Chapter 6: Enriching the Seasons of Marriage
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.
Ecclesiastes 3:1, AV
It takes guts to stay married. . . . There will be many crises between the wedding day and the golden anniversary, and the people who make it are heroes.
Howard Whitman (1)
A depth relationship is a living process, with its ups and downs, its ebb and flow, its continuing succession of change. Each stage in the marital cycle has its unique demands, frustrations, worries, joys, and satisfactions. At every stage, the demands on each partner are different. The pattern of needs changes from stage to stage, altering the nature and intensity of the will to relate.
Thus the style of intimacy changes through the years. Sociologist Otto Pollak declares: "There is no peace in human relationships; no marriage is ever settled"(2) Marriage need never be dull. Just when a couple has mastered the skills of one stage (or given up, or become bored), a new and unprecedented stage arrives requiring the acquisition of new skills. The periods of transition from one stage to another can be occasions of pressure and crisis as the couple struggles to let go of the familiar, comfortable past and master the demands of a new stage. Old methods of gaining need-satisfaction, and of relating, no longer work as they have in the past. Such periods of transition can be opportunities for discovering new ways of relating, new joys and satisfaction which can give new depth and height to intimacy.
The central truth is that the tide of happiness in any marriage ebbs and flows. The marriage is ecstatically happy at times, excruciatingly painful at others, a mixture of good and bad in between. . . . Even the best marriage has its periods of desperation.(3)
A marriage is built from the everyday-ness of living together -- from what seem like the trivial as well as the obviously significant experiences, encounters, sufferings, and satisfactions. Movement on the marital journey is not always ahead. There are times in most marriages when couples regress, or take a detour or a side road that turns out to be a dead end. A growing relationship, however, has an over-all movement toward greater depth which results from shared experiences of many kinds. There are changes in the intimacy pattern in the various stages of the marriage, but there is also a tendency for the couple to maintain a general continuity of relationship style over the years. This style can be one of gradual deepening, of stagnation, or of continuing retreat from intimacy. A strong marriage relationship is constructed by two people who are willing to work at it, year-in and year-out, "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part."
For couples in the early stages of marriage, it is reassuring to know that a marriage, like Rome, isn't built in a day. A perceptive young wife commented, after a marital growth group session, "I was helped by discovering that no one begins with a perfect relationship. I see now that I blamed us both for not having a full marriage experience. . . . I had been unhappy with the time it took to mature our relationship -- felt guilty that ours appeared to me not as deep as those of my acquaintances who have been married twice as long. . . . I think I'll be able to enjoy what we have and be more sensitive to us, instead of comparing us with them."
One of the essential functions of a good marriage is for the partners to provide encouragement and support to each other as they go through anxiety-producing periods of crisis -- pregnancy, illness, children growing up and leaving home, deaths of parents, husband's retirement. Couples who are able to support each other and to learn new ways of coping during such periods of stress achieve increased depth as a result of weathering the storms together. The bond which unites a couple that has had a mutually giving relationship for twenty, thirty, forty or more years, has something of the same power and intensity as that which unites soldiers who have come through battlefield experiences together. Other couples, who are unable to support each other and whose communication systems crumble under pressure are pulled further apart by each new crisis.
STAGES OF THE MARRIAGE CYCLE
An overview of the marital journey provides the perspective a couple needs if they are to work at deepening the marriage relationship. The following pages will help to identify the various stages in the marriage cycle and will suggest some guidelines for growth and creativity within each. There are various ways of defining the stages of the life cycle of a marriage. Here is one: (4)
Stage 1: Courtship and engagement
Stage 2: Wedding to beginning of first pregnancy
Stage 3: Parents of preschool children
Stage 4: Parents of school children (ages 6 to 13)
Stage 5: Parents of adolescents (ages 13 to 19)
Stage 6: Parents of children leaving home
Stage 7: Empty nest to retirement
Stage 8: Retirement to death of one spouse
It is obvious that stages 3 through 6 overlap if there is more than one child. Each stage of marriage and family life has its "develop- mental task" -- certain goals which need to be achieved if the couple is to cope with that stage, continue to grow in intimacy, and prepare for later stages (5)
Stage 1: Courtship and Engagement. The process called court-ship and engagement is the first stage in the establishment of a relationship of growing oneness. Dating is a process by which young people develop more fully whatever skills they learned as children in relating to persons of the opposite sex. Those who marry with little satisfying practice in relationships with persons of the other sex usually have difficult problems during the first few years. What occurs before marriage -- in dating, courtship, and engagement -- is immensely important as preparation for growing intimacy.
Dating serves a particularly important preparatory function with reference to the modern mode of companionship marriages. Dating patterns of adolescents should provide them with a varied experience of companionship and communication with persons of the opposite sex. Spending a major part of one's leisure time in dating, as many teenagers do, helps them to acquire the habits of relating and enjoying each other's company, which are essential in a companionship marriage.
Serious dating serves the function of "shopping," of sizing up the potential candidates for marriage in terms of an essential criterion: "To what extent can I expect this person to satisfy my basic personality and sexual hungers?" Although the question is seldom consciously asked, it is the guiding consideration which makes some persons more and some less attractive as potential marital partners. When two persons have reason to feel that their needs, both healthy and neurotic, will be met to a substantial degree by the other, their mutual attraction will be intense. The concept of the search for a relationship which will produce mutual need-satisfaction is related to Eric Berne's view that selecting a mate is a process of discovering someone who will play the same marital games.(6)
There are a number of factors which militate against the full use of the dating years to acquire relationship skills and as a time for making a wise choice of a marital partner with whom one can develop growing intimacy. Most dating takes place in leisure time when there is little opportunity for discovering how the person relates in the kinds of non-leisure activities which compose at least 90 percent of married life. Furthermore, there is a good deal of hiding, of putting one's best foot forward, and of playing defensive games which mask real feelings and attitudes. Aaron L. Rutledge states:
Early in development children are taught by example, if not by word of mouth, to conceal their real feelings about many things. All too often this is taken over to the dating stage by youth, basing their experience upon the "line" of a deceptive front .. .. . . . Without specific and deliberate intent to do otherwise, courtship and engagement may serve only as a continuation of subterfuge and camouflage of the basic personalities under a smoke screen of passionate love, and as an opportunity for more intense and exclusive rights to individual satisfaction.(7)
The pressure exerted by powerful feelings and drives sometimes pushes people into un-fulfilling relationships. Sex drives are intense during the late teens; the pain of loneliness is also a compelling force, as is the fear of being passed by in the mate-selection years. The latter fear is prominent in many girls. Family pressures may make it nearly impossible to terminate an engagement, even though the couple senses a basic inadequacy in their relationship.
