The Stages of Marriage

The Stages of Marriage

The manufactures of Bugutti, Ferrari, Koenigsegg, Pagani and Rolls Royce are the top players in the supercar market. They deliver the fastest, rarest, prettiest, and most expensive cars to a select number of elite wealthy clientele. Close your eyes and imagine that you are approached to be part of a lifetime car experiment. Instead of paying the steep price tag of up to 20 million for one of these luxury cars, you have the opportunity to own one for a monthly payment of a small percentage of your income for life. The contract states that you will pay on it until you are deceased, you cannot sell the car and that you are responsible for all the scheduled maintenance of the car.  

You become infatuated with the luxury car as it has a far greater value than anything that you’ve ever owned and anything that you would ever be able to afford. You know that the car will hold its value, and even increase in value as it is a very rare car. After test driving it repeatedly, you commit to buying it since the value of the car is much greater than what you would actually pay. You are elated to be getting such a fine car. Although you feel extremely grateful, you also feel undeserving of this special offer. When you finally purchase it and take it home, you begin to wonder if you did the right thing, after all, you’re in debt for a very long time, your entire life. Was it really worth it? The reality sets in that you will have to maintain it for life. In the rush of excitement, you did not consider what it would take to maintain the car for life. What will maintaining it cost you? Will you get bored driving the same car year after year? The car is extremely powerful and luxurious but you are now hesitant to try out all the bells and whistles as you did when you test drove it multiple times. What if you messed it up? What if you wrecked it? You also begin to notice little flaws. Perhaps the arm rest should be a little higher. There’s also a small blind spot. 

Your commitment of paying on it for a lifetime in addition to caring for it with regular maintenance has to sink in. You have to educate yourself on the maintenance schedule, and commit to doing what it takes to maintain the car. As time passes, little by little, you get use to the car and begin to have a deep affinity for the car, appreciate its’ value and you actually enjoy it! Appreciating the car’s value leads you to take great care of it and cherish it. While human relationships are not comparable to material items, most people can appreciate the above analogy as it pertains to marriage as couples fall in love but do not consider what it takes to maintain a relationship.

It is easy to fall in love but harder to stay in love. Marriage is a growth process with the lifetime goal of developing and improving the relationship.  To have a successful relationship, it takes a commitment to grow as a person and to support the ongoing growth of the marriage. Many couples state that they love their partner but are not in love with their partner. Is there a magical formula to regain the spark that they had in the beginning? Having a correct view of marriage and a good understanding of the stages of marriage is essential for relationship satisfaction. Many couples commit to marriage with an unrealistic view of marriage that is often portrayed in movies and television. Once the honeymoon chemicals fade, they are left wondering if they married the right person.

Most researchers have characterized the stages of relationships in similar ways which overlap but all agree that in order to have a satisfactory relationship, spouses have to be committed to working on themselves and on the marriage relationship. John Gottman (2020) proposes that couples who love well in committed relationships follow the following three stages of love: Falling in love- Limerence; Building Trust; and Building Commitment and Loyalty. DeMaria & Harrar (2006) lists the following seven stages of a relationship: Passion, Realization, Rebellion, Cooperation, Reunion, Explosion, and Completion.

Based on my experience and research of couple relationships, I have coined three stages of marriage as follows: Romance Stage; Disillusionment / Power- Control Stage; and True Love Stage. The first stage of a relationship consists of a Romance Stage which consists of intense euphoria and passion.  Couples desire to please each other and often take on each other’s interests. Flaws and differences are often overlooked or minimized, and couples attempt to hide irritating behaviors from each other. This stage is characterized by a cocktail of feel- good chemicals such as dopamine, norepinephrine, phenylethylamine, and oxytocin. During this stage, couples are loving under the influence of very powerful drugs that the brain is producing! It is in this stage that couples declare their love for one another and their commitment to each other.  

