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Agony/Ecstasy Relationships

A different perspective.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

All intimate relationships have intensive moments that range from joy to heartbreak. Depending on their resiliency and depth of commitment, committed partners succeed or fail due to the ways they are able to navigate these peaks and valleys.

Those relationships that do thrive make a point to focus on the good times and navigate the bad ones as efficiently as possible. But, conversely, those that cannot maintain that process, increasingly falter.

In that last category, there are relationships that are much more extreme. They regularly ping-ponging with more intense volatility. The partners within them live on the twin edges of rapturous fervor and miserable torment. Yet, for often odd and assorted reasons, many stay together despite the mutual anguish they both endure.

Most wonder why these relationships stay together. In encountering many of them over my four-plus decades of being a relationship therapist, I believe I understand them better. And, though there are certainly some whose trajectories are clearly marked for destruction, others have remarkable flavors of depth and intrigue. I have often been transfixed at the beauty of the love they express when they are in that space, even when they may endure significantly negative interactions before and after.

If you have either been a partner in one of these agony/ecstasy relationships or are currently involved in one, you may be able to find yourself described here in a different way from how you have thought of yourselves in the past.

I hope the following seven examples, with both their positive and negative aspects, will offer some new perspectives.

1. Familiarity. Many agony/ecstasy partners were children who grew up in emotionally volatile families. As long as they were regularly able to see resiliency and some kind of reasonable resolution, they had faith in those cataclysmic hills and valleys, and to live with both the joys and sorrows that accompanied them. As long as they were not abused or neglected, they assumed that these wild emotional rides were the way things were supposed to be.

That might be especially true if they were of a culture in which more extreme emotions were not only tolerated, but encouraged. Or, perhaps their families were highly creative or anti-establishment, taking pride in their uniqueness and lack of conformity.

Being drawn towards what is familiar is a common reason why people select mates. Those raised to develop and enjoy a wide range of emotional expressions understandably seek counterparts who want the same.

2. Love of Drama. The agony/ecstasy couples who come to me most often want to stay together. Though they do want to change the balance of negative to positive interactions, they don’t necessarily want to tone down the intensity of their emotional interactions.

They also rely on and look forward to those personality characteristics in each other they find consistently exciting and fascinating, seeing them as necessary components of their aliveness. They tell me that they may feel exasperated, frustrated, and powerless, but they are never bored.

3. Chosen Power Imbalances. People who are naturally dominant in nature often seek out those who are more submissive. In many cases, both partners enjoy that power differential. Exempting destructive relationships that support pleasure to one partner at the expense of the other, there are unequal power relationships that are deeply meaningful to both partners.

When I observe these couples, one more controlling and the other seemingly comfortable in being obedient, I anticipate occasional conflict when those roles are challenged. What, in one moment, seems to be working well, turns into a challenging power struggle. The more submissive partner decides to push for more control, and the other pushes to re-establish dominance. There is a period of unstable tension, and then a return to the status quo.

As I grow to know these people more deeply, I’ve learned not to shrink back in distress when I observe the tension building and then acted out. It is clearly part of the way these people choose to alternately challenge and then rechoose their relationship.

4. Aren’t Love and Pain Supposed to Go Together? Sensations of pain and pleasure exist within the same brain circuits. Endorphins are released as a response to both.

It is no wonder, then, that many of these agony/ecstasy partnerships truly expect that their most meaningful joyful experiences must be accompanied by some level of pain before, after, or during them. They have often told me that their best sex happens after a terrible fight, shortly after they’ve leveled extreme and hurtful comments at one another.

They tell me that pushing each other as far away as possible makes reconnection both more precarious and more alluring. Uncertainty fuels the energy that both experience as proof of the depth of their feelings for each other.

Yes, some of these transactions come from earlier trauma and, sadly, may trigger them. If their caretakers alternately pulled them close and then exiled them, they may have connected pain and pleasure in the wrong way, and limit themselves from healing by repeating them.

5. Romantic Fantasies. Ah, the chosen sacrifices of chivalry. Fanciful daydreams. Heroic deeds. Obsessive thoughts. Aching for true love and terror of loss. Worship and betrayal. Longing for forever passion.

Those are the core thoughts and feelings people have described to me over the years, especially when they are newly in love. Visions of being swept away by feelings of becoming one, succumbing to the blending of souls, and a foreverness of rapture are the core elements of romantic fantasy.

There is, then, by definition, no classic romance without the terror of loss. The more enraptured new lovers allow themselves to feel, the greater the potential fall from grace.

Though new love is always fraught with these extremes of agony and ecstasy, it rarely maintains those extremes. Over time, life intrudes and other priorities intervene and those encompassing feelings subside.

But there are some couples who refuse to give up those experiences and will do whatever they can to keep them alive, no matter the cost. If there is not enough fear of loss, they will create it. If there are not enough exalted feelings of transfixed adoration, they will resurrect it.

6. Addictive Love. Addiction is most simply defined as the compulsive need to act in the moment in ways that are deeply satisfying or avoid pain, but have long-term consequences that are often costly. Those long-term consequences are drowned out in the moment by the intensity of the present desire.

Breaking addiction into four stages, as it applies to agony/ecstasy relationships, can make it more understandable. In no particular order, the first stage is the intense seeking to connect with the addictive object. People in this stage are highly focused, directed, and intense.

The second stage is the attainment of the addictive object and its resulting satiation. There is relief, bliss, and an absence of insecurity or fear.

The third stage is contentment. Kicking back in comfort that is temporarily free of obsession or need.

The fourth stage is withdrawal and a growing need to seek the addictive experience again.

Addictive love feels exactly the same way. When partners are addicted to their significant others, they ardently seek their company. Nothing gets in the way. There are no other priorities and full focus is on attaining those connections.

Once connected, there is immersion and ecstasy. The pain of longing and hunger is gone and the experience is encompassing, leaving the person fulfilled and satiated. There is a time of total contentment and an ease of disconnecting.

Until the hunger returns.

7. Forbidden Love. It would be remiss to leave out those agony/ecstasy relationships that are the result of circumstances that are outside of a couple’s control.

Examples of these heartbreaking situations can be when a relationship is beholden to familial pressures, religious expectations, cultural conflicts, socio-economic differences, age differences, existing relationships, or societal prejudices. Facing these external limitations, many people who love each other deeply are either not allowed to be together, or must see each other in secret.

Much of written lore is about these tragic hunger-defying barriers that keep devoted lovers from legitimate relationships. Some are trysts that may seem immoral to the social circles they occupy, but others are simply limitations placed by those in power over those who do not have the resources to resist.

Many have even risked their lives and traditions to stay together no matter what the cost. Some of them have later regretted those decisions, while others have never looked back. In all cases, though, they cannot avoid the price they must pay to choose one another.

Hopefully, these new perspectives will help you value your choices in a new way and enable you to feel less defensive when others view you more negatively. As long as both of you are comfortable with the decisions you are making, you must reclaim your right to those choices.

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