Social scientists have observed that marriages typically move through a series of at least four stages. Each stage presents unique learning opportunities and blessings, along with challenges and obstacles.
Stage One – Romance, Passion and Promise
In the beginning of a relationship partners often communicate effortlessly and at length. They seem to intuit each other's needs and wishes and go out of their way to please and surprise each other. Couples begin to develop a strong sense of "we".
Individual differences are minimized, if noticed at all; partners are very accepting. Joy, excitement, happiness and hope abound.
Partners present and elicit their best selves. Life seems promising. It is a time of sharing dreams and romance. This is a time to be remembered and cherished.
Stage Two – Settling down and Realization
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.
Stage Three – Rebellion and Power Struggles
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 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.
Stage Four – 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.
Partners see each other in a new light, as gifted and flawed, just as they themselves 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. A new hope and energy return to the relationship.
Additional Challenges and Stages
Many couples will encounter additional life cycle stages. Just like marriage, creating a family will face many challenges.
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 one.
Growth throughout the marital journey requires openness and flexibility. Faith requires trust and surrender. Even if we cannot see the entire road and where it will end, we need to have clarity to take the next few steps.