8 Stages of Successful Relationships

//8 Stages of Successful Relationships

Welcome to the couples expert podcast! With Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW, your source for the latest tips and practical downpour of advice on creating emotionally connected thriving relationships. Now, here’s Stuart.

Stuart: Welcome to the Couples Expert relationship podcast.  This is Stuart Fensterheim, the Couples Expert.  Today is really sort of interesting for me because I have on my show Dr. Jessica Higgins.  She is another podcaster, and I don’t know Jessica, if I’ve ever had another podcaster on my show.  Yeah, it’s pretty cool actually, and one of the things that was neat is Jessica and I were conversing on LinkedIn, and we just started talking about what might be fun, and we came up with this crazy idea that we would do a podcast together, and there is nothing more fun than that because podcasting to me is really – I live and breathe it right now, and I just love the whole concept of reaching out, meeting other people, and finding a way to really connect with every single person that I interact with.

Jessica, one of the things that was really neat is when we started to talk, I really found that you and I have such very similar beliefs about relationships.  So I really, really have been looking forward to today.  And one of the things I wanted to introduce to all of you about Jessica is she’s a licensed psychologist in Santa Barbara.  Santa Barbara is like heaven.  I love Santa Barbara.  I lived in the L.A. area awhile back, and Santa Barbara was one of those places you went to to just relax.  So I’m jealous Jessica.  

One of the things about Jessica though, she’s also a certified coach.  She has 18 years of experience helping clients really achieve the life that they want to live particularly when it comes to their relationships.  And what she does, which is sort of neat, is she has a course that she teaches on living and loving relationships and how to really be present for your partner. It’s pretty comprehensive.  And she also, as I said, hosts the Empowered Relationship podcast and has clients in Santa Barbara.  So Jessica, it’s just so wonderful to have – oh, and you’re married too.  So that’s pretty neat.  Sometimes that’s sort of one of those things, being married, that sometimes clients want to know or don’t want to know.  But you know, I think that we help couples with our own experiences, and I don’t know about you but I, a lot of times, use my own marriage as a way of sort of helping couples understand where they’re coming from.

So Jessica, welcome to the Couples Expert podcast.

Jessica: Thank you, Stuart.  It’s such a pleasure to be here.

Stuart: So let’s start with what really got you interested in couples counseling, being a coach, and also talking about the difference between being a couple’s counselor and what it’s really about, being a coach too.

Jessica: Yes, thank you, thank you for asking because I have had my own personal journey with my own relationship challenges, and it actually many, many years ago got me into self-studying about relationships.  So in a previous relationship, not my current husband, we were not married.  But it was that feeling of finding the one and being both mutual and feeling like the relationship was what the movies were made out of.  And probably about nine months of  feeling very stoic and very challenged and perplexed and disheartened around the conflict we were experiencing.  And so we, you know, struggled with that, and basically I felt like at the time I had a Masters in Psychology and undergrad in Psych and been brought up in a pretty progressive family.  So I felt like, “Gosh, if I should, you know, if anybody can figure this out, I should be able to figure this out because we have all the things that make up, I thought at that time, a really special relationship.”

And so I began to self-study.  I began reading books and I started incorporating their principles, and I started to work.  And so the shift of it, basically at the same time ,I was invited to a PhD program in California.  And so needless to say, we did not continue that relationship, but perhaps, I don’t know, but had I been able to stay, and we would have been able to implement those principles, it might have been a different outcome, but what I think it did do though for me is it set me on a path; it opened me up to what is essential as far as the principles of how to negotiate the landscape of intimacy and how to shift my paradigm more or less around what my expectations were.

So everything that I am teaching about in my articles, my podcasts, and my work with coaching couples, I practice.  So Stuart, you had also asked me to talk about the difference between coaching and therapy.

Stuart: Right.

