Don’t fall prey to the honeymoon effect
Early on, many newly married couples seem to be on cloud nine and live each day together as though they are on their honeymoon. There has been a great deal of research that has been conducted to better understand this stage of relationships and why so many lose that loving feeling. What is clear from research findings is that early in the relationship, your brain’s reward centers work on overdrive, and you are under the influence of both love and lust. Think of this as the love drug. During this time, butterflies are fluttering around in your stomach and the birds seem to sing just for you. It is also very natural and common during this time to place your relationship partner on a pedestal. At the same time, there is the tendency to downplay your partners’ faults and see only the best parts of who he or she is. Everything he or she does is soooo cute, lovely, and not at all annoying.
Research also shows that holding these ‘positive illusions’ that your partner is all sorts of wonderful helps you feel secure in the relationship (Murray et al., 1999) and more satisfied too (Barelds & Dijkstra, 2011). Early into the marriage, people bask in the glow of these positive illusions. This brain-on-overdrive-happy-illusion time is called the “honeymoon effect”, where your relationship is like a vacation that you wish would never end. However, like all vacations, the honeymoon cannot last forever, and it is near impossible to keep your partner on that pedestal.
Over the course of the first few years of marriage, an interesting shift happens across couples. We actually start to see our partners as less agreeable, less open-minded, and more emotionally unstable than we originally did (Watson & Humrichouse, 2006). Essentially, the pedestal they are on starts to crumble over time. Just think about this for a moment… The person you marry is not the person you see a few years later. They might seem less cute or lovely, and more flawed. You might be wondering, did he always slurp his soup so obnoxiously?!
The result of our partners coming off their pedestals means that we start to see them up close, with all their flaws exposed. With all that security we felt when we saw them as Mr. or Mrs. Perfect washed away, we might feel like we are seeing someone we do not recognize. All of a sudden, you can’t ignore that your partner picks his or her nose or constantly leaves the toilet seat up. This fall from the pedestal can be unnerving, because you are now face to face with your partner and his or her flaws, who is also face to face with you and all your flaws. If you are not prepared for the end of the honeymoon and the start of the marriage, you will be in trouble because it is this person, flaws and all, who is now standing right next to you ready to walk into the future.
Knowing that we are all prey to the honeymoon effect can help you to prepare for the inevitable truth, which is that your partner is not perfect and neither are you. The couples who make it out of the honeymoon stage unscathed are those who anticipate this shift and who work together with their partners to define ways to thrive. Ultimately, it is not enough to see your partner in a realistic way, and accept and love who he or she really is, boogers and all. The true hallmark of a lasting relationship is actively working towards building the recipe for longevity.
The Recipe for Marital Success
Many couples spend years planning their marriage and not a single hour planning their lives after marriage. In many of these cases, the reality of life, not love, will produce a growing separation and ultimately the end of the relationship. Both of you came into this relationship with qualities or ‘ingredients’ you have each collected over the course of your lives. You might bring with you a dash of sugary sweetness, a handful of spicy attitude, and a teaspoon of bitter resentment. Your partner comes in with his or her own combination of qualities and quirks. Some of these ingredients will mix well with yours and others will leave a bad taste in your mouth. What you do with what you have will make the difference between relationship success and failure.
Here is the recipe card for relationship success:
Step 1: List the Ingredients: The Good, the Bad, and the Quirky.
To start, you need to identify the combination of ingredients – the good, the bad, and the quirky- that you both bring to the table. This process ultimately takes two, but it starts with you. This is the time to get real and open yourself up to some hard truths. It can often be easier to point the finger at the good you bring and the ugly in others than to point the finger inward towards yourself. However, by openly engaging in self-reflection in a non-judgmental and curious way, you send the message to your partner that this is a safe process for him or her to engage in as well. This can be a hard process for both of you, because it means placing all the parts of you that you might want to ignore on the table for all to see. However, in taking the risk, you open your relationship up to a new level of intimacy and understanding.
To help start this process, ask yourself, what ingredients do I bring in that might make it hard for me to be open, loving, and respectful? This process is not just about finding out what you have today, but also what ingredients or relationship qualities you would like to invest in acquiring. Maybe through this process you learn that you would like to develop greater patience or to practice being more assertive. This process can be empowering, but can also leave you feeling raw and vulnerable. Balance this with also itemizing what ingredients you love that you and your partner each bring to the kitchen. These are what brought you together and that you want to continue to foster and grow.
This is also an opportunity to itemize your values, views, and plans for the future. Do you want children? if so, how many? How do you plan to manage finances? Where do you see the relationship in 5 years? Many couples are so intensely focused on planning for the wedding that they do not plan for the rest of the marriage or work through their differences in these crucial areas that can become big, insurmountable issues later if left unaddressed. A big misstep is to assume that you have the same plans for the future or that your partner will see things your way someday. The take-home message is to communicate, plan, and communicate some more.
Step 2: Design the Directions: Put Together your Relationship Recipe.
