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Will Your Romance Last?

Every married couple experiences life phases. Here's how to negotiate those seasons and keep the magic in your marriage.

Recently, my wife, Melissa, and I were going through our wedding album. As we sat in front of the fireplace and looked at the photos of ourselves as 23-year-olds, we caught our breath.

Who are those kids? we wondered. And what on earth were they doing?

We spent the next hour going through the wedding photos with lots of laughs and pleasant memories. When we were done, we felt glad that after 41 years we're still together to share such a moment. We're keenly aware of how unusual that's getting to be.

Melissa and I work with couples, many of whom have trouble remembering what brought them together and what happened to their joy. How did the magic go out of the romance?

Life phases

If you stop to think about it (which most couples don't), it's not surprising that newlyweds begin to drift apart. Throughout life, we move through phases. These phases call for continual reassessment and renegotiating to the marriage "contract" we made when we first got married.

One of the most common issues that slowly erodes our marital foundation is the inevitable change that accompanies aging. I'd say "maturing," but that's optional. Aging isn't. When most couples exchange their vows, that commitment to being married with all the rights and privileges is foremost in their minds. They've had some form of courtship, are seeing what they want to see in each other, and truly expect to live happily ever after.

But after the honeymoon bliss, a marriage begins to move through the following phases:

The establishment phase. This is when couples focus on what will make them competent members of the culture, such as proving themselves in a chosen career, setting up a house, or beginning the lifelong job of parenting. While these are worthwhile pursuits, they can be barriers to intimacy, causing couples to disengage from each other.

The midlife phase. Once couples have worked their way through establishment, they hit that dreaded midlife crisis. It isn't always a "crisis," but it does hold some emotional and physical transitions, such as recognizing time is moving swiftly and our bodies are changing. Wrinkles appear and hair disappears—except in places where you never wanted it. Uninvited pounds and inches crash the party, and you find yourself getting tired more easily. And you might even start thinking about the possibility of death. Next thing you know, you're dealing with an empty nest and caring for aging parents. All those things can force couples to relate to each other more intensely, only to discover they hardly know this stranger at their dinner table.

During this midlife phase a strange thing happens to men. They begin to realize they need something other than financial success to complete their deepest longings. Unfortunately, these men have been so busy with their careers that their wives have often completely emotionally disconnected from them. So it's not uncommon for them to look for closeness with some other woman. Then it's a midlife crisis!

The retirement phase. Poet Robert Browning penned these romantic sentiments to his wife, Elizabeth: "Come grow old with me, the best is yet to be." This era often brings out the deepest expressions of love or unspeakable loneliness.

The drift

As couples move through those phases, many of them begin to drift away from what a marriage is meant to be. What are some causes of this drift? Here are a few:

Dependency changes. During the dating days, one person is often attracted to the strengths of the other person, motivated by the longing for a protector or surrogate "parent" who'll provide loving care forever. The marriage contract becomes a "you be the strong one and I'll be the weak one" agreement.

But it usually doesn't stay that way. Things change. And often, that dynamic begins to feel burdensome to everyone. The "strong" partner gets tired of carrying the load, and the dependent mate begins to feel controlled or squelched.

When Melissa and I married, I saw myself as a rescuer; I was saving her from the "throes" of singleness. She seemed to need and appreciate my strength and wisdom. But after several years of seeing my vulnerability—and me seeing her competence more clearly—we arrived at a potential crisis point. And we both had to reassess the dynamics of our dependency.

Hurts accumulate. Another reason spouses drift is that we allow our hurts to build. As Christians we know—and probably had read at our wedding ceremony—the 1 Corinthians 13 passage that says, "love keeps no record of wrongs" (v. 5).

Reading that in a candlelight service is a lot easier than applying it to the wounds we've received from each other. Gashes of disappointment cut into our romantic expectations. Melissa really thought I'd never fail to call if I would be late for dinner and that I'd take the lead in our family's spiritual life. I really thought her sexual passion would be undaunted by motherhood. These are superficial abrasions that can be forgiven quietly. Yet the deeper hurts are harder to keep off the mental scorecard. If a couple isn't careful, they begin to compare scorecards at every new opportunity.

Circumstances stink. This drift is probably the most obvious. In our work with couples in crisis, Melissa and I are reminded frequently that "life ain't fair." When the "for better or for worse" vows are exchanged, nobody really considers the "for worse" part. We just think it's all going to be the "for better" part. Then most marriages are hit with some totally unfair event that smacks of "for worse."

How do you cope with the loss of a child? There aren't many redeeming features or satisfying explanations. How do you deal with economic catastrophe? That wasn't part of the dreams of courtship. What about a chronic illness? It can be more difficult to handle than death. We have a friend who's lived seven years with his wife's deteriorating mental function caused by a car accident. She offers no companionship, nor meets any of his needs. These scenarios form the expected stuff of marriage. Is it any wonder so few couples laugh together at their wedding photos after 41 years? Hardly.

