“Is my marriage beyond repair? Is this feeling normal?”

Couples are often confused when their relationship takes a turn for the worse. What many don’t realize is that the ups and downs they may experience are normal and even serve a higher purpose to make their marriage better. Understanding the three stages of marriage helps couples normalize their situation and provide hope that their marriage can thrive once again.

Let’s explore the three stages and see which one you are in:

Stage 1: Romantic Love

The Romantic Love stage begins when you first fall in love with your spouse. You may feel a sense of oneness or completion. Most couples in this stage are convinced that it will last forever. Although they know of couples who have struggled after marriage, they are certain they won’t face the same fate. They think they’ll defy the odds.

We know that this stage does not last forever; eventually we all come off the cloud at some point. The reason we are so illogical in this stage is that our brain is being drugged by infatuation. When we fall in love our brain becomes flooded with the neurochemical phenylethylamine. These neurochemicals increase our positive outlook, diminish pain, and cause us to feel safe and calm. They help motivate us to make the commitment to a relationship.

Stage 2: The Power Struggle

The Power Struggle begins after commitment. For some this may occur after engagement, for others after their wedding. The newlywed couple expects to be in the romantic stage forever so they are in for a rude awakening when it wears off. There can be an intense feeling of disillusionment in this stage, causing doubts about whether we married the wrong partner. After all, what happened to the romantic love?

During the Power Struggle phase, we begin to get defensive and focus on protecting ourselves instead of engaging in relationship. We even begin to dislike many of the things that made us fall in love in the first place. When we fell in love we may have been intrigued by our partner’s fun-loving personality, we may now find them loud and obnoxious.

Why does it have to be this way? Did we make a mistake? All couples experience these stages to some degree. It is often the ones who experience a more intense romantic stage who have a stronger power struggle. Marriage is one of the greatest opportunities you will find in life for growth and healing. From a psychological perspective (as well as from a spiritual perspective), we are subconsciously looking for a partner that will help make us more whole and complete. In order for this to occur, we are attracted to someone who will best stimulate our growth. This person will push our buttons and trigger some of our deepest wounds, usually from childhood, yet if we work through these issues we can achieve enormous personal growth. As the Talmud says (Makkos 7b) this is a descent for the purpose of ascent.

Stage 3: Real Love or the Conscious Marriage

Many couples in the Power Struggle are not aware of what they are experiencing and wind up getting divorced or living as roommates instead of soulmates. For the marriage to reach its potential, couples need to wake up and begin the journey to the third stage of relationships called Real Love or the Conscious Marriage. Here is an example of how a couple began to leave the power struggle and create a more conscious marriage:

When Sam married Sarah he loved her spontaneity. This was something he was lacking in his own life and it was refreshing to find someone who was so much fun. Once they hit the power struggle, that spontaneity was a sore point for Sam. He experience Sarah as flaky, all over the place, and it made him feel extremely uncomfortable. Sam was very serious and reserved. Growing up in a home without structure, he felt the need to be more in control of his reality. He learned not to like surprises and to create order. During the romantic stage, Sarah’s personality represented an opportunity to claim a part of himself that he had disowned as a child. Yet, once they entered the power struggle and he began to return to his old defenses it made him feel uncomfortable.

Then Sam and Sarah became more conscious of the issue at hand and what it triggered in Sam. That enabled Sam to be less reactive to Sarah’s behavior and it allowed for Sarah to be more sensitive to Sam’s needs and be a little more reliable. This also allowed Sam to reclaim that lost part of himself and loosen up as he no longer needed to protect himself as he did as a child.

Becoming conscious of the Power Struggle, no longer getting locked in the issue, and seeing the big picture enables couples to become more balanced. The conflict is an opportunity for growth to happen.

Couples in the third stage will explore their issues so that they feel safe enough to meet their partner’s needs, balancing out their own personalities and achieving growth.

Knowing the three stages of marriage can be incredibly helpful for couples who may become despondent once they start to face a rough patch in their relationship. Normalizing the situation and realizing that it is only a stage and that it is possible to re-experience love on a deeper and more mature level provides hope to weather the storm and confidence to commit to cultivating a deeply satisfying relationship.

The three relationship stages are from Imago Therapy, by Dr Harville Hendrix and his wife Dr Helen Lakelly Hunt. If you are stuck in the Power Struggle and would like to achieve a more conscious relationship, download your free sample chapters of Rabbi Slatkin’s new book, The Marriage Restoration Project- The Five-Step Action Plan for Saving Your Marriage