We all love the so-called ’honeymoon phase’ where everything and everyone is perfect. This is associated with the early part of a new relationship where two people are getting to know each other. The red flags that will appear later are not there and we at our happiest. We all possibly know that it will end and the imperfections will start to emerge, sometimes dramatically and sometimes over a period of time. In terms of romantic relationships, we all find the ending of this phase quite difficult and we all wish that it lasts as long as possible.
For codependents, this is an intense time and one that has a marked effect on the future of the relationship. Naturally looking to connect, they fall fairly hard and are often caught up in what is known as the ‘adulation’ stage, something similar to the honeymoon phase but with a severely self-centered individual trying to hook them in. Codependents then get stuck in the idea that this perfect person will at some stage reappear when things inevitably go wrong later when the mask drops. The false self presented early on by the self centered suitor mirrors the honeymoon phase but not with the aim of getting to know someone but to exercise a level of control. It has a powerful effect and even the most aware person will hold onto this view of their partner, making it hard to leave, even when it is plainly obvious that must happen.
Of course, as with all things codependency, we can look to parenting styles as a major factor in the broken connection in relationship. We often talk about the “good enough” parent, who will make mistakes but have the child’s best interests at heart, encourages the child through developmental phases to eventual separation and unconditionally loves the child without shaming, neglecting or abusing the child or blaming the child for the parent’s own shortcomings. These parents will put the needs of the child first. In contrast, we can describe the “bad enough” parent, who exhibits conditional love, shames and ridicules the child and places their own interests and needs above that of the child. This parent does not always injure a child physically in dramatic and obvious ways but often engages in one or all of the “five traumas”, (physical, sexual abuse, parental substance abuse, extreme neglect and witnessing of domestic violence). These ‘unprotected’ children often dissociate and find difficult to trust without a strong element of control in relationships. The above description is perhaps the foundation for seeing the honeymoon phase as an essential process to get to know someone or a frantic search for connection never really ever experienced before.
However, looking at it from another perspective, recent studies have perhaps given a clue as to how the brain performs during the heady early stages of a relationship. I quote Scientific American:
Recent research has begun to explore how these feelings manifest in the brain and in one’s physiology. Using functional MRI, investigators have identified several brain regions associated with feeling love. Individuals who experience passionate love (typically brought on by pictures or thoughts of the beloved) show greater activation in the caudate nucleus, important in learning and memory, and the ventral tegmental area, central to emotional processing. Both brain areas tend to be rich in dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and motivation. Another study found that when women who were madly in love thought about their partner, instead of a friend, they exhibited elevated levels of the stress-buffering hormone cortisol. Researchers have also examined how experiencing passionate love can influence an individual’s brain chemistry. One study revealed that recent lovebirds had higher levels of nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that aids in the development and functioning of neurons, than people who were single or in long-term relationships. The authors speculated that elevated NGF levels might increase a person’s feelings of euphoria or connection. When measuring cortisol and NGF levels 12 to 24 months later, they found that differences between the passionate love group and the others had disappeared.
One can begin to see that this process is more than romantic. The chemistry of the brain changes and we can see how people are generally confused about things when the honeymoon period is over and ‘real’ people emerge. I have had clients who were so hooked in the honeymoon phase that they continued to chase the relationship even though they had been ghosted, devalued and sometimes abused. The above research might explain why.
Just what can be done to survive the ending of this phase? Many couples have trouble actually acknowledging that the honeymoon is over and fight the ending. Many break up as reality hits and of course, in some cases, a very self-entered person might judge that the work needed to keep the relationship going is too much for them. Under normal circumstances, couples need to discuss openly any feelings they might have and chart a way forward for the relationship with shared values and frameworks. Spending quality time together is essential as well as talking through communication and conflict management. This keeps the work conscious.
What follows after the honeymoon phase is what is called ‘enlightenment’.
During this phase of a relationship, hormones begin to subside and realism comes in. Typically, a couple’s connection “deepens.” At this stage, intimacies are more likely to be communicated, as partners remove some of their “best face” and allow themselves to act more spontaneously and casually. Both partners in a relationship will see shortcomings, disparities, or flaws. At this age, “cute” habits may become unpleasant. Some of these enduring challenges and disparities, such as free-spending against frugality, neatness and orderliness versus sloppiness and disorderliness, an interest in spending a great deal of time together versus a focus on extracurricular activities, begin to emerge.
At this stage of the relationship, partners will become aware of their differences and may even begin to complain or seek solutions. As intimacy grows between two individuals, more verbal and nonverbal self-disclosure occurs, and couples begin to behave more like they do in their daily lives. This is when the fundamental question becomes even more prominent: “Where are we going?” Women are more likely to ask this question than males, despite the fact that both may be curious about the response. However, pressuring for a response may lead to significant interpersonal problems. Each one must listen to their own inner voice and discernment. It is essential to discuss their ideas and emotions with their partner while avoiding “pushing” for commitment. There is no need to rush through this crucial period, and there are numerous reasons to proceed carefully and slowly before full commitment.
Just as the above is important, it is also vital that options are left open regarding the viability of the relationship going forward. It is not easy to end things at the point a few imperfections are seen but conscious minds and choices must prevail. We often live in hope that the heady, early days will reappear but generally, they are not real. Many couples stay together much longer than they should and maybe the research quoted above tells us why.
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Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner’s approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients’ internal “parts,” or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.