What are the stages of marriage?

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Have you ever wondered: Why is our relationship so hard? Things were so perfect when we first met – what happened? Most likely, the answer is that you’ve left the first stage of your relationship, and have moved into another. But could it really be that easy?

Yes! Most people understand that relationships grow and change over time… but what many people don’t know is that they tend to evolve in the same way. There are specific, defined stages of long-term relationships, which offer new feelings, new challenges to overcome, and new growth opportunities. And if you want your relationship to evolve into one of mutual respect, love and intimacy, you’ll likely have to experience all of the following relationship stages at some point or another. Take a look at the description of each phase – does any of this sound familiar?

Before we get started, you should know that most people experience these stages in this order, and will need to resolve the challenges in each stage before they can move successfully on to the next. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. But for the most part, you can’t get out of experiencing all of these stages if you want a healthy and fulfilling relationship. Every couple will move through these stages at different speeds, and most people will experience each stage more than once – it is common to fluctuate from one stage to another.

Saying “I do” at Vines of the Yarra Valley is an elegant and luxurious affair.

Stage One of Marriage: Passion

This is the honeymoon stage, when romance and intense attraction bond a couple together and lead to commitment. In retrospect, it often seems as short-lived as springtime—by two years, most couples have usually lost that initial magic, though this can vary by a couple. But when it is happening, the passion stage is very strong and significant. It is a wave of feel-good brain chemicals orchestrated by Mother Nature to make the two of you forsake all others and take action to ensure the survival of the species.

Universally acknowledged as romantic, tender and idealistic, the “honeymoon” stage of marriage occurs immediately after the wedding through the next several months, possibly lasting as long as a year or two. In fact, in ancient Israel, the army would not conscript men for the first year of their marriage to give them time to start building the relationship, a home and the couple’s family. Characterized by passion, sexual intimacy and infatuation, this stage can be extremely sensitive and volatile, and provides a nurturing environment for marital bonding.

Even if you’re marrying later in life, or for the second time, nature supplies these delicious bursts of neurotransmitters to make you bond. Couples not only frolic and fall madly in love in the passion stage—they begin to establish the trust, respect and emotional intimacy that will support their relationship forever.

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The Romance Stage

This is also known as the Courtship Phase or the Fantasy Stage and can last anywhere from 2 months to 2 years. This is when you and your partner have just met, and everything is amazing. You can’t get enough of each other. Neither of you can do any wrong in the eyes of the other mainly because you’re both still on your best behaviour. The focus in this stage is on commonalities – you have so many common interests; you could practically be the same person! You show your partner your absolute best self, and you try to please each other as much as possible. Conflict is seen as “bad” in this stage and is avoided at all costs. You can’t imagine living without this person, so you begin spending as much time together as possible. This is the stage when our defences are down the most, which allows you to be open to and fall in love. You and your partner are building an important foundation in this stage, so your relationship can grow. There are biological effects as well. When you’re in this stage, your body is producing enormous amounts of endorphins, which makes you feel unusually happy, positive and excited about everything in your life (this is that “head over heels in love” feeling!). This is the stage most often portrayed in movies and romantic novels, for obvious reasons. Bottom line – you are happier than you’ve ever been, and can’t imagine ever feeling any differently.

Stage Two of Marriage: Realization

In this stage, the honeymoon ends, and a more realistic vision of the rest of your life together begins. In this stage, you discover your spouse is not only human, but he also doesn’t load the dishwasher or lower the toilet seat. Disappointment and early conflicts are the hallmarks of this difficult, unavoidable period, as the two of you make the first steps toward accepting each other for who you are.

The high energy and intensity of Stage One inevitably give way to the ordinary and routine. Ideally, in Stage Two, couples learn to deepen their communication skills. They work to understand and express their wants, needs, and feelings. They learn to be honest and vulnerable and to listen actively to each other. They become aware of differences not noticed previously and develop strategies for dealing with them. Couples learn about give and take, negotiation and accommodation. In prayer, they seek clarity about what is going on within one’s own as well as one’s partner’s heart and mind. For some couples, God may not seem as close while others experience Him more intensely.

