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Developmental Stages of Marriage

Most people are familiar with the stages of child development but what about the developmental stages of marriage?  Not as widely known, but familiarity with typical stages of marriage can be as helpful as understanding your child’s development.  Michele Weiner Davis notes stages of marriage in her book The Divorce Remedy: The Proven 7-Step Program for Saving Your Marriage (Simon & Schuster, 2002).

  1. Romance/Honeymoon Period

The first stage of marriage is the most familiar to many.  It’s often referred to as the “honeymoon period”.  This initial stage is renowned for couples feeling swept up into the romance and emotional excitement of their relationship.  Partners can’t believe they have found the “perfect person” and differences are overlooked or minimized.  The relationship takes priority over everything else.  Sexual attraction is strong and relationship satisfaction is at its highest levels.

  1. Reality Stage

The second stage of a marriage can be the most difficult.  It is here that euphoria from the romance stage is replaced with the realization of disagreements and conflicting expectations.  Couples experience first disappointments in their spouse and their marriage.  Differences seem more pronounced.  “What was I thinking” is a common reaction. Unfortunately, couples may see this normal stage as a sign of incompatibility and worry they made a mistake.  The reality stage is also marked by the assumption that if your spouse would just change, everything would be fine. This is also the stage where many life-changing decisions are made: Where to live?  Should we have children? Who will manage the finances? How to fit extended family into your life? Without strong communications skills couples can feel disillusioned and begin to drift apart.  Some marriages never make it beyond the reality stage and end in divorce.

  1. Acceptance/Accommodation

Moving into the third stage of marriage presents a decision to couples.  Those who decide to remain married face two options.  One is to settle for the status quo and live emotionally separate lives.  The couple remains dissatisfied with the state of the relationship but feel resigned that it will not improve.  They choose to remain married but stop investing time and effort in the marriage.  Many couples live out their married life in this state. 

The other option is to begin accept your spouse as they are, no more trying to get them to change.  The thought occurs “maybe I’m not that easy to live with either”.  Couples focus on healthier ways to interact and work out differences.  They are more interested in accommodating their partner and behave more compassionately toward each other.  Fights diminish because even though spouses know how to get each other going, they make a conscious decision not to.  For these couples, relationship satisfaction is again high.  They feel emotionally close and enjoy their time together.  Best of all, these couples move into the fourth stage and enjoy the benefit of their hard work.

  1. Success/Satisfaction

The end of expending energy trying to get your spouse to change and a commitment to seeing things from each other’s point of view results in a renewed sense of harmony and satisfaction.  Couples are typically married for many years by this point and have a sense of shared history.  There is a deeper understanding of each other’s needs and a feeling of success and accomplishment in meeting those needs. 

As individuals many people feel more secure in themselves, which leads to greater relationship satisfaction.  If there are children, they are older, more independent and perhaps living on their own.  This allows the couple to spend more time and energy on the marriage once again.  Couples in stage four experience high levels of relationship satisfaction. 

Similar to child development, relationship development is not linear.  Marriages move back and forth within the stages.  Life has a way of throwing challenges our way just as things seem to be “settling down”.  Couples in stage three may find themselves thrust back to stage two with unexpected issues of infertility, aging or ill parents, job loss, etc.  Couples in stage four may move back to stage three with the onset of retirement, requiring another reworking of interactions and expectations.  For those marriages with a good outcome of stage three and four, any setbacks are ameliorated by knowing what’s possible.  The end result- a peaceful, satisfying lifelong connection.