Every living thing goes through stages of growth, and making the transition from one stage to the next can be difficult. With humans, there is often physical and emotional turmoil associated with growth. Any parent of a teething baby or an adolescent child is keenly aware of this.
A marriage—as a living, breathing entity—also goes through stages of growth. Growth involves change, and not everyone is comfortable with change. As Timothy Keller put it in his book The Meaning of Marriage, “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed—and each of the five has been me.” Keller understands that people change, so marriages must adapt to those changes to survive.
People who study marriage say there are anywhere from four to seven distinct stages of marriage. For the sake of brevity, let’s go with four:
- Passion and Promise
- Realization and Disillusionment
- Power Struggles and Misery
- Reconciliation and New Beginnings
Spoiler alert: I’ve been married 41 years, and I’m in stage four. It’s the best stage by far. But it can be extremely difficult to get there and requires a great deal of perseverance by both spouses.
Let’s take a closer look at these stages:
Stage One is full of passion and promise. Life is wonderful—it’s the honeymoon phase. You can’t stand to be without each other. Little differences between the two of you are cute, endearing, and easily dismissed. You focus on the positive and you both laugh a lot. Your prayer life is often filled with thanksgiving and praise. God feels close and responsive. This is a time to be cherished and remembered. It’s also fleeting.
Stage Two is when those petty little differences start to annoy you. The self-talk in your head starts asking why your spouse can’t be more like you. You start to focus on the negative and become disillusioned with your spouse and your marriage. Sometimes, especially if the romance in stage one was particularly intense, this disillusionment can be equally intense. You mourn the loss of your earlier expectations and dreams. During this stage, some spouses conclude they married the wrong person, and they start to think about exit strategies. The truth is, however, we always marry the wrong person. Duke University Ethics Professor Stanley Hauerwas put it this way:
“… we always marry the wrong person. We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”
Stage Three is a continuation (or deterioration) of the struggles from stage 2. During this stage, some marriages encounter the greater challenges of substance abuse or other addictions. Sometimes a spouse will have an affair during this stage. Power struggles, blame, judgment, criticism, and defensiveness are common. Fear and anxiety haunt the relationship. This is the misery stage. During this stage, many couples seriously consider a separation or divorce. Your prayer life is full of lament and God seems far away and unresponsive.
Stage Four is about brokenness, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. Couples who make it to stage four have often employed a multi-pronged strategy of professional counselors, marriage retreats, therapy, community, and prayer. If both spouses are willing to put in the work, these couples learn that there are certain skills, attitudes, and tools they can use to deal with their problems. They refuse to judge or blame their spouse. They move from win/lose to win/win conflict strategies.
During this stage, spouses start to see each other in a new light. Empathy and compassion increase. They learn to appreciate and respect each other in new ways. Prayer focuses on forgiveness and gratitude, and couples often move to a more honest and mature relationship with God.
Next Steps for Stages One, Two or Three
Marriage can be extremely rewarding and extremely difficult. At Blackhawk, we’re big fans of authentic community, and you’ll see that in each of our “next steps” below.
Next Step for Stage One: We encourage stage one couples to get involved in one of our 12-week life groups that are designed specifically for couples in the first few years of marriage. In these groups, they can learn more about marriage, discover healthy communication and conflict-resolution skills, and pray for each other. The next set of young married life groups launch in September.
Next Steps for Stages Two and Three: For couples who are in stages of struggling, our Care Team is available. If necessary, our Care Team can make referrals to licensed marriage and family therapists if professional help is needed.
Another option for couples is a marriage retreat. These can be challenging and invigorating, much like marriage itself. I’ve heard some positive reviews from a few Blackhawk couples who’ve gone to a marriage retreat at Fort Wilderness in Rhinelander, Wis. The next retreat there is Oct. 19-21 and Dr. Rick Marks will be the instructor. More info is at https://www.fortwilderness.com/marriage.
As I mentioned earlier, my wife Anne and I are in stage four of marriage, and we both find it the most fulfilling, enjoyable, and rewarding stage—by far! But we probably would not have made it to stage four without the help of professional counselors, prayer, and the authentic community or caring friends we found at Blackhawk. I know many other couples who are in stage four of marriage who would say the same thing. The bottom line: don’t try to journey through marriage alone!
If your marriage is struggling right now, I hope you’ll find some comfort in knowing that this is not unique to you and your spouse. Psychologists named and defined the four stages of marriage because they were common to so many couples – including couples who are trying to follow Christ. You are not alone in your struggle, and I hope you will seek out the kind of community and help that are appropriate for your stage of life and marriage.
If you would like to learn more about the stages of marriage and how to navigate them, I found these resources to be particularly helpful.
The Four Seasons of Marriage, by Gary Chapman
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman & Nan Silver
The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, by Shaunti Feldhahn