In Part Two of this series, we explore the relationship dynamics most commonly experienced in the immediate aftermath of loss. When we know what to expect, we are more likely to emerge from the turbulent waters of rebound dating relatively unscathed.
Transitional relationships are likely to display one of the following four characteristics. Keep in mind these traits are not mutually exclusive. It is common to find more than one in the same place.
1. "Come Here; Go Away." Within the first year of separation, we either don't know what we want or we (think we) know what we want but are not ready for it. In a relationship, this confusion or uncertainty manifests as a “predictably unpredictable” pattern of highs and lows, where periods of intense closeness are followed by tension, conflict, or withdrawal. It is as if we are inviting (or being invited) closer with one hand while shooing (or being shooed) away with the other. Each partner is attracted to the idea of intimacy but, when the fire's warmth touches newly singed hands, one or both partners quickly retreat. "Come here; go away" keeps partners in a perpetual state of suspended animation. Nothing moves in any direction when we want something equally as much as we fear it.
Though logic would convince us otherwise, "come here; go away" relationships are quite difficult to end. Our brains and bodies become dependent upon the adrenaline their breakups and makeups produce--adrenaline which functions as an analgesic for acute grief. To the grief-avoidant, the pain of remaining in the relationship appears less than the pain of ending it. Much like broken lines on a highway, an ambivalent relationship will continue indefinitely until one partner is ready to end it for good.
2. Married or Taken. Human beings attract and are drawn to people who vibrate at a similar emotional frequency. Though our marital status may indicate otherwise, in the first year after loss, we are not really emotionally available. It is for this reason the newly separated cavort with the married or partnered. This usually manifests either as an extramarital affair prior to separation (affairs are sometimes a compelling way out of a marriage that is no longer working) or, post-separation, in the crossing of physical boundaries with a married or partnered acquaintance.
Because secret relationships are predicated on deception, each partner, on some level, secretly resents the other. Like the Wicked Witch in the "Wizard of Oz," this darkness will show up at some point down the road, you just don't know which tree it will be hiding behind. Though the nature of forbidden love is quite compelling, it usually results in more destruction than joy; use caution.
3. The Time Warp. There are times, on the golf course of life, we all wish for a mulligan. Compelled by regret to recover what was lost, we choose a partner who, whether by age or developmental life stage, best represents where we were before our last relationship began. Thanks to social media, we may even revisit an old flame looking for new sparks. While reuniting with "the one who got away" is a romantic notion, it is often not long before we realize why it didn't work out the first time. Like toddlers regress with each new developmental task, when faced with the uncertainty of loss, adults also seek solace in what was once safe or familiar.
4. Opposites Attract. After a difficult loss, many will select a partner whose primary asset is that s/he is nothing like our ex. If you found your ex's outgoing personality off-putting, it is likely you will be drawn to a quieter, more reserved mate. If your ex was a spendthrift, fiscal responsibility suddenly shoots to the top of the priority list. For every perceived deprivation, we are compelled to seek an equal, opposite indulgence. However, after we have feasted at the trough of abundance, its spoils are likely to lose their appeal, particularly if we've little else in common with our new partner.
(It is also worth noting that, in cases where the ending was not of our choosing, some of us seek partners who closely resemble our exes in physical appearance, personality, or both.)
Transitional relationships are like hospitals. No one really wants to be there. We go because the hospital offers us what we cannot yet provide ourselves. Just as hospital stays are meant to be temporary, so too are transitional relationships. This is a hard pill for the acutely grieving to swallow. Often the pain associated with yet another loss (which is typically experienced as failure) compels us to keep transitional relationships on life support past their natural expiration date.
Rememeber, there are no mistakes; only learning. Every choice we make is designed to advance our healing and growth. Only when we have learned everything transitional love was meant to teach us will we free ourselves to move beyond it and create lasting connection.
Stable people attract stability. In Part Three of this series, we will explore in more detail how to equip your post-loss toolbox with the most powerful implement of all: a solid life of your own!
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Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, dating coach, and writer whose therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of Seattle, Washington. She has been providing counseling and dating consultation services since 2000.