Long Term Relationships
Long-term relationships are a different animal from their
short-term cousins. Relationships go through stages and the
first stages are very different from the later ones. In long-term
relationships, the patterns of communication are different.
The patterns are not laced with uncertainty, or so much sexuality,
or keenness of interest. Couple have “gotten used” to each other,
and their behavior reflects this change. Couples take each other
much more for granted. This does not have to be bad, but it is
different, considering the pattern of communication in the beginning
One of the most striking things to change is the emergence of
history. When we grow up, we absorb the culture of our parents
or surroundings. This becomes our “unconscious” norm. If we were
treated well in the past, we think this will continue into the
present. Conversely, if things did not go so well, our unconscious
bias is to expect similarly, even though consciously we, of course,
In the long-term relationship, this history begins to “pop up;”
that is, insert itself into our otherwise ordinary behaviors. A
real-life example is when one of the partners was
(and probably still is) the oldest of many brothers/sisters growing
up. She marries a man who is the youngest of a brood. Normally,
love conquers all, until the glow or novelty of the first stage of
the relationship wears off. Then the wife begins to behave as the
oldest, just about the time the husband begins to behave as the
youngest. One can imagine the conflicts that will follow as she
herds him or directs his behaviors or controls his impulsivity.
He, on the other hand, is used to having lots of attention from
older sibs and might even be used to being “the baby of the family.”
He acts cute and thinks others will take care of him. She resents
the assumption because this is more work for her.
This is a general example but plays out often than one might
expect because the “real” people behind the roles of wife and
husband are surfacing.
The phenomenon behind this little charade is what we
psychologists call acting out of the transference. Transference
is the group of assumptions we all carry at unconscious levels that
guide our impulses and influence our choices. They’re the attitudes
and biases I mentioned above that come from childhood. In
relationships, especially long-term ones, these transference biases
become increasingly visible in the patterns of behavior we manifest
to our partners. As the relationship matures the core values of
the individual become visible. The assumptions are acted out onto
our partner almost automatically (certainly unconsciously at first),
until there build some routines.
In the above example, if the wife is used to bossing around or
even just being in charge of younger siblings, she may take a
critical or even judgmental tone. She may use phrases that convey
authority or superiority, such as “you should” do this or that, or
“you should not” do this or that. This will put the listener
(the husband) in the position of being scolded; thus, he will feel
more like a child. If he happens to be the youngest kid in the
family, this will feel comfortable, even if he is criticized.
But sooner or later, the adult part of his brain will resent being
treated like a child and tensions will build.
Now we have a problem that feeds itself. She will criticize,
he will resent it and probably sabotage her efforts. The more she
criticizes, the more he will undo her efforts, consciously or
otherwise. This will escalate until one of them “blows.”
I call this a Negative Loop. That’s where each partner does
what irritates the other, who in turn does the very thing in
response that caused the first partner to do what he or she did.
This is a very general outline of thousands of possible transference
patterns and only one of eight major Negative Loops that I run into
every day in my practice as an outpatient psychologist and marriage
Long Term Relationships