It’s said that we teach what we want to learn. For more than 40 years I’ve been teaching people how to have successful marriages that remain passionate, loving, and creative through the years. Being a marriage and family counselor has been a satisfying career and I’ve helped thousands of couples. But the truth is my initial motivation for going into the field was to learn how I could have a successful marriage myself.
My parents divorced when I was five years old and I was raised by a single mom. I vowed that what happened to them wouldn’t happen to me. “When I fall in love, it would be forever.” I probably remembered that from one of the love songs I heard growing up. “Forever” lasted almost ten years for me. I remarried and my second marriage lasted just two years. Before I married again, if I ever found the right person, I vowed I would learn the secret of real, lasting love.
My wife, Carlin, and I have now been married for 36 years. I’ll tell you truthfully that it’s been a struggle at times and there were periods that we just seemed stuck in reverse and couldn’t seem to move ahead in a positive way. But I can tell you, we’ve learned the secret of having a functional, joyful, marriage. Learning about the five stages of marriage turned out to be the key to our success.
I still remember falling in love with Carlin. We met at an Aikido dojo and later reconnected at a weekend workshop on Sex, Love, and Relationships. I don’t remember much of the formal learning because I was entranced with Carlin. We talked, walked on the beach, talked some more. I felt I had finally found my soul partner. We laughed together, played together, made mad, passionate love. Having finally found “the right person” we were sure that things would continue to be wonderful.
After having experienced two relationships that didn’t work, I was convinced that I had just picked the wrong person in the past. Since Carlin was clearly the right person I was sure things would be all downhill from here. I was sure we might have a few ups and downs, but I was looking for a “happily ever after” time of life.
We were both mature adults. We had each been married twice before and had children from our previous marriages. We knew what we wanted in a mate and had made out a detailed list. We had good jobs and shared interests. We were sure that the problems from our past were behind us and the future looked brilliantly exciting.
Many of us look back on this period of romantic love and believe that this was the best time of our marriage. We remember the heat, the passion, the excitement, the wonder, the absolute clarity of a future filled with light and love.
Oh, how naïve we were. It turned out that finding the right partner was just the first step and actually the easiest step. I believe there are five stages to a good marriage. I think of them in similar ways to the Hero’s Journey described by Joseph Campbell. We don’t often think of creating a marriage as a hero’s journey, but anyone who has tried it knows that it is the most demanding, live-changing, and satisfying journey that one can engage in their lives. Not everyone makes it successfully, but with good guidance, including a good “love map,” most people can find real, lasting love.
Some people start the journey when they are young, but I don’t believe anyone can complete the journey until they are fifty or older. I suspect it is a journey that will continue until we die, and perhaps even beyond that. Until we reach mid-life we are still influenced by the marriage journey of our families, our friends, or our society. Once we’ve reached mid-life we come to accept that this is our own journey. We can’t let our parents, friends, or society, dictate how to do the journey or even what kind of a journey it is.
The journey towards real, lasting love is unique to each person. We can be guided, but ultimately the path is ours alone. Joseph Campbell said this about the Hero’s Journey: “You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path. You are not on your own path. If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential.”
Take a moment to read this again and let it sink in. What feelings does it bring up in you? Where are you on this path? Have you been following someone else’s path? You might want to take some time to reflect and write down your thoughts and feelings.
This is a difficult truth to grasp. Often we think we’re blazing our own trail, only to find out we are walking the path our mother or father walked. Sometimes we think we’re living our relationship life our own way, but we’re really rebelling against what our parents did or society dictates. Doing the opposite of what our parents did may seem like independence, but it’s just another form of looking for love in all the wrong places.
Currently our culture focuses a great deal of attention on finding the right partner. There are hundreds of websites that will help you find Mr. or Ms. Right. But there’s much less focus on our internal love map. If our map is wrong, we’re not likely to find the right person. Further, as difficult as it is to find a good mate, that turns out to be the easy part. Much more difficult is to make a good marriage that lasts and enhances the well-being of the couple.
