Seasons of Marriage
Nature has her seasons—summer, fall, winter, spring—but so does each marriage. How do we make it through each—and love it? The following are suggestions on how to thrive, not just survive.What is it that separates successful couples from those that chronically struggle in their marriage? One of the critical differences I've observed over the last twenty years as a marriage counselor and coach is their ability to navigate through the different "marriage seasons."
These seasonal ups and downs can occur during any phase of marriage, the first of which is the newlywed phase, where couples first establish their priorities and learn to share their lives together. That phase is followed by the "having children" phase, and then the "raising a family" phase, which is usually the most demanding, stressful, and "endure-to-the-end" sort of phase. After all those years, couples finally enter the last phase, called the "empty nester," and they are fully engaged in helping out with the grandkids and enjoying a second honeymoon.
Let's back up for a moment though and talk about a basic tenant of all marriages. Every relationship has its very own checking account. Every day, we go to "work" to earn a paycheck, which we deposit into this "account." At the same time we may find ourselves making withdrawals from the marriage account for a variety of reasons. The health of our marital checkbook will depend on the difference between these deposits and withdrawals.
Before we get married, the deposits are plentiful and the withdrawals few—usually making our bank account full. We accomplish that by opening doors and being polite, staying up to talk until the wee hours of the morning, and even more impressively, listening attentively to every word. And when the day is done, we can't wait to reunite so we can do it all over again. The deposits are plentiful, so we proceed to make the most important decision of our lives: to spend our lives - and usually all eternity - together.
Unfortunately, as confirmed by thousands of couples I've interviewed, something happens soon after the honeymoon ends. Sometimes it begins slowly. Other times it's surprising and abrupt. We begin to hear things like, "He/she changed after we got married," or, "We started drifting apart." If those sound familiar to you, well, there's a very logical explanation.
Typically, withdrawals start to increase and deposits start to decrease. It doesn't necessarily happen overnight. It is, however, a steady and progressive depletion of the bank account. Eventually, but not surprisingly, we find ourselves and our marriage living paycheck to emotional paycheck.
The solution to this unfortunate turnaround is the concept of D.T.E. - Define the Expectations. In all relationships, expectations are the key to success or failure.
Clearly communicated, understood, and agreed-upon expectations always lead to deposits; lack of clarity, miscommunication, or disagreements over expectations most likely result in withdrawals. We will be looking at three areas where there is great need for clear expectations during each season: emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy, and physical intimacy.
Summer love is bliss, and newlyweds shower each other with deposits. But surprisingly, in the first six months of my own marriage, my wife and I both felt like we weren't getting our needs met. How was that possible when we both felt like we were working so hard on our marriage? So much love, hope, and optimism about our eternal union, and yet we were not fully connecting. It was puzzling. Fortunately, we were able to set aside our hurt feelings and sit down and very openly and honestly discuss our differences. We had to learn to identify our love languages.
We quickly learned that we were both giving what we hoped the other person would give back in return. My love language was physical touch; different from sexual touch, I felt love through holding hands, hugs and kisses, and back and feet rubs. I used this language to show love to my wife - for the first six months of our marriage, I hugged and kissed her to death. But that's not how she felt love. She felt love through words of affirmation. And she showed it this way; I had never been thanked so many times about everything I did.
After we identified these differences came the hard part. The key to success is to love your spouse the way he or she needs to feel loved, not what comes easily or naturally to you. It's in the getting outside of our comfort zone and "stretching" that true love and service can be found.
The change to our marriage took place the night after we spoke, when she cooked a delicious dinner. I thanked her and complimented her on her cooking. The results were almost magical: she started hugging and kissing me, and I've been saying "thank you" ever since!
The most common five love languages - according to The Five Love Languages author Dr. Gary Chapman - are acts of service, physical touch, words of affirmation, gifts, and quality time. It is vitally important to take the time to ask specifically what things make one another feel the most loved . . . and then become willing to show your love in that manner, even if it doesn't come easily. Note that as time and circumstances change, so do our love languages. It is important to re-check with each other every few years to make sure that we are still putting deposits in the right account!
Defining spiritual expectations plays a vital role in establishing a spiritual home. One of the best habits to establish early on is reading the scriptures together and saying couple prayers. If this is not established during this phase, I can promise you that when the next phase comes around, it will be missing in action.
