3 Stages of Marriage Every Couple Needs To Know

My back hurts. Nevertheless, on this Monday morning I can hear the dog whimpering for food in the other room. She does not belong to me, but it’s my duty as a husband to feed her. That’s how marriage works.

I tend to get philosophical on Monday mornings; it’s an activity well suited to my current physical condition, when bending over to fill the dog’s bowl is difficult, and hospital bed pans seem like an attractive and sensible option.

As I consider my upcoming anniversary, I must admit there is a sense of accomplishment that comes with being married for three decades. It’s been an adventure. Okay, we took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost. But we are still here and as I lie in bed, I take stock of the things around me and what they represent, purposefully examining the shared experiences, old and new, pleasant and painful, assessing the condition of our relationship, noting with some satisfaction the effects of age and perseverance.

On the wardrobe opposite the bed is a Precious Moments, “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” wedding cake topper from our wedding day. If you look closely around the neck of the groom you will find a hairline crack filled with crazy glue keeping his head attached to his body. I am proud of this little monument. It distinguishes me immediately as an imperfect, but persistent husband, as someone who has continued the course even in the face of difficulty. You can hear chards of porcelain rattle around inside his head when you shake him. It’s a metaphor, a reminder, a credential of sorts, telling others how long and how difficult marriage can be at times.

There are more recent mementos, several works of pottery from Cuernavaca, Mexico – the trophies of rummaging through little artisan villages, meandering down narrow, cobble-stone streets, hand-in-hand with my wife, all while being serenated by mariachis. Our home, such as it is – nothing matches from an interior design frame of reference – is filled with artifacts, furniture and utensils which secretly document major events and stages of our life together. A large earth-toned black, gold, red, and green tapestry comforter runs along the foot of our bed; over time it has become frayed and tattered; the fabric so worn, the images of roses look necrotic. I remember when we were just starting out, seeing similar works of art in high-end department stores with price tags so inflated our noses would bleed just from looking. Since such fashionable luxuries were simply out of the question at the time, my wife learned to sew – her homemade rose tapestry comforter may now be falling apart but it is still the most treasured blanket in the house.

Every object and keepsake, whether damaged or in pristine condition, is just another thread woven into the fabric of our connubial identity; it’s like the layers of an ancient city, evidence of one period after another piled on top of each other.

It’s been twenty-eight years since I walked down the aisle with curly blonde locks hanging over my collar, a righteous indignation for anything other than clean living, and a strong, mid-western work ethic. This article is about some of what I have learned about marriage over the last thirty years – both in the classroom and the laboratory of life.

Most people think of marriage as two individuals who, somehow, fall in love and then become connected by a religious ceremony or legal contract. But the question is, what happens when you fall out of love? After all, isn’t it likely that any condition you accidently fall into is a condition you could fall out of just as easily? But because so many accept marriage as nothing more than two people connected by a single document, when difficult times come, the bridge breaks and the parties go their separate ways.




This is not marriage.

Marriage is an institution that takes multiple facets of two individuals and converges them into a third entity. It’s what the bible describes as the “two becoming one flesh.”  In the diagram below, the outer white areas represent, respectively, the husband and wife; the overlapping grey area represents the marriage.



In other words, the bond of matrimony produces an entity which is greater than the sum of its parts. Put simply, in the economy of marriage one plus one does not equal two but three.  I find it helpful to think of it this way:  marriage is the first child the couple ever has. Marriage gives birth to a third reality and now the couple has to take care of this reality, otherwise the marriage gets sick and dies. Even more to the point, if you got married so that the marriage would take care of you, you are in big trouble. To the contrary, you must take care of it.

And having established this fact, let’s take the metaphor a step further. As with any child, marriages progress through stages of development and growth. You must ask yourself, “How am I going to make sure this child grows and develops?”

Stage 1 is the Primary Union phase.

We can also call this the romantic stage or blind love stage. This phase is exciting and romantic. The couple falls in love by the combination of two processes. First, attraction. We look at someone and we like the shape of their nose, their toes, their ears – who knows. But we say, “This person is my ideal.” Second, the meeting of felt needs – we need someone to tell us that we are the greatest person in the world. We need someone to say, “You are the most talented”, or “smartest,” or “most beautiful and attractive person alive.” When you find someone you find attractive and who gratifies some of your basic needs – boom you are in love. And when you fall in love – boom – you go blind . . . you become dumb . . . you begin to talk to each other like babies, you give each other cute little names and you become preoccupied with the other person and, generally speaking, obnoxious to everyone else around you.

Added to this is the fact that we all have an ideal mate in our mind and that ideal is personified in the other person. As a result, we see in this person whatever we want to see, not stopping to distinguish reality from our own imagination.

The circle diagram below illustrates what happens as the relationship takes over the lives of the individuals. When they are together – they are together, and when they are away from each other – they are texting, writing poems and daydreaming so that they are, in effect, still together – it is an exciting phase and one that we wish would last forever.




So then comes the decision to get married. They go to the parents for permission.