Premarital pregnancies increase the problems of making a wise decision while at the same time making such a decision all the more crucial. The only rational procedure, consistent with the welfare of both the couple and their unborn child, is for the couple to resist any pressures to rush into marriage. Instead, they should evaluate carefully whether they have a reasonable possibility of building a sound marriage. This means facing honestly such issues as their emotional maturity, capacity to bear the responsibilities of child-rearing, and their deep feelings about each other. A trained counselor can give invaluable help in this complex decision by the couple. If their relationship has little or no potential for a viable future, it is much better for everyone concerned for them not to marry, and to give serious consideration to what will be the best course to follow for the child.
Premarital sex, whether or not a pregnancy is involved, can be a problem for couples in later stages of their life together. Couples who have engaged in premarital intercourse, sometimes find guilt feelings plaguing them in marriage. If this is the case, they may need to seek counseling to resolve the feelings which cause difficulty or distancing in the marriage.
The engagement period, in the words of a song from The King and I, should be a time of "getting to know you, getting to know all about you." It should also be a time of getting better acquainted with oneself. Problems in marriages usually result from emotional blind spots in the partners. The operation of unconscious and conflicting needs sometimes makes mate selection a hit-or-miss matter. Bill White, whom we met in Chapter I, illustrates the way in which conflicting needs create problems within a relationship. On the one hand, he reacts negatively to aggressiveness in women, suggesting that he needs to feel in control of such relationships. Yet his hidden dependency-needs cause him to be attracted to Amy Jones, who tends to take charge of situations. In other words, his unresolved conflicts about his own aggressiveness and de- pendency cause him to "need" two qualities in a woman which are actually contradictory -- compliance and a managing quality.
Honesty and openness with each other are, of course, indispensable. Those who live a lie consciously or unconsciously during their engagement usually pay a high price in their marriages. Engagement provides an invaluable opportunity for a couple to work at strengthening communication skills by practicing communication on dozens of diverse topics, particularly those which are hard to talk about. Areas of conflict, disagreement, and easily hurt feelings are crucially important; learning techniques of resolving conflict and compromising differences is essential to marital happiness. Avoiding or submerging conflict is "chickening out" of the developmental task of the engagement (or any other) period. It hurts to face it, but the price of "peace at any price" is too high. It is healthy for engaged couples to broaden their relationship by exploring many dimensions of sharing -- intellectual, aesthetic, creative, work, commitment, and spiritual intimacy can be added, in addition to the usual pattern of emotional, recreational and romantic relating.
Many engaged couples profit from joint participation in a pre-marital growth group or sensitivity training experience. Bill and Amy found that their group experience, extending over some eight months, helped them to lower the barriers in their relationship, before they were married. Bill came to see his lateness as a passive-dependent way of manipulating others and Amy discovered some of the roots of her aloofness and problems in communication. Getting these and other matters out into the open and discussing them freely, both in the group and by themselves between sessions, helped Amy and Bill to interrupt some of their relationship-blocking patterns.
Premarital counseling, on an individual, couple, or group basis, is crucially important if one or both parties evidence a high degree of emotional immaturity. Such counseling should be started as long as possible before the wedding and should continue for whatever period is needed to stimulate the maturing process. Counseling of this variety is very different from what is often meant by "pre-marital counseling" -- i.e., one to three instructional interviews preceding the wedding by a few days or weeks. Longer-term pre-marital counseling and growth group experiences can prove to be excellent investments in a couple's future happiness and marital creativity.
The engagement period can be an invaluable opportunity for beginning:
1. The total process of learning to understand and relate to each other in all circumstances. "I" and "you" become "we."
2. Undoing unwholesome attitudes developed through earlier conditioning and dating experiences, and exploring the male-female likeness and differences in general and as applicable to each couple.
3. Understanding and evaluating each of the parents, the parents' relationship to each other, the relationship of each to his parents, and the future relationship of the new family to the old family. 4. Determining the kind of marriage and family life desired by the couple, and the beginning of thinking, feeling, and reacting in this context.
5. The continuation of individual growth and acceptance of responsibility, in an atmosphere of love and appreciation, with the "push" of sexuality as one of the driving forces.
6. Working out attitudes and plans for work and family financing.
7. Exploring attitudes toward children, and coming to a beginning plan of how they should be reared.
8. The exploration of personal development and of family life in the larger context of social and spiritual reality.
9. Solution of problems in the feeling and expression of affection, including specific preparation for sex life.
10. Planning the general and specific details of the wedding.
11. The development of long-range family goals, life purposes and values.(8)
Marriage is an intricate system of roles, needs, relationships, responsibilities, and satisfactions. A couple's motivation to work at the developmental tasks and goals of the engagement period is an indication of the vitality of their growth potential.
Stage 2: Wedding to First Pregnancy. During the early years of marriage, with or without children, a couple faces its most difficult developmental task. The major effort is "to form
the basis of a new family system distinct from their background families."(9) Each partner needs to provide a new anchor for the otherùan anchor of intimate association to replace the parental anchor. If the partners can do this, they become the primary resource persons for satisfying each other's personality hungers. Only as a person has an anchor of gradually increasing intimacy and trust in the new relationship can he relinquish his dependency on old parental relationships and reduce his dependency on "the boys" or "the girls." Unfortunately, because of the superficiality of many pre-marital relationships, the major interpersonal reorientation required by marriage must begin with a person who is essentially a stranger. In most cases, it takes some time to give up the defensive games of courtship and engagement, and to move toward intimacy- enhancing openness.