The mission and challenge? No less than laying the groundwork for a long future together based on acceptance, respect and openness to change. You’ll need to assertively discuss and emphatically listen as you both introduce your deepest personal needs and wants. This creates a foundation for being truly known, understood and supported in the years ahead.

Stage Three of Marriage: Rebellion and Struggles

After the first three years or so, power struggles may erupt as both spouses claim their turf and draw their lines of defence. In this stage of marriage, husbands and wives begin to realize they married someone with as many vices as virtues, and each one reverts to re-inventing themselves in new ways that may only partially include the spouse. Within this stage comes the “seven-year itch,” which many marriage counsellors now suggest might arrive earlier for some couples, perhaps at three or five years. The danger of an affair becomes apparent as disillusionment, conflicts and frustration replace the earlier passion and adjustments.

She misses her friends; he misses his cool toys. She wants to travel; he wants to play weekly softball. She wants to build her career; he wants to build his career. Even for couples who successfully navigate the realization stage of marriage and lay the foundation for a happy, respectful coexistence together, a time inevitably emerges when self-interest often overtakes the interests of the marriage. And when this happens, be ready for the battles.

Love amid the power struggles of the rebellion stage is tricky business. You both believe you’re right, so of course, your partner’s wrong. That means you’re simultaneously offended at being called wrong and claiming the moral high ground. Is this any way to ruin a marriage?

Spouses cannot always live up to each other’s expectations. They will disappoint and unintentionally hurt each other. They now become intensely aware of their differences and may use control strategies to bring back the desired balance. Power struggles are common. Blame, judgment, criticism, and defensiveness are likely outcomes. Fear and anxiety enter the relationship. Couples’ thinking can narrow into either/or, right/wrong, good/bad polarities.

Ideally, couples learn about forgiveness and accommodation in this stage. They learn to deal constructively with anger and hurt. A supportive community becomes especially important.

This is also the time when individuality and independence rise to the surface. While the early relationship emphasized a strong sense of we, now couples need to find ways to honour autonomy and separateness. They learn how to be an individual in a committed relationship. Couples’ prayer is often about the petition and spontaneous lament. God can seem distant and unresponsive and/or quite present.

Experts say the drama of the rebellion stage is unavoidable. Learning the art of the good fight is the mission now—often it is the nature of the battles, rather than the substance of the discussion, that leads to trouble. Why? Rebellious thoughts, when met with anger and frustration, often lead to rebellious actions, such as infidelity, outlandish spending, or saying yes to the sudden offer from work to transfer to a new city. Any of these can spell disaster for a marriage.

Check out our post on What qualities make a good husband?

Stage Four of Marriage: Cooperation

As marriages progress over time, they inevitably become more complicated. Careers grow, houses get bigger, personal commitments grow deeper, and children arrive. In the cooperation stage, marriage takes on a business-like personality. Set aside all that love and emotion and personal-realization stuff: There are mortgages to be paid, investments to be handled, careers to be directed, health to be managed, and—first and foremost—children to be raised.

Surviving boredom, conflict and temptation thus far, the couple may find peaceful time during their second or third decade together. Suddenly, there is a second opportunity to rediscover each other. As children grow up and go off to college, and one or both spouses settle into satisfying careers, this is an excellent opportunity for them to focus on each other again, rather than juggling kids, jobs and tensions that come with the territory of marriage. Renewal ceremonies and second honeymoons are becoming more commonplace as couples pledge themselves all over again to one another. Remember the pledged words: Until death does us part.

Discovery, Reconciliation, and Beginning Again

Couples can push through the previous stage through deepened communication, honesty and trust. Ideally, they discover and create a new sense of connection. They learn more about each other’s strengths and vulnerabilities. They learn to identify and talk about their fears instead of acting them out. They refuse to judge or blame their partner; they translate their complaints into requests for change. They move from win/lose to win/win conflict strategies.

Partners see each other in a new light, as gifted and flawed, just as they are gifted and flawed. Empathy and compassion increase. They learn to appreciate and respect each other in new ways; they learn not to take each other for granted. They find a new balance of separateness and togetherness, independence and intimacy. Their thinking becomes more expansive and inclusive. A new hope and energy return to the relationship. Prayer focuses on gratitude and thanksgiving, and couples often move to a more honest and mature relationship with God.