Sharing the five stages of marriage and some of what I have learned will help you find your own, unique, path to joy. Here are the stages:
Stage 1: Falling In Love
Stage 2: Becoming a Couple
Stage 3: Disillusionment
Stage 4: Creating Real, Lasting Love
Stage 5: Finding Your Calling as a Couple
Understand nature’s purpose in having us fall in love
Here’s a thought experiment that can teach us a lot. Imagine the implication of this simple truth: None of your direct ancestors died childless. We know your parents had at least one child. We also know your grandparents had at least one child. You can trace your ancestry back and back and back. You may or may not have children and you certainly know people who will never have children. But all your ancestors did.
How did they do that? Well, they fell in love or at least they fell in lust, which often accompanies falling in love. I call it nature’s trick because it gets us together. It feels so good because all those hormones are triggered: testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, and many others. Without them we’d never make babies or stay together long enough for the babies to survive. Our species would disappear. Evolution and natural selection insures that our species will have the best chance to survive. It starts with the wonderful-crazy feeling of falling in love.
Falling in love also feels so great because we project all our hopes and dreams on our lover. We imagine that they will fulfill our desires, give us all the things we didn’t get as children, deliver on all the promises our earlier relationships failed to fulfill. We are sure we will remain in love forever. And because we are besotted with “love hormones,” we’re not aware of any of this.
Many of us look back on this period of romantic love and believe that this was the best time of our marriage. We remember the heat, the passion, the excitement, the wonder, the absolute clarity of a future filled with light and love. We laughed at curmudgeons like George Bernard Shaw who offered a darker vision of this stage of love:
When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.
Helen Fisher, Ph.D. is a world-renowned scientist who has researched the reasons we fall in love and why we fall in love with that special person. She is a biological anthropologist, a Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute, and Chief Scientific Adviser to the internet dating site Match.com. She says that falling in love is much more than a feeling. “Romantic love,” she says, “is a mammalian brain system for mate choice.” Its nature’s trick to get us paired up. It involves two brain/hormonal systems “lust” and “attraction.”
Most of us accept the reality that a marriage will have its ups and downs, but few of us understand that there is an actual stage in marriage where we will feel disconnected and estranged from each other.
Lust is a strong desire to have sexual intercourse and is driven, in both men and women, by the hormones testosterone and estrogen. When we are attracted we lock into that special person and are truly love-struck and can think of little else. Scientists think that three main neurotransmitters are involved in this stage; adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin.
The initial stages of falling in love activates our stress response, increasing our blood levels of adrenalin and cortisol. This causes our hearts to race, our mouth to go dry, and we sweat when we are in the presence of our loved one. When Fisher scanned the brains of the “love struck” couples she found high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This chemical stimulates “desire and reward” by triggering intense rushes of pleasure. It has a similar effect to taking cocaine. Serotonin is responsible for the lovely preoccupation and focus we have on our partner.
But here’s something few people know. Although that wonderful feeling of “falling in love” doesn’t go on continually forever, it does not fade away, never to return. Dr. Fisher told me, “Romantic love is like a sleeping cat. It can be re-awakened at any time.” It may get lost in Stage 3, but it can return again in Stage 4. That’s certainly what Carlin and I found.
It’s understandable that we all have strongly-positive memories of this stage of our relationship. But too many of us want to stay in this phase and feel we’ve lost something when the hormonally driven feelings of lust and attraction begin to wane. Further, as we hit stage three, “Disillusionment” many couples break apart and feel there is something wrong with their marriage. “I love you, but I’m not in love with you anymore,” becomes a constant refrain. As a result too many men and women leave the relationship before reaching stage 4 and 5.
Whether we’re planning to have children or not, nature connects us so that children who come into the world will have the love and protection of two parents. Throughout our evolutionary history children whose parents stayed together had the best chance of growing up and surviving long enough to have children of their own and keep our species going.