Based on her experiences in counseling with young married couples, Miriam Jolesch summarizes the developmental tasks of early marriage:
During the early years of marriage, a young couple is likely to be exposed to a number of sources of potential conflict. Each partner must effect emotional separation from his own family; each must learn to accept the role of husband or wife. Together the partners must gain a sense of identity as a family unity, over and above their identity as separate individuals. Accomplishing these developmental tasks may be so difficult for one or both of the partners that the marriage becomes threatened.(10)
Becoming a need-satisfying and adequate husband or wife -- what Jolesch calls learning appropriate spouse roles -- is the developmental task of the first years of marriage. Mates can support each other in the struggle with understanding and acceptance of the feelings of inadequacy and inevitable anger which accompany it. Acquiring spouse roles is even more complicated if the couple simultaneously must acquire new and demanding roles as parents. No matter how adequate a couple's engagement experiences were, there are many problems to be met in the early post-wedding years. Most of the problems of marriage aren't really problems until after marriage actually begins. They have little reality for the couple until an existential collision with the 'problems occurs in the actual business of living together.
One of the necessary but painful transitions is from the euphoria of the honeymoon and first months of marriage to the more down- to-earth matters of compromising the many differences which each brought to the relationship, and working out reasonably need-satisfying ways of communicating and relating.
The shock of discovering that one's new bride or bridegroom has faults and deficiencies, perhaps serious ones, sometimes leads to efforts at reform. While there will be some changes in both husband and wife as each strives to meet each other's needs, both partners must learn to accept (though not necessarily like) each other's imperfections. Marriage has been described as the relationship of "two reasonable human beings who have agreed to abide by each other's intolerabilities." Havemann writes:
The romantic aura attached to marriage in our society lifts us out of ourselves for awhile. We feel bigger and better than life. Then, as the intoxication wears off, we are saddened and hurt to find that we really have not changed at all. We are still merely human, and so is the husband or bride we have just acquired.(11)
A part of the disenchantment is the discovery that by getting married one has given up a significant amount of personal freedom and that to develop a sense of "we," each must give up thinking mainly in terms of "1." Those who do not face the fact or are not willing to make the investment, do not "build a marriage" though they may continue to live alone together.
Some couples erroneously believe that their love has died when they experience the disenchantment and the grinding of the inter-personal gears which are required to enable them to grow together. The fact is, however, that giving up unrealistic expectations frees the couple to enjoy their relationship more.
A common illusory expectation is that one's partner will be a gratifying parent figure who will both continue the satisfactions one enjoyed in one's childhood family and also make up for what one felt one missed in that family. Since this expectation is usually unconscious, it persists long after the realities of the marriage make its unrealism obvious to a relatively objective observer such as a marriage counselor.
The early years of marriage were described in Chapter I as "the second crisis of intimacy." Each partner brings to the marriage different patterns of need for closeness and distance. The grinding of the gears between them in this area is their attempt to evolve a workable compromise between the differences in these two patterns. Miriam Jolesch reports that, among the young couples counseled by her, the chief complaint voiced by the wives "had to do with [her] feeling that [her] husband wanted to maintain his separateness from [her] and [her] distress at the emotional distance between them."(12) Typically, the husbands were threatened by the wives' desire for closeness.
According to Erik Erikson, young adulthood is the time when the major life (developmental) task of every individual is to develop his capacity for rich emotional and sexual intimacy. The time usually coincides with the early years of marriage. As pointed out in Chapter 3, a key factor in the successful resolution of the intimacy crisis is the possession of a firm sense of personal identity as a foundation for intimate relationships. Young couples who have not completed the central task of adolescence -- achieving a sense of identity -- have a difficult time. They both desire and fear intimacy. It is difficult for them to let go of their dependency on parents and the wider peer group. They fear change and therefore hold on to old sources of satisfaction rather than taking the risk of discovering whether marriage can become their chief resource. Because of this, in-law problems often are acute. Since parents naturally have mixed feelings about losing their offspring's dependency, they may foster this unwittingly, not recognizing that it is hurting the marriage.
Whether or not a wife shall work outside the home is often an issue which causes conflict. Some discussion of it should have taken place during the engagement period. The actual business of living with whatever has been decided may raise the question again. How each partner feels about the wife's working is the crucial issue. If a wife doesn't want to work but needs to for financial reasons, if she wants to work but her husband feels that woman's place is in the home, or vice versa, serious problems which need to be openly dealt with may occur. As working wives become more and more common, the problem may arise at any stage of the marriage cycle.
Healthy couples can use the crisis of early marriage as an opportunity for growth. They make the discovery that the most meaningful married love could not be experienced during the engagement except in a rudimentary way. Married love is "love with its eyes open." It includes more of the mundane, but it can also be deeper and richer in many ways than the intense, romanticized love of courtship. This dawning experience can make the second stage of intimacy wonderful and lively in spite of the inevitable stress.
There are a number of ways to maximize the growth of a marriage during these first critical months or years:
1. Recognize and discuss the fact that it is a time of stress for both. Frank facing of the fact that it is a period of major reorientation helps in coping constructively with the demands.
2. Accept the necessity of giving up some of the freedom and individualized decision-making of
singleness, in the interests of achieving a relationship and the benefits of marriedness.
3. Do everything possible to support each other emotionally in learning the new wife-ing and husband-ing roles and skills. Warm emotional support of each other will help to offset the frustrations which result from lack of competence in these roles and skills. Appreciation is the language of love. Use it generously. Say "Yes" to each other whenever possible.
4. Work at the nurturance of the various facets of intimacy. Discuss mutual needs and what
each finds satisfying; learn to enjoy the art of feeding each other's heart hungers.
5. Attempt to separate ghost-feelings left over from earlier relationships, from feelings and reactions appropriate to marriage. Do everything possible to avoid using regressive defenses to deal with the normal anxiety of the identity crisis; "Going home to mother" (physically or psychologically) is an illustration of trying to escape the uncertainties of a new relationship by seeking to return to the comfort of an old one. In the long run, regressive solutions aren't real solutions. They only increase the difficulties of the marital adjustment. It is better to stay and fight it through to a compromise solution in which each gives up some of his cherished wishes but each also gains some satisfactions.
