I love Valentine’s Day! Apart from continuing my birthday celebrations for the month, it’s great to look forward to special time out with my beloved, wine-ing and dining and indulging in our love, escaping the normal routine of life for a moment.
While others scowl that it’s just a “commercial trick” to get people to spend, spend, spend, I celebrate it as a legitimate excuse for us to take more time for each other, and for me to invest in my relationship with the man I love and have committed to for life. If we have learnt anything in our 25yrs of marriage it’s this – taking time out for just the two of us to grow and learn together as a couple is vital if we want to have a marriage or long-term relationship we actually enjoy. When I worked in recruiting management consultants we had this saying – there is a big difference between 10 years of experience of learning and growing, versus one year’s worth of experience repeated 10 times!One of the challenges we have as couples is that growth often involves pain – and as people, we don’t like pain at all. So we tend to avoid or run away from pain instead of growing through it, and miss out on the opportunity to get better and stronger as a result. Let me share a model that can help you make sense of this.
Back in 1965, educational psychologist Bruce Tuckman, published his seminal work, showing that every team, bar none, goes through the same 4 stages of team development and behaviour.
The stages are what he called Forming, Storming and Norming before ultimately moving on to Performing.
The important take away for us here, as Dr Tuckman concluded, is that this applies to every team whether it be at work, at play, at school, in sports, or in relationships. And whether they’re a dozen of you or just two… EVERY team.
Teams ebb and flow through the various stages with the low point coming when the team is storming and then generally improving as they get back to norming. Tuckman showed how effectiveness can be significantly increased if the team can stay together long enough and get up to the performing stage.
This has so much application for our relationships as couples. In a couple relationship, forming is basically when you meet the first few times, you mind your manners and you’re great to be around. Storming is where the little habits that can irritate start to show, or where the typical conflict issues – arguments over money, in-laws, parenting styles etc – start to emerge. Quite often this is where we lose it.
Anything involving two or more people will involve points of tension or conflict – it’s inevitable. We all think and
reason differently and can’t read each other’s minds. However, conflict situations are really opportunities to get more understanding about each other’s thoughts, values and perspectives so we can agree on how to move forward with better understanding. That’s what norming is about. And when you have an agreed way of compensating for each other’s weaknesses or overlooking unintended irritations or for peace sake spreading the bed, turning off the lights and emptying the dishwasher because it really stresses your partner out, that’s how you get to the performing stage. This is when differences are resolved, behaviours adjusted, stress is minimised and you both feel like you have each other’s back.
The problem is we don’t like pain, so we tend to recoil, run away or sweep it under the proverbial carpet when differences of opinion – storming – emerges. And quite often we repeat the cycle of storming and norming with each new issue and season of life. So learning to have great conversations even through the
storming phase is a key skill to develop so you can benefit from the conflict situations and learn and grow together as a couple. That’s the difference between having ten years of experience versus one year repeated ten times. Because if we keep avoiding or running away, “that thing” that irritates will continue to irritate and worse yet, in the absence of any discussion we conclude THEY ARE DOING IT ON PURPOSE! This goes a long way to explain the statistics that show that the success rate of second and third marriages after divorce gets worse and worse because people tend to stay stuck at the level of skill and understanding that contributed to the problem in the first place. And the sweetness and light that could exist in the relationship throughout the year becomes limited to Valentines Day or the sporadic occasions when we can pause on the usual frustrations and be nice for one evening out.
When I got married, I didn’t sign up for ‘OK’ or ‘tolerable’ in general and only ‘great’ on special occasions. I signed up for GREAT… and happy and loving and romantic and committed and best friends and, and, and….all year long.
But it takes work. It takes patience. It takes forgiveness. And it takes an ongong commitment to understanding more about your partner and learning how to be a great partner yourself. That way you will work together to push through the storming phase on any issue and get back to performing and enjoying a great relationship all year round. So brush up on your conflict resolution skills, have a great Valentine’s Day, then rinse and repeat all year long!
If you would like to find out more on how to build great relationship skills to move confidently through the inevitable storming and norming phases to get to performing together as one, in our book we go into detail on what happens in the brain during conflict and how we can get better at taking control of how we react. Check it out here: The 4 Habits of All Successful Relationships: Improving your relationships at home, at work and in life.