intoxication period," says McGee, "It's like learning skydiving together. The time for couples to take on grand projects together is when they're most in love."