6. Work together in consciously shaping the unique image of the kind of marriage you want, with its own identity, basically different in some ways from the marriages of either set of parents. Keeping the goal in mind will alert both husband and wife when they are moving toward it and away from it.
7. Keep building bridges as a couple with other couples of various ages. Those who are compatible can become part of the extended family; they can influence the shaping of a unique marital image.
8. Balance time alone together as a couple with time shared with others.
9. If you have serious or escalating conflicts, obtain professional counseling help, rather than turning to relatives and friends for advice. Broken hearts often require more professional skill than broken arms.
10. Resist efforts to reform each other. Concentrate on mutual need-satisfaction.
Throughout the early months and years of marriage, it is important for couples to exercise the virtue of patience with each other, recognizing that growth takes time and struggle and living together. For both, it is a difficult period of unlearning old patterns and learning new ones. The
young adult intimacy crisis is the crucial period. Building on whatever beginnings were made before marriage, newlyweds are working to finish the foundation upon which a lifetime of growing intimacy can be built.
Stage 3: Parents of Preschool Children. For the average couple the pre-children stage of marriage lasts just over two years. Thus, Stage 3 also usually begins during the young adult intimacy crisis. Major adjustment to parent roles must be made while the couple is still working on husband and wife roles. As in the previous stage, the husband and wife need to support each other as they struggle to learn fathering and mothering skills and roles and, simultaneously, seek to integrate these roles with the newly learned or partially learned spouse roles. Permitting each other to find "additional anchors of intimate association in children"(13) is essential and inevitably changes the nature of the intimacy-distance pattern in the marriage. In some marriages, a crisis is produced by the impact of the needs of a child for an intimate relationship with the parents. At each of the child's growth stages, the demands on parents change; with these changes come new opportunities for and strains on marital intimacy.
Out of the many occasions for sharing in the early stages of intimacy there gradually develops a community of experience which sets that marriage apart from the rest of the world and produces the "we-ness" of the marriage identity. The birth of the first child broadens the community of
experience. A deepening sense of oneness flowing from the joint act of creativity and the mutual fulfillment of producing children together is now possible.
In all cases, pregnancy confronts couples with the need to change and grow. In some husbands, the pregnancy of their wives stirs up ghost feelings of fear from their early lives -- fear that their wives will die in childbirth, for example. To the extent that oedipal feelings still remain unresolved in either or both partners, these may be activated by pregnancy. Conflicted feelings from this source may make the wife ambivalent about her new status as mother. The awareness that he is now "married to a mother" may cause the husband to respond in nonrational ways which prevent him from being warm and supportive during a time when his wife needs his support very much. Many couples, of course, are drawn closer by being able to share the experiences of pregnancy and of preparing themselves psychologically and otherwise for the arrival of their child.
Having a baby in the family imposes many strains on husband-wife intimacy. Physical fatigue resulting from the demands of caring for a completely dependent little creature sharply reduces the emotional energy which the wife has for investment in the marriage. The time which mothering and fathering takes depletes the time available for them to be alone together.
Conflicts between the wife's pictures of what constitutes the appropriate roles of a mother and a father and the husband's pictures of these roles, call for reconciliation of differences. New responsibilities and pressures (financial and emotional) are on the husband, at the very point where he feels some sense of deprivation of satisfactions from his wife. Jealousy, often hidden from the person himself as well as from others, is frequently present in the husband's feelings toward the baby. If he has "parentified" his wife or if he was an only child, and had no experience in sharing his parents' love with siblings, competitiveness with the baby may be strong.
There are several ways to help make Stage 3 an intimacy-enhancing rather than an intimacy-depleting experience. Before, they had become "one flesh" symbolically in the emotional-physical- spiritual merging of loving intercourse. Now they have become "one flesh" literally, in the blending of their biological heritages in a child. Unless a couple is emotionally blocked, they will develop new depth in their relationship, and in themselves individually, by sharing the heartaches, fears, rewards, frustrations, and joys of parenting. It is during this stage and the subsequent three stages, that the primary developmental task (for adults), (what Erik Erikson calls "generativity") is to generate new life and to pour one's energies into the stream of history by investing in the new generation. This is a demanding, frightening, and exciting task involving the transmission of both the culture's heritage and the family's own unique heritage. The capacity to participate in this creativity and self-giving depends on the couple's success in achieving a sense of marital identity and mutually satisfying intimacy. As personal identity is the foundation of marital intimacy, marital identity and intimacy are the bases for generativity.
The periods of pregnancy involve a variety of coping crises for a couple. New expenses occur, often at the very time when income will be cut drastically by the wife's having to quit her outside employment. Sexual relations, housing arrangements, and division-of- labor balances, all demand adjustments and offer new opportunities for conflict. In many ways, their relationship is tested. If it has been founded mainly on physical attractiveness and sex, and is deficient in companionship and communication, pregnancy will threaten the marriage. Useful guidelines for Stage 3 include:
1. Share the responsibilities and satisfactions of parenting. Being an involved father is definitely "in"! Helping to care for the baby and young child is good for both father and the child. In spite of a father's interest and involvement, the main load of childcare will usually be carried by the mother simply because most husbands are at work forty hours or more a week. The trapped-mother-of-young-children syndrome is a danger which can be lessened, if the husband fulfills his highly important role of supporting his wife emotionally during this period. This involves expressing his love and respect for her, creating opportunities for continued sharing on as many levels as feasible in light of the new demands of parenthood, encouraging her to maintain at least one satisfying interest outside the home and the marriage, and taking over the parenting role regularly to give his wife a "chance to come up for air," as one young mother put it. If the husband is to be able to do this consistently, he will need periods of special attention and support from his wife.
