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.