Just as children go through normal, predictable stages of development, so do
relationships. And just as it is helpful for parents to understand their
children by understanding the phases of development, so it is helpful for
couples to know the stages of relationships, know which one they are in and
thereby see what is happening from a perspective of intelligence and wisdom.
The Enchantment Stage
Most love relationships start off in what is usually called the
"Romantic" phase or the "Enchantment" phase. It is a
wonderful phase. The brain secretes a special endorphin in this phase that
makes the lovers feel happy, complete, alive, and very positive. When you
are "in love" you literally are on drugs. In this phase the
partners want to spend lots of time with each other (that's when the endorphin
gets secreted and the partners want that wonderful feeling).
When we are "in love" and on endorphins, we actually feel
different, respond differently and in some ways ARE different. The
endorphins make us feel whole and complete so that we are less easily hurt or
bothered and our reactivity is greatly lessened. That's why the poet can
say, "I love you not because of who you are, but because of who I am when
I'm with you". There is truly something wonderful about this first
phase of being in love.
In the "enchantment" phase there is a lot of laughter, playfulness,
affection and sexual energy. Negative traits are minimized or ignored or
rationalized. Wounds and Adaptations are softened and
soothed and minimized during this bonding phase.
There is a great emphasis on similarities and "sameness".
"You play tennis? That's great! I love tennis!" The person
who says that may have played tennis once or twice and sort of liked it, but in
the romantic phase only the positive is remembered and many hours of fun and
pleasure playing tennis are eagerly anticipated. The person is not lying
or deliberately exaggerating; in the romantic stage while on "drugs", that is a
genuine expression of the present experience. In many ways, love really is
Even the "sophisticated" couple is not immune to this
phenomenon. One partner will say, "I don't believe in this "we
are so alike" stuff. I value differences and believe differences
should be acknowledged and respected!" Their partner will say,
"Wow! SO DO I. We are going to have a great marriage! We both respect
differences!" Neither one will see that they are still focusing on
The enchantment or romantic stage is necessary, but temporary.
In this stage the couple is hopefully bonded and connected and
appropriately committed. I tend to see this enchantment stage as a little
be of grace in nature. We are given a taste of the potential of the
relationship, but unfortunately, it is a chemically induced taste and cannot and
should not last forever. The enchantment stage will gradually evolve in
the next stage -- the Power Struggle Stage.
The Power Struggle Stage
The Enchantment Stages lasts on average 6-8 months. I have worked with
couples where it lasted only a few weeks before the power struggle emerged and
have known other couples where it lasted 2-3 years. How long the romantic
stage lasts seems to depend on how much time the couple spends with each other
and the amount of "woundedness" or "baggage" the individuals
bring to the relationship.
But eventually, for virtually all couples, the enchantment phase ends, the
drugs wear off and are no longer secreted, the negative traits emerge with a
greater impact, wounds and protections from childhood start being activated and
the relationship moves into the "Power Struggle".
Sometimes also known as the
"Growth Struggle" by those who like to think positively, this stage is
often very stressful to a couple.
Where a partner once wanted to
spend lots of time and energy in the relationship (very different than the
parents who were always too busy); now the partner is quiet, pre-occupied,
unavailable (very much like the family of origin).
Where a husband or wife was, in
the Romantic Phase, kind and respectful and listening; now in the Power Struggle
Phase, he or she becomes impatient, authoritative, unresponsive -- again somehow
familiar from childhood or teen experiences.
This can be very distressing and
even frightening. At some point there is often the panicky thought,
"What have I done? I've married my Mom!" Or it could be Dad or
grandparent or older brother or sister, or step-parent or minister, etc -- the
ones I've had trouble with".
While this is not a universal
experience and while the intensity and precision of the this experience varies
greatly, this is a very, very common and "normal" experience in
intimate, committed relationships.
The Fork in the Road
At this point there is a fork in
the road. One way is what happens to couples who sort of "do what
comes naturally". The other way (and I'm afraid it is the Road Less
Traveled) is what we hope will happen for couples who choose to try to
understand what is happening in intimate, committed relationships and who choose
to do the necessary "work" of the relationship. (See How to Work
on a Relationship).
The First Turn in the Fork in
Couples who courageously
struggle with what is happening in the Power Struggle Phase without the
understanding, skills and tools will tend to do one of two things:
This is where almost fifty per
cent of all married couples divorce. Someone concludes that they have made
a selection error, they feel the despair of the Power Struggle and decide to end
the relationship. 76% of them will try again, hopefully making a better
choice. Of these 57% will again divorce.
