I have been a marriage and family counselor for over fifty years. Every day I hear from men and women who are in pain and suffering because their relationship has gone downhill and is in danger of falling. While some relationships must end for the good of the couple or their children, for most marriages divorce is not the answer.
Nobody ever comes to me and says, “I feel loved and cared for. My relationship is passionate and exciting, and I can’t wait to be with my spouse. I want a divorce. ”And no one starts getting married and expects to reach a time when they want to go out. Why do relationships that start well go bad?
In my book The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships, and Why the Best Is To Come, I talk about Stage 3, Disenchantment, as the place where most marriages fail. Here I am telling you why level 3 is hope for the future of your marriage, not an indicator of its downfall.
With regard to the world in which we live, says Otto Scharmer, lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of the Presencing Institute: “In most large systems today we achieve results together that nobody wants. What keeps us trapped in patterns of behavior in which we cause misery and pain for ourselves and others?
In his book Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Arises, Scharmer describes three main differences in society in which we repeatedly achieve results that nobody wants.
- The ecological divide: unprecedented environmental degradation – resulting in the loss of nature.
- The social gap: obscene levels of inequality and fragmentation – leading to the loss of society.
- The spiritual gap: Increasing levels of burnout and depression – leading to loss of meaning and self-loss.
Because of my work with families, I would add a fourth divide.
4. The Couple share: Increased stress and conflict in our closest relationships, especially midlife, lead to broken marriages when the couple is enjoying life most.
To understand how we can heal our relationships and prevent unnecessary divorces, we need to understand the 5 stages of love and why too many marriages get off course at stage 3:
- Stage 1: Fall in love
- Level 2: Become a couple and build a life together
- Level 3: disillusionment
- Level 4: Creating real, lasting love
- Level 5: Using the power of two to change the world
Most of us are familiar with the first two phases. We find that special someone and we fall in love. We will and mate and build a life together. We often have children. But often disillusionment sets in and we grow apart. There may be constant fighting or cold silence, but little by little love is replaced by fear that takes care of hate and eventually we lose hope and decide that divorce is the only answer.
Don’t give up: Level 3 is the key to truly lasting love
There are four reasons why people give up their marriage:
- They are in so much pain that they feel like they cannot go on.
- Nothing they do seems to be helping and they have given up hope.
- They don’t feel that their partner can change.
- They don’t see a way forward that has the chance to turn things around.
Here’s what I’ve learned from helping couples for over fifty years. Men and women can endure great pain when they see a way to make things better. I found a saying that can help bring the pain to the other side: “If you’re going through hell, don’t stop.” Yes, it’s painful, but keep going; There is a way out that will get you what you want – real lasting love. In phase 3 we have two options: We can go up and away or lower and reconnect with our partner.
Otto Scharmer and his team at the Presencing Institute describe these two ways as absencing or presencing. Here is a graph that summarizes her thinking:
On the path of absence we close our hearts and minds and lose our will to act in the service of love. Our minds are full of judgments, cynical thoughts and fears about the future. It’s a path that, if followed, breaks a relationship.
On the path of presence we open up new possibilities. We come to our senses. We are curious why our partner feels the way he feels and what he is doing. We have compassion for their suffering and have the courage to act on behalf of our best selves. Together we create a future that is good for everyone.
There are five main Level 3 goals that, when understood, can give us the courage to face the pain and regain the relationship we both want.
Purpose # 1: See the real person
Under the projections
Level 1, falling in love, is not about seeing a real person and falling in love with them. It is nature’s trick to choose a potential partner. Evolutionary success is based on making babies, not on really lasting love. When we meet a potential partner, we want them to see the best in us. That is why we project what we want from a potential partner. The first purpose of level 3 is to force us to let go of our illusions and see the unique, flawed, wonderful person we are with.
Purpose 2: Connect our current problems
in relation to our past
Many couples are surprised when I tell them that 90% of the problems they have with their current partner are related to their families of origin. There is an old saying that therapists share with one another. “Every man marries his mother and every woman marries her father.” That’s not true, of course, but it speaks to the reality that the problems we have with our present partner are related to the past.
For example, I had a mother who was smart, sexy, but emotionally cold and aloof. I found that I was attracted to smart, sexy women who turned out to be emotionally cold and aloof. All of this, of course, works on an unconscious level until we enter level 3, which forces us to come to terms with our past.
Purpose # 3: Realize that we’re doing
the same mistake in the present
Many people wonder why we are drawn to partners who seem so wonderful and at first, but later turn out to be so problematic. It actually makes sense when you understand what our subconscious is trying to do. It’s like our subconscious is telling us I’m going to create the same dysfunctional pattern that was present in my family of origin, but this time I’m going to change things and get love that I never thought possible.
The desire to get the love we didn’t get is a praiseworthy desire. Without understanding the full pictures, however, we are repeating the same dysfunctional patterns we learned in our childhood that enabled us to survive in the family we lived in.
Purpose # 4: Heal the past so we can heal the present
Heal the present so we can heal the past
One of the most important goals of Level 3 is to heal the wounds that create the mindset that keeps us apart. The problem is not that so many of us grew up with negative childhood experiences, but the beliefs that we have adopted as a result. Some common beliefs about ourselves that stem from our past wounds are:
- I’m not good.
- I will leave.
- I’m going crazy.
- I will hurt those I love
- I am going to do something terrible.
- I cant live without you.
By recognizing the wounds from the past, we can develop strategies to repair them. When we learn to heal our current relationship, we see our past differently too. We can forgive our parents for not being all we wanted and needed. We know that they too grew up in families where their parents couldn’t give them everything they needed. This healing is not easy to do alone. We can benefit from working with a therapist to help us heal.
Purpose # 5: The reward for healing in level 3
has real lasting love at level 4
Many couples long for the feelings of passion, excitement, and the wild, crazy time of falling in love. We are told that we cannot expect these feelings to continue, that the benefits of Stage 2 living together should replace what is lost. The hidden reason so many Phase 3 marriages fail is that many want to see them fall in love again.
I cannot tell you how many times a man or woman has heard from their partner. “I still love you, but I am not in love with you.”
Here is the good news that nobody told you about. You don’t have to give up the passion of falling in love. In phase 4, not only can you fall in love again, but couples who went through phase 3 report that what they feel in phase 4 is stronger, more passionate, more real and more lasting than anything they felt the first time . And those reports are from couples who have been married for 30, 40, 50 years or more.
If you’d like to learn more about the 5 stages of love, drop me a message via email and include “Tell me more about the 5 stages” in the subject line. I’ll tell you all I know If you’d like to read more articles like this, visit me here.
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