Jessica: So my license, I’m a Licensed Psychologist.  I’m also a Licensed Professional Counselor.  Both of those licenses are in Colorado.  So I had your traditional private practice full time in Colorado.  I’m a Licensed Psychologist and a Licensed Professional Counselor and in Colorado, I had a private practice for years, and I still work with a portion of those clients remotely, and I’ve shifted my work into coaching primarily because when couples come to therapy, most of the time, they have been in pain for they say on average about 6 years.  So they have exhausted their efforts; they have tried everything that they can think of, and it’s their last-ditch effort and sometimes unfortunately, one or both of them have already checked out of the relationship.

So as I was working with couples and couples therapy. While we were making progress and feeling like things were starting to shift, sometimes I was feeling, “Gosh, had you had this information sooner then you would have been more prepared, and you would have been able to not have to deal with all these struggles, or even strengthen your relationships so that you don’t have to encounter questions of doubting your relationships.  

So I wanted to catch people on the frontend.  I wanted to help offer up information.  So that’s essentially what I’m doing, and podcasting and writing articles and then working with couples is helping them; I think coaching is more proactive.  It’s more skill-based, which I think therapists do.  So I think therapy incorporates coaching, but I think coaching in and of itself is very skill-based. It’s helping couples have principles and practices to improve their relationships.  So if there’s trauma and all of that, I would say that that’s more therapy.

Stuart: So you don’t really deal then with if someone comes in with all – a lot of psychological and traumatic experiences; do you deal with those?

Jessica: Okay, so in Colorado, I’m, as I said, I’m a Licensed Psychologist.  So yes, I’m well trained to deal with those things, but the way that the states work right now is if you’re not licensed in the state that the client lives, then you ethically, legally cannot be doing therapy.  So in the state of California, or any other state where I’m working with clients nationally, which I do, if they’re experiencing what you’re talking about, psychological issues or even – I listened to your podcast with the woman that talks about the ADD diagnosis–there’s this other mental health concern, then I think by law that’s to be done with a therapist.

Stuart: Okay, so really what you do is you try to, similar with your podcast, really teach and give information about what you need to have a close relationship with a partner, so that the two of you really feel special to one another and talk about what gets in the way.  So you’re really doing a lot of the essential things that couples need when they come in.

Jessica: So yes, I mean, I am doing therapy right now, and I’m also a coach.  I’m doing both, and as part of the program and the podcast, I’m talking about the principles that I think get people into trouble and help them negotiate conflict more skillfully to recognize what’s going on, to help identify those things and also, to have more proactive approaches to cultivate intimacy, to get to the win-win.  So I think essentially, there are a lot of the principles that I used in my therapy work.  It’s just more proactive.

Stuart: You know what, I’m actually feeling as you’re talking about this that I don’t think it’s really that different in so many ways, because I think those of us that are working in the field of love and relationships, when we start looking at the path that people need to go through to really feel important and feel like their partner has their back, it’s really not some of those deeper psychological issues, those may be there, but the important thing is couples working together really sharing a journey.  And so what I think you’re saying, and I think I want to sort of just stress to everybody, is that what you do is really the essential pieces which is helping people work together to really understand what triggers come up, what might get in the way of their closeness, and help guide them there.

So I think that for those of us that are now working with couples who really have a model, whether it’s John Gottman or Susan Johnson with EFT, it’s really about taking a look at what happens between the two of you and what gets in the way of the closeness.  So it may not be, because even with people who have those deeper psychological issues, what we know is if you have a close connected relationship, and you don’t feel like you’re alone, those problems go way down, and if you need some therapy to deal with that and you’re seeking that, having someone at home who you really feel is there for you makes everything better.

Jessica: Absolutely.

Stuart: So how do you then – let’s talk a little bit about the things that you sort of help couples identify, and I understand that you do some things with different stages.  Talk about those stages a bit.

Jessica: Sure.  So more or less that’s the paradigm that I was referring to.  So it’s more or less the landscape of the development of intimacy.  So most of us, myself included, didn’t know that there were stages in relationship.  So as a psychologist or as people in the world of therapy, we know that there are stages in human development that we all go through, and so in relationships there are stages.