The next stage is what I call the Disillusionment / Power- Control Stage. Upon settling into everyday life, these feel- good chemicals begin to fade. Priorities often switch to raising children and juggling careers and household responsibilities. Spouses are not as intentional about connecting as they were earlier in the relationship. Spouses often begin to question if they made the right decision. Reality sets in as spouses have made a lifelong commitment with a partner who is different than they are. Spouses are not as eager to please their partner as they begin to see each other’s flaws. Family of origin differences are more pronounced. It is not uncommon to align with parents and triangulate during this stage which makes negativity towards the marriage relationship worse. Power struggles are common in this stage. Couples begin to assert themselves as differences are more noticeable, and each spouse believes that they are right on issues and that their spouse is wrong. This can lead to frustration and anger which can cause one to disregard their partner’s wants, needs or opinions. This stage is marked by a real vision that the rest of your life may have disappointments. At this stage, couples will transition to the next stage only by beginning to work to improve the relationship and by learning the art of conflict resolution. If they do not work on the relationship, they will continue in power struggles or they will treat their relationship like a business arrangement and live parallel lives with little conflict or they will dissolve the relationship. Couples who do not work on the relationship, will not be satisfied with the relationship. In order to move to the next stage which I call True Love, each spouse has to be committed to growing personally as a good marriage partner and committed to the ongoing growth of the marriage relationship. To move into the True Love stage, partners have to accept that they married the right person and not have “buyer’s remorse”. If couples have an unrealistic view of love and marriage, they will stay stuck in the Disillusionment / Power – Control Stage for years or bail out before getting to True Love.

The True Love stage involves an ongoing commitment to improve the marriage relationship, sacrifice for it, invest in it, link personal goals to it, and benefit one’s partner as well as oneself for the benefit of the marriage. This stage involves putting each other first above all relationships, and learning how to cherish and trust one another with gratitude. Viewing conflict as a normal part of a close relationship and learning how to master the art of conflict resolution is necessary to have a good relationship. To regain the passion that was found in the Romance stage, couples have to foster oneness throughout their relationship by building the following areas of intimacy: emotional, spiritual, social, financial, intellectual, and physical intimacy. To maintain a loving passionate relationship, couples have to be purposeful in fostering emotional intimacy by communicating vulnerable self-disclosures, and responding with understanding, validation and care to their partner in addition to giving each other gracious, charitable judgments. Fostering social intimacy involves prioritizing time with each other with fun, novel experiences in addition to having daily couple time. Spiritual intimacy involves sharing deep discussions about spiritual matters. If religion is a shared commonality, spiritual intimacy may involve reading through a book of worship together nightly, praying together, and attending church together. Financial intimacy involves developing a budget together, transparency regarding finances, and shared financial goals.  Intellectual intimacy involves being purposeful in sharing beliefs and viewpoints, and respecting one another’s viewpoints even when one disagrees. Physical intimacy is being affectionate towards one another. It’s the ongoing daily kisses, touches, and hugs. Fostering all six areas of intimacy culminates in the oneness that produces a strong intimate connection and great passionate sex.

In the first stage of the relationship, honeymoon chemicals propel couples to foster the six areas of intimacy but once the honeymoon chemicals are not as strong, couples often slack off in being attentive to their spouse and to the relationship. Amidst busy jobs and children, couples often neglect their relationship and do not do the things that they enjoyed together in the early stages of their relationship. Understanding that a loving satisfactory marriage takes purposeful effort will help couples navigate the stages of a relationship and move into True Love sooner. However, it is essential for couples to understand that without working on the relationship, they can easily move back into the Disillusionment / Power- Control Stage once they are in the True Love Stage. It takes an ongoing effort to have a passionate, loving relationship.

DeMaria, R. M., & Harrar, S. (2006). 7 stages of marriage: Laughter, intimacy and passion today, tomorrow, forever (First ed.). Readers Digest.

Gottman, J. (2020). There are only three ways to love well. In Principia amoris (pp. 130–158). Routledge.