2. Continue to work at developing mutually gratifying patterns of husband-wife companionship. The words "Things went well until the children came along" are heard so frequently by marriage counselors as to be almost a refrain. The point at which many marriages jump the track is in overinvesting in children and under-investing in the marriage. In the long run, an overinvestment in children proves to be a poor investment even from the standpoint of their welfare. The very intensity of the experience of childbirth and its sequelae tend to pull attention away from the companion-ship-intimacy activities of the couple. Active redevelopment of these activities, after the child is born, is often necessary. This includes re-courtship. Spouses can resist the centripetal pressure of children on their relationship by planning definite times alone together, without the children. These should be daily, however brief. Regular nights out "on the town," with other couples, can do wonders to keep the relationship batteries recharged. This requires having a baby-sitter in whom one has confidence, or perhaps making arrangements with another young couple to take turns sitting for each other. It may be expensive but it's an essential investment in the future of the entire family.
3. Keep the lines of communication open by continuing to discuss how each of you feels about all aspects of your relationship, yourself in your new roles, and your mutual interests outside the home and family. It is usually hidden feelings of guilt, hostility, and resentment that sabotage a marriage. Of course, irrational feelings in the open can do the same thing. If feelings such as these don't grow weaker when discussed openly, and continue to create problems in the relationship, the help of a professional psychotherapist (psychiatrist, psychologist, or specialist in pastoral counseling) or marriage counselor should be obtained without delay.
4. Acquaint yourself with the characteristics of normal child development to allow you to keep otherwise perplexing aspects of child-raising from interfering with your marriage. One husband reported being disturbed by his four-year-old son's obvious preference for his mother. It was
reassuring to him for the counselor to point out that it is normal for a child to have strong sensual and exclusivistic feelings about the parent of the other sex during the three-to the five-and-one-half year period. Actually, this "oedipal period" helps prepare a child for eventual marriage, by giving him a basic experience of relating to a person of the other sex.
Stage 4: Parents of School Children (age six to thirteen). Starting to school is a vital step in the process which will culminate in the children of a couple leaving home and establishing new families. The school-age child gradually widens his world of significant relationships with both peers and adults. The process makes him gradually less dependent on his parents, which means that the parents must depend less on the satisfactions derived from the child's dependency on them. In order to let him grow, they must progressively release him. Evelyn Duvall observes: "Fathers and mothers who continue their growth as persons beyond their roles as parents do better in letting their children go."(14) Couples who "live for their children" have trouble encouraging their healthy, increasing autonomy.
The couple successful in accomplishing this developmental task is usually one who keep their love for each other central in their family life. Children are loved, of course, but the husband-wife relationship remains paramount. Such a couple finds many a chance to slip away, for a Saturday afternoon or a weekend together, for a little holiday, with perhaps the wife going along on a business trip and making it a "second honeymoon." They maintain the kind of companionship as a couple in which they can get through to each other fully -- enriching, renewing, recreating, and creating together within the fullness of marriage.(15)
Life in a family with one or more school-age children teems with activities. Pressures on both parents are often heavy. The community makes demands on them too, and the husband's job responsibilities are pressing because he is striving to get established or "get ahead" in his occupation. The pressures are different from those of the preschool child years, but no less intense. Marriage partners are tempted to become so absorbed in the flurry of their multiple responsibilities that their own relationship is more and more neglected.
During the school years, the identity of the family as a unit reaches its strongest form. Although children are beginning to pull away, they are still deeply involved in their families, and enjoy sharing in all manner of joint activities -- family camping trips, holiday celebrations, church activities, family projects and problems. Experiences of family cohesiveness and sharing can be satisfying for everyone concerned. They can add a richness to the intimacy of the marriage relationship, surrounding it with a supportive context of family intimacy. Close relationships between school-age children and parents of the same sex are particularly important for the formation of the children's sense of sexual identity and roles. These relationships can be satisfying to parents, too; as such, they can enhance family life generally and the marital bond in particular.
Guidelines for working to enhance Stage 4 are essentially the same as those in Stage 3, with the following additions:
1. Plan both family experiences such as outings, trips, vacations, and father-children, mother-children experiences. See that boys participate in male activities with their fathers and girls in female ones with their mothers. Father-daughter and mother-son experiences are also important.
2. Work at gradually releasing the children into their own orbits by continuing to strengthen intimacy through a variety of experiences as man and wife as well as mother and father.
Stage 5: Parents of Adolescents (age thirteen to nineteen). The years when a couple's offspring are adolescents are, like the preteen stage, busy, hectic, and demanding on parents. Many pressures make it difficult for a couple to maintain an intimate marriage. For example, conflict between adolescents and parents easily raises barriers between parents. Parent-teen conflict frequently focuses on issues of how much freedom, responsibility, and discipline are appropriate -- issues on which parents usually have strong feelings and sometimes a lack of agreement. Thus, latent conflict between spouses is stirred up by the necessity of deciding on what limits should be set and how to enforce them. Teenagers have become adept at exploiting disagreements between their parents, turning them to their own advantage, and increasing interparent conflict. They often become skillful at picking an area for rebelling in which the parents are least able to maintain a common position. They know "where parents tie their goat and how to get him."(16)
At each growth stage of children, parents tend to relive the comparable stage in their own earlier development. This unconscious reliving is particularly active when children are in their teens. Their sexual maturing and dating activities stir up old, unresolved conflicts and guilt feelings within the parents, which are projected onto the marriage relationship. Parents' control over their children is increasingly challenged as the young people become more independent, rely increasingly on their peers, and often rebel openly. Threats to the parents' sense of adequacy and worth can be severe when the maturing children reject their values, stimulating conflict in the marriage as well as with the youth.
Couples in the parents-of-teens category begin to feel the psychological impact of aging and the crisis of the middle years. In contrast to the vibrant youth and sexual attractiveness of blossoming adolescent children, they may feel like "has beens." Jealousy of their maturing children is often present, though usually unconscious.
If the marriage has been neglected in favor of the children during the previous fifteen or more years, it is faltering by this time and in no condition to provide the couple with resources for facing the empty nest years. Even relatively strong marriages may find the fifth stage rough going at times. Weak or malfunctioning marriages often experience further fragmentation and perhaps termination, partly as a result of the crises precipitated by the "adolescing" of the children.