So the first one, we tend to really epitomize as this is what relationship is.  So this is the romance stage, which we’re all pretty familiar with.  This is that first stage that’s so beautiful and magical and it’s again, the stuff that we write movies and plays and books about ,but it’s where we emphasize the bonding.  That’s the “we” nest; the neurochemicals that support that stage are amazing, right?  The dopamine, the oxytocin thesis.  And they say that we actually can’t physiologically sustain that level of high long-term.

Stuart: So is this be a newly-wed couple then?

Jessica: So it could be a newly-wed but most often in our culture, it seems like people have a few years of dating before they enter into engagement and marriage.  So sometimes it can be engagement and newly-weds, or sometimes it can be the first year and a half or two years of dating.  So people have their own journey of when they actually take that next level of commitment.  So it’s just whatever that first stage of bonding is.  So it’s that kind of high of connecting.  Does that answer your question?

Stuart: Yeah.  So you’re talking about people who first get together.  This is really where intense passion, falling in love is, and there’s another stage that will take you to the place where you’re actually making that commitment.

Jessica: Yeah, I mean so some people would – I’m going to talk about that in a moment, some people would get married in this stage, right? This is where we romanticize; it’s in the beginning stages.  So it’s not always when we’re – because usually…

Stuart: This is sleeping beauty, isn’t it?

Jessica: It is, it is.  It’s like we have…

Stuart: Give me a kiss and I’m with you forever.  

Jessica: Exactly.  So we have that fantasy of who this person is.  We’ve made up a complete image of who they are, and yet we haven’t necessarily been with them long enough to see how they show up in stress, how they deal with the life upset, how they deal with anger, right?  Like we just haven’t had a chance to see these things.  

Stuart: Whether they shower or not.

Jessica: Right, right, right.

Stuart: You don’t get to find out those things for a while.

Jessica: Until it settles, right?  So the second stage is the power struggle stage.  So this is – they say Stuart, statistically above 85% of couples stop here.  So I have couples that had come into my office, that had been together for 20 plus years who have been stuck in this phase for the length of their relationship, or this is statistically where people break up or come into therapy sooner.  So it’s the power struggle where you recognize the differences, and you’re typically trying to come to some resolution, but how people negotiate the conflict is usually ineffective.  

So there’s a few strategies that people do use with this.  So they’ll say, “Okay, I’m going to change myself.  So if I’m more like how you want me to be, then we won’t have a problem.  So I’ll just try to change.  Or if I try to provide all the evidence and convince you to change, so if you would be different, then we wouldn’t have an issue.”  Or thirdly, time would make this go, like let’s sweep it under the rug and time will tell. We’ll just kind of not go there, and it will go away, which that doesn’t usually work either.

And so what’s happening in this stage is we’re not resolving the conflict; we’re not getting to the win-win.  And there’s a few other things happening in this stage.  There’s actually a lot happening in this stage.  So this is where you, Stuart, talk about the EFT and really helping couples when they’re highly threatened, because if we’re seeing our partner and we’re filling out odds with them, we’re in conflict. We’re likely to see them as the source of the problem, like we’re going to feel like they’re against us, that we’re not on the same page, and they’re hurting us, and sometimes there are behaviors that are hurtful. That’s true, but a lot is getting activated in that.

Stuart: You know what, as you’re talking, what comes up for me as you were talking, what the word that kept popping into my head was, let’s just call it what it is, this is the blaming stage.

Jessica: Right.

Stuart: This is the stage of “you’re the problem, and if only you would be different, everything would be fine.”

Jessica: Exactly and I think what’s happening, so people have an expectation around relationships;   there’s a level;  people have expectations around what marriage is suppose to be like.  So it’s find love and then happily ever after.  Or love is supposed to be easy or you know, it’s such a private thing, we don’t always get the inside about how people deal with these differences.  Like you have two remarkably different individuals and to think that they’re not going to have any conflict at ever, right?  It’s more of how you negotiate.  

