This month my parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Such a number and event is staggering in many ways. One measure of marital statistics says that just 5 percent of marriages in America will last that long. Half will end in divorce.

Liberty Kovacs, Ph.D., a marital therapist working with couples of all ages, discovered the perhaps obvious truth that relationships unfold over time. The relationship after 5 years might look nothing like it did when it first started, and again in 10 years and 20 it will have evolved into something new.

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My parents have experienced this evolution now for 50 years.

In love, all is in flux

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A marriage evolves because individuals evolve. “The only constant in life is change,” said Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher. As in all things, this is especially true in marriage.

There is an old joke that most men marry women with the hope and belief that they will never change. We marry our ideal of youth, beauty, and optimism and cannot foresee any of these changing over time. Women, meanwhile, usually marry men thinking that they’ve found a man that they can change. A few bad habits here, a couple odd ideas there, surely this man can be molded into the ideal version of himself.

Of course, neither of these is realistic. It is quite plausible, though, that a bit of naivete might help in getting us together in the first place. But after the idyllic early days, things change (and don’t change) in ways that we often cannot control.

Ups and Downs

Through the ebbs and flows of a relationship, there is no guarantee that issues from early on will be resolved. And there is no guarantee that growth together will occur in a linear fashion.  “When a couple is hit with stress at any point, they may go back to an earlier stage,” according to Dr. Kovacs.

This points to the need to recognize patterns as they arise. How do we and our partners respond to stress and adversity? How do we handle our partner’s responses? Understanding the answers to these questions early on can ensure that the patterns that cycle back in future times of stress are healthy ones. If problems are addressed early on, it’s less likely that they’ll repeat. And if they do, we are ready and have tools to respond with wisdom.

Stages of a lasting relationship

Psychologists like to break things down into stages. Like the stages of grief, they are not ever clear-cut in real life. And they might not be linear, but instead wind around and back and through one another over the course of a long relationship.

The first stage is represented by a lot of idealization, seeing the other as perfect and ideal. In the second stage, couples must come to terms with the fact that the other person isn’t really who they thought they are. This is because each of us has our flaws and inconsistencies that don’t show up in the early stage. Coming to terms with those flaws requires work for each partner, both internally and as a couple.

The next stages mark progressive developments in the partnership as each person grows in individual ways. Early efforts at accommodating one another can slowly fall away, giving rise to new conflict. In stage four in particular, people find themselves wanting time alone. According to Kovacs, at this stage a bit more time alone can be very healthy. As we grow together with one-another, we naturally lose track of our former selves and this can give rise to another round of internal conflicts that can extend into the relationship.

According to Kovacs, stage five is a sort of holy land of long-term relationships. Stage five is the full realization of each partner’s identity both in the relationship and as separate beings. Each person has achieved self-actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And they bring this actualization into the relationship.

At stage six, each person has total confidence that they could take any time away as needed. They know they can come back without any concerns. As Kovacs says of the process, “First we grow in relation to our parents, then our peers, and then another adult. Only stable, enduring relationships allow individual growth to take place. We need to develop enough trust in a partner for the hidden parts of ourselves to surface. It takes years into a relationship.”

Growth and learning

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As I reflect on my parents’ 50 years of marriage, I see their growth and development in a new light. And I see that I learned a great deal from them as I grew up. Having experienced the various stages of their relationship and the ways they reacted has given me first-hand knowledge of relationship strategies that work.

I’m grateful for this experience and find myself employing many of the strategies in my own marriage. There is no one way to make a relationship work. There is no one way for a tree to grow. But seeing others that work can give us the confidence in the process and institution itself. And that confidence can go a long ways when we are struggling through the stages ourself.

The fact that there will be struggles is immensely helpful, too. Knowing this, we can better cherish the struggle-free times, to savor them and really sink in to the joy of the relationship. These joys, and the habits of happiness that arise out of them, will in turn help in the less exciting times as well as the periods of conflict that arise out of growth.

Default Alt Tag for this pageJustin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. Justin is the official blog writer for Sunflower Counseling MT in Missoula, Butte, Kalispell, Billings, and surrounding areas. He lives in Missoula with his family.