A different dance

So where do we go from here? In our work, Melissa and I usually see couples who are very aware of their miserably ineffective relationship. Each can describe in accurate detail the "dance" they do. She says, "Why are you late this time?" (not really a question). He replies, "What does it matter to you?" (also not a question). Their defensive attacks and counterattacks continue until one leaves. The script is well rehearsed and the outcome sadly predictable: detachment and loneliness.

Yet the old dance doesn't have to continue. Either person can change it by learning a new step. Here are seven steps to help you begin again, to renegotiate your marital contract if it needs some revisions.

  1. Commit to change. This may be the hardest part when you're both discouraged and about ready to throw in the towel. Take some time to look at the consequences. While separation and divorce might provide initial relief, reality will eventually settle in and the complications will overcome the relief. Stop to count those costs: financial, emotional, relational, even parental—the scar it leaves on your children is probably the highest cost of all. Leaving the relationship is really just an exchange of problems—many times, bigger ones. But choosing to stay and committing to change because of the good you've experienced together and what you've invested in each other's lives will likely bring rewards to your marriage.
  2. Identify hurts, but don't blame. Individually, list events or patterns that have created hurt for you and how you interpreted them. For instance, we knew one husband who remembered vividly his bride's tears about leaving her mother as they drove away from the church on their wedding day. He believed she was enmeshed with her mother and that he'd made a fatal error. On the other hand, she remembered being totally fatigued and emotionally exhausted for a couple of days after the wedding circus, but had no recollection of wanting to go back home to Mom. Yet that event created resentment in the young man that set a negative tone from the beginning. Our marital histories are laced with similar experiences. We're all guilty of feeling hurt because we've interpreted an event in the worst possible way, such as, I'm not loved or I married a monster. When you can share these not to establish blame but to find understanding, they take on a different tone. Forgiveness can follow.
  3. Trace the roots. Sometimes those painful patterns become more understandable when you discover their childhood roots. Look at your families of origin objectively. When you quit being defensive, you'll probably laugh at the unique, peculiar styles you've always accepted as the way life should be lived, just because you grew up that way. These myths die hard and set you up for confusion and discomfort. Gender roles, decision making, conflict management, parenting styles, religious beliefs, celebration rituals, and dealing with illness are just a few that may create disappointment.

    Melissa and I began to discover these myths early in our marriage. Just to name a few: I rearranged her kitchen the first week in our first apartment because she didn't have things in the "right" places. (Boy, did I learn quickly!) Then Christmas came and she expected to open presents on Christmas morning. (Can you believe that?) The thing about these "myths" is that they make such a powerful emotional impact, but don't actually matter one iota. Let go of them—have a good laugh as you see how foolish it's been for you to let those differences rob you of enjoyment.
  4. Define your current needs and expectations. Where are you today as individuals? Yes, you've both changed since the wedding, but take a fresh look at what you'd like to experience together starting now. Chances are you've tried to tell each other these things off and on for some time. It's amazing how resistant we can be to really hearing each other.

    Frequently, Melissa and I hear couples talk about their needs for being accepted, feeling loved in a certain language, having a comfortable space, being listened to rather than ignored or put down, achieving mutual sexual satisfaction, and allowing each other's differences about life's little never-minds such as toilet seats and clutter. The bottom line is often the desire to feel safe, cherished, and respected.
  5. Design new behavior. Changing old scripts is a challenge, but once you understand the "whys" of the old dances, it's easier to find different, more effective steps. Talk together about some behaviors you'd like to see in your relationship, then pick out one or two to work on first. They might be as simple as putting the milk back in the refrigerator or dirty dishes in the sink. Start small; you don't have to solve all the world's problems—much less your own—in the first week. Some victories in the small things will encourage you in the bigger ones. Remember to give each other grace. Old patterns don't disappear instantly. You've had a lifetime of honing those to perfection. Don't be surprised or too disappointed when they persist.
  6. Decide to be accountable. You can help each other change primarily by praising each other. Reinforcing the new, preferred behaviors by frequent "at-a-boys" or "way-to-go's" is far more effective than pointing out the failures! If you're really brave, you may risk asking your mate to remind you if you slip. That can be dangerous, however, particularly if you've been firing darts of criticism as part of your old warfare. An occasional truce table discussion of how you're feeling about the process can help to reaffirm the commitment. So can calling in some outside help with a friend or a professional counselor.
  7. Celebrate your new relationship. As you begin to see success in your renegotiated, all-new-and-improved marriage, have some high fives. Set some attainable goals and go out for dinner to rejoice in the change. You've done a great thing. Don't minimize the smallest victory.

    By taking these steps, you're investing in a future of intimacy and enjoyment that will affect your family for generations—and bring you laughter and smiles when you're looking at your wedding book on some far distant night in front of the fire.

Louis McBurney, M.D., was a marriage therapist and co-founder, with his wife, Melissa, of Marble Retreat in Marble, Colorado, where they counselled clergy couples. Louis McBurney passed away January 20, 2009.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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