“Is my marriage beyond repair? Is this feeling normal?”
Couples are often confused when their relationship takes a turn for the worse. What many don’t realize is that the ups and downs they are experiencing are normal and even serve a higher purpose. Understanding the three stages of marriage helps couples normalize their situation and provides hope that their marriage can thrive once again. Let’s explore the three stages and see which one you are in:
Stage 1: Romantic Love
The romantic love stage begins when you first “fall in love” with your spouse. You may feel a sense of oneness or completion. While the shidduch system is different from the typical American dating scene, some type of attraction and excitement is usually present. Most couples in this stage are convinced that it will last forever. Although they know of couples who have struggled after marriage, they are certain they won’t face the same fate. They think they’ll defy the odds.
We know that this stage does not last forever; eventually, we all come off the cloud. The reason we are so illogical is that infatuation is drugging our brain, flooding it with the neuro-chemical phenylethylamine, which increases our positive outlook, diminishes pain, and causes us to feel safe and calm. This is what motivates us to make the commitment to a relationship.
Stage 2: The Power Struggle
The power struggle begins after commitment. For some, this may occur after engagement, for others after their wedding. The newlywed couple expects to be in the romantic stage forever, so they are in for a rude awakening when it wears off. There can be an intense feeling of disillusionment in this stage, causing doubts about whether we married the wrong partner. After all, what happened to the romantic love?
During the power struggle phase, we begin to get defensive and focus on protecting ourselves instead of engaging in relationship. We even begin to dislike many of the things that attracted us in the first place. If, before, we were intrigued by our partner’s fun-loving personality, now, we find him or her loud and obnoxious.
Does it have to be this way? Did we make a mistake? All couples experience these stages to some degree. Often, those experiencing a more intense romantic stage have a stronger power struggle. Marriage is one of the greatest opportunities in life for growth and healing. From a psychological (as well as spiritual) perspective, we are subconsciously looking for a partner who will make us more whole and complete. In order for this to occur, we are attracted to someone who will best stimulate our growth. This person will push our buttons and trigger some of our deepest wounds, usually from childhood, yet if we work through these issues, we can achieve enormous personal growth. As the Talmud says (Makkos 7b) this is a descent for the purpose of ascent.
Stage 3: Real Love or the Conscious Marriage
Many couples in the power struggle are not aware of what they are experiencing and wind up getting divorced or living as roommates instead of soul mates. For the marriage to reach its potential, couples need to wake up and begin the journey to the third stage of relationships called “real love” or the “conscious marriage.”
Here is an example of how a couple began to leave the power struggle and create a more conscious marriage: When Sam married Sarah, he loved her spontaneity. This was something lacking in his own life, and it was refreshing to find someone who was so much fun. Once they hit the power struggle, that spontaneity was a sore point for Sam. He experience Sarah as flaky and “all over the place,” and it made him feel extremely uncomfortable. Sam was very serious and reserved. Growing up in a home without structure, he felt the need to be more in control of his reality; he learned to create order and avoid surprises. During the romantic stage, Sarah’s personality represented an opportunity to claim a part of himself that he had disowned as a child. Yet, once they entered the power struggle, he returned to his old defenses.
Then Sam and Sarah became conscious of the issue at hand and what it triggered in Sam. That enabled Sam to be less reactive to Sarah’s behavior, and it allowed Sarah to be more sensitive to Sam’s needs and be a little more reliable. Sarah’s efforts allowed Sam to reclaim that lost part of himself and loosen up, as he no longer needed to protect himself as he did as a child.
Becoming conscious of the power struggle, avoiding getting “locked” in the issue, and seeing the big picture enables couples to become more balanced. The conflict is an opportunity for growth to happen. Couples in the third stage will explore their issues so that they feel safe enough to meet their partner’s needs, balancing out their own personalities and achieving growth.
Knowing the three stages of marriage can be incredibly helpful for couples who are despondent once they face a rough patch in their relationship. Normalizing the situation and realizing that it is only a stage – that it is possible to re-experience love on a deeper and more mature level – provides the hope necessary to weather the storm and confidence to cultivate a deeply satisfying relationship.
An internationally renowned Imago relationship therapist, author, and lecturer, Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, LCPC works with couples in person in Baltimore, Maryland, and coaches them worldwide via SKYPE. To contact Rabbi Slatkin, please call 443-570-7598, or visit www.CalmCouplesTherapy.com.