After you have taken stock of what ingredients you have and likely some ingredients you are hoping to acquire, the next step in this process is to come up with a plan that you both are willing to commit to. Couples who do not talk about where they are, how they got there, and where they would like to be are more likely to grow apart. This is because it is hard to keep a partnership together if you are not actively working as a team. Acknowledging that the relationship is a work in progress means that you create space for growth — both for yourself and your partner. If each of you is not given the space to grow and evolve, you and the relationship will feel stunted and will become stagnant over time. The point here is to work together to define what hopes, dreams, and challenges likely lie ahead for you both and define your strategy to survive and thrive as a team.
Do not misinterpret this step as the need to change who you are or who your partner is in order to create the ideal mate. The search for perfection is an unattainable one. This step is about finding ways to work together to plan your future and to lay the foundation for this type of dialogue to be a part of your ongoing communication with one another. In fact, there are some hobbies, interests, and quirks you each have that call for acceptance within the relationship. These are the parts that make each of you you — the non-shared, maybe not-loved, ingredients that you each accept because it means you get access to all the other good stuff. You might hate watching sports, but your partner absolutely loves spending hours yelling obscenities at the television set. Acceptance might look like encouraging your partner’s unique interests, and maybe even try to engage in them every once in a while. In the same token, it is important to nurture the unique parts of who you are and make time for your non-shared interests. The healthiest and lasting relationships are the ones that allow you to be you, while also being a strong entity together.
There might be more fundamental differences, like personality traits that you each have, that need room for acceptance as well. You might be the most talkative person at the party, while your partner would prefer to not even be there. It can be tricky to navigate personality differences. It is OK to have differences, and it should not be taboo to talk about these together. It is through communication that you can come up with a plan of action to move towards the middle path where you both are able to be true to yourselves while supporting each other. All in all, compromise in a relationship is important, and should not mean changing who you are at your core.
To set yourself up for success in planning for the future, a great place to start is in generating specific actions you can each take today and tomorrow. You cannot bake a cake without having the recipe in mind and you cannot work on a relationship without a plan in place!
A trap many couples get into is having a vague idea that changes might be needed to spice things up or to bring harmony into the household. This creates a lot of pressure that is placed on each member to figure out on their own what it means to….fix it,… be more reliable,… be more/less emotional,… connect more. Not only might you feel lost with how to tackle these monumental tasks, but your definition of what those tasks look like might differ from your partner’s definition! You might think that connect more means being physically closer with your partner and he/she might interpret it as having more intimate conversations. This is why it is SO important to operationalize and define what you want to work on and the specific actions that might help.
But, what if you are stumped about what is missing or feel paralyzed when thinking about how to move forward? Well, then you would be human. Knowing how to make a relationship work with your partner is not something you should naturally know how to do – how could you? Each person is different and each relationship is unique – what works for one couple may not for another. It is OKAY to come to the conclusion that you do not know what is missing or what to do it fix it. But, get curious about that. Come up with some hypotheses to test out. Maybe find other couples who are doing it well, who seem to be a strong team, and identify what they each bring to the table. See if it is something that you are willing to try in your relationship. To become an expert in your relationship, you need to do what experts do – study yourself and your partner, research, hypothesize, and test things out!
Step 3: Bake and Taste: …Refine the Recipe, and Taste Some More.
Any chef worth his or her salt will tell you that perfecting a recipe requires tasting and refining what you have over time. You have a plan, but nothing speaks louder than action. Put your plan into action and revisit it over time to identify what is working, what is not working, and what might need to shift.
Making changes in the relationship means both unlearning habits and simultaneously practicing new behaviors. This is like asking yourself to unlearn what it is like to walk on your feet and start learning to walk on your hands. You first need to catch yourself falling into old habits and then override that with practicing new actions. For instance, you might be trying to practice patience in the face of frustration when your habit is to become nit-picky and critical. To change that response, it means you first need to catch yourself becoming nit-picky and critical, connect with your action plan of patience, and over-ride your last-standing impulse. That is hard work! It will take energy, effort, and time. It is important to give recognition for efforts made and to acknowledge that old habits are hard to break. This means that we all need to keep working, keep dreaming, and keep trying. A successful relationship is defined by marrying the heart and the head.
It really all boils down to this motto: Plan, Love ♥, Learn
American Psychological Association Website: http://www.apa.org/topics/divorce/
Barelds, D. P., & Dijkstra, P. (2011). Positive illusions about a partner’s personality and relationship quality. Journal of Research in Personality, 45(1), 37-43.
Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996b). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 79–98.
Watson, D., & Humrichouse, J. (2006). Personality development in emerging adulthood: integrating evidence from self-ratings and spouse ratings. Journal of personality and social psychology, 91(5), 959.
Written by Maya D'Eon, PhD
Maya's degree is in clinical psychology (PhD, UCSD), with a concentration in behavioral medicine. She specializes in helping people overcome barriers to healthy living. Maya's past research and clinical work focused on developing health programs for people with chronic pain and other illnesses. Maya is passionate about finding personalized solutions for real-life problems.