So helping people shift their paradigm to just because it feels challenging doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong. That this is perhaps if you would have to shift your thinking around it or the paradigm around it, this is our opportunity; this is our challenge, and there’s something for us to grow into and learn together, and who we can become on the other side is what’s going to help us be more authentic, be closer, feel more trust because we’ve done the work to get through it.  I mean it’s like any friendship that I’ve ever had.  If it’s just kind of casual, and it’s not very deep, and we’ve never really tested the waters around you know, something more challenging together, then I might really like them. I might be really fond of them, but I don’t necessarily have this belief that I can trust them on a deeper level.

Stuart: It’s definitely about the trust.  It’s trusting that they see all of you, and you know that it’s okay even though you may make mistakes, and you may do this and you may do that that and might even hurt them sometimes; there’s forgiveness, and there’s really a coming together because you’re important to them, which it’s really the vulnerability piece and one of the things I wanted to ask you about, if you don’t mind, a follow-up with this is there are so many families and couples where the philosophy with kids is you don’t let kids see what goes on in the relationship, and so much of this is about understanding what a relationship is about.  So what it seems like is that if more people would share, not only the things that go well, but even when things don’t go well with their  children and how they get it resolved, children will begin to see that marriage isn’t just you know, wine and roses, that there are some challenges, but it’s how you deal with it together that matters.

Jessica: Exactly.

Stuart: So you would agree then that sharing this and being vulnerable with your partners and everybody in your family really would help this concept.

Jessica: Well, I think that there’s – so fundamentality, to some degree, yes.  I do think that there’s things that are beyond the scope of what a child should be exposed to perhaps.

Stuart: Right, there’s certain boundaries, yeah.

Jessica: Right, right.  So there’s some discernment that I think that if there’s the ability–so even adult clients that I work with, I’m helping them develop emotional intelligence, right?  Like how to identify their emotions, how to deal with them particularly more the difficult ones, and at last, how is anger dealt with in your family of origin, and sometimes they just get these blank looks like “I don’t know.”  Either it wasn’t done well, or I have no idea.  And so you’re saying, if we see examples of where conflict occurs, and what I mean by conflict is there’s just a difference, right?  So Mom wants to go to the zoo, and Dad wants to go to the neighbor’s house for the pool party, and that’s a difference and it’s going to sometimes feel like a conflict.  So how that’s negotiated is more the important point.

So if children can see examples of how it’s not threatening, how Mom and Dad give each other the benefit of the doubt, they know – this is largely what I feel like you talked about which is helping the safety of the relationship that even if we’re having a difference of opinion, we have each other’s backs. We care about each other; we love each other, and let’s talk about this. Let’s work this out, or maybe we can get to a win-win or something that feels like a compromise, and for children who get to see that, I think is priceless.

Stuart: Right and they not only see the conflict, but the more important piece, I believe, is seeing the repair of the conflict because not repairing a relationship is so much more destructive than any conflict that there may be.

Jessica: Right, right but adding to your point, I think what people’s strategy is they try to give up; they try to let go of their position for the repair.  So people don’t know how to stay authentic sometimes and be in repair. It feels like I have to choose, right?

Stuart: Right, right.

Jessica: So if there’s a way in which there can be the paradigm, and so when I was talking about the paradigm earlier, there’s been studies, and I’m so glad they have been around a journey mindset in relationship versus the unity mindset.  So this is again, seeing a relationship as perfect and there shouldn’t be any conflicts, and then even thinking about conflict reduces the relationship satisfaction, and they’re more likely to split. Where people have a journey mindset, they’re more willing to talk through problems; they’re willing to think about different ways of evaluating it, and they’re going to work out things to get better, and they’re going to try to see it as an opportunity and work through those challenges.

Stuart: So it’s more about conflict and difficulties in relationships having an up and down feeling, sometimes you feel good about it, sometimes you don’t, and if you see this as a journey, it’s not the end. It’s just one part of it and you need to be patient because you’ll get to the end where the satisfaction will be there if you work together.

