The Stages of a Couple’s Life

About twenty-five years ago, my friend Michael Glenn and I wrote a book called Couples. The divorce rate had reached historical highs among both formally married and just-living-together couples.  We wanted to know why.  More important, we wanted to understand how people could both solve their problems and live through their doubts and difficulties in order to sustain and enhance their commitments.

It was a hot topic, of course.  Self help books filled the shelves of bookstores—which still figured prominently in American society.  Everyone wanted to tell everyone else how to be happy.  Almost no one wanted to talk about the complexity of relationships, particularly relationships in a world where prescribed gender roles and proper marital behavior had begun to crumble.  We chose complexity and offered no easy solutions.

Even though Michael and I turned our back on the self-help style, our book was taken up by HarperCollins and launched by a national marketing tour.  On Valentine’s Day, Couples was displayed in the front of most of the major bookstore in the country.  We spoke on radio and TV shows, at book stores and book shows galore.  The book was translated into German and Japanese.

We had touched a nerve, though not always a happy one.  While many people felt recognized, even affirmed by our portraits, others were furious that the picture wasn’t rosy enough, that it under-estimated the difference between men and women, or that it didn’t mention God.  I was chastised unmercifully by one fellow in Calgary, Canada for my Godless thinking.

Couples is long out of print but the ideas still seem fresh to me and they seem to have portended trends that I now see reflected in current research.  For instance, we believed that marriage satisfaction was made more difficult by outrageous expectations.  Nothing in actual relationships could compare to the images people brought to the alter.

In 2014, for example, Eli Finkel and colleagues found precisely what we had found in 1990.  Historically, they wrote, we “expected our spouses to help satisfy our needs for resources (income, putting food on the table, etc.), safety and security, and our need to feel loved and cared for.”  In the current “self-expressive” marriage, we “expect that our spouses facilitate not only our needs for closeness and connection, but also our needs for personal growth and fulfillment….self-esteem and self actualization.” Our spouses are “not only partners in the daily task of providing for and managing a household, they are also expected to be our best friends, caring confidants, passionate and adventurous lovers, intellectual challengers, and biggest cheerleaders.”

We called the sum of expectations that shaped marital expectations, the Cultural Narrative.  The narrative was to be found in movies, books and magazines, in advice columns, in feminist empowerment groups, and the offices of psychotherapists.  They told us what constitutes success, how to work out problems, how to change our spouses to meet our needs.  And the ideas were presented mostly by women, who represented the vanguard in the rebellion against traditional marital forms, in which men led and women followed, in which difficulties were kept to ourselves or whispered only to dear friends.

Within this powerful Cultural Narrative, we observed that couples passed through three recognizable stages in their development.

  • The Stage of Expansion and Promise (the honeymoon phase).  During this stage, each of us expands into what we might call our ego ideal, the selves we have always wanted to be.  Our expansion catalyzes our mate’s expansion, which, in turn, buoys us, creating a “virtuous cycle” for both individuals and relationships. We feel larger than our usual selves.  The experience is so compelling that we convince ourselves that it represents a promise for the foreseeable future.
  • The Stage of Contraction and Betrayal.  During this stage, we contract.  We are play out our worst selves and worry that this is all there is to us, individually and collectively.  The contraction begins with small things: a nervous moment pushes one member back; a careless comment is hurtful.  These small acts lead to reactions from the other, which leads to a correspondingly defensive move by the first—and so it goes.  A “vicious cycle” has been created that makes the relationship small and unhappy.
  • The Stage of Resolution.  This is a stage of compromise, negotiation, accommodation, and integration. The partners struggle to be reasonable and maintain perspective, to affirm complexity and to handle difficult situations with competence and maturity.  By simultaneously holding both sides of ourselves at once, the relationship is stabilized, feelings are calmed, and peace prevails.

Marital life doesn’t end with the first Resolution.  Often, the resolution of conflict is such a relief that it rapidly turns to exhilaration, which sets in motion a renewal of the initial honeymoon phase.  Honeymoons don’t last, though and couples, once again plunge into difficulties which seemed to betray the promise of romance and new beginnings.  Then, if the relationship holds together, couples find a way to a longer stay in the stage of Resolution.  Over the years, couples keep cycling through these three stages.

The character of couples is shaped as much by the rhythm of the cycles as by the content of their stages. In this, couples vary greatly. Some couples, for example, move through wild swings: everything’s great, then everything’s awful; then there is a brief moment of reconciliation, after which everything’s better (or worse) than ever. For others, the stages move more subtly from one to another, and the cycles are relatively smooth. Some couples remain for long periods in one stage or another; others cycle all the time.

Every couple has a Home Base, a stage in which they generally reside. This habitual stage represents both its public persona and its evolved self-image, but not its full character. Those who reside in Contraction, for instance, think of themselves as conflicted and troubled, even though they have authentic moments in Expansion and in Resolution. Once a couple has settled into a stage as its Home Base, its cycles tend to begin and end there. The couple in Contraction might climb out through one compromise or another, relax momentarily in Resolution, which feels good enough to revive some old romantic feelings reminiscent of Expansion. But with its first minor disappointment, fall back to their familiar Home Base in Contraction.