Here are some of the tendencies of couples during these years, which contribute to nonrelating: The husband may get lost in his work and the wife in her children and outside activities. The frantic pace leaves little time for relating. Husband and wife tend to take each other and their marriage for granted. They are used to it, and no longer think in terms of the continuing need to invest themselves in deepening it. Both partners may become careless in personal grooming; this may reflect a depletion of self-esteem but it serves to further deplete feelings of self-worth, in a kind of vicious cycle. Loss of control of children may increase tendencies to try to control the spouse, with resentment resulting. Sources of mutual satisfaction, sexual and otherwise, tend to become constricted. Nagging and accusing increase, as appreciation decreases. Boredom and the feeling that life is passing them by may result in extramarital affairs. Infidelities on the part of basic inadequacies in the relationship.
These are inevitably years of stress, but they need not be grim. They can be fulfilling for a couple, providing they have worked at their relationship through the years and continue to do so. It is even not too late to begin. Consistent investment in a marriage pays off during these years in deepening intimacy; consistent neglect pays off in widening separation. To meet the needs of their adolescent children, parents need solidarity and connectedness in their relating. The adolescent needs support and a sense of acceptance, often when he least deserves it. When he is glum, uncommunicative, and rebellious, because of his own anxieties and identity struggles, he needs to know that he can count on the love and trust of his parents. In his struggles toward adulthood, he needs a firm foundation under his feet -- the foundation of a solid relationship between his parents which gives him the courage and the incentive to seek a comparable relationship with a girl of his own age group.
There are a number of things that can be done to strengthen marriage and guard against the hazards of these years:
1. Support each other's self-esteem at every opportunity. Make sure that you aren't neglecting to give such important gifts as appreciation, respect, concern, and courtesy.
2. Be aware of the particular pressures -- external and internal -- under which each partner is functioning. For the husband it may be worry about the responsibilities of his job, together with the feeling that younger men are passing him by. For the wife, the pressures may be anticipatory anxiety about what will happen to her life when the children are gone. Support through mutual understanding. As one wife put it, "To know that my husband cares about my fears helps take the edge off them."
3. Keep the lines of communication open by having definite times alone to talk. A regular Sunday afternoon walk in the park or a leisurely meal together at a local restaurant can give a couple a time to clear the channels, talk through problems or hurts before they accumulate and grow, and generally get reconnected.
4. Make every effort to keep conflicts with teenagers from infecting marriage intimacy. Remember, couples either hang together or they will hang separately on the problems of providing loving limits for an adolescent. When differences arise, a strategy conference may be helpful.
5. Plan a gradually increasing number of satisfying activities without the children. As they move more and more in their own peer circles, parents need to offset lost satisfaction by developing their own activities, alone and with other couples.
6. Attention to personal appearance is important. The tendency of middle-aged figures to develop their growing edges on the wrong side, to "go to pot," usually lowers morale and feelings of sexual adequacy as well as affects health adversely. Sports or exercise in which both participate can be rewarding and can keep muscles in good tone and figures from sagging.
7. Develop new hobbies, interests, and skills; keep growing as a person. This is important for both partners, but particularly so for the wife; the forthcoming exodus of the children will leave a larger void in her world of satisfactions than will be true of her husband, whose job demands and satisfactions will probably be at their peak during the child-leaving years. It may be that the wife should begin considering how she wishes to use the extra time she will have available after the children leave. Retooling for a second career may need to begin now. If the wife goes back to school or to work, this will put strains on her and on her husband, which must be faced and worked through. (We can say this with conviction and feeling!)
Feelings about aging will be dealt with in the discussion about the seventh stage, the stage during which these feelings usually become acute. Here it can be said, however, that the key to successful aging begins now, in working to deepen the marriage and to find inner values for coping creatively with the years of maturity.
Stage 6: Parents of Children Leaving Home. The child-leaving phase is a crucial one for the future quality of the marriage. At each of the child-rearing stages, the couple had to adapt to changing demands on them from the children and from each other. An even more dramatic shift occurs when the children begin to leave the nest. Further profound adjustments in parental and spouse roles must be made; for most it is a time of stress and testing. There are crises related to the distance-closeness adjustments of every stage, but the magnitude of the intimacy crisis of the emptying-nest stage is exceeded, if at all, only by that of the early years of marriage during young adulthood.
To understand the problems of this stage, it must be seen as the crisis of the middle years. Child-leaving itself often triggers the onset of the crisis and contributes to its severity. This is especially true in marriages in which the spouses have used the children as a primary way of relating or as a means of avoiding intimacy (by always having the children between them as a buffer). Excessive child-centeredness is often a symptom of an impoverished husband-wife relationship. In any case, excessive child-centeredness contributes to impoverishment of the marriage. The underlying marital weakness usually does not become apparent until the center is taken away (as the children leave) and the couple must relate to each other in a "psychologically naked" way, as one such couple expressed it. Some marriages survive at least formally, in spite of a vacuum at their centers, by both parties quickly becoming over-involved in such things as their jobs, community service, and church activities, and eventually with grandchildren. All these can be escapes from facing the emptiness of the marriage.
In the early forties for most people problems of aging become unavoidably obvious. Repeated experiences of loss -- hair, teeth, vitality, youthful appearance, rapid recuperative powers, etc.-- bring mourning and the reminder of even larger losses in the future. Aging parents may put a strain on the emotional if not the financial resources of the family. Loss of parents usually takes place during this stage. The death of parents stirs up deep feelings from childhood including unresolved guilt toward them; it also reminds the couple that they are one step closer to death themselves. "Now, I am next in line," is the way one woman put it. Fear of death, like other fears, may be transformed into anger and expressed in the marriage.
Decline in physical attractiveness and sex drive may reveal the poverty of the marriage in other areas. If sex has been the main cement that held the couple together, the diminishing intensity of this drive and the accumulation of hostility derived from the general emptiness of the marriage will contribute to fragmentation. If body narcissism (being enamored with one's physical attractiveness) is prominent, aging of oneself and one's partner will be profoundly threatening. The signs of aging in the partner will be hated because they are reminders of one's own aging. Attraction to younger persons, in such cases, is an attempt to find the fountain of youth for oneself.
