Relationships Follow a Predictable
Save your marriage-before trouble
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
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
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
1. Romance (Honeymoon) Fusion
2. Expectations -Compromise
3. Power Struggle- Control
4. Seven-Year Itch Competition (regardless of time
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.
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
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
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.