Stages of Relationships
The Years of the Ins and Outs
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D. – Summarized from The Marriage Map: Understanding the Stages of Marriage by Maxine Rock, Dell Paperback, 1989
All long-term relationships and marriages go through certain stages or periods of growth where the relationship changes for better or worse. The stages are universal and predictable. They are a necessary part of the ongoing growth process of the two individuals involved. It is helpful for couples to know of these stages so they can deal with the challenges of each stage.
If you have had several relationships or marriages that broke up at the same stage, then it may be time to do some soul-searching here. If you repeat the same pattern of break up with different partners, there may be hidden agendas within you that would bear looking at.
Stage One: FANTASY TIME (years one to three) is when you think everything about your mate is wonderful – and if it isn’t, his or her faults are “cute” rather than annoying. The euphoria of the new relationship makes you overlook certain not-so-great traits of your partner. We like the good feelings that a new romance brings and we avoid seeing red flag behaviors that might make us run screaming off into the night. Love can be very, very blind but it does feel so good.
Stage Two: COMPROMISE (years two to seven) After the bloom of romance fades, reality set in with mutual disappointment. It’s not all rosy as your chemically-induced brain promised it would be. You realize that you are annoyed or hurt by certain of your spouse’s traits or habits. This is a dangerous time when many relationships fall apart. Secretly at first, then out in the open, you begin plotting on how to get your partner to change. You may even promise to make changes of your own in return.
Stage Three: REALITY STRUGGLES (years five to ten) If you are still together, then things appear to get worse. You realize that while some compromises may stick, you and your spouse aren’t going to change all that much. Power struggles now emerge big time. Sex may begin to become boring.
Reality Struggles put the relationship to the test. During this stage you must force yourself to understand and accept the other person’s limitations. The truth is that he or she cannot live up to your ideal. Expectations for the perfect marriage are dashed during this stage.
The willingness to give the partner a positive critique is the key to moving through this stage of Reality Struggles. A crucial task of this stage of the relationship is idealizing the partner’s best qualities. This ability to see the partner’s behavior in a positive light seems to take place largely at the subconscious level. People who can idealize the partner’s good traits seem to be able to tolerate many other peculiarities they might considered “bad.” Extreme pleasure derived from the partner’s good traits apparently serves as a balm for wounds and a balancing on the sheet of pros and cons in the relationship.
People get stuck in Reality Struggles because they lack the self-esteem necessary to say, “I can handle this.” Dr. Scott Peck says in his book The Road Less Traveled that one must be willing to undergo personal discomfort and psychic pain in order to perceive reality and act upon it. “Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs. The life of wisdom must be a life of contemplation combined with action.” The capacity to surrender without capitulation is worth striving for. Reality means seeing the good and the bad in each other objectively. You see the negative but cope with it by accepting a philosophy of “I can deal with this.”
Stage Four: DECISIONS (years ten to fifteen) comes right after a person accepts reality . . . and doesn’t like it much. Now that you’ve seen your partner’s worst stuff, can you continue to live with them? Can you cope with those bad points of your partner so they don’t interfere with the continued growth of the marriage? For some, staying may mean accepting more responsibility than they had bargained for. For others, it means growing up and accepting that life isn’t perfect.
Stage Five: SEPARATION (years twelve to seventeen) is a tough time of confusion as the problems still remain, resulting in frustration. What to do – stay together, separate or divorce? The Big D (divorce) word looms big in this stage. How many different ways could you stay together or should you just call it quits? Separation could mean staying together while remain aloof and alienated or enjoying each other’s company while living in separate residences.
This stage of separation, perhaps the most painful point on the Marriage Map, ends when couples start talking about specific ways to alter their lives so they can remain married. There is great relief in knowing the other person cares enough to make the effort of such discussion.
Stage Six: TOGETHER AGAIN (years seventeen to twenty) when you realize that despite what may be some irreconcilable differences, you want to stay married. The commitment is not only to one another, but also to the concept of preserving and enhancing your growth as a couple – no matter what. Thinking or talking about divorce is no longer an option; there is mutual agreement to settle in and stick it out.
Stage Seven: NEW FREEDOM (years twenty to twenty-five) is a release from the pressures of making up and trying to fit comfortably into the new emotional lifestyle you have created with your spouse. Now the relationship flows quite naturally. Each stops trying so hard to please. It really doesn’t matter, because you are – at last – fully accepted and accepting.
New Freedom is a time of deepening personal growth. Both partners are free to explore new ways of fulfilling themselves, instead of pouring so much energy into the marriage. The New Freedom stage marks what many people consider the beginning of the best years of marriage.
Stage Eight: ONGOING GROWTH continues the expansion of personal horizons within a marriage that has successfully gone through all the stages. Congratulations for making it to the golden goal. You have earned the rich, ripe reward of growing together while remaining enough of an individual to grow separately as well. Ahhh….
The Marriage Map: Understanding the Stages of Marriage by Maxine Rock, Dell Paperback, 1989