Learn to bond with your partner
This is the stage where the power of two becomes apparent. This is a time when we may have children and raise them. If we don’t have children, it’s the time when a couple’s bond deepens and develops. It’s a time of togetherness and joy. We learn what the other person likes and we expand our individual lives to begin developing a life of “the two of us.”
Once again our hormonal and brain function work together to enable us to connect more deeply with each other. Oxytocin, also known as “the cuddle hormone” and “the moral molecule,” deepens the feeling of attachment and contributes to that loving feeling that we desire so strongly. Oxytocin is released by men and women during orgasm and also when they snuggle, touch, and look deeply into each other’s eyes. The original purpose of oxytocin was likely to bond the mother to the baby, but like all hormones it has multiple effects in the body. The same loving feeling that bonds a mother (and father) to their infant baby girl or boy is present when we bond to our mate.
Another, related hormone, vasopressin, also contributes to the attachment and bonding process. The power of this important hormone was recognized by biologists studying a small rodent called a vole. Prairie voles engage in far more sex than is strictly necessary for reproductive purposes. Like humans, they also form fairly stable pair-bonds. However, when male prairie voles were given a drug that blocks the effect of vasopressin, the bond with their partner deteriorated and they lost their devotion to their partner and failed to protect their partner from new suitors.
During this phase we experience less of the falling head-over heals “in love” feelings. There is more of the feeling of deep affection and love for our partner. We feel warm and cuddly. The sex may not be as wild, but it’s deeply bonding. We feel safe, cared for, cherished, and appreciated. We feel close and protected. We often think this is the ultimate level of love and we expect it to go on forever. We are often blind-sided by turn-around of stage 3.
Recognize that disillusionment helps us get down to the real work of love and marriage
No one told us about stage 3 in understanding love and marriage. Stage 3 is where my first two marriages collapsed and for too many relationships this is the beginning of the end. We all recognize stage 1 when we fall in love and most of us are familiar with stage 2 where we start a family or settle into a warm, loving, committed relationship. In my first two marriages I thought this was all there was. I spent a lot of time looking for the right partner. When I found her I enjoyed months and years on a roller coaster high of fun and good times with my dream lover as we enjoyed the romantic, falling in love phase. We then spent many more years starting a family, making a living, and raising children.
But little by little things changed. We made love less often, but justified it because we were stressed trying to make a living while taking care of small children. We became more irritable with each other. We fought more and the fights lasted longer and never fully resolved. Even when things seemed fine and we were back to feeling “in love” with each other, there were lingering hurts and misunderstandings that never went away and ate at the foundation of our relationship. I began to feel I could never do anything right, that nothing I did pleased her. She accused me of being withdrawn and moody. But there were still good things about our lives and we both immersed ourselves in our work and family.
We can’t really have real, lasting love as long as we have unhealed relationship wounds.
When we approached our 10th anniversary, we couldn’t ignore the fact that we were deeply unhappy. What had happened to our lives? What had happened to us? There was still love, but increasingly there was a feeling of something bordering on hate. There were times I felt I was the last person in the world she wanted to be around. We spent more time with our friends and busied ourselves in our work. The more disconnected we became from each other, the more we sought to get our needs met outside the relationship.
We finally sought out counseling. By then there was a mountain of hurts, resentments, and misunderstandings. Marriage and family counselors then, and to some degree now, still have the belief that when things are truly bad for the couple, it’s better to go your separate ways. There is still a strong influence of independence in our society and we are taught early the importance of being ourselves and doing our thing. This philosophy was well described by the founder of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls, in his 56 word “Gestalt Prayer.”
I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.
My first wife and I soon separated and then divorced. We felt we had done our best to make it work and our therapist felt the same. We always thought that we’d be kind to each other, even through a divorce, but our anger and pain blinded us to our underlying goodness and we fought over custody issues and later fought about just about anything. I still feel deep sadness for the pain I caused her and the children, and more pain was still to come.