Step Five of Marriage: Reunion

If you have children, the cooperation stage often lasts 10 to 20 years—then suddenly it is gone. Your parenting commitments are lessened, your finances established, your career set, your mortgage paid. What then? For happy couples, it is a time to appreciate each other again, not as parents and providers but as lovers and friends, thinkers and seekers. Achieve this, and there are peace, happiness and reconciliation.

That all sounds wonderful, but this ideal is often hard to achieve. The embers of passion need stoking; the disillusionment and distance of middle age need to be managed; the roles and expectations of the marriage need recalibrating.

Step Six of Marriage: Explosion

Job loss, major health problems, a move to a new city, financial troubles, the illness or death of a parent—as you pass through midlife and into the golden years, major life developments seem to come one upon the other. In the explosion phase, either you, your spouse, or both of you are dealing with major, life-shaking events that could affect your relationship for a day, a year, or the rest of your lives. While the other six stages tend to occur in order, the Explosion stage can happen at any time in a marriage—though it happens most as we pass through our 40s and 50s.

Confronted by a personal crisis, your marriage can be a source of solace or be sorely tried by the unexpected pressure of new roles, new limitations and new fears. The mission of the explosion stage: Deal the best you can with life’s challenges and changes, but at the same time, keep yourself happy and healthy. Letting your marriage see you through can be as simple as sharing daily joys, provided you sometimes practice the Zen-like art of putting aside fear and stress.

Stage Seven of Marriage: Completion

It’s no coincidence: Lots of surveys find that marital happiness soars after several decades of a shared life. Experts say simply that it’s because the kids are grown, and couples know each other very, very well. But there’s more to it than that. Knowing each other isn’t merely about tolerating each other’s habits, quirks and needs. In the completion stage, “knowing” each other has a far deeper meaning and a bigger payoff as well.

Part of being a happy man is never to lose the boy within; the same goes for women-there is the spirit of a young girl inside, no matter how many wrinkles edge the eyes. Maintaining a childlike love of life, laughter, nature, and each other is the real secret to a perpetually blessed relationship. It is also living in the present, not the past. In the completion stage of marriage, there is never a belief that the best times are over-they should always be today and tomorrow.

After a few decades, the husband and wife realize in this stage of marriage that they have somehow managed to stay together, and they are contented to do so for the rest of their lives. For some couples, this may entail simply looking back on their earlier years together and being thankful they had each other through good times and bad. For others, the fulfilment phase is “falling in love all over again,” realizing that they have chosen the best possible life partner and being grateful to have that person in their life as they grow old together. Through thick and thin, they have stood by each other and survived many losses as well as celebrated life’s joys. At this point, they have no thought for anyone else, just the satisfaction of being with the person they truly love above all else.

Your different stages of marriage may not follow this particular order. Or you might even experience things that are not included in this list. The main point is that few marriages operate at one level consistently throughout the life-long course of two people who have chosen to get married. Things change. Life happens. People go through a series of experiences that can impact the way they feel about a spouse.

Many couples will encounter additional life cycle stages, each with their own blessings and challenges. Just like marriage, creating a family will elicit the best and the worst, the gifts and the limitations of the parents. It is another opportunity to learn about cooperation and becoming a team, about dealing with differences and conflicts, and about taking time to pause and choose. Parenting is a spiritual journey that involves not only the growth of the children but the growth of the parents. Like marriage, it will have many opportunities to surrender and die to self, to let go and to grieve.

Other life cycle challenges include illness, unemployment and other financial crises, retirement, and the death of one’s partner. Many couples must take care of the older generation while letting go of the younger ones.

Growth throughout the marital journey requires openness and flexibility. For people of faith, it also means being alert to the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit. Contemporary culture wants answers and certainty; faith requires trust and surrender. The invitation to the marital journey, and the resources to undertake it, come from God. God gives us enough clarity to take the next few steps, even if we cannot see the entire road and where it will end.

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