Rebellion: The Rocky Road to Adulthood

from: Rebuilding when your relationship ends by Dr Bruce Fisher

One of the most common leftovers we carry from our earlier experiences is the unresolved need to establish ourselves as independent persons by rebelling against our parents and their rules for us. If you or your partner carried that particular burden into your love relationship, it may have seriously jeopardized your chances of success.

There is a period of rebellion in each teenager's growth when the not-quite-adult is seeking an individual identity. Although it is a necessary part of young adult development, it causes a tremendous strain in the family relationship. Let's take a look at these key developmental stages we all must grow through on our journey toward independent adulthood. Bruce has labeled them the shell stage, the rebel stage (external and internal), and the love stage.

The Shell stage occurs when we are young, conforming and trying to please our parents. During these years, children have the same moral and political values, belong to the same church, and more-or-less behave in ways expected of them by their parents. The shell stage child is basically a reflection of the parents, similar to the egg that is laid by a chicken, with no identity of his/her own. Vocabulary of people in the shell stage is full of inhibitions: '''What will people think? I must be careful to do what I'm supposed to do. I should follow the rules and regulations of society. I must conform to what society expects from me."

In the teen years, or sometimes later, a person begins a period of rebellion, breaking out of the shell. This process includes changing behavior patterns, doing what one "should not" do, pushing against the limits, and trying to find out how far one can go. It is very experimental at this stage, and the person is trying out different kinds of behavior. The little chicken inside is growing, beginning a life of its own, and starting to pick its way out of the shell. Vocabulary of the adult who's still working through the rebel stage is:" "I've got to do it on my own. I don't need your help. If it weren't for you, I would be able to be the person I want to be. Please leave me alone!" The rebellion occurs in two stages: external rebellion and internal rebellion.

Rebel stage - external: The rebellion identity crisis usually begins when the person starts being overwhelmed with feelings of internal pressure and stress - the point where the burden of carrying around the "shoulds" from family of origin, childhood, and society become too great. Having learned such behavior as over-responsibility, perfection, people pleasing, or avoid feelings, the person is like Atlas who carried the world on his shoulders: tired of the whole situation. The rebellious partner wants to run away and may begin to act like a rebellious teenager, searching for an identity separate from the identity given by parents and society.

The behavior of people in rebellion is predictable. (Isn't it interesting that non-conforming rebellion is so predictable and conforming?) Here are some of the behaviors typical of external rebellion.

1) These people feel unhappy, stressed, smothered, and caged in. They believe their partners are responsible for their unhappiness and they project by saying things like, "As soon as you change, I will be happy." They project their unhappiness upon others and especially their love partner.

2) They like doing all the things they didn't feel comfortable doing before. They start having fun and don't understand why people don't appreciate the things they are doing because it feels so good to be doing it. Their partners say, "This isn't the same person that I married.'

3) They like being under-responsible after feeling so over-responsible for all of their lives. They take a less responsible job or quit work if possible. One partner of a person in rebellion said, "I have four kids and I'm married to the oldest one."

4) They find someone they can talk to. They tell their partners, "I could never talk to you. But I found this person who understands me and really listens to me." Such people are usually younger and potential love partners. It looks like an affair but persons in rebellion will usually deny having an affair. Often everyone believes they have a sexual relationship but quite often it is platonic.

5) The vocabulary of external rebellion often goes like this:

"I care for you but I don't love you. I thought I knew what love was but now I don't know. I'm not sure I ever did love"

"I need to be out of this relationship so I can find myself, I need emotional space away from you. I need to find my own world and I don't want to continue to be sucked into your world. I want to be me."

"You remind me of my parent and I don't want to be around anyone who is parental. I can smell a parent a mile away."

If all of this behavior is happening in a love-relationship, is it any wonder that the relationship ends? The partner usually buys into each one of the rebellious behaviors above, takes it personally, and gets bent out of shape emotionally and psychologically. Instead what they need to do is sit back and watch the show and become aware of how much growth and change can be taking place in their rebel partners. They need to realise it is an internal process going on with a person in rebellion and has very little to do with themselves. The rebels are trying to get rid of people and relationships from the past, but often dump their love partners in the process.

