bird pic with textoffice (973) 835-2071
fax (973) 835-2083

GROWING THROUGH THE STAGES OF MARRIAGE

Dear friends,

     I have to admit that when I married I had no idea there were stages in marriage, much less understand how to navigate these stages.  It is important to know these stages because it will help to clear up the fog of where you are in the marital journey.  If you can identify what stage you are in, then you can know where you are going and what goals there are.

      If you don’t know what direction you are going in, it’s like being in a sailboat without a rudder.  You keep going in circles.  However, if you have a rudder, then you can steer in a specific direction.  These stages are like a rudder or a compass, giving you direction and perspective.  These are general stages. They are not set in stone.  It’s possible to skip some, regress, or remain stuck in a specific stage.  These stages are a general framework.  I hope, after reading this, you’ll feel more grounded, understand where you are in your marriage and what to expect in the journey. 

There are 12 stages in Michael Gurian’s book, What Could He Be Thinking?  How a Man’s Mind Really Works.  I have condensed his 12 stages into 10.

 There are four seasons he describes:  enchantment, awakening, partnership, and non-attachment.

 1st season:  The Season of Enchantment

Stage one:  ecstasy   

     While your heart is overflowing with love for your sweetheart, your brain is overflowing as well with dopamine and PEA (phenoethalyine) which, although technically in the same class as amphetamines, acts like an endorphin by increasing energy, sexual desire, diminishing pain, and providing energy for the ecstasy you feel.

 

The second stage:  The stage of Disillusionment, or, “Who is this guy and where did the love of my life go?” 

     This lasts 6 months to a year.  He becomes more “real” (just as you do) after the marriage, now that he “has” you.  The perfection we believed we had found is slipping away and we are hurt and disappointed.  Cortisol, the stress hormone, kicks in.  Activity in the limbic system affects the prefrontal cortex where logic and reasoning occur and we become judgmental and critical.

      Also, unresolved issues from our past surface and we begin – unconsciously - to try and work them out with our spouse.  If you are able to adjust to the reality of whom your spouse is your marriage has a much better chance of being successful. Your ability to accept who he is, instead of fighting it, is key to success.

 

Stage 3 is the Power Struggle or the “What do you mean you’re right and I’m wrong?” stage.

     This stage can last 2 or more years. The drug of “desire to be right” is very powerful and destructive.  One spouse feels like the other is intentionally out to get him/her.  This is not necessarily true, but this is how it is perceived by the other.  We end up more committed to being right and “winning” than trying to work things out with our spouse.

      In the Christian community there is a tendency for Christians to think that power is not an issue.  The wife is supposed to submit to her husband and the husband is supposed to love his wife so much that he would die for her.  That is supposed to take care of the power struggle, right?  This teaching says that power should not be an issue if we are a “good Christian.”  We are to be like Christ who gave up everything, including his power.  If you want to give up your power that’s up to you.  However, because we are sinners, no matter how much we strive to be like Christ, we will fail…. We are human.  This automatically leads to the reality that power struggles exist.  Rather than give up your power, wouldn’t it be more helpful to learn how to manage it and share it?

      The second season:  The Season of Awakening

Stage 4 is the Awakening – “What can I do to make this relationship work?”

     This usually occurs 2-5 years into the marriage.  After the ups and downs of the first 3 stages, sometimes we realize that we cannot truly enjoy our marriage if the power struggle is going to continue.   There is an awareness or “awakening” that occurs for some people, when we realize we need to find a more satisfying way of relating.  Perhaps we could learn to cooperate and work things out between us.

    As we begin to work at truly understanding ourselves, our spouse, and the relationship, our endorphins once again increase and we feel happy.  We enjoy a more contented sense of connection with our spouse.

Stage 5 is the Second Crisis or “learning how to navigate the hurdles” time. 

     This occurs around 5 years of marriage.  In this stage, the marital relationship is progressing; parents are busy raising their children.  When a crisis arises (notice I said “when” not “if”), stress hormones are released in response to the traumatic situation.  A crisis could be anything from a job loss, to a move, to an illness, or to a death…anything that shocks or stresses the system.

“If the couple has joined together as a healthy, functioning unit, loving, respecting, and supporting each other, previous to the crisis, there is a good chance they can survive the crisis.  If, however, they still have not worked through the disillusionment stage and the power struggle stage, the marriage may not survive the crisis “ (Gurian). They will be mired down in anger, disappointment, betrayal, and will continue to be protective of themselves.  Parallel lives, separation and/or divorce may occur.

 

Stage 6:  Refined Intimacy…”I not only like you, I enjoy you.” 

     This can occur 7-10 years into the marriage.  The couple has settled into an easy rhythm of communication, including being able to read each other’s body language and having their own private language.  For example, when you are visiting acquaintances and you give your husband a certain look that means, “I need to leave and I need to leave now!” 

     In this stage each spouse believes that what the other has to say is important and values the other’s input.  Their goal is to be honest and open, not manipulative or controlling.  There is an increasing amount of trust in the relationship.

