The Nine Phases of Marriage: How to Make It, Break It, Keep It

The Nine Phases of Marriage: How to Make It, Break It, Keep It

by Susan Shapiro Barash
The Nine Phases of Marriage: How to Make It, Break It, Keep It

The Nine Phases of Marriage: How to Make It, Break It, Keep It

by Susan Shapiro Barash


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From the author of Toxic Friends-a groundbreaking look at how to understand your marriage and create a more satisfying relationship
Every marriage goes through nine phases. It is only by understanding the course our marriages run that we can truly begin to craft the perfect relationship. In The Nine Phases of Marriage, Susan Shapiro Barash breaks down and analyzes these phases, which are:
- Phase One: Passion and Longing
- Phase Two: Conforming: The Perfect Wife
- Phase Three: Real Life: Child Centricity
- Phase Four: Tension: One Bed: Two Dreams
- Phase Five: Distance: Two Beds: Two Rooms
- Phase Six: Fracturing: Midlife Divorce
- Phase Seven: Second Chances: Remarriage and Renegotiating
- Phase Eight: Balance: Concessions
- Phase Nine: Successful Coupling

With this essential knowledge, spouses can successfully navigate the natural pitfalls and perils of their marriages and embark on a true partnership.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312642198
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/18/2012
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

SUSAN SHAPIRO BARASH is an established writer of nonfiction women's issue books and has written thirteen books. She teaches gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College. A well-recognized gender expert, she is frequently sought out by newspapers, televisions shows, and radio programs to comment on women's issues. She also blogs for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Phase One


Passion and Longing



• Are you a die-hard romantic?

• Did you have to have this man as your husband?

• Were you raised to believe your husband would be your prince and savior?

• Did you have a big storybook wedding (or do you feel cheated that you did not?)

• Do you consider yourself one half of a romantic entity?

If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then passion is an important component of your marriage.

You and your husband fell in love six years ago, when you first met. In many ways, it was like a dream: You couldn’t take your eyes off him and there was the promise of what was to come. After a steady, respectful courtship you moved in together, which was thrilling, a milestone. You both were in a romantic mode, and after a year of living together, you became engaged.

The wedding plans took on a life of their own; they were consuming, almost breathtaking, as you moved closer to the most important day of your life. Every aspect of the wedding mattered to both of you—you vetoed your mother’s and grandmother’s advice when you knew your vision with your fiancé trumped their vision. At times during the engagement period, there were a few dramas—a friend who was offended she wasn’t asked to be a bridesmaid, your future mother-in-law who wanted the wedding shower her way.

Throughout, your husband-to-be was a rock and it made you feel incredibly protected—you were a couple, united no matter what and madly in love. It was as if you shared a notion of passion as primary, determined to hold on to that intoxicating feeling. Although you’ve heard enough women say “the honeymoon is over,” it isn’t like that for you. On the eve of your second wedding anniversary, you’ve never lost sight of the goal—to be happily married to this man with whom you are in love.

“Proper” Passion + Love = Marriage

I can honestly relate to the composite above, since both times I married for love, totally sold on the idea that being in love meant one should be married. My first wedding day was choreographed by my mother, and I had very little input. It was a thrilling time, as if I were walking on air. I was also not very discerning; in those days, the mother-knows-best concept had some weight. My mother had eloped during the war and my first wedding was the wedding she’d never had. My first husband, who was thirteen years my senior, had been married before, and for me there was this lingering sense that he’d already done the wedding go ’round. I remember being at Bloomingdale’s together to enlist in the bridal registry. I was keenly aware while picking out china and flatware that he’d seen it all.

We were married on a Sunday afternoon at the now-defunct Tavern on the Green in New York City. I had a few friends there, but mostly the guests were friends and family from my parents’ and in-laws’ guest lists. My parents were the hosts, and my in-laws had hosted a rehearsal dinner the evening before. Everything was by the book, including when my closest friends and I all crammed into the dressing room at the end of that fateful afternoon. My friends unbuttoned the delicate silk buttons on the back of my high-necked organza-and-lace gown, loosened the bustle, and helped me step out of my peau de soie bridal shoes. One friend whispered in awe, “That’s it. Now you’re his wife.” I entered the arena gladly.

And after listening to the young wives for this chapter more than thirty years later, it’s obvious that the way I felt on my first wedding day is how most brides still feel. What I brought with me to my second wedding was an acute sense of hope and determination, wisdom and romance. My present husband and I had both been married once before and were on equal ground, entering a second marriage together. We planned everything as a team: We chose my engagement ring together, mulled over the font and wording on the invitations, the songs for the band, the venue for our wedding, the menu. In retrospect, both experiences were loaded with anticipation and reflective of the decades in which they occurred.