Disappointments and losses become more difficult to reverse as the years pass. The unfulfilled dreams of youth become the disillusionment of the pre-retirement period. The husband's self- esteem is damaged by having to face the unhappy fact that he is not going to become president of the company. Anything that hurts self-esteem troubles a marriage. Each party tends to blame the other for things that are the result of circumstances beyond the control of both, including aging. For women, the leaving of children often represents a loss of the central source of meaning, satisfactions, and sense of worth in their lives. Furthermore, children-leaving often comes within the same period as menopause. For many women, this represents not only a loss of reproductive powers but of feelings of worthwhileness and sexual attractiveness. Menopausal distress may reduce the wife's frustration tolerance sharply, making her irritable, nervous, and perhaps suspicious. Many women, of course, take menopause in their stride with little or no emotional upheaval, and a considerable sense of relief that they no longer have to worry about unwanted pregnancies.
Couples in middle age are often confronted with their feelings of boredom and of being "fed up" with the frustrating aspects of the marriage. If there has been little caring and sharing for years, except in relation to the children, couples may have no desire to spend the rest of their lives together. In some cases, one partner wants to go on, but the other does not. After twenty-five years of "Parent-Child" games, one or both parties may say, "To hell with it!" One husband, after thirty years of submissiveness to his wife's controlling and nagging, rebelled and had an affair with his secretary. This was his first major act of self-assertion in all those years. It ruptured the marriage.
The intensity of the middle-age intimacy crisis depends on the need-satisfyingness of the relationship and particularly on the success achieved in the previous stages of intimacy. If the basic art of loving mutuality was learned during the young adult years, most couples take the middle-years crisis in their stride. There is some re-examination of their relationship and some shift in their patterns of connecting. But since they possess the basic skills required in relating, they know how to go about changing and deepening their marriage to meet the needs of the second half of life.
In an insightful paper on "The Middle Years of Marriage," Theodor Bovet declares:
If it is true that marriage makes of husbands and wives a new being, the married person, these middle years bring out its full maturity, the prime of life when the personality of the couple grows stronger and deeper. Otherwise these years are the visible tokens of old age and decrepitude. Marriage is subject to the same law as all living being: those who are unable to ripen grow old.(17)
Underneath all the problems of the middle years is the anxiety related to aging -- the anxiety of nonbeing, of dying and death. Physical decline gradually shatters the illusion of perpetual youth and faces one with the ultimate fact that all of us are mortal. To cope constructively with the existential anxiety aroused by the increasing proximity of "the end of the line," a viable philosophy of life, relationships of trust, and a religious life that has reality are essential.
Carl Jung described the developmental task of the second half of life as the need to develop neglected inner resources and enrich the inner life. The first half is often given to the outer world -- making one's place in it getting established in one's job, raising a family, being involved in the community. This outer focus may result in the impoverishment of the inner life -- the world of feelings, values, and inner creativity. To meet the challenge of aging and eventual death, the inner springs must flow. So, each partner needs to work at rediscovering an appreciation for truth, beauty, and other time-transcending values. Growth in relationships and growth in the vertical or spiritual dimension are vital parts of this awakening of inner resources for the road ahead. Together a couple may embark on a joint search for those experiences of the spirit which will be most meaningful to them.
One couple joined a Great Books discussion group to find stimulation in the realm of big ideas. Another took up painting together -- a hobby which they had always said they would like to try "when we have time." Another couple found help in a "spiritual search group" in their church -- a group of persons who share an interest in deepening their devotional life. Still another couple found inner enrichment in rediscovering the world of great music. The point of all this is that what two partners have to give to each other and what internal resources they possess for coping with life's second half depend on the development of their inner potentialities.
At the same time, ongoing interest in the community and the world helps a couple to continue the satisfactions of generativity after the children have left home.
Husbands and wives can help each other through the child-leaving stage by recognizing, supporting, and sharing each other's need to mourn. The emptying nest brings genuine grief with its constellation of many feelings -- sadness, resentment, guilt, emptiness, and depression. Each partner must do his "grief work" -- the work of his personality in letting go of the children emotionally, accepting the reality of their leaving and dealing with the varied feelings these events bring.
Coping with the crisis of the middle years can be done in several ways.
1. Emphasize growth of the "marriage personality," the relationship. This means cooperating to revitalize and deepen the marriage. Increasing, or perhaps rediscovering, mutuality, sharing,
and closeness is an urgent necessity during this period. Husbands and wives can support each other's egos in many of the same ways they always have -- appreciation, gifts, wanting to spend time together.
2. Continue to deepen relationships with other couples of various ages. The goal is to develop a network of mutually sup- porting and nurturing relationships, which can help to replace those lost with the children's leaving.
3. Become involved in some activities which will help to develop the spiritual potentialities of the marriage.
Stage 7: Empty Nest to Retirement. The patterns of relating established in earlier stages tend to continue in the empty-nest years. If a couple has learned to communicate in some depth, the passing years usually increase the intimacy of the relationship. If, on the other hand, their relationship has been essentially barren, the childless years tend to make the marriage more and more empty -- an emotional wasteland. Some such couples develop parallel lives, touching at fewer and fewer points. In some cases, this is symbolized by the two living in separate sections of the house. They stay married because it is too much trouble or too expensive to separate, or because they gain some neurotic satisfactions from the cold war between them. Like the city of Berlin, what should be one is split by a wall which permits relatively little interchange.