Three years after our divorce I met and married a woman on the rebound, thinking all would be well. We had great highs and huge lows. She had a son who was living with her ex-husband and my children were living with my ex-wife. But visits together proved stressful and we stayed together only a few years.
Before I met Carlin, the woman I’ve been with now for thirty-six years, I decided I better learn more about love and marriage. I had definitely learned that being a marriage and family counselor didn’t prevent me from having my own problems and in fact may have contributed to some of my blind spots about marriage. The key things I learned were about what happens in Stage 3, 4, and 5.
Most of us accept the reality that a marriage will have its ups and downs, but few of us understand that there is an actual stage in marriage where we will feel disconnected and estranged from each other, were we will feel we’re living with a stranger and wonder who stole the loving partner we thought we had married. Since we’re not aware of this stage or the stage beyond it, we believe that these bad times must mean that the marriage is not working. Too many people give up at this stage. They either leave the marriage or come to believe that this is the best they can hope for and accept a marriage of convenience rather than one of passion, joy, and continual growth.
Appreciate the benefits of disillusionment
Carlin and I went through the wonderful times of falling in love, merging our families, and building a life together. But when we started to have problems and became disillusioned, we were more prepared to deal with it. When we fall in love, we are blinded to some important realities about ourselves and our partner. We project all our hopes and dreams on to them and think we see the partner that will meet all our needs and erase the pain and disappointment about what we didn’t get in our families growing up and what we didn’t find in our previous relationships.
Disillusionment can mean that we feel we’ve made a mistake in who we picked as our partner and think about rectifying the error by distancing ourselves and moving on. It can also mean that we let go of our illusions and go deeper into the reality of what it truly means to love another person. When Carlin and I hit stage 3 after we were together for ten years, we hung in there and went deeper. Here are some of the illusions we became aware of and had to release:
- If there is conflict between us, someone must be to blame.
- A good marriage means that our love is constant and unwavering.
- If you really loved me you would_______. We each had our own set of fill-in-the-blanks
You would never have fantasies of being with another
You would always know what I need.
You would always be kind and gentle.
You would never be so wrapped up with yourself you wouldn’t have time for me.
- If we’re unhappy for more than a certain amount of time (i.e. a month, a year, three years) there must be something wrong with the marriage.
I can tell you that stage 3 is the most difficult period of time that anyone can experience. That’s why most couples who hit this stage want to go back to the way it used to be. We lament that “you love me, but you’re not in love with me.” We are hungry for the romance we used to share and for the closeness and comfort that used to be so central to our relationship. We feel like we’re in hell and we want out. It helped us to remember this bit of wisdom attributed to Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
I found the advice helpful. When things are really bad in our relationship it can feel like hell. After months and years of being burned, we want out. Since most of us are unaware there are five stages, it’s not surprising that we try and go back to what we had or we bail out altogether. But I learned that the best is yet to come.
For most of my life I bought into the idea that love had only two stages. We fall in love, then love deepens and we live happily ever after. No one told me that we fall in love, love deepens, then we go through hell before love returns again. But that has been our experience.
Think what the world would be like if more and more of us were engaged in expressing real, lasting love.
It took us a long time to realize that the feelings of stress and conflict did not mean we had chosen the wrong person but, in fact, meant we had chosen just the right person with whom we could deepen our experience of love.
As a young couple, I still remember my first wife and I going to hear the legendary psychologist and therapist, Carl Rogers, talk about marriage. He was in his 80s then and he and his wife had been married more than sixty years. My wife and I had been together for less than a year and were anxious to hear the great man’s wisdom about love and life.
At one point in his talk he turned to his wife, Helen. “Remember that stretch when things were so bad in our relationship?” She smiled and nodded her head. I was amazed to hear that my idol had problems in his relationship. But I was dumbfounded to hear what came next. “There was that bad patch of nine or ten years when things were awful.” Helen smiled and shook her head as she too remembered. “But we hung in there and worked things out.”
