What do you do if you don't love your spouse anymore? Is your marriage beyond repair? Is this feeling normal? Is it possible to love again? Couples are often confused when their relationship takes a turn for the worse. Yet, what they are not always aware of is that relationships occur in stages and that the ups and downs they may experience are normal and even serve a higher purpose to make their marriage even better. Understanding relationship stages helps couples normalize their situation and provide hope that their marriage can thrive once again.
More inspiration about the stages of relationship:
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- Self Guided DIY marriage counseling to shift from Power Struggle to Love Again'
Let’s explore the three relationship stages and see which one you are in:
Stage I: 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. Most couples in this relationship 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. For some reason, they will defy the odds. Of course, we know that this stage does not last forever and that eventually we all come off the cloud at some point. The reason we are so illogical in this stage is that our brain is being drugged by infatuation. When we fall in love our brain becomes flooded with the neurochemical phenylethylamine. These neurochemicals increase our positive outlook, diminish pain, and cause us to feel safe and calm. They anesthetize us so that we can commit to a relationship. Otherwise, if we really could see clearly what we were getting into, many people would never get married.
Stage II: 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 the phenylethylamine begins to wear off. There is an intense feeling of disillusionment in this stage, almost as if we were duped into marrying the wrong partner. We think that if we had made the right choice, we would still be experiencing romantic love. The truth is that the Power Struggle is inevitable and is a natural consequence of the brain’s withdrawal from these love chemicals. 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 made us fall in love in the first place. When we fell in love we may have been intrigued by our partner’s fun-loving personality, we may now find them loud and obnoxious.
Why does it have to be this way? Did we make a mistake? The truth is that all couples experience these relationship stages to some degree. It is often the ones who experience a more intense romantic stage, who have a stronger power struggle. The truth is that marriage is one of the greatest opportunities you will find in life for growth and healing. From a psychological perspective (as well as from a spiritual perspective), we are subconsciously looking for a partner that will help 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 (yerida l’tzorech aliyah).
Stage III: Real Love or the Conscious Marriage
Most couples in the Power struggle are not aware of what they are experiencing. They wind up getting divorced or living as roommates instead of soulmates. Couples that wake up and become conscious begin the journey to the third stage of relationships which is 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 he was 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, 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 not to like surprises and to create order. 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 and he began to return to his old defenses it made him feel uncomfortable. Then, Sam and Sarah became more 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 for Sarah to be more sensitive to Sam’s needs and be a little more reliable. This also 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, no longer getting locked in the issue, and seeing the big picture enables couples to become more balanced. The conflict becomes an opportunity for growth to happen.
We like how Linda Carroll, an Imago Therapist colleague of ours, talks more about this in her book Love Cycles. She says that the single most important ingredient to a long-time successful relationship is when couples work to stop asking their partner the question, "Why aren’t you me?” She says, "All of us ask this question, if silently. We fall in love and naturally assume that the two of us should see the world through the same lens even if we know better. So then we spend the next 45 years trying to convince each other to see everything our way. Often, people tell me they’ve come for counseling or a marriage communication skills workshop. What they’re really looking for, however, is a sure-fast way to get their partner to change. Yet who has ever been successful in changing another person? No one in my life, that’s for sure."
Couples in stage III will tolerate the "otherness" of their partner with much generosity. They together will learn to explore their issues so that they feel safe enough to meet their partner’s needs, while at the same time holding onto their own separate self, all whilst feeling un-threatened by their partner's uniqueness.
Knowing the three stages of relationships is incredibly helpful for couples who may become despondent once they start to face a rough patch in their marriage. Normalizing the situation and realizing that it is only a stage and that it is possible to re-experience love on a deeper and more mature level provides hope to weather the storm and confidence to commit to cultivating a deeply satisfying relationship. It's really helpful if you or your partner are going through a midlife crisis or midlife transition that is causing you to question just about everything!
The three relationship stages are from Imago Therapy, by Dr Harville Hendrix and his wife Dr Helen Lakelly Hunt. Linda Carroll expands on them further in her book Love Cycles as she cites 5 relationship stages rather than our 3. Knowing more about the stages and cycles of a relationship is going to be very helpful to anyone that is questioning the future of their relationship.
Be in touch,
Shlomo and Rivka Slatkin