Some things are highly predictable: The darkness of night is followed by sunrise. Predictability helps us prepare for what comes next and gives us hope that we can make it through. An old proverb tells us: Forewarned is forearmed. But to be forearmed, you need to be forewarned.
Every marriage goes through four predictable stages. When couples aren't familiar with these stages they often quit even though they could have succeeded.
The stages of marriage are:
•Romance: This is the “new-love,” honeymoon phase: You're “in love”; everything is perfect and nothing could be better.
•Arrival of Reality: After six to 18 months the honeymoon hormones wear off. You become increasingly unhappy over things about your spouse that you used to think were “cute,” and your spouse is no longer the “perfect soul mate” you originally believed.
•Make-it or Break-it: You're now convinced you've married an idiot. Sari Harrar and Rita DeMaria explain that you've become absolutely certain that “the only way to make your marriage work is your way.” You feel trapped by your marriage and “by a legal commitment that shuts you off from both growth and fun.”
This is when couples experience the hard lessons of teamwork. Harrar and DeMaria explain that developing “respect, empathy, and friendship for each other” and becoming cheerleaders for each other's interests and passions are the hallmark of couples who make it.
•Healthy Couplehood: Harrar and DeMaria explain: “This is one of the longest, most productive, and most potentially satisfying phases of your relationship. It's the summer time of marriage, when the dreams you planted as seeds long ago come to fruition.” You see yourselves as a couple and you've learned to problem-solve as a team. Life is good … really good … again.
Predictably, the greatest risk of divorce is in the first six years of marriage, during the Arrival of Reality and Make-it or Break-it stages. Many couples are not prepared for these stages; instead they cling to the myths that “all it takes is love” and “you only need to find your soul mate” and you'll live “happily ever after.”
Without knowing what to expect, they give up too easily, attributing their problems to a lack of love or an error in choosing a “soul mate.” As a result, they miss out on the greatest part of marriage, Healthy Couplehood.
Three things are needed to make it to the Healthy Couplehood stage. First, couples should expect that their relationship will go through predicable stages. The early years together require personal adjustments by both of them as they go from individuals to couplehood; some of these adjustments can be difficult.
Second, as Retrouvaille, an organization dedicated to helping troubled marriages, explains, successful couples don't give up. They're committed to the relationship and work together to find solutions to their problems. They realize that there are “learnable skills, attitudes and tools that they can use to deal with the inevitable problems of the real world.”
Third, successful couples have hope for the future. Their hope is built on a realistic sense of the possible. They understand that what they're experiencing is normal, and that the process of working through their differences will make their relationship stronger. Hope is crucial: Without hope people give up even when they could succeed.
When couples marry, we, as friends and family, need to support them and wish them well. But we also need to be honest with them. Marriages go through growing pains. Couples need to expect them and when they arrive, work through them as a team. Forewarning couples forearms them and increases their chances of success.