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Relationships Follow a Predictable Pattern.


Save your marriage-before trouble starts                                                                                                                        

It's clear--more than half of us are not only bad at marriage, we're lousy at divorce. We're still doing it in record numbers, but we don't seem to be learning a thing from the experience: 60 percent of second marriages fail as well. After we face the failure, dry the tears, and explain it all to the kids, we still don't know how to make relationships work.

So, is it possible to learn from others' successes? Researchers began a long-term look at marriage to discover what makes the good ones work. They examined every facet of marital interaction and their findings provide nothing short of a blueprint for successful marriage.

Charting the marriage map

Relationships unfold through time--a concept curiously absent in most views of marriage. The lack of any guidelines for helping couples in distress triggered research regarding a framework for assessing their problems. Through empirical research, a system was developed to chart the marital relationship as it progresses (and always comes close to undoing) to accommodate two people who are themselves evolving as individuals.

Marriages seem to evolve through six distinct stages toward intimacy and mutuality. Each of these passages poses specific challenges to individual and couple development. Yet even though the progress may be predictable, it is definitely not smooth.

The length of a marriage is no guide as to what sort of issues a couple may be stumbling over; some may stay stuck on a single issue for decades. And the development doesn't proceed in a linear fashion from one stage to the next; rather it is cyclic. When a couple is hit with stress at any point, they may go back to an earlier stage. All, however, face power struggles in the middle stages, and even the best don't see the dawn of mutuality--that easy flow of support and intimacy--before 10 to 15 years.

The Six Stages of Marriage

1. Romance (Honeymoon) Fusion

2. Expectations -Compromise

3. Power Struggle- Control

4. Seven-Year Itch Competition (regardless of time married)

5. Reconciliation- Cooperation

6. Acceptance- Collaboration

The most important indicators of individual stages are emotional themes and interaction patterns. In the first stage for example--the mooning, spooning phase--the marital partners see each other as perfect and identical. This is necessary for developing a sense of belonging and trust in each other's commitment to an evolving relationship. Yet as renewed career goals or signs of external interests emerge--as they must--the other partner may view it as betrayal. The task is then to start down the rocky road of accepting divergence as enhancing the relationship.

Similarly, in the second stage, couples experience individual change as disappointment, anxiety, and self-doubt: a "What's wrong with me?" attitude. Together, their task is to draw a distinct boundary between themselves as a unit and the rest of the world that impinges on it. It takes a strong sense of “coupleness” to face what happens next.

Over the next three stages, as partners' interests diverge and develop independently, earlier efforts at accommodation now fall by the wayside. Typically, each tries to control the other--a classic power struggle with all the accusation they can muster. Not only do they not agree on anything, they feel that they have lost any connection with each other. This may scare them, but they are more afraid to let down their defenses lest they be controlled by the other. What's needed is not just the ability to recognize differences but finding new ways of negotiating them--ways of expressing themselves without crushing the other. What more often happens is that she rails while he stomps out of the house.

These scenes may be reenacted for years, even decades, as both play out patterns of behavior absorbed from parents. Likewise, it takes a great deal of time to find strategies to break through such entrenched patterns. Help takes many forms: finding ways of direct self-expression and labeling of feelings--statements that begin "I feel" rather than "He/she ALWAYS..."--and reviewing the family of origin to assess what attitudes and behaviors to keep, what to pitch.

By stage four, one or the other may be feeling the impulse to run away from the relationship. "I want time for myself" and "I need some space," are laments that delineate the discontent. Separations at this point are good if they allow the partners to "figure out who I am and what I want."

But one spouse may already be searching for other partners or actively engaging in an affair. That’s a diversion from the real issue--finding and completing one's self. Another relationship only switches the focus to someone else's needs.

If couples survive the struggles for nurturance, for power, for self, they then enter stage five--the promised land of reaching towards intimacy. "At this point, couples have a full identity to share," and by stage six realize they can separate and reconnect without losing that identity.

Marriage is essential for growth and individuation--the elaborating of a distinct self. First we grow in relation to our parents, then our peers, and then another adult. Only stable, enduring relationships allow individual growth to take place. We need to develop enough trust in a partner for the hidden parts of ourselves to surface. It takes years into a relationship.

Redefining marriage

Viewing marriage as a process that unfolds in stages does far more than clue therapists how to help, it gives couples cause for hope even in the midst of misery, relieves some of the anxiety that they are not happy now, and gives them an agenda for working out their problems.

In addition, it affords couples a realistic perspective of duration--that relationships don't happen overnight but take time. And it helps people abandon the idea of instant gratification. It clues them that you need to go through life making changes--designing your own marriage.

The new writ of relationships takes as a given that no marriage can be constantly happy over the years. Each partner's personal development and the normal events of life necessitate continual adaptation, both individually and as a couple.

In one study of 20 marriages lasting 25 years or more the major factor contributing to satisfaction in all couples was joint problem-solving ability--mentioned by 70 percent of both highly satisfied and mildly satisfied couples, and only 33 percent of the unsatisfied. Indeed, it turns up in virtually every longitudinal study of marriage. It seems to be what enables couples to navigate the passages of relationships. It might be called constructive arguing. It may be the single biggest predictor of marital success over time.

Some research seems to suggest that the quality of the couple's communication before marriage is one of the best predictors of future marital success. This might mean that financial and sexual problems are "red herrings"--wrongly blamed for breakups and dissatisfaction. Many people believe that the causes of marital problems are the differences between people and problem areas such as money, sex, children. However, some findings indicate it is not the differences that are important, but how these differences and problems are handled, particularly early in marriage.

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