I’ve been a marriage and family counselor for more than fifty years now. I hear from men and women every day who are in pain and suffering because their relationship has gone downhill and is in danger of crashing. Though some relationships need to end for the good of the couple or their children, for most marriages, divorce is not the answer.
No one ever comes to me saying, “I feel loved and cared for. My relationship is passionate and exciting, and I can’t wait to be with my spouse. I want a divorce.” And no one starts out getting married expecting that they will reach a time when they want out. So, why do relationships that start out good, turn bad?
In my book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come, I talk about the Stage 3, Disillusionment, as the place where most marriages fail. Here, I’ll tell you why Stage 3 is the hope for the future of your marriage, not an indicator of its demise.
Looking at the world in which we live, Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of the Presencing Institute, says, “In most large systems today, we collectively create results that no one wants. What keeps us locked into patterns of behavior where we create misery and pain for ourselves and others?
In his book, Theory U: Leading From the Future as It Emerges, Scharmer describes three major divides confronting society where we keep getting results no one wants.
- The ecological divide: unprecedented environmental destruction–resulting in the loss of nature.
- The social divide: obscene levels of inequity and fragmentation–resulting in the loss of society.
- The spiritual divide: increasing levels of burnout and depression–resulting in the loss of meaning and the loss of Self.
Based on my work with families, I would add a fourth divide.
4. The couple divide: increasing stress and conflict in our most intimate relationships, particularly at midlife, leading to broken marriages just when the couple could be enjoying their lives the most.
To understand how we can heal our relationships and prevent needless divorces, we have to understand the 5 stages of love and why too many marriages go off the rails at Stage 3:
- Stage 1: Falling In Love
- Stage 2: Becoming a Couple and Building a Life Together
- Stage 3: Disillusionment
- Stage 4: Creating Real, Lasting Love
- Stage 5: Using the Power of Two to Change the World
Most of us are familiar with the first two stages. We find that special someone and fall in love. We become and couple and build a life together. We often have children. But often, disillusionment sets in, and we grow apart. There may be constant fighting or cold silences, but little by little love is replaced with fear, caring with hate, and eventually we lose hope and decide that divorce is the only answer.
Don’t Give Up: Stage 3 is the Key to Real Lasting Love
There are four reasons people give up on their marriage:
- They are in so much pain, they feel they can’t go on.
- Nothing they do seems to help and they have given up hope.
- They do not feel their partner can change.
- They do not see a path forward that has a chance to turn things around.
Here’s what I’ve learned helping couples for more than fifty years. Men and women can endure a great deal of pain if they see a way to make things better. There’s a saying I’ve found that can help get through the pain to the other side: “When you’re going through hell, don’t stop.” Yes, it’s painful, but keep going; there’s a way out that can get you to what you want—real lasting love. There are two choices we have at Stage 3, we can move up and away or deeper and reconnect with our partner.
Otto Scharmer and his team at the Presencing Institute describe these two pathways as Absencing or Presencing. Here’s a graphic that summarizes their thinking:
On the path of Absencing, we close our hearts and minds and lose our will to act in the service of love. Our minds are full of judgments, cynical thoughts, and fears of the future. It’s a path that, if followed, will destroy a relationship.
On the path of Presencing, we open ourselves to new possibilities. We come to our senses. We are curious about why our partner feels the way they feel and does the things they do. We have compassion for their suffering and have courage to act on behalf of our best selves. We co-create a future that is good for all.
There are five primary purposes of Stage 3 that, if understood, can give us the courage to withstand the pain and reclaim the relationship we both want.
Purpose #1: Seeing the Real Person
Underneath the Projections
Stage 1, Falling in Love, is not about seeing a real person and falling in love with them. It is nature’s trick to pick a potential mate. Evolutionally success is based on baby-making, not real lasting love. When we meet a potential mate, we want them to see the best in us, so we project what we hope a potential partner will want. The first purpose of stage 3 is to force us to let go of our illusions and see the unique, flawed, wonderful person we are with.
Purpose #2: Connect Our Present Problems
in Relationship with Our Past
Many couples are surprised when I tell them that 90% of the problems they are having with their present partner are connected to their families of origin. There’s an old saying that therapists share with each other. “Every man marries his mother, and every woman marries her father.” That’s not true, of course, but it speaks to the reality that the issues we have with our present partner are connected to the past.
I, for instance, had a mother who was smart, sexy but emotionally cold and distant. I found I was drawn to smart, sexy women who turned out to be emotionally cold and distant. Of course, all of this operates on a subconscious level until we enter Stage 3, which forces us to confront our past.
Purpose #3: Recognize That We Are Making
the Same Mistakes in the Present
Many people wonder why we are attracted to partners who seem to be so wonderful and first but turn out to be so problematic later. It actually makes good sense when you understand what our subconscious is trying to do. It’s as though our subconscious says to us, I’m going to create the same kind of dysfunctional pattern that was present in my family of origin, but this time I’m going to change things and get the love I never thought I could have.
The desire to get the love we didn’t get is a laudable desire. However, without understanding the full pictures, we just repeat the same dysfunctional patterns we had learned in childhood that enabled us to survive in the family we lived in.
Purpose #4: Heal the Past So We Can Heal the Present
Heal the Present So We Can Heal the Past
One of the most important purposes of Stage 3 is to heal the wounds that create the mindset that keeps us apart. The problem is not that so many of us grew up experiencing adverse childhood experiences, but the beliefs we came to embrace as a result. Some common beliefs about ourselves that come from our wounds from the past include:
- I’m no good.
- I’ll be abandoned.
- I’ll go crazy.
- I’ll hurt those I love.
- I’ll do something terrible.
- I can’t live without you.
As we recognize the wounds from the past, we can develop strategies that work to fix them. Likewise, when we learn to heal our present relationship, we find we see our past differently. We can forgive our parents for not being all we wanted and needed. We recognize that they, too, grew up in families where their parents couldn’t give them all they needed. This healing is not easily done alone. We may benefit from working with a therapist to help us heal.
Purpose #5: The Reward for Healing in Stage 3
is Having Real Lasting Love in Stage 4
Many couples long for the feelings of passion, excitement, and the wild, crazy, time of falling in love. We are told that we can’t expect those feelings to last, that the benefits of creating a life together in Stage 2 should replace what is lost. The hidden reason so many marriages fail at Stage 3 is that many want to experience falling love all over again.
I can’t tell you how many times a man or woman has heard from their partner, “I still love you, but I’m not in love with you.”
Here’s the good news no one told you about. You don’t have to give up the passion of falling in love. Stage 4 not only allows you to fall in love again, but couples who have gone through Stage 3 report that what they feel in Stage 4 is stronger, more passionate, more real, and more lasting than anything they felt the first time around. And these reports are from couples who have been married for 30, 40, 50 years or more.
If you’d like to learn more about the 5 stages of love, drop me a note to email me and put “Tell me more about the 5 Stages” in the subject line. I’ll tell you all I know. If you’d like to read more articles like these come visit me here.
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