“You must be kidding,” I thought, “Nine or ten years of things being awful?” I couldn’t imagine things ever being awful for me and my wife and if they ever were I sure couldn’t imagine staying in a state of awful for nine or ten years.
Now having been married for thirty-six years, I understand that there can be some pretty terrible times. But getting through those times together is how we learn about real, lasting love. The key to getting on the road to real, lasting love is to understand the purpose of stages 3 and 4.
I suspect that we wouldn’t need stage 3 and 4 if all of us were raised in families that were totally loving and supportive and we lived in a world where every family’s needs for safety, security, and love were supported 100%. But that is not the case. All of us suffer from some degree of childhood neglect and abuse. Even if we had parents who had no problems of their own and were totally tuned in to our needs as a child, there would still be some degree of trauma.
What happens in stage 3 is that our initial desires for love that we thought we’d have met in stages 1 and 2, run up against the realities that we had projected our ideals on a real-life person. The degree of conflict we feel in stage 3 is the inevitable result of the clash between our dreamed for lover who was going to heal all our old wounds and the reality of a real-life person with wounds of their own.
Uncover the wounds from previous relationships
After many years of living and learning I found out that the hidden purpose of stage three is to uncover the wounds we experienced in childhood and to surface them so that they can be healed. We might amend our marriage vows to include something along these lines. “Not only will I stay with you in sickness and in health, but I will be with you when our collective wounds from childhood and our previous relationships cause us to panic and hunger for healing at the same time we deny our need for healing.”
When I looked at my own conflicts and those of my clients I realized that most all of them were related to wounds that occurred first in childhood and were perpetuated in later relationships.
Recognize that healing each other’s wounds is a great gift
We can’t really have real, lasting love as long as we have unhealed relationship wounds. Once we recognize that the purpose of stage 3 is to surface the old wounds so that we can deal with them in the context of an adult, loving relationship, we can understand that the core of real, lasting love is to be partners in healing these wounds. This is the great gift of stage 4, to heal our wounds together.
We can’t heal by ourselves. We can only heal partnership wounds in a partnership that allows each partner to go more deeply into their lives and to be vulnerable enough with their partner that the deep healing of relationship can be activated.
Once we understand that the turmoil in stage 3 doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the marriage, we can relax a bit. It still can feel hellish at times, but so, too, can going to the dentist. But if we know it is part of the healing process we can get through it more easily. Since most of us have a series of wounds from the past and illusions that must be recognized and processed we will likely go through Stage 3 multiple times, which will deepen and expand the love we can give and receive at Stage 4. When we understand the purpose of Stage 3 and Stage 4, we can bring all the necessary tools together to make this difficult, yet rewarding, journey the best it can be.
Find your calling as a couple
When we get to mid-life and beyond, we all have a desire to make a difference in the world. We usually think of this as our “calling” in life. At a time when we must face the reality that we must change our lives to live sustainably on the planet, many of us feel called upon to address these issues. My calling has been to help men and women find real, lasting love so that together we can save humanity. My calling goes beyond my own personal joy in creating my relationship with Carlin. I want to make a difference in the world. This is true of Carlin as well.
The Power of Two enables us to do together what we could never do alone. My calling puts me more in the public arena worldwide, but I couldn’t do it without Carlin’s backing and support. Her calling is to make a difference in the lives of our family, friends, and community. I’m there for her and my support allows her to make her own difference in the world.
You might ask yourself this question: what do I see as my calling in life? What do you feel called upon to do that would make the world a little better place? I believe that two people who are experiencing real, lasting love can commit themselves to sharing that love with the world. Think what the world would be like if more and more of us were engaged in expressing real, lasting love.
Excerpted and adapted from The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best Is Still to Come by Jed Diamond, New Page Books, 2016. Learn more at www.TheEnlightenedMarriage.com.