Rebel stage - internal: When people in the process of rebelling gain enough courage and insight to look at themselves, they may be able to evolve into internal rebellion. This is when they realize the battle is within themselves and is basically a battle between their "should" part and their "want" part. They realize they are trying to separate from the expectations of their family of origin and society, and the battle is within themselves rather than against their love partners and other parental figures.

The partner of someone in rebellion often decides to wait until the rebel comes "back to sanity" again, believing that the relationship will then work. The partner considers the rebel to be the "patient," and doesn't accept any responsibility for finding a solution to the difficulty.

On the other hand, partners of rebels often become emotionally drained and bent out of shape. They have bought into the behavior of their rebellious partners, assigning them all the blame. They don't recognize that the love partnership is a system, and that they share responsibility for its problems. People who adopt this attitude toward the love relationship usually don't have the courage and emotional strength to do the personal work they need to do.

Rebellion is not an accident. The partner of a person in rebellion is usually parental. The partner has, at some level - maybe unconsciously - found a partner who needs parenting. "I know what's best for my partner, if he would only listen!" Their need for control makes it difficult for these folks to accept the rebel when he or she seems "out of control."

Instead of waiting for the storm to blow over, the partner of a person in rebellion needs to take the opportunity to look inward, and to experience as much personal growth as possible.

Love stage: Eventually rebels begin to gain individual identity. This leads to being able to make choices about the life based upon love instead of being based on doing the "shoulds." They feel more self-love and love for others - especially their parents.

The vocabulary of the love stage includes words of acceptance and understanding. "My parents did the best they could. They made mistakes and many times I was angry and upset with them, but they tried hard and I understand and accept them for who they are."

This adult period is the "love stage" because the person has an independent identity, and is capable of loving another person as an adult rather than because of childish expectations. In the shell stage, one does what one should do; in the rebel stage, what one should not do; and in the love stage, what one wants to do. Many times behavior in the love stage will be similar to behavior in the shell stage, but the motivation behind it is entirely different. Instead of trying to please somebody else, the person is trying to please her- or himself.

Members of the divorce classes over the years have provided many examples of the shell/rebel/love phenomenon.

Eloise came to class very angry one night because her ex, Larry, was going through the rebel stage and causing her a lot of unhappiness. Larry had been a school principal when he was in the shell stage; but because he was looking for less administrative responsibility, he returned to full-time teaching. He developed a relationship with a woman involving "a lot of communication," helping him to find out "who he was." Larry, of course, was very excited about this new relationship. After his young son came to visit, Larry sent him home with a suitcase full of clothes and a note explaining to Eloise how great his new relationship was. Needless to say, this made her extremely angry! As it happened, we were discussing the rebel stage that week in the seminar. Eloise began to understand what was happening with Larry and his attempt to grow up and leave some of the old leftovers. She was able to let go of some of her anger as she gained an understanding of what was happening.

Gretchen became very excited as the concept was explained in class. Her husband had been a college professor and had proceeded to run off with one of his students while he was at the rebel stage. The whole thing seemed insane to her, until she heard the shell/rebel/love theory of growth and development. When she recognized that Charles was trying to get free from past expectations and become a person of his own identity, Gretchen was able to see that there was some sanity in what had appeared to be insanity. (It didn't save the marriage, but she at least felt she understood!)

Bill told the group that three years ago his marriage suffered a crisis while his wife was going through the rebel stage. When he and Charlotte went for marriage counseling, the therapist put a damper on the rebel stage and pushed Charlotte to "behave as she should" - in effect telling her to remain in the shell stage. Bill said he felt this was a mistake at the time. The marriage lasted another three years until suddenly Charlotte's growth pressures and need to rebel surfaced again, and she became "completely irresponsible," leaving the marriage and the home without even taking any clothes! Bill did not hear from Charlotte for three weeks. Looking back on those painful events, Bill observed that maybe people need to be concerned about what stage of growth and development their therapists are in!

