By Lauren DelGandio, Amanda Falciglia, and Seth Eisenberg
Tiffany Tehan was reported missing last Saturday leaving behind her one-year old daughter, worried husband, family and friends. The young woman’s neighbors feared the worst, uniting day and night to search for Tiffany over much of the past week. As many hoped and prayed, Tiffany was found safe and sound five days later. Early news reports indicate the Ohio woman intentionally fled her home, infant daughter, husband and community for Miami in search of love with another man.
Sadly, Tiffany’s story is not unique. A recent study by the PAIRS Foundation indicated as many as 70% of married men and women are contemplating separation or divorce.
Like air, food, water and shelter, bonding (the unique combination of emotional openness and physical closeness) is a lifelong biological need. Just as people may make desperate decisions when facing famine or other perceived physical survival threats, we see countless examples of destructive choices men and women make when they are not getting their needs for emotional openness and physical closeness met.
Bonding is the only biological need humans have that we cannot meet by ourselves; it takes working with another person to create an environment in which we can regularly and naturally confide, be authentically ourselves without wearing a mask, and share affection. Couples who understand the human need for bonding are better able to successfully navigate the road map of relationships sustained by love and intimacy.
The PAIRS study tested the impact of nine hours of relationship skills training in reducing the likelihood of marital and family breakdown. Six month follow up results including hundreds of men and women from diverse backgrounds showed that for most, just brief exposure to evidence-based skills education cut the percentage of couples contemplating divorce by 50% through exercises to improve communication, deepen empathy, enhance emotional understanding and expression, and constructive conflict resolution.
Tiffany’s story is an example of the choices spouses can make during the “Confusion” stage of relationships that often impact our lives – and our children’s lives – for the rest of our lives.
PAIRS teaches that most love relationships go through four predictable stages: Illusion, Disillusion, Confusion and Conclusion.
During the “Illusion” stage, we look for everything right in another person and can get very excited by what we find. It may be the smallest thing, “He smiled at me,” or something larger, “She helped me fulfill my dream of finishing school,” and many things in between.
When we’re looking for what’s right in another person or relationship, we find it. In this first stage, we may feel that we’ve found our soul mate with whom all the dreams for our lives will come true.
The second stage, “Disillusion,” often begins with a disappointment – sometimes connected to something that happened that we didn’t expect or perhaps not getting something we did expect. There are other factors, too, sometimes connected to changes in circumstances such as the birth of a child, financial challenges, job loss, illness, etc.. This stage is marked by looking for what’s wrong in the other person or relationship, and finding it. Knowing that all human beings are “works in progress,” it’s not difficult to find what’s wrong with another person. In this stage, we look for it, find it, and can become discouraged or disillusioned, which leads to …
“Confusion,” meaning we tend to do whatever we know to try to get back to the Illusion stage, not realizing that so much of what we’re experiencing is influenced by our own perspective, assumptions, fears, and history. “If we can just get our partner to change,” we may secretly imagine, “everything will be good again.”
In this stage, people choose from the options they know. As hurtful as it may have been, if what we know from our personal history is that when relationships are struggling, we can betray our vows, that may become a likely choice. If we learned to stonewall, ignore, blame, play the victim or martyr, psychoanalyze, etc., then those are options we may choose from. Marriage education is highly effective because it expands the range of options for couples – offering choices early in a relationship or in the midst of a crisis that lead to stronger feelings of love, pleasure and happiness and a greater chance for cherished dreams to come true.
The fourth and final stage, “Conclusion,” often leads to ending one relationship and beginning the entire process over with someone else – sharing brief interactions in which we’re looking for what’s right and celebrating those experiences, until we spend more time together and begin to feel disappointed as all relationships between human beings include challenges, obstacles, and problems to be overcome. For people who spend their lives going through these stages over and over again, each time with a different partner, it may be difficult to see our dreams come true for ourselves, careers, families, and children.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Tiffany Tehan likely chose from the options she saw. Somewhere between Disillusion and Confusion, she may have believed she could recreate the Illusion stage with someone new. With skills to confide, understand emotions in ourselves and others, deal constructively with conflict and differences, and create an environment in which our needs for bonding are met, her choices may have been different.
In a live television interview, Tiffany’s husband acknowledged that we are all human and can make mistakes. It seems that he has opened the door to learning ways to reconnect and rebuild their relationship before they and their young daughter pay a price with lifelong implications.
For many, the “Conclusion” stage can be the beginning of levels of connection, love, and happiness we may have never known were possible. The initial response of Tiffany’s husband offers a glimmer of hope that they’ll find the support needed to strengthen their family, marriage and the potential for their daughter to truly fulfill her own potential. Enrolling in a research-validated marriage education program taught by instructors experienced with couples in crisis would be a good start.
PAIRS Foundation is one of the nation’s oldest and leading relationship skills training organizations. Lauren DelGandio and Seth Eisenberg are National Trainers. Amanda Falciglia oversees PAIRS research and evaluation activities, including the PAIRS Relationship Skills for Strong South Florida Families program grant funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Learn more at www.pairs.com.