The beginning of the end or the first step toward real, lasting love?
Marcia was devastated when her husband of twenty-five years told her,
“I’m not in love with you anymore. The life has gone out of our marriage and I don’t think we can get it back.”
Two days later her husband Mark moved out of the house. He said he needed to sort things out. The couple’s two children were distraught and afraid.
Marcia called me in full panic mode.
“I feel blind-sided,” she told me. “We’ve had our ups and down and Mark’s been having a tough time with huge stresses at work, but I never thought it would come to this.”
After telling me about their lives up until now, Marcia broke into tears.
“I love Mark and I don’t want our marriage to end. What can I do?”
I told her that hearing the words “I’m not in love with you anymore” feels like having your heart ripped out. You think your world is collapsing. But it doesn’t have to be the end. In fact, it may be just the beginning of the best love of your life.
Confessions of a Thrice Married Marriage-and-Family Therapist
It’s said that we teach what we want to learn. For more than 40 years I’ve been teaching people how to have successful marriages that remain passionate, loving, and creative through the years. Being a marriage and family counselor has been a satisfying career and I’ve helped thousands of couples. But the truth is my initial motivation for going into the field was to learn how I could have a successful marriage.
My parents divorced when I was five years old and I grew up being raised by a single Mom. I vowed that what happened to them wouldn’t happen to me. “When I fall in love, it would be forever.” I probably remembered that from one of the love songs I heard growing up. “Forever” lasted almost ten years for me. I remarried and my second marriage lasted just two years. Before I married again, if I ever found the right person, I vowed I would learn the secret of real, lasting love.
My wife, Carlin, and I have now been married for 35 years. I’ll tell you truthfully it’s often been a struggle and there were times I wasn’t sure we’d make it. But I can tell you, we’ve learned the secret of having a functional, joyful, marriage. Learning about the four stages of marriage turned out to be the key to our success.
The Four Stages of Marriage
I still remember falling in love with Carlin. We met at an Aikido dojo and later reconnected at weekend workshop on Sex, Love, and Relationships. I don’t remember much of the formal learning because I was entranced with Carlin. We talked, walked on the beach, talked some more. I felt I had finally found my soul partner. We laughed together, played together, made mad, passionate love. Having finally found “the right person” we were sure that things would continue to be wonderful. Oh, how naïve we were. It turned out this was the only the first of four stages:
Stage 1: Falling In Love
Stage 2: Becoming a Couple
Stage 3: Disillusionment
Stage 4: Creating Real, Lasting Love
Falling in Love: Nature’s Trick to Get Us Together
Here’s a thought experiment that can teach us a lot. Imagine the implication of this simple truth: None of your direct ancestors died childless. We know your parents had at least one child. We also know your grandparents had at least one child. You can trace your ancestry back and back and back. You may or may not have children and you certainly know people who will never have children. But all your ancestors did.
How did they do that? Well, they fell in love or at least they fell in lust, which often accompanies falling in love. I call it nature’s trick because it gets us together. It feels so good because all those hormones are triggered: testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, and many others. Without them we’d never make babies and our species would disappear.
It also feels wonderful because we project all our hopes and dreams on our lover. We imagine that they will fulfill our desires, give us all the things we didn’t get as children, deliver on all the promises our earlier relationships failed to fulfill. We are sure we will remain in love forever. And because we are besotted with “love hormones,” we’re not aware of any of this.
Becoming a Couple: Nature’s Way of Keeping Children Alive
It’s good to remember that we are all mammals and must put considerable energy into raising the young or they won’t survive. It starts with mother’s milk and goes on from there. Whether we have children or not, we’re built to be sure they survive. We learn to bond with our partner and with our children. We work at a job. We build a life together.
Disillusionment: The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning
At some point things start to deteriorate in the relationship. We fight more. We have sex less often. When we do make love, it’s more about duty than passion, more about immediate pleasure and tension release than deeply felt love.
Things we once overlooked in our partner become thorns in our side. He forgets to put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket. She is late again for an important event. Fights become more common or they disappear completely. Everything may look fine on the surface, but inside we feel hollow and alone.
We get sick more easily, sometimes seriously sick. I began to suffer from atrial fibrillation. My wife got breast cancer. We usually don’t recognize the illnesses as stress reactions. It’s terrifying to feel love slipping away.
This is the stage where many marriages fail. We go our separate ways, eventually fall in love again, we repeat steps 1, 2, 3, and the cycle repeats itself. But that need not be the case. Disillusionment does not mean you’ve picked the wrong partner or the love you thought you had has drained away. It means you are ready to let go of the illusions of love and get down to the real thing.
Hang in There: The Joys of Real, Lasting Love
As a young couple, I still remember my first wife and I going to hear the legendary psychologist and therapist, Carl Rogers, talk about marriage. He was in his 80s then and he and his wife had been married more than sixty years. My wife and I had been together for less than a year and were anxious to hear the great man’s wisdom about love and life.
At one point in his talk he turned to his wife, Helen.
“Remember that stretch when things were so bad in our relationship?”
She smiled and nodded her head. I was amazed to hear that my idol had problems in his relationship. But I was dumbfounded to hear what came next.
“There was that bad patch of nine or ten years when things were awful.” Helen smiled and shook her head as she too remembered. “But we hung in there and worked things out.”
“You must be kidding,” I thought, “Nine or ten years of things being awful?” I couldn’t imagine things ever being awful for me and my wife and if they ever were I sure couldn’t imagine staying in a state of awful for nine or ten years.
Now having been married for thirty-five years, I understand that there can be some pretty terrible times. But getting through those times together is how we learn about real, lasting love. Over the years we learned to heal old wounds, quit blaming our partner for not fulfilling our needs, and reclaiming our lost power. It’s not easy to work things out together. But knowing about the four stages of love and remembering the words of Carl Rogers and the look of love between him and Helen has guided my journey. I hope it will help guide yours as well.
The end of “being in love” is the opportunity for “real, lasting love.” It doesn’t happen fast and it isn’t ever all sweetness and light. But there’s nothing better in the world to do with our lives than to learn to love, deeply and well. I’d like to hear about your own experiences on the path of love. Together we can learn from each other and together we can make a better world.
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