The parents say, “Who is this person?”


“What is his last name?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Ok, well what does he do?”

“Well, he is in transition” – or “freelancing,” meaning he does not have a job.

“Ok, well what about his parents?”

“Well, he does not talk to his parents. He doesn’t really relate to them.”

“Have you met them?”

“Oh no, I haven’t met them, but they will be ok with us getting married.”

“What do you know about his background?”


“Well . . . we have heard he has been in jail . . .”

“See! I knew you wouldn’t understand. We are in love, can’t you see that?! And through the force of love we are going to change everything!“

So what happens in the first stage is you lose your capacity to reason. Parenthetically, that is why it is very important to seek the advice of parents and to heed their advice. And when the person throws a temper tantrum rather than dealing with some of these concerns, you will see automatically that this person is not mature enough to get married and establish a union which will endure the storms of life.

What is interesting is that people who live together before getting married usually get married at the end of this first stage. What happens is at the end of the stage they sense that something is changing, they get frightened (as they don’t want to lose the relationship) and they say, “We better get married.” And as soon as they get married they enter the second phase – not good. Let me explain why.

Stage 2 is the Differentiation phase.

This is the phase in which the couple suddenly wakes up. They wake up and realize that the person who was perfect – is not perfect. Now they begin to see all the deficiencies, habits, and behaviors they did not know before or chose to ignore. That they didn’t know is related to the fact that during the dating phase we all wrap ourselves up into nice packages. We sit and talk for hours, we are polite, always putting our best foot forward. Then, after the marriage, the package opens and a big surprise pops out. And the surprise is the man does not want to talk, at night he snores, he chews his food with a lot of noise. Habits come to the forefront.

In the first phase we see in each other what we want to see. In the second phase we don’t like anything we do see. So the marriage becomes emaciated. The individuals become so busy with their own lives, their jobs, their children, with respective friends and activities that they grow apart. Not only that, but the second phase is mixed with the memory of the romantic phase.




And this is the phase that is most dangerous because many people begin to establish other romantic relationships – either in their minds or in their behaviors. And when that happens, the marriage is in a desperate situation. Most marriages that break up, break up in this phase.


Because they do not realize that all of this is normal, natural, and to be expected.

If the first phase is the childhood stage, this stage is the adolescent stage. In this stage, emotions are high, there is a lot of fighting, a lot of arguments, a lot of breaking up and coming back together. There are a lot of changes in the relationship. And the most important thing to remember in this phase of marriage is to be patient. In fact, in this phase of marriage you need an enormous amount of patience – with each other and with yourself.

If you manage to do that successfully, you will move to the third phase of marriage. Sadly, most marriages do not make it to the third phase. They may not experience divorce, but tragically marriages get stuck in this phase. They can go for years and even decades with this volatile sort of arrangement  –  eventually living parallel lives with just a little bit of connection.

By the way, this is a scientific reason why premarital sex is unhealthy. Because abstinence protects this first phase of the marriage. Otherwise, the couple automatically enters the conflict stage after marriage – and if marriage is the only variable that has changed, guess what receives the blame. That first phase is essential in bringing them together and laying a strong foundation for a lifelong relationship – premarital sex undermines the whole process.

The third phase is the Enlightened phase.

In this stage the couple has matured as individuals through the challenges that they have faced. What also happens is they begin to develop a much greater appreciation for the person to whom they are married.

As we evolve individually, we become more self-confident. And as we become self-confident we are able to see the uniqueness of the other person. Once that happens, we fall in love with those unique qualities. So there is a process of re-discovery of self and re-discovery of the other person which brings a very new and rewarding dimensions to the marriage.

Here, the circles are evenly overlapped between a life of their own and a very rich marriage life.




Notice, in this diagram both people maintain his or her individuality and unique being. But at the same time they are creating something together. Therefore, while it may seem counter-intuitive, the reality is if you put all your love and adoration into the other person, you are going to come out unsatisfied. Because no matter how much love and adoration exists in the relationship, you are only human and you cannot meet all of the other person’s needs. Healthy marriages require both spouses to have a purpose of life that they serve which gives them meaning outside the marriage. Otherwise, we need to be constantly adored and served by the other person, which only leads to anger, disappointment and hurt feelings.

Just a note. It is possible to experience any of the three phases at any time in the marriage. In fact, when you are transitioning from one phase to the next, the situation will inevitable vacillate between two stages. The important consideration is identifying the primary characteristics of the relationship as it has been over the last six to twelve months.

I hope this paradigm of marriage encourages you. It will not solve all your marital problems, but what it does is give you a framework to understand your relationship and where to go from here. When you are first married, you assume that your needs are going to be met – as a sort of natural, effortless, and intuitive part of the journey – but for a variety of reasons you’ve probably become very disappointed. The point here is don’t panic and don’t give up. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’re a failure just because your marriage is not what you expected. You are only a failure when you give up all hope and effort to succeed.

Other posts you may also enjoy:

Marriage Revisited



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