Marriage expert and creator of divorcebusting.com, Michele Weiner-Davis, and her husband, Jim, recently celebrated their 38th anniversary. Since Weiner-Davis is an expert, one might assume being married for almost four decades would be easy.
"Expert or not, marriage is hard work," she says. "At times, you consider quitting. Creating a lasting marriage is a humbling experience. It is part skill, part luck, elbow grease and blind determination. "
Having devoted her life to helping couples, Weiner-Davis knows that all marriages go through stages and predictable crises.
"All couples experience hills and valleys, yet predictable transitional periods are often misunderstood, causing over-reactions," she says. "Those who weather these universal stormy periods usually end up with greater love and commitment to their spouses."
There are five predictable stages most marriages experience: The first is typically filled with passion. Starry eyed in love with your mate, you finish each other's sentences, and annoying things are usually overlooked. The newness and excitement of the relationship stimulates production of chemicals in your bodies that increase energy, positive attitudes, heightened sexuality and sensuality.
Joy ultimately gives way to an awakening: Marriage isn't what you expected. Enter stage two, when reality sets in. Little things start to bother you, like stinky breath in the morning, toilet seats left up, stuff strewn on the counter and forgetting to pay bills. You argue a lot. Reminding yourself you made a lifelong commitment, you start to understand the real meaning of eternity.
"While feeling at odds with your once-kindred spirit, you are faced with making life-altering decisions," says Weiner-Davis. "Should we have children, where to live, who will support the family, who pays the bills and who will do the cooking? Spouses often start to feel like members of opposing teams."
In stage three, most people believe there are two ways of looking at things: your spouse's way and your way. Couples battle to get their partner to admit they are wrong. Every disagreement is an opportunity to define the marriage. Both partners dig in their heels.
"Convinced they've tried everything, many couples give up, telling themselves they've fallen out of love or married the wrong person," says Weiner-Davis. "Other people resign themselves to the situation and lead separate lives together. Still others decide it's time to investigate healthier and more satisfying ways of interacting. Requiring a major leap of faith, those who take it are the fortunate ones because the best of marriage is yet to come."
In stage four, couples realize seeing eye-to-eye on everything is unlikely. They work to live more peaceably. They seek wise counsel from close friends and family, and marriage seminars or counseling. When disagreements occur, more of an effort is made to put themselves in each other's shoes. Fights happen less frequently and are not as intense or emotional as before.
Finally, stage five.
"Many couples never get to this stage," says Weiner-Davis. "No longer struggling to define what the marriage should be, there is more peace and harmony. You start 'liking' your spouse again. While both agree marriage hasn't been easy, there is shared history and you feel proud you've weathered the storms.
"You begin to appreciate your differences as well as your partner's sense of commitment to making your marriage last. What you don't appreciate, you find greater acceptance for. You realize you have come full circle."
Julie Baumgardner is President and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.