Up to 90% of the couples who stay
together report their marriages as "unsatisfactory" but choose to stay
together for a variety of reasons, ranging from religious values, family values,
wanting to keep the family together, financial stressors, etc. These are
the couples who create the famous "U" on the marriage satisfaction
charts. (More about that later).
Some look at these statistics and
say there is something wrong with marriage. I believe that the problem is not
with marriage, but with our understanding of marriage, what it is, what is
trying to happen and what to do about it. Intimate, committed
relationships will go through a period that requires work and healing. We
need to start seeing this as normal and desirable, not an indicator of a bad
relationship. An we need to create "smart marriages" that know
how to handle the Power Struggle and how to tap into the healing qualities of
These courageous couples who stay
together through the unhappiness of the Power Struggle tend to adjust by
creating what is call a "parallel marriage". They both put their
time and energy into other activities and interests (school, work, children,
faith communities, hobbies, books, computers, etc) and the energy that goes into
the relationship is minimized. They may periodically try to connect again,
but they again discover that the wounds and protective patterns learned in
childhood emerge. Since they do not know what to do when that happens,
they move back into the Parallel Relationship.
The good news for these couples
is that in the latter years of their marriage, usually after the children are in
college or remarried, there tends to be a period of rapprochement. With
years of maturing and growth and experience, they try again and this time many
of them have a much greater success. This is the famous "U"
chart on marital satisfaction. For marriage that last, the satisfaction
starts high, drops to low as the Power Struggle starts. It stays low
throughout the parallel marriage and then rises again in the latter part, again
usually after the children are out of the home.
Does this mean that children are
hard on marriages. While most parents are loathe to acknowledge it, the
painful truth is that children require a lot of energy as do jobs and
careers. Children are not to blame for the Power Struggle (Couples without
children go through the same stages); but the time and energy it takes to make a
marriage work when the skills and understanding are not present are too much for
many of us.
The Second Turn in the Fork in
I call this the route of the
Conscious and Healing Marriage. Couples who select this route usually do
so because they do not want either a divorce or a parallel marriage. And
they have some understanding that the Power Struggle is "growth and healing
-- trying to happen". (See
Why We Really Choose Our Mates) They
understand that the source of much of the relationship conflict lies in the ways we learned to cope with life's
stresses as children or teens and how those coping strategies in marriage will
simply not work; they will tend to replicate some of the partner's early,
painful experiences--thus creating the pain of the Power Struggle.
These couples catch the vision of
a relationship journey that slowly, carefully, determinedly works toward
understanding and healing old hurts, creating safety and romance consciously in
the relationship and growing or developing the skills and abilities needed to
make this happen.
This entire site is dedicated to
helping you understand the wonderful, frustrating, complexities of committed
love and support you as you take this journey. If you need additional
help, will will help you in that endeavor as well.
Couples who choose this route
will find themselves learning a lot about themselves, about their partner, about
relationships. (See How to Work on a Relationship). There will be
articles to read, forms to fill out and a lot of honest thinking and
feeling. Couples will learn and develop new skills; they will master
processes that are designed to help them along the relationship journey.
If you take this route you will learn how to take relationship frustrations and
hurts and transform them into healing experiences. You will learn how to
support your partner's growth and provide healing experiences and will
understand how this can be difficult but ultimately good for you.
You will learn attitudes, skills
and processes that you will practice for several years. You will discover
again and again the wisdom of the speed of going slowly. Solid growth and
lasting healing is a slow process and should not be hurried. That doesn't
mean it will take years before it starts feeling better or getting better, but
it does mean that consistent love and availability is what is required before
you can relax into a higher level of safety, trust and aliveness.
The final stage of this fork in
the road is what is sometimes called "Realistic Love". It is a
much higher level of marital or relationship satisfaction, but unlike the
Romantic Phase, it is based on a mature, realistic love that is grounded in
understanding, healing and growth. It is a goal worthy of the best you
have to offer.
This website is dedicated to helping couples take the
relationship road less traveled and create a conscious, healing, safe and loving
relationship. To learn more about this, be sure and Take the Tour of the
Couple's Workstation and then join for a free trial month (click
here), consider taking a workshop or seminar with Dr. Brainerd (click
here) or you might want to look into relationship therapy or a private
couple retreat (click
Back to top