As I wrote a while back, with age, couples tend towards calm and greater acceptance, and they reside primarily in the Stage of Resolution.

This is the briefest of summaries of our theory.  Each of the stages and each of the full cycles presents a rich brew of feelings, thoughts, and activities.  Over the course of the next several weeks, I will devote a post to each stage and to the cycles, themselves, and to the subject of how all of these play out with both young and old couples.

I’m pretty sure you will find yourself in these portraits, and I will be looking forward to learning your responses.

The Wisdom of Aging Couples

For several months now, I’ve been wanting to write about aging couples.  It’s relatively recent that I’ve been part of one.  I was a couple therapist and taught clinical practice for about thirty years.  In 1993, with my friend, Michael Glenn, I published a book called Couples; a few years later I published a book on the practice of therapy, Readiness and Change in Couple Therapy. The work was so absorbing and I was so well known to others as “the couple therapist” that it virtually defined me in those days.  This is a homecoming of sorts.

As I began to think about aging couples, though, I realized that my knowledge is a tad dated.  I had mostly worked with young and middle-aged couples.  So I began to talk with and read about couples in their sixties, seventies, and eighties.  They are different. But before I turn to older couples in my next essay, I want to tell you what I learned about the general social habits of old coots like me.

Here’s the headline: “Aging people experience more satisfaction and less conflict in relationships.”  They “report better quality ties with their children, more positive marriages, closer friendships, and an overall greater proportion of positive versus problem-ridden relationships than do middle-aged or young adults (1)”  For me, this conclusion defies expectations and stereotypes about grumpy, cantankerous old people.

According to researchers (2), as people age, they develop a “cognitive bias,” leading them to attend mostly to positive experiences while avoiding the negative.  That bias leads older people to structure their lives in ways that minimize stress.  They choose harmonious companions and avoid both people and situations that create difficulties.  What’s more, their judgment, their ability to determine who will be good for them and who won’ improves with the years.

When in contact with difficult people, elders are more adept at regulating what happens.  If discussions become stressful, for instance, they know how to deflect and defuse matters.   They ask and receive more and better support  than young people do from friends and spouses.(3).   “In sum, …, [they] learn how to…regulate their social and emotional experiences.” (4)

The natural course of life also lends itself to greater harmony.  After mid-life, for example, many people begin to shed their adolescent—and post-adolescent–children.  It turns out that the empty nest presents more of a sentimental than a real crisis.  For many couples, whose fights often revolved around their children, the departure is a great relief.  Then, too, leaving the tensions and pretensions of work also brings relief.

Not only are there fewer tensions, but older people interpret stressful experience in a calmer way.  For example, “When recalling…conflict discussions, older adults rate the behavior of their spouses more positively than do objective coders. By contrast, middle-aged spouses rate their spouses’ behavior similarly to the ratings of the objective viewers (5).  Long experience has taught older people that the pain won’t last, things that are said in anger do not represent the final or definitive word.  They are better able to re-interpret conflict, then defuse its longer term impact.

With age, people  say, they find greater support from friends and mates That calming support is often freely offered by friends but it is also actively sought.  Older people both receive and “express more sentimental and positive messages” than they did when younger.  The more they support others, the more the support is returned.  This creates what couple therapists call a “virtuous cycle.”  In other words, the calming of their social world is an active achievement.

What I have reported on so far tells us that older people, in general, have calmer, more satisfying relationships with both peers.  .  It doesn’t tell us why.  Several researchers do. They emphasize the “short horizon” in the lives of aging people.  “When perceived time grows shorter, individuals place a greater priority on present-oriented goals, such as regulating social experiences to maximize relationship satisfaction.”  Another researcher tells us that “Foreshortened time perspective in relationships with older adults also may lead to greater forgiveness for social grievances (2)”. “In addition to perceiving time remaining in their own lives, individuals perceive the time left within any given relationship. As the time left to spend with a social partner narrows, people may recognize this diminished horizon and focus increasingly on emotional harmony as opposed to other non-emotional goals (e.g., seeking information) in the relationship.”  The very fact of the relationship becomes more important than making it fuller or better.

People eventually learn what is pliable and what is not with friends and spouses.  After years and decades of trying to change one another, making the other more responsive or responsible, for example, we recognize the futility of our efforts.  It hasn’t worked.  We yield to what is and then we accept it.  Then there are two possibilities.   We can walk away or we can simply stop what has been a failing and dispiriting effort.  The very act of no longer failing is a relief; and a considerable calm comes over us.

There is a kind of death in the decision to accept people as they are, a sense that you will never fully achieve what you have been trying to do for a long, long time, and you will never fully have what you have so long wanted.  We have also put so much of ourselves into changing others, and that part of ourselves dies, too.  But it is that death that compels us to treasure who our friends and mates are and to savor the beauty of what is.   As the poet, Wallace Stevens, says,

“Death is the mother of beauty;  Hence from her,

Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams

And our Desires.”


  1. Fingerman, Hay, & Birditt, 2004; Rook, 1984; 2003
  2. Charles, Mather & Carstensen, 2003
  3. Field & Minkler, 1988; Schnittker, 2007
  4. Hess, Osowski, & LeClerc, 2005
  5. Story et al., 2007
  6. Field & Minkler, 1988; Schnittker, 2007