Jessica: Yes, I think that I would add that you need to see it as learning.  So like in math, right?  If we were in elementary school and we’re presented with adding and subtracting problems to solve, right?  That’s a certain level of math skill, and then we incrementally increase the math problems to increase our skills.  So if we were to look at okay, we have the challenge on our plate, but if we could see what’s the learning in this or what’s the learning for me individually or us as a couple, then what is accomplished on the other side, the skillfulness or the repair or the intimacy or the trust that we’re talking about. We actually feel stronger because we’ve gone through that together successfully.

Stuart: So what’s the next stage after the – so here we have the fantasy stage, we’re in love and everything is wonderful, then there’s the sucky stage which you see a partner as a problem and everything is good, and now I’m hearing you talk about the journey stage, right?

Jessica: Well, so this is more of the paradigm. I think that that’s one of the things that can help in the power struggle stage, because I think largely people don’t expect there to be this difficulty.  They don’t expect to feel threatened by the person that they love the most.  So then they start to question the relationship and think maybe this isn’t the right person.  What if we could say no, you know, part of relationship and intimacy, this is the development process, then we would look at it differently, probably relate differently. We’d approach it differently.  So that’s – I kind of was adding that in as more.  

So what that does do is if you’re able to get to the stability stage, which is where you are acknowledging the differences but it’s less of a threat.  It’s recognizing that they’re just different, no good, bad, right, or wrong.  There’s a level of mutual respect and consideration for one another and they can even begin to be seen as complementary.  So where my husband might be more disciplined and structured financially, I might be a little more in the flow and believe that there’s a sense of abundance, and it’s more casual.  That’s not the best example, but that people might approach things very differently, but if we can see the positive nature of it or the married in it, then they can begin to seem complimentary.  

Which then takes people to the next stage, which is more of the commitment stage, right?  They are more accepting of each other.  There’s the space for each other’s individual independence and growth as well as how people relate as a couple.  So there’s space for the time apart, there’s space for togetherness and it’s not a threat, right?  Again, there’s just much more security and trust in the relationship, and there’s a level of being able to see your partner like you were saying earlier, more fully for the good, for the weaknesses, for the strengths, for the seemingly growth areas.  Does that make sense?

Stuart: Yes, and I guess the piece that also comes with that is the feeling of being special to your partner.  

Jessica: Yes.

Stuart: That’s the stability stage, I would guess.

Jessica: Yes, so you’re really, essentially more sincerely saying yes to each other, and this is where some people would advocate that we actually get married, that we don’t get married in the beginning stages, that we get married more in the commitment stage when we can have a little bit more clarity and with eyes wide open around what we’re really saying yes to and who each other is, and yes that you’re my special person, and we are nurturing our bond, our love connection, and our relationship, and that’s a priority and I’m committed.

Stuart: Love boats.

Jessica: Yes.

Stuart: This is the love stage, the real love stage.

Jessica: Yes, yes, this is authentic because again, sorry, I just want to emphasize, I know I keep repeating this point, but if I get to feel that I can be me fully, like I don’t have to compromise parts of my being that are essential to me, for us, to be together.  If I can feel authentic and you accept me for that and you see me, the intimacy, and my partner has that same ability and together we’re committed and we’re growing our relationship, I mean that’s incredible.

Stuart: Yeah, and this is really where with emotionally focused therapy, when we work with couples that are triggered, we talk about the pathway to go from where, as you’re calling, the power struggle stage where you’re really sort of blaming each other and then you move into what we’re sort of calling the truly fantasy stage which is where there is a sincere love, it’s not a love that’s artificial, it’s not a love that’s sort of just about feelings – a new love where you really now understand who your partner is, and they know you and the thing that will keep a relationship secure is having a relationship with someone where they see all of you, the good, the bad, the ugly and you know that none of it makes a difference. They love all of you, including the parts that you might not love about yourself.  And what’s more secure than that?

Jessica: Right.

Stuart: So that’s pretty neat.  It’s sort of like you’re talking about these stages and saying, “Okay, if you want to really get married and have a secure relationship, you want to be careful that you don’t do it in these previous stages.

