Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D.:
Psychologist Allen Bergin proposes that [the stages below] are equally applicable in all long-term, committed relationships, including relationships with children, parents, the Church, and God.
The first of these stages is a honeymoon stage of blinding idealism, in which we delight in our new partner and are sure that the problems faced by other couples, other parents, other believers will not bother us. We are in love, full of hope, enthusiastic about our new relationship. We relish being loved and cherished, but even more we relish being someone who is easily loving and good. We are sure we have found a wonderful spouse, child, church, relationship with God, and we are also sure that this will last. We finally know how to be in a relationship, or how to get answers to prayers, or how to be part of a community. We are happy, sure that little problems that come up will be readily resolved. This stage lasts weeks and sometimes years, but it intermittently gives way to the second stage of committed relationships, the power struggle.
As the power struggle gradually takes over more and more of the relationship we begin to wrestle for control. We may try any of a number of old or new tactics to try to coerce, cajole, reason, manipulate, blackmail, convince, bribe, punish, or flatter our partner in the relationship into changing to give us what we want, whether what we want is a spouse who does the laundry or a God who explains Himself to our satisfaction. While some of these tactics may work with spouses or children or parents, they do not work with God. He invites us to change instead, and this is often very painful. We want the world back the way it was when we were innocent and full of hope and before we had discovered the snakes in the grass, but He evicts us from the garden and tells us to keep walking. Much of our behavior is about trying to get safe, and much of His is about trying to help us see that our safety lies in our submission to and trust in Him despite pain and struggle, not in our freedom from physical or emotional discomfort. We keep thinking that there are answers and solutions to all difficulties if we can just get someone else to see our point of view and give us what we know we need. And that someone else keeps holding out on us, keeping us guessing as to what to try next. We are sure that if we could just change them we could get things back to the honeymoon, not realizing that this is not only impossible, but unhelpful.
The third stage of committed relationships, which usually comes after years of vacillating between lingering idealism and the increasing futility of the power struggle, is withdrawal. At this stage we essentially give up, although we may not leave. We resign ourselves to not really getting what we want, not really changing the other party, and not really being happy. We are tired of fighting, but we can’t recoup our lost idealism. We go through the motions of relationship but we are frustrated and we feel more or less betrayed and misunderstood. This period of withdrawal allows us to regain some independence, pursue other sources of satisfaction, and develop other talents and interests. If we are lucky we begin to work on ourselves–whom we can change–instead of working on our partner whom we cannot change. With the Church or with God, this means we begin to face that there are some questions we will not get answered, some differences that will not be worked out, some losses that will not be prevented. This is a risky stage, a stage when some people decide there is nothing to hold onto because they are no longer in love (stage 1) and no longer have hope for change (stage 2). But as we continue to work on ourselves, see reality more clearly, and resolve our own issues we have a chance of moving toward stage 4.
The fourth and final stage of committed relationships is about renewal. Not exactly a renewal of the honeymoon, but a more mature, realistic, and truly loving renewal. We come to accept our spouse or our parents or the Church, and we come to accept ourselves. We allow God to run the universe, and we become more content to let go of things we cannot change. A deeper, more mature love begins to emerge, with fewer power struggles and less disengagement. We do not need to see all the answers, and we do not need perfection by our standards in order to not be embarrassed or ashamed of our Church, our partner, or our God. We reinvest in the relationship, not because we have decided to risk yet one more time that we will not get hurt only to have the rug pulled out yet one more time from under us, but because we have learned that hurt can be survived, that this is a risk worth taking, and that it does not mean we cannot be happy or that we are irrational suckers or that we are doomed to failure because we take another chance on trust or because we fail or are failed again. We see ourselves and our partner more realistically, and we do not run from either vision. We recognize that we can be hurt by being betrayed or we can be hurt by not trusting, but we don’t get the no-hurt choice because there isn’t one, at least not until we simply choose not to read betrayal into every ecclesiastical failure, or abandonment into every unanswered prayer.
The long road to maturity.