The 6 Stages of Marriage

5 min read
Frank McKenna / Unsplash

Frank McKenna / Unsplash

Anyone who has been in a long-term marriage or partnership can tell you it’s a long and windy road. Sometimes, things go as smoothly as can be. Other times, it can feel like nothing is working. There are years when you and your partner evolve together. In other years, it might feel like you’re going in completely different directions.

Psychologists will tell you that this is completely normal. Long-term relationships, and particularly marriages, are dynamic entities—and as much as we’d like to bottle the initial love and excitement and make those feelings last forever, that’s not the reality of marriage. There are highs and lows, ups and downs, and sideways and backward slides. The only predictable part of marriage is the change you will both inevitably experience as time goes on.

Relationship scientists have devised various assessments to take stock of the current state of your marriage or long-term relationship. One such test, called the Marital Satisfaction Scale, is shown below. Think about how much you agree/disagree with each statement to see if your relationship might need extra care.

  1. My partner and I understand each other perfectly.
  2. I am pleased with the personality characteristics and habits of my partner.
  3. I am happy with how we handle role responsibilities in our marriage.
  4. My partner understands and sympathizes with my every mood.
  5. I am happy about our communication and feel my partner understands me.
  6. Our relationship is a success.
  7. I am happy about how we make decisions and resolve conflicts.
  8. I am happy about our financial position and how we make financial decisions.
  9. My needs are being met in my relationship.
  10. I am happy with how we manage our leisure activities and the time we spend together.
  11. I am pleased with how we express affection and relate sexually.
  12. I am satisfied with the way we each handle our responsibilities as parents.
  13. I have never regretted my relationship with my partner, not even for a moment.
  14. I am satisfied with our relationship with my parents, in-laws, and friends.
  15. I feel good about how we each practice our religious beliefs and values.

While the results of tests like these can offer a present-moment snapshot of the state of your relationship, it’s important to remember that your partnership is in a perpetual state of evolution. And, while that means different things to different couples, one researcher hypothesized a common sequence of marital evolution. Here’s what that looks like:

The 6 Stages of Marriage Evolution

  1. The loving relationship. In this initial stage, each partner finds joy in fulfilling the other’s needs. There’s an expectation that each partner’s needs will be reciprocated and marriage serves to solidify this sense of love and care. The couple is able to deepen their understanding of each other irrespective of the distractions of daily life.
  2. The honeymoon is over. In this stage, the dynamic shifts as one partner fails to meet the other’s expectations, leading to disappointment and pain. The belief in mutual responsibility for each other’s well-being persists, but behaviors become more manipulative, with attempts to please the partner aimed at restoring the initial state of “complete” love. Love and care are no longer unconditional, and partners oscillate between being critical and feeling hurt or disappointed when the relationship falls short of the ideal state.
  3. Getting even. Disappointment and resentment transform into anger, leading to a power struggle marked by frequent retaliatory measures. The struggle serves as a defense mechanism against ongoing disappointment in the inability to reclaim the initial loving relationship. Arguments center around control issues, such as money, sex, or time spent together. In extreme cases, extramarital affairs may occur as a means of hurting the spouse. The power struggle reflects a reaction to unmet expectations of unconditional love and acceptance, with couples attempting to control each other through power dynamics.
  4. Hanging in. Spouses, emotionally worn out and facing the threat of separation, divert their attention to other aspects of life rather than addressing existing conflicts. Despite the diminishing romantic love, commitment to the marriage remains, and the couple focuses on shared interests for the benefit of the family, like building a house, raising children, or job advancement. While satisfaction in the relationship declines, there’s a positive connection as the couple collaborates on joint enterprises.
  5. Doing your own thing. Spouses acknowledge the fantasy of expecting the other to fulfill their dependency needs. This realization prompts increased independence and self-confidence as individuals seek gratification alone. The pursuit of happiness shifts from the spouse to external sources, marking a phase of reawakened passion but also a recognition of the limitations of the relationship.
  6. Growing up. The final stage is characterized by an acceptance of reality, with a shift in focus to the present. Individuals in this stage develop self-reliance and recognize the necessity of maintaining a separate emotional identity for a mature relationship. Success in this stage involves accepting responsibility for one’s pleasures and pains and an increased availability to relate to others, especially one’s mate, in a more complete way.

The most important thing to take away from research on marital evolution is that all marriages and long-term partnerships have the potential to improve. Even when you feel like all hope is lost, remember that your relationship is constantly evolving. Psychologists don’t have all the answers, but we can say this for sure: How you feel about your marriage next year will be different than how you feel about it today.

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