 The third season:  The Season of Partnership

 Stage 7 is the Creative Partnership or “Life is good.” 

     This stage can be more rare.  After about 10 years of marriage or in middles age, husband and wife will have most likely worked out a type of partnership wherein they have discovered who they each are as an individual, what they need, and what is realistic to expect from the other person.  Which needs a spouse can meet and which needs must be met outside the home is clear at this point. 

     The couple may be doing better financially and personally than before, are involved in community work and feel secure in their lives and positions in work and in the community.  The “most difficult” part of parenting is over.  During this stage perimenopause, menopause, and andropause may begin.

 

 Stage 8:  The third Crisis “Struggling again to cope.”

     At this stage you may have been married 20-30 years.   A midlife crisis may rear its ugly head.  There are internal shifts with hormones.  Men have a decreased sexual drive.  Women are progressing through menopause and may be dealing with mood swings.  External circumstances that now potentially affect the marriage, such as an affair, the death of a child, or something equally traumatic.  The emotional pain at this point could either cause the couple to break up or it could bring them closer together “through hard work, good communication, and reasonable expectations.” (Gurian).

      Let me give you an example of a case where many of these dynamics occurred.  George was in his mid 50’s.  He had just had his second affair, which the couple had survived.  Throughout the marriage, his wife, “Georgia,” had derived her identity vicariously through her husband.  She raised their children, kept up their home, and supported George so that he could be successful in his career, which he was.  Their children had graduated college and were independent. Therefore that passage of his life was “completed.”  Then his father passed away (which often occurs when we are in our 50’s), whom he loved, respected, admired, and was committed to.  George had lost that parental inhibiting influence, which often functions to keep us acting in an expected manner.  He met a business associate who was dealing with the grief of her mother passing away.  He began to commiserate and grieve with her, which resulted in an affair. 

     The entire family must adjust to this new situation.  The adult children were initially very angry with their father.  After meeting the girlfriend, they began to accept her.  Georgia, who raised the kids, sacrificed her life for the family, felt left out because the kids now hang out with their father and his girlfriend. 

     Georgia has been in therapy and has learned to adjust.  What was her contribution to the demise of the relationship?  She invested too much in her husband and not enough in herself.  George had lost respect for Georgia, his wife, because she lacked self-respect.  Her meaning in life was derived from his success and not from her identity.

     Respect is key to any long lasting, long term relationship. I should note that it is completely Biblical to respect yourself.  Proverbs 31 describes what a woman should be.  She certainly appears to be a strong woman, one who is not only a homemaker but also one who deals with the external world as a merchant and an importer.  She is to be respected in her own right with her own gifts and talents.

     It is interesting to note, respect and romance are kissing cousins.  You can respect someone without feeling romantic toward them but you can’t feel romantic toward someone unless you respect them.

      You see, Georgia respected George but George did not respect her.  That was the fundamental flaw in the marriage.  She invested in him and not in herself.  They did divorce.  George had no interest in reconciling. Part of what he was experiencing was the proverbial midlife crisis.

 Stage 9 Radiant Love or “Role Models”

As the couple survives, grows, and matures through tragedies and heartbreaks they have experienced, their love and strong relationship are apparent to those around them and they become role models.  Others observe what they have survived, their resiliency, and commitment, and look to them for advice and support.

 The fourth season:  The Season of Non-attachment

 As couples become elderly (perhaps in their second or third marriage), they continue to change in personality.  Men may become more sensitive (causing their wives to wonder why they couldn’t have been like this years ago!

 Perhaps some of you have observed your fathers (or mothers) softening and mellowing to an extent you never thought possible!  Men and women begin to tire more easily but often are unable to sleep as well as they used to.  Their bodies are slowing down.  Most marriages remain stable during this time.  Divorce is very rare.

 

 Stage 10 Acceptance of Solitude and the Fourth Crisis

     Couples may have been married 30-40 years by now.  Due to slowing of the brain, many folks, instead of being intent on creating, are more comfortable listening to and enjoying the other person.  They tend to pull into themselves more.

 The 4th Crisis is the illness and death of our spouse.  Often, as we care for our ill spouse, cortisol levels again increase due to the stress, which affects the memory.  Discussion with friends and family now centers on illness, death, and other types of losses.

     Time is spent inventorying the past:  looking at what has occurred in our lives in regard to us individually, as a couple, as a family, and as part of an extended network of friends and relatives is a normal occurrence.  What has also happened nationally, politically, and economically in our lifetime is a source of discussion and evaluation.

      Hopefully, we will have accepted who we have been in life, come to terms with the priorities we have made, forgiven ourselves for mistakes we have made (for it is impossible to go through life without making some), and found satisfaction in what we have contributed to the world.

      Every stage of marriage requires responsibility from each spouse.  This responsibility will include our behavioral responses, our emotional expressions, and our communication - or lack of - with our spouse.  As we understand the progression of different stages of marriage it can bring comfort to realize that God is in the midst of these stages as we grow through them.

  Grateful for His presence in every stage of life,

   Mary