In contrast, the couple which has stayed connected through the previous stages or achieved re-connection during the child-leaving stage, finds that the empty nest offers them all sorts of new opportunities for enjoying their marriage. One husband exclaimed, "Empty nest? Once we got used to the idea, we discovered it has a lot of advantages. We're doing the things as a couple we've always said we wanted to do but thought we didn't have time to because of the kids." The years between the leaving of the last child and retirement are valuable years from many standpoints. They should be highly productive and creative years, in which each partner finds new stimulation in developing interests and activities. Some of the energy that was formerly invested in children usually goes into grandparenting; but this is relatively minor, in most cases. Most of the energy is available for reinvestment in a second career for the wife, new hobbies for the husband, and joint projects in which the couple finds new meanings by giving themselves to meet some need in society. Social action groups are excellent for couples in this stage, keeping them involved with problems and perspectives beyond themselves, while using their aggressive energy to help reduce a social evil and make it a better world. Most important, self-investment -- in social action and service-to- others -- extends the period of "generativity" for the couple, helping them avoid ingrownness and the stagnation of increasing self-absorption. By continuing to invest their lives in the stream of things, they stay in touch with the world of growth and challenge.
The suggestions for coping with the two previous stages continue to be relevant in this one.Stage 8: Retirement to Death of One Spouse. The husband's retirement often produces a marital crisis -- more or less severe. To the extent that he has derived his vital satisfactions from his work, retirement may be experienced as a deprivation and an attack on his self-esteem. Feeling "finished," so far as a useful life is concerned, makes him difficult to live with. Mourning the lost job satisfactions is frequently present. The wife, too, often finds that the balance of the marriage is disturbed by the husband's retirement. She may have derived satisfactions from his work. Both are dependent, in many cases, on his schedule of going to work and coming home. The wife needs to give him support in this crucial adjustment, but often she is in need of support and perspective herself.
The couple facing retirement does well to attempt to work through their feelings about it before it occurs, and to make plans for how they can use the new time they will have available. Instead of emptiness, the future can be seen in terms of opportunities to do the things they have wanted to do but could not because of work obligations -- travel, reading, hobbies, involvement in community and church projects. If they have a sound relationship, this can be a season of richness and fulfillment -- "the last of life for which the first was made."
Some couples become more and more possessive as they face aging and death. It is as if they are clutching the relationship too tightly as they anticipate its loss. The post-retirement years should be years of beginning to prepare for constructive living without the other. Facing widowhood is not easy, but it is essential. It means enjoying the relationship for all it is worth, working through old problems and being close, yet encouraging each to lean on his own resources and to develop relationships which can help when one partner dies. As William R. Alger observed in 1867: "There is a deep loneliness too in all the preparatory steps and approaches to death. Who can fitly describe the solitude of extreme age?"(18) This is the problem with which partners can help each other.
Couples in the post-retirement years can make them more constructive by continuing the steps of Stage 7. In addition, it is important for them to work toward these goals:
1. Make the most of every day, week, and month you have together. By now you know how precious they are.
2. Support each other in the adjustments to retirement.
3. Enjoy the new leisure retirement brings -- use it constructively.
4. Help prepare each other to live as widow or widower by strengthening inner resources and outer relationships. Reflect on the passing years and the experiences of transcendence you have shared.
For many couples who have achieved a degree of contentment and intimacy, and for others who are still willing to cultivate intimacy, these years can be the most fulfilling of the entire marriage.
External pressures have diminished so that both partners have more emotional energy for each other. Assuming that health and finances are satisfactory, opportunities for sharing together in many interests are greater than ever. A couple in their late sixties likened their current stage to their courtship days, but with the added joys of having learned to know each other fully through forty years of shared experiences. Their communication is so vital at so many levels that they frequently do not need words to communicate their deepest thoughts. Such a marital identity is the goal toward which all the former stages strive.
We have reviewed the stages of marriage and intimacy -- each with its own problems and possibilities. The words of Robert MacIver are appropriate:
Time is the greatest of all human mysteries. . . . The way we respond to the challenge of time is a test of what we are, of what we are becoming. We grow older day by day. . . . Does that fact disturb us greatly, little, sometimes, often? How else are we growing in the same time? . . . For life is -- or has -- this unique energy possessed of sensitivity and perceptiveness that makes for itself a web of relationships, thus binding its past to its future.(19)
Consider the guidelines at the conclusion of the stage of marriage which applies to your current relationship. Decide which of the suggestions seem helpful to you and make plans for using them to develop more joy and closeness.
1. Howard Whitman, Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin, January 15, 1967.
2. Otto Pollak, lecture. University of Pennsylvania, January 18, 1967.
3. Ernest Havemann, "The Intricate Balance of a Happy Marriage," Life, September 29, 1961, p. 122
4. For a summary see, Evelyn M. Duvall, Family Development (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1957), pp. 5-9. This is a slight modification of the 8-stage schema of E. Duvall, pp. 8-9, from the point of view of the marital partners.
5. "A developmental task is a task which arises at or about a certain period of the life of an individual, successful achievement of which leads to happiness and to success with later tasks, while failure leads to unhappiness in the individual, disapproval of society, and difficulty with later tasks" (Robert J. Havighurst, quoted by Duvall, op. cit., pp. 98-99).
6. Eric Berne, Games People Play (New York: Grove Press, 1964).
7.Aaron Rutledge, Pre-Marital Counseling (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1966), p. 20.
8. Ibid., p. 18.
9. Otto Pollak, lecture, University of Pennsylvania, February 23, 1967; a number of insights in this section are from Pollak.
10. Mariam Jolesch, "Casework Treatment of Young Adult Couples," Social Casework, Vol. XLIII, No. 5 (May, 1962), p. 245.
11. Havemann, "The Intricate Balance of a Happy Marriage," Life, September 21, 1961. (Paraphrasing Levy and Monroe.)
12. Jolesch, op. cit., p. 246.
13. Otto Pollak, "Sociological and Psychoanalytic Concepts in Family Diagnosis," The Psychotherapy of Marital Disharmonies, ed. B. L. Green (New York: The Free Press, 1965), p. 18.
14. Duvall, op. cit., p. 271.
15. Ibid., p. 276.
16. From a statement by Lorna Forbes.
17. Boret, "The Middle Years of Marriage" (Paris: International Union of Family Organizations, June 1962), p. 4.
18. Alger, The Genius of Solitude (Boston. Roberts Bros., 1867), p. 84.
19. R. M. Maciver, The Challenge of the Passing Years, My Encounter with Time (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), pp. 47, xxii, 14.