Many people ask, if so many marriages end when one person is going through the rebel stage, is there any way to have the relationship last when a person is going through the rebel stage? The rebel who can focus inward and realize the internal interaction going on between him-or herself and the parental figures of the past may be able to deal directly with the shoulds, the oughts, and the expectations. To talk about one's rebellion rather than acting it out will be much less destructive to those near and dear at the present!

It is possible for a person to find the emotional space within a marriage to rebel, perhaps by becoming involved in therapy, college classes, community service, recreational or sports programs, or other creative activities. The rebel needs opportunities to experiment with behavior, to try new styles of relating, and to interact with people other than the spouse. If the couple can understand directly what is happening - that the rebel is working on an internal conflict which has little to do with the spouse - it can free the work of growth and development to be done within the person, rather than strain the love-relationship.

Rebelling love partners need to accept that their process of rebellion is an internal one and not the responsibility of other people. Their partners need to work on healing their own "inner-child," because their parenting and controlling behavior patterns result from unmet needs.

The Stormy Seas of the Power Struggle

Many couples find themselves arguing over the correct way to squeeze the toothpaste tube and which way to unroll the toilet paper. And the issues they argue over never become resolved, even if they think they are. Each person feels he or she has no power or control in the relationship. Both feel hopeless, helpless and tired of fighting. The war may be a hot war with a lot of shouting, anger, and verbal abuse. Or it may be a cold war with the silent treatment; walking out, pouting, and other such passive ways of attempting to gain control and power.

The two people involved have stoped talking about or sharing feelings. They talk using "you" messages at each other. They have given up on finding any intimacy other than the pseudo intimacy they feel while fighting. Neither wants to lose, so both use any method they can to win the war.

The power struggle is like a pot of stew boiling over on the stove. The ingredients in the stew are all of the unresolved issues within each partner that are projected out into the relationship. The heat under the stew is a belief that someone else is responsible for one's happiness or unhappiness. They married with the belief that they would live happily ever after. It worked fine as long as the honeymoon lasted and they were happy. But when the honeymoon was over and they sometimes were less than happy, the person who was responsible for their happiness is now responsible for their unhappiness. They gave away their power when they began to believe someone else was responsible for their happiness or unhappiness.

Calming the Rough Seas of the Power Struggle.

The power struggle changes into growing-pains when each person takes ownership for the unresolved problems within them. It may be concerned with the shell/rebel/love stumbling blocks discussed above, but the unresolved issues can come from anywhere in their lives or their personality. It is truly an internal power struggle projected out upon the relationship. The problems each person is unable to face and overcome become projected out into the relationship and the pot keeps boiling over.

The power-struggle is diminished when:

  • Each person learns to talk about feelings,
  • Each person starts using "I" messages instead of "you" messages,
  • Each person takes ownership for their unresolved problems,
  • Each person looks at the other person as their relationship teacher trying to help them learn more about themselves instead of projecting the hurt and blame upon the other person.

Leaving leftovers behind

As with any life transition, this stage of the climb is very uneven and quite difficult. Waking up and understanding why your past relationship died is usually not an easy process. It may even be quite painful: it is much easier for me to see the splinter in your eye than it is to see the log in mine.

As a juvenile probation officer, Bruce typically referred a family a week or family counseling. When each person was going to counseling to discover what they could learn and change about themselves, the counseling was usually helpful and successful. But when each person in the family was going for counseling because the other person needs to change, family counseling was usually unsuccessful.

Next time you see a person on the trail acting like a teenager, rebelling and always angry at parental, authoritative figures, you can be understanding. You know that rebel is trying to grow up emotionally, to gain an independent identity, and to become free from past expectations and controls. Even though you may want to become parental and tell the rebel how to behave, maybe you need to back off, remain adult yourself, and say, "I think that's probably the best thing for where he or she is right now." Indeed, perhaps you are still in the shell stage yourself, needing to start some rebellion of your own to improve your sense of self-worth and to find a better identity!

Do you notice that you are really making progress in the climb up the mountain? The fact that you are able to face and deal with leftovers is an indication that you are getting a much broader perspective of life and yourself. You probably could not have done much about carrying out the leftovers when you were at the bottom of the mountain trying to survive emotionally.

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