When couples come to therapy to work on their relationship and present their problems, the therapist usually asks when these issues began. More often than not, couples can trace the seeds of the problem(s) to their earliest dating days. They might not have had big fights about the issue at that time, but it was likely a tension point that one or both of them had already noted.
The question is, why is this so? After all, if there was something problematic going on earlier in the relationship, why wasn’t it addressed or worked out at that time?
There are a number of reasons couples fail to address important issues that arise in the early stages of their relationship.
First, when we’re first falling in love, we are less likely to be bothered by certain issues than we are once the spell of infatuation wears off.
Second, once we become emotionally invested in our partner and motivated to see the relationship succeed, we may be hesitant to raise issues that might cause conflict and/or highlight differences between us.
Lastly, we often let too many bothersome things go in the initial stages of a relationship because we are unaware of a fundamental truth about relationships. Relationship dynamics are like concrete—they can be shaped when the concrete is still fresh but they quickly become rigid and hard to mold. In other words, the expectations we set early on in a relationship, the give and take, the roles we step into, the habits we accept, the rhythm of our day to day quickly set. Once they do, they become far more difficult to change.
When problematic issues arise in the earliest stages of the relationship and are not addressed, there may be an unspoken assumption that whatever has happened is acceptable to both members of the couple.
Bill and Grace, a couple I recently worked with, are a great example of this principle. Bill was 12 minutes late for their first date. He did not text Grace to give her the heads up or apologize when he arrived. Since he arrived slightly out of breath and looked as though he had rushed, Grace did not comment on the lateness. By not doing so, what she communicated to Bill was that she would accept his lateness and that he would not even have to apologize for it. Bill was then only seven minutes late to their second date, which Grace overlooked as he was “clearly improving” (Grace’s words). But that dynamic helped to create an expectation that Bill does not have to be on time.
I have worked with many couples in which lateness is an issue and in almost all cases, it reared its head very early in the relationship. When it did, the partner left waiting did not make it an issue. When I ask why they did not speak up, the answer is usually some form of, “I didn’t want to ruin the date,” or “I didn’t want to start a fight,” or “It was only a few minutes.”
While those are valid concerns, what we neglect to anticipate is that by not bringing it up we are setting ourselves up for more of the behavior we find objectionable going forward, whatever it is.
How to Set Correct Limits Early in the Relationship
In order to prevent behaviors we don’t like from becoming a common feature in our relationships, we need to notice them and address them as early as possible in a manner that brings attention to the issue without causing a conflict that might derail the budding relationship. Here are some guidelines:
1. When the behavior we don’t like is mild, we need to find casual ways to comment on it such that it doesn’t ruin the date or alienate the other person. A casual reference subtly communicates that the behavior was not one we find acceptable (e.g., asking, “Was there a lot of traffic?” when our date was late and didn’t apologize for it).
2. If the behavior is more egregious, the intensity of our messaging needs to match the level of concern that the specific behavior evokes in us. For example, if during our first argument our partner resorts to name-calling or put-downs and we don’t make it absolutely clear we will not tolerate being spoken to in that manner, name-calling and put-downs are likely to persist and even increase. Therefore, we have to be more declarative in communicating our concern about such behaviors and insist our partner find other ways to express their frustrations without dismissive, rude, or insulting comments.
3. If a behavior is a deal breaker, we not only need to communicate to the other person that we will not tolerate it again, we have to mean it. If the behavior is repeated and we do not then follow through with our warning, we are clearly communicating that the behavior is troublesome but not a deal breaker. Our messaging has to leave no room for doubt that it will be grounds for an instant breakup. Sad as it might be to exit the relationship at that point, not doing so (assuming the limit and the severity of the issue has been clearly communicated) will invite more of the behavior going forward.
In short, the early stages of dating are those in which an unspoken contract is formed about the rules and conduct of the relationship going forward. The realities we establish in the early days, weeks, and months of a romance are likely to determine the nature of the relationship going forward. Therefore, we have to be able to look beyond our excitement and enthusiasm, assess the behaviors and dynamics we are setting up, and address potential problems in their infancy. Changing behaviors and dynamics once a relationship is established is far more difficult and the degree of change we can enact at that point is usually much smaller.
The biggest mistake we can make in the early part of a relationship is to overlook problems and hope to address them later on.