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What are the stages of a marriage?

Chances are, if you're married, you've probably wondered at some point if you're with the right person. Or, you may have noticed that the connection and excitement that you felt in the beginning of your relationship has faded. While these thoughts and feelings may be alarming, the good news is that they are totally normal! Couples go through predictable stages of marriage, and though the intensity of the stages may vary among couples, pretty much everyone experiences these 5 stages:

  1. Romantic Love. In this stage, everything about your spouse or significant other seems perfect. Your heart is filled with love and the relationship is fun and very exciting. You will often go out of your way to please your partner or to make them happy. What science now tells us is that those feel-good emotions and the ability to see your partner through rose-colored glasses stems from your brain being flooded with neurochemicals: specifically dopamine and phenylethylamine (PEA). The effects of these chemicals are similar to endorphins, and they increase energy, feelings of well-being, and enable a positive outlook. After time, your PEA levels begin to drop, which brings us to Stage 2.
  2. Disappointment/Disillusionment. Movies, books, and the media have ingrained our society with the thought that romantic love lasts forever - you just have to find the right person. Unfortunately this just simply isn't the case! This illusion that romantic love lasts forever is probably part of the reason why the U.S. divorce rate is so high. Many people get stuck in this stage, think they are with the wrong person, and decide to divorce. But, the truth is that once your PEA levels begin to decline, your natural defenses start to come back (they were conveniently laid aside during the romantic love stage!) . This normally puts you back in a self-protective pattern, and things you once liked about your partner may cause hurt feelings or become a source of frustration. Little things turn into big things at this stage, and demonstrations of love and appreciate usually decline dramatically. Don't get discouraged by the conflicts in this stage though, because conflict is growth trying to happen!
  3. Knowledge/Awareness. The conflict from Stage 2 can to be used to get you through Stage 3, where you realize that you have the power to make real changes in your relationship, and that your relationship can be fulfilling and happy for both of you! One of the simplest, but sometimes hardest ways to take charge of the direction of your happiness is to take charge of your own behavior. Essentially you learn how to become the right partner for your mate. Good communication skills can help you discover new insights about yourself, your partner, and your marriage. Good communication skills during this stage will also help you understand the unmet needs, the hurts, and the fears behind the root of your conflict with your spouse. The end result here is that you address the real problems, not just the symptoms.
  4. Transformation. In the 4th stage of transformation, you are consciously practicing those good communication skills from Stage 3, and continuing to create new behaviors and habits that help heal and grow your marriage. You and your spouse become real partners in your marriage, working to make the vision you have for your marriage a reality. The side benefits of this work spill into the rest of your life as well, and you may see that you are realizing your potential more at work, with friends, and even your relationship with your children.
  5. Real love. Well, it may seem like a long journey with a lot of work, but when you reach Stage 5, real love, you will probably have a deep respect for your partner and truly cherish them. This stage is full of joy, happiness, passion and intimacy, and you may now truly view your partner as your best friend. Don't get discouraged though, if it takes awhile (over 5 years, actually) to get to the real love stage. Most experts say that it takes a lot of time building a history of love and conquering challenges together. But, real love is possible if you are willing to work at it!

A few last thoughts as I wrap up - so many people end their relationship at Stage 2 (Disappointment/Disillusionment), but marriages do not necessarily need to be ended when it gets difficult or feels uncomfortable. Many times people just repeat the patterns in their next relationship! So if you encounter challenges trying to work through the difficult stages, I would definitely encourage you to seek help from a professional. If you need a referral, please feel free to call our office at 714.969.9910, we will be happy to help you!

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