Physical intimacy can be one of the most powerful and beautiful ways of communicating love to one another. Tenderness and consideration for each others’ feelings is of utmost importance. Conversely, lack of these qualities can very easily empty the account. Communicating expectations and desires is a critical factor in ensuring that falling in love goes far beyond the initial physical attraction. It encompasses a deep and profound emotional and spiritual connection, an attractiveness of the mind, heart, and spirit - a friendship that will endure well in the decades ahead.
The fall intimacy season usually arrives with the welcome news of, "Honey, guess what- I'm pregnant." Though that's said in jest, it is true. Fall can be a great season as we prepare for the arrival of our first child and transition from being a couple to a family. As for emotional intimacy, this is perhaps the greatest time to bond. Once again, we need to redefine our expectations as our emotional intimacy enters a new phase. Husbands have a tremendous opportunity to exceed expectations by extending themselves in service. Helping out at home, as well as being more patient, will go a long way toward maintaining our connection. If ever there was a time for us to activate our "sensitivity gene," this is the time! And for the wife, the attention naturally shifts more toward her, so she should make sure that her husband doesn’t feel left out.
Make Friday or Saturday night a date night. My wife and I made this a priority early on, and I can honestly say that we have kept up on our date nights quite consistently. Over the years, social activities, travel, illness, or other unforeseen events have kept us from dating every single week. It's interesting to notice, however, that if we miss more than two weeks in a row, we both start to feel somewhat disconnected.
Physical intimacy naturally changes when a couple is expecting their first child. The priority shifts from "the two of us" to "starting a family." During this time it is very important to maintain a physical connection, even if frequency is not as regular. It is paramount that the husband continues to compliment his wife as her body changes. This is likely the first time she's undergoing so many dramatic changes with hormones and body image, etc., and her self-esteem can dip dramatically.
Now we have what is called the "winter of our discontent" in terms of relationships. It could be because the exhausted and overwhelmed couple is now expecting another child, and the others are all under age six, or because they have drifted apart over the years. Whatever the reason, it does not mean they have to stay disconnected forever. If there are unresolved issues that have gotten in the way of intimacy, they need to be addressed and resolved. Often resolving this discontent takes a concerted effort to reconnect emotionally with one another. Spending quality time together is no longer just a suggestion - it's a necessity.
Here are some suggestions: Even though both parties are exhausted at the end of the day, have a fifteen-minute minute pillow talk and catch up. Go for a walk around the block while pushing the stroller - talking (and more importantly listening) to each other will bring great rewards. I again highly encourage that when we feel disconnected, we re-examine each other's love languages. Remember that over time we all change. Perhaps the husband has been traveling recently and craves quality time with his wife. In years past, quality time was third or fourth on his list, but with the change in circumstances, his needs have shifted. Without an honest discussion, that need could easily fall through the cracks.
I also extend a word of caution in the area of spiritual intimacy during this season. Through my personal and professional experience, I have come to the following conclusion: couple scripture study and prayers are almost nonexistent. Most of us say our family and personal prayers and read scriptures with our kids, but by the time the last kid is in bed, we're too tired to pray together. At no other time in our marriage is it more important to connect spiritually with one another and ask for divine assistance for our marriage, our children, and ourselves. This is the time we need most to be going on weekly dates—and yes, going to the temple counts as a date!
Just as nature renews itself, so can marriages. Rest assured - even after the fiercest winter, spring will come. The pregnancy phase eventually stops. Kids grow up and become more independent. Stress and time demands usually diminish. This is the time to cash in on the years of effort you've put into your marriage, working through issues and sacrificing for one another. This season is the reward.
I know of so many couples who are now in their 50s and 60s who are enjoying a renewal in their relationship. For some it's even better than seasons enjoyed before. These couples have grown closer together over the years, matured, endured life's difficulties, and they have improved their emotional and spiritual intimacy. Physical closeness is now the icing on the cake for enduring so well. Finally they have the opportunity to experience the warmth and renewal of life, hope, and love that surely comes with the spring.
________ Dr. Elia Gourgouris is a nationally known speaker and marriage expert and the author of The Multi-Platinum Marriage: Going from Just Surviving to Thriving! With over twenty years of experience, he coaches LDS couples throughout the United States and enjoys speaking at BYU Education Week and Time Out for Women. He and his wife, Sona, live near Boulder, Colorado, with their children. You can reach Dr. Gourgouris at LDSCoaching.com or AskDrElia.com.