When I married my husband, I thought there were only two stages of marriage: “the wedding” and “the funeral.” As it turns out, however, there are several. Sadly, I spent many years mired in a couple of the least pleasurable ones. The good news: you can navigate these stages, and you can eventually reach happily ever after. Here’s how we got through all seven stages of marriage without getting a divorce.
What are the stages of marriage?
1. The I-Haven’t-Even-Met-My-Spouse Stage
According to a study out of the University of California at Berkeley, our genes determine at least some of our future marital happiness. People with a short version of a gene variant called 5-HTTLPR (no, that knowledge won’t even help you if you are ever a contestant on Jeopardy) tended to feel like their marriage was a lot like a roller coaster. When there was lots of humor and affection, they felt happy. When there was lots of grumpiness or stress, their satisfaction plummeted. Fair enough, right? Who wouldn’t feel less satisfied when a partner goes all negative? People with the long version of the variant, that’s who. These genetically bright-sided people were less bothered by the ebb and flow of the emotions of their partner.
What to do: Start training in compassion meditation now. Research shows that it can rewire both your brain and your DNA, making you less likely to feel personally offended when your future spouse is in a crabby mood. How to do it? Sit quietly and think about how other people want the same things out of life that you do: to be happy and to avoid suffering. Then meditate on a strong wish for others to be happy.
2. The Better-Than-Chocolate Stage
You don’t need to sleep. You’ve lost weight without trying. Your friend borrows your car and wrecks it and you’re all like, “No worries. I didn’t really need a car anyway.” When everyone around you is complaining, you can’t help by smile and look silly. And your thoughts? They are single pointedly focused on one thing: the object of your infatuation.
You. Are. In. Love.
What to Do: Enjoy the sweetness, but also get honest. This stage lasts only a short while. Start practicing good conversational habits now. You’ll need them later. Be assertive. Practice standing on your own two feet. State your opinions. Don’t lose yourself. Bring out the best in your partner.
3. The I-Had-No-Idea-You-Could-Be-This-Bad Stage
This is when you first live together and suddenly learn about all of those unbecoming habits that your partner managed to hide from you during dating.
What to Do: Find the balance between forgiveness, patience, and assertive requests for change. Let the small stuff go, talk about the big stuff, and view such conversations as a learning experience rather than a punishment.
4. The Bliss Stage
In a recent study of more than 2,000 married people, year three was the happiest year of a marriage. Of course, some people experience bliss earlier. Others find it later, and still others have it longer. This is the stage when arguments over how to decorate the house and what to do with the cap to the toothpaste give way to a comfortable rhythm.
What to do: Continue to sharpen those communication habits. They’re going to come in handy reeeaaaallly soon. Learn how to ask for what you want out loud, without judgment, and with a lilt of affection in your tone of voice. Practice listening, too.
5. The What-Was-I-Thinking!? Stage
That same study of more than 2,000 people indicated that the fifth year was the most difficult, especially if job demands or babies caused couples to feel tired, stressed, and crabby.
What to do: Learn how to tell the difference between grumpiness over fatigue and stress and irritation directed specifically at you. For the former, take steps to help your spouse overcome the stress. Perhaps a back-rub or an appointment in the bedroom are in order. Also get used to dispassionately saying, “Wow, that comment stings. Are you angry with me?” For the latter, don’t sweep things under the rug. Talk about issues openly, and use a creative brainstorming approach to solve problems.
6. The Make-It-Or-Break-It Stage
If you get through this stage and see the other side, you end up with a long companionship. When I was mired in this stage, I fantasized about divorce several times a day.
What to do: Read as many marital improvement books as you can. Trust me: they work. This single strategy helped me save my marriage.
7. The Touch-and-Go Stage
This stage can last a few months to a few years. Your marriage has greatly improved, but you still feel a little touchy and you still harbor doubts that you’re both really going to make it to the end together.
What to do: Keep a journal and document your happy moments, reasons to appreciate your spouse, and other evidence that your marriage is better than you realize. This journal will help you see the continual improvement you are both making, so you’ll be less likely to catastrophize whenever one of you regresses.
8. The Happily-Ever-After Stage
You’ve survived the hard years and you would now describe your spouse as your best friend. Congrats! You’ve made it.
Read more of Alisa’s writing at ProjectHappilyEverAfter.com.