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The 12 Stages of Love

marriageLove is a constant cycle of ups and downs, and yet, one of the most important aspects of your life.  Michael Gurian, author of LESSONS OF LIFELONG INTIMACY, shares the 12 stages of love and what each mean.

Stage 1: Romance. It seems to you that your lover has few or no significant flaws; he or she is a source of sweet joy and grace. Life seems almost impossible without the pair-bond with this other person. Without your realizing it, these feelings of romance are, unconsciously, like a romance-type dependency of child-parent, but they are also a new, unique, peer pair-bond seemingly without compare.

Stage 2: Disillusionment (the first major crisis). Flaws emerge in both of you; some illusions begin to harden, others to disintegrate. Psychological nakedness of the self feels less safe now than a year or two before. Metaphorically, you are Adam and Eve in the garden at the point of eating the apple—you become somewhat ashamed of who you are and/or ashamed of your partner, disillusioned by the loss of perfection. You begin to unconsciously and consciously study your partner for flaws (and so does she or he with you). Because you love this person (and this person loves you), former projections continue and new projections are established, so that bonding can continue, but there is some discomfort in your love now. You may be together three to five years, but the honeymoon is definitely over.

Take this quiz to see how strong the love between you and your partner is.

Stage 3: Power Struggle. Four or more years have passed since you first met; flaws have clarified and now you are in full-out battle mode. The primary focus of battle is to (1) blame the other and (2) change the other to fit unconscious projections of the “right” or “safe” mate you deserve to have. In Stage 3, we may pay lip service to wanting to change ourselves, but really we want the other person to change. We will attack overtly or manipulate behind the scenes in any way we can to make that happen. Just like a child and parent in the third stage of the parent-child bond, we need much more healthy separateness from the other person and from projections than we realize, but we neglect to develop this psychological separation, in large part because our standard for a “good relationship” is still the intense closeness of Stage 1. This power-struggle stage, in which we are confused by intimacy, can last for a decade or more. Often, it ends in divorce—the couple never really moves into or through the later stages of love.

Stage 4: Awakening. One partner and soon, hopefully, the second partner awakens to the enmeshment/abandonment cycle, the existence of a parent-adolescent power struggle, the core feeling of being both too far away and too close to one another. A period of self-awareness and life-change occurs for the couple as they repair their anger/anxiety (or other) cycle, stabilize their bond, renew romance, apologize for disappointing one another, own their failures and flaws, integrate gender differences into communication, build or recognize separate selves (identities), and inspire the pair-bond to weather the storm.

Stage 5: The Second Major Crisis. Every relationship is tested by a series of crises and storms at various times in life. Disillusionment, then power struggle was the most obvious first crisis. Generally, somewhere within the first decade of a long-term attachment there will be a second major crisis (or more)—a significant job loss, the discovery of infertility, a child born with a defect, a troublesome parent moving into the couple’s home, war, recession . . . crisis will occur. This major crisis (or series of smaller crises) will occur whether awakening has transpired or not: it can occur during Stage 3 (as it did with the couples featured in the previous chapters) and either inspire awakening or lead to divorce. Should divorce transpire, the divorce itself is the major crisis, and it can inspire new maturation in love as well as a repeat of the first five stages with a new lover.

Stage 6: Refined Intimacy. After a great deal of work, we reach a point of refined love. We realize we know how to love now, we know what the heck we are doing! We now codevelop a partnership, attachment, and marriage that “feels right,” “works for us,” “gives us each a lot of what we need.” If by now a divorce has not occurred, a marriage has probably lasted well more than a decade. Children may be between school age and teens. In this stage, intimacy rituals keep love intimate and thus secure (date nights, game nights, vacations together, kisses, caressing, scheduled sex when spontaneity can’t quite work); separateness rituals keep the separate selves safe and thus the love secure (different interests, going out with girlfriends and guy-friends, bowling night, mother-children time that is separate from father-children time).

Stage 7: Creative Partnership. All individuals in this stage of individual life will likely be concerned with forming or sustaining partnerships that allow for and support creativity and life-purpose. For partners who have evolved through the previous stages and developed a healthy, well-refined intimate separateness, stability occurs in Stage 7, allowing each separate self to be creative and purposeful in the world in the ways that the self needs to be—through work, parenting, art, craft, sport, relationships, social causes, philanthropy, and the like.

Stage 8: The Third Major Crisis. Parents die, a child dies or becomes gravely ill, children leave home, a child and his or her spouse decide to divorce, infidelity occurs, one or both partners loses a job, a recession occurs that cleans out savings—a crisis or series of crises can occur. How these new crises or stressors are handled marks the evolution of the partnership. Some couples, married twenty to thirty years, will now divorce. Tacit issues in the marriage, or one individual’s changing self, or just the attrition of years, or lack of intimacy, or resurgence of earlier merging and projection issues can meld with an external crisis that causes one or both to need far more separateness than the marriage has provided, which means divorce.

Stage 9: Radiant Love. The couple may be in retirement age now and/or may be grandparents. They are radiant in ways that others— especially younger people—see, feel, and experience as these younger people say, “Look at those two, they’ve got it figured out.” Radiant lovers shine with elder intelligence and radiate stability of pair-bonding, strength of attachment, and a quirky, eccentric, but strong alliance that is enviable.

Stage 10: Generative Solitude. For couples who have time together before physical or mental degeneration to travel the world or spend a great deal of time “puttering at stuff we love,” many paths of generative (life-giving) solitude emerge. An elder couple can live in one house and share a great deal of life together yet also have different internal and external attentions, concentrations, enjoyments. There is a coming together to bond, eat, enjoy time with others, perhaps sleep together, and also there is a time to enjoy life for its quiet moments separate from one another. There is contentment in separateness that proves, as we look back at our lives, how wise it was to work on getting beyond enmeshment/abandonment and power struggle so that we could really see the beauty and grace that emerge in a lifetime of loving and being loved.

Stage 11: The Fourth Major Crisis. One or both of the partners becomes chronically ill and, finally, gravely ill. The couple’s strength and love are tested by crisis after crisis for their ability to remain both intimate and separate, attached and detached, loving and caregiving yet self-focused enough not to get utterly depressed from the caregiver stress. As illness and compassion for the ill become our major life focus, we can feel a gratitude for our partner’s love that we would never have felt if this person had not been in our lives.

Stage 12: Completion. Our partner dies, and then we die. The focus of these last years, months, or days is on completion of spirit, is saying the things we need to say for one another, doing the things we need to do to make sure all our family knows they are loved, and finally, freeing ourselves from intimacy with this world into a new kind of separateness that, if we are religiously inclined, will lead to intimacy in another dimension—and if we are not religious, will nonetheless be a new separateness and detachment from the attachments of this lifetime.

Now that you’ve taken the quiz, what’s the next step? Check out deciding to love him or dump him.

For more insight into love check out LESSONS OF LIFELONG INTIMACY by Michael Gurian.


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