Experts agree that marriage is actually an evolutionary process that goes through several distinct stages. I think it’s helpful for couples to know that their marriage changes in important ways. Let’s look at them.
Stage 1: Romance/Honeymoon
The name says it all, really. We are in love and there is nothing that’s gonna get in our way! We have left the safety of the love we found in our families growing up, moved through the nervous time of exploring our new independence in the big world, and now we have intertwined our heart with a soul mate. Often this stage is referred to as limerence, or “being in love,” which is distinct from simply “loving” someone. In limerence, we are walking on air! We love how we feel about our partner, and we adore how they make us feel. It’s a euphoric time and we just can’t seem to get enough of each other. Needless to say, the sexual expression of that love makes it a dynamic time in the bedroom for both parties, too.
But limerence, lovely as it feels, is a time-limited event—it lasts about five years for most couples. Many people confuse the passing out of the limerence phase with “falling out of love,” and this confusion results in a high number of affairs and divorces for couples at this time. Th ey feel it must be over since they don’t feel that “special love” with their partner anymore. Sure the highs are not as high and the lows also aren’t as low, but in reality, that means the couples is actually moving towards more stability. The predictability and dependability may seem boring compared to the excitement of limerence, but it means there’s a great strength developing in the relationship.
Stage 2: Reality Stage
This stage happens for most couples between the ages of 25 and 50. We spend a long time in this phase and it is characterized by the infiltration of life’s realities into our little love and lust bubble.
We are forced to face situations as a couple that may make us think twice about our partners and the pre-existing assumptions we had about them. Now we have to squeeze in our moment of loving between the demands of a career, housework, caring for ageing parents, and raising young kids. This phase of marriage can be a vulnerable time. Women who felt adored and wanted in their early marriage may now feel taken for granted and rejected. Likewise, men who once felt they were looked up to and respected, often feel belittled and less important. However, we really can keep fun and intimacy alive in a marriage if we make a point to carve out time for it. This stage of a relationship is pivotal: we can deepen our bond and enjoy the fruits of overcoming obstacles together, or we can drive each other away. Don’t worry—reality can be a surprisingly wonderful place to have a relationship! We can learn to more deeply communicate and better deal with interpersonal issues, especially if we seek out support when we need to through counselling or coaching.
Stage 3: Stuck and Hurting
We know that the realities of Stage 2 will create some conflict and that both partners will experience hurts and disappointments. How these conflicts resolve is critical to the health of the relationship.
Hurts left unresolved fester and grow into bitterness, hatred, and a cold distance that drives the couple apart. In this phase, couples stop relating in their relationship and really become nothing more than unhappy roommates harbouring ill will for each other. This stage is characterized by feelings of claustrophobia and hopelessness and the sense that it would be impossible to bring about changes in the marital patterns. Don’t despair if you feel you are in Stage 3! One of the great surprises in life is the resiliency of humans. Marriage counselling can help couples deal with the raw exposed nerves on the surface, or dig through the tough skin that has developed, and find that original loving heart. Forgiveness for transgressions is possible; hurts can heal. Couples can rebound with the skills learned in counselling. And in letting the ugly stuff hang out, we feel more certain we can be ourselves, more open and honest. Also, when couples successfully emerge from this stage, they feel they are closer than they would have been had they never been through such hard times.
Stage 4: Marital Maturity
When we hit our 50s, if we have managed to take care of our marriage, we hit a marital maturity that proves beautifully enriching. The sexual expression of that mature love often translates into the most gratifying lovemaking of our lives, and (it’s true!) it continues into our 60s and beyond. As they leave the career and parenting push behind, couples often enter a surprisingly graceful period in their relationship; having weathered innumerable storms and survived together, this stage of the relationship can be downright golden, meaningful, and characterized by a quiet and profound gratitude for one another.
If you’re reading this book on motherhood, you have likely left the bliss of Stage 1 and are entering into the challenges that face couples in Stage 2. We expect this, and starting a family is for sure one of the biggest there is! How you face these challenges determines whether you get to grow closer together, into the deep, deep connection of the later stages, or walk down the path of hurt and resentment. It is important that YOU decide this. It’s not a fate thrust upon you—it’s a choice you actively make and pursue as a goal. Set the goal of a happy marriage not just for yourself but also for your children. I’ll give you tips on how to get started. Let’s now look at how family life is a marital challenge.