- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

I recently ran into a friend I had not seen in a while. When I asked how life was treating her, she enthused, “We are finally empty-nesters. We are having so much fun! If everybody knew how good it was when the kids leave, nobody would get divorced!”

It made me think about how many couples I know who have gotten caught up in the throes of children, career, etc. and ended up throwing in the towel on their marriage.

The reality is marriage is hard work. Creating a lasting marriage takes skill, determination and chutzpah.

Michele Weiner Davis, marriage therapist and author, has been observing relationships for years. She will be the first to tell you that marriages go through stages and predictable crises, but because people are unfamiliar with the normal hills and valleys of marriage, these predictable transitional periods often are misunderstood, causing overreactions.

Ms. Weiner Davis says most marriages experience five stages. During the first, passion prevails. You are head over heels in love with your mate. You finish each other’s sentences and when annoying things pop up, they usually are overlooked. At no other time in your relationship is your feeling of well-being and physical desire for each other as intense as during this period.

At some point, joy gives way to an earth-shattering awakening; marriage isn’t at all what you expected, hence the beginning of stage two. This stage tends to be the most difficult because couples experience the greatest fall. Reality sets in. Little things bother you. You’re confused. You argue about everything. When you remind yourself you made a lifelong commitment, you start to understand the real meaning of eternity.

While feeling at odds with your once-kindred spirit, you are faced with making life-altering decisions. Whether to have children, where to live, who will support the family, who will pay bills, how free time will be spent, dealing with in-laws and who will do the cooking. Just when a team spirit would come in handy, spouses often start to feel like opponents.

In the third stage of marriage, most people believe there are two ways of looking at things, your spouse’s way and your way. Couples often battle to get their partners to admit they are wrong. Every point of disagreement is an opportunity to define the marriage. Over time, both partners dig their heels in deeper and deeper.

“This is when couples are convinced they’ve tried everything and where some give up,” Ms. Weiner Davis said. “They tell themselves they’ve fallen out of love or married the wrong person and they divorce. Other people resign themselves to the status quo and decide to lead separate lives. Still others decide it’s time to begin to investigate healthier and more satisfying ways of interacting. This requires a major leap of faith. Those who take it are the fortunate ones because the best of marriage is yet to come.”

In stage four, couples come to terms with the fact that they are never going to see eye to eye about everything. They seek wise counsel. Couples more readily forgive hardheadedness, and recognize that neither party is exactly easy to live with. When disagreements occur, they make more of an effort to put themselves in each other’s shoes.

Finally, you reach stage five. Tragically, half of all couples who wed never get to this stage. No longer in a struggle to define who you are and what the marriage should be, there is more peace and harmony. You start “liking” your spouse again. While you both would agree that marriage hasn’t been easy, you feel proud you’ve weathered the storms. You appreciate your partner’s sense of commitment to making your marriage last. You feel more secure about yourself as a person and you begin to appreciate the differences between you and your spouse. If you have children, they’re older and more independent, allowing you to focus on your marriage again, like in the old days. You realize you have come full circle.

Julie Baumgardner is the Executive Director of First Things First, an organization dedicated to strengthening marriages and families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at [email protected]

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