Jessica: Right, or if you do get married in the previous stage, it doesn’t have to be like this encounter. This difficulty is part of what it looks like to grow into a more deepened, advanced level of love; it’s part of the natural process.

Stuart: It’s the natural journey, as you keep talking about.  So we’re almost out of time today, but I have a couple of questions I wanted to ask you.  Through your studies, through your personal life, through some of what you’ve learned, and working with people of the last few years, what do you think is one of the things that surprised you the most about yourself in working with these folks?  What did you learn about yourself that you were surprised by?

Jessica: Well, Stuart, I guess – I think that it was the beginning. I think what I was so challenged with personally brought me to this work, and then I continue to deepen in my practice as I work with couples, and I coach and tell my clients this that just because I have the level of the education, I have the level of training that I do doesn’t mean that my knees aren’t shaking, my heart isn’t clenched or hurting when I’m scared or when I feel vulnerable.  All of these things that are incredibly painful, it doesn’t elevate that.  I just believe in the process; I have to do my own work.  Just because I have this knowledge, it doesn’t take away.  I think many people want the magic wand–to take a pill or whatever, to make it go away, but I just trust the process, and I know it works. I’ve been  around the block to know that it works.

So as far as being surprised, I feel like it’s little things all the time that just continue to bring respect and the sense of profound admiration for the work of how relationships can be such a phenomenal practice ground for our heart opening, and opening to the things that we most want and yearn for. So that’s it for me; it’s been a huge practice of growth.  And so just again, what being in relationship activates and the opportunity that’s there.  So I think it’s more or less just a continual validation of that over and over again and just a continual appreciation for it.  

So I don’t know that there’s been any other than my first few in the beginning stages, all the things – I mean I was dumbfounded–how come we don’t get taught these things, how come – unless you self-study, how come you don’t come across this?  These are – like most of my clients are extremely successful, high level positions or just very competent in their life;  they are amazing individuals and yet in the field of relationships, have never come across any skill building, right?  They’ve never encountered any of this.  Unless you self-study, most people haven’t.  So that continues to baffle me.

Stuart: Thank you for being so open about all of that, but for me, how I guess I would answer a question like that would be more about what has surprised me is that if you have faith in a process, if you believe in what you’re being sort of shown about how to have a relationship, that if you hold on to the belief and know that something is going to work and you go through it, almost all couples get there, and that for me, sometimes the things in my life that have gotten away is when I give up, and that just really holding true and saying, “This person is important, I know we can get there; we’re going to do it together and that together we can accomplish anything.”

Jessica: Yes.

Stuart: That really just sort of takes you to where you want to be.

Jessica: Yes, which to conclude the stages, the fifth stage is the co-creation stage which is what couples can accomplish together, the synergy, so it’s not one plus one equals two.  The combination is so much bigger than each individual component of that.  So it’s exactly what you’re talking about, what couples are able to accomplish together and what they’re able to create together.

Stuart: Thank you very, very much Jessica for sharing this, and I want all of you to check out her website.  I will have it on my show notes and everything, but I want you to sort of talk a little bit about what your website is, if someone wants to get ahold of you, how they could get ahold of you, and also mention a little bit about your course too.

Jessica: Sure, sure.  So my website–everything can be found on my website; it’s drjessicahiggins.com, and that’s  doctor with the DRJessicaHiggins.com.  So I have a weekly podcast, as you mentioned; it’s the Empowered Relationship Podcast, and that’s  intended to offer different skills and principles for you to work with in relationship, and then I also write articles as well, and I do have a course that I just launched, and it’s the first one I’ve launched.  So I will be, in the future, offering it again, so if you want to get on my list, you’ll get information on that and it is all is on my website.

Stuart: Thank you again Jessica, and I really appreciate you taking your time and being so generous with sharing with my listeners all about you and relationships and how people could really, really, really find true love.  Thanks again folks for joining me this week, and don’t forget that I’m going to be doing a live webinar on holiday stress and conflict and you can find information on that on my website which is www.thecouplesexpertscottsdale.com, and we’ll see you all next time.  Bye-bye.


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