By the time I was remarried in 1997, brides, whether first-, second-, or third-timers, had become more hands-on about their weddings. Demure weddings devised by proper mothers, as my first wedding had been, were no longer in vogue. Brides had developed strong opinions and a specific vision of how their weddings should be, including the gown. I wore a long, slinky, cream-colored scoop-neck, sleeveless fishtail dress that was not from the bridal department but straight off the rack of generic evening gowns. This had become the style—less demure, a more sexy bride (this look would last until April of 2012, when Kate Middleton would marry Prince William in a long-sleeved lace gown that combined pristine with form-fitting), and I was part of the crowd. My second husband-to-be and I pooled our friends for the guest list, orchestrated the entire affair, and split the cost.

Marriage, the last vestige of church and state, is testimony to our commitment to each other and the culmination of profound love. According to the U.S. Census, today more than two million marriages take place each year. For women, as reported by the Pew Research Center, the median age of first marriage is 26, and for men it’s 28. The average cost of a wedding “soars to $26,327,” according to an article by Grace Wong for CNN Money entitled “Ka-ching! Wedding Price Tag Nears $30,000.” The cost of wedding gift registries is $19 billion per year, and the cost of weddings themselves is $72 billion, according to the Web site The Wedding Report.

The Passion “Sale”

Erotic love has a hold on us in ways we can’t explain or imagine until it hits us. We know this deep, passionate feeling as love at first sight—an overwhelming desire. In our society, we take this passionate, sexual longing (think Romeo and Juliet) and move it forward so that what begins as eros—an immediate sexual attraction—now incorporates other, more practical, aspects of a love relationship—intimacy, friendship, trust. Women learn early on in their lives that having a serious boyfriend is a means to an end. This is what is sold to us; these passionate feelings we share are expected to kick into marriage.

It rings true in fairy tales, especially Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, where the justice of it all, in the form of passion, longing, and bliss, rules the day. Novels for centuries have offered happy endings, too. Jane Austen’s nineteenth-century novel Pride and Prejudice gives us Elizabeth Bennet, in search of a husband. When she meets Mr. Darcy, who is eligible, attractive, and wealthy, she initially mistakes his aloof manner for disinterest. This is why this book is evergreen; the discovery of an underlying attraction and passion between two people that results in marriage is quite the draw.

Moving into the twenty-first century, the packaging of passion with marriage is underscored in the ABC reality show The Bachelorette (a spin-off of The Bachelor, which first aired in 2002). Here we have one attractive young woman who gets to choose her potential husband from twenty-five young, eligible men. Not only are these winsome men eager to be chosen, but the bachelorette, who has all the power, “dates” and romances several men at a time, eliminating them as she goes along. While this could be viewed as a female fantasy, the goal of finding your mate in the most glamorous and romantic settings is also the way that most women hope, perhaps on a less lavish scale, to begin their romances that lead to marriage.

Choreographing the Wedding

Along with more outspoken brides today is the daunting task of creating wedding as theater. Brides are on a quest for a flawless wedding—they have a specific vision, spun partly from the media, the family, and the culture at large. When Kate Middleton’s engagement to Prince William was announced in November 2010, we had a firsthand look at a couple in love and very involved in their wedding plans with a relatively short engagement of five months. The fact that Prince William and Kate Middleton had been dating since 2003 and had lived together in North Wales at the prince’s home makes it all the more familiar for many brides-to-be.

And while there has always been the attitude that one’s engagement and wedding make the bride a kind of “princess,” the influence of Kate Middleton as fiancée and bride is tremendous. In March 2011, during the countdown period before the royal wedding on April 29, 2011, an article entitled “The Ultimate Reality Show” ran in The Wall Street Journal announcing that two billion TV viewers would be able to watch the coverage of the wedding ceremony at Westminster Abbey. “Add an expected 400 million for online streaming and radio and the number would swell to nearly 35% of the world’s population,” wrote journalists Amy Chozick and Cecilie Rohwedder.

In the case of the young royals, their wedding was all about romantic love. Romantic love has such sway that Prince William was able to choose his bride and resist an arranged marriage (unlike his father only a generation ago). This popular view of modern marriage obliterates the long-standing historical doctrine that marriage was for political and financial gain. Marriage as a “business” has fallen by the wayside and love affairs—where passion and longing rule—are at a premium, launched with the wedding. Wedding plans are artfully threaded, carefully constructed, and filled with promise. What has become de rigueur for brides today are the following:

The Ring

For decades, the ring has represented eternal love. By the mid-1950s, according to Barry B. Kaplan’s article “Forever Diamonds,” “A Diamond Is Forever” was the official De Beers slogan that strongly influenced brides-to-be. To this day, diamond rings are considered deal sealers—81 percent of brides in the United States receive a diamond ring to finalize their engagement, according to the Diamond Information Center. The search for the ring has become a popular joint activity for bride and groom. As for Natalia, twenty-six, who has been married for a year, her engagement wasn’t official until she had a diamond ring.

I knew that we were secretly engaged, but until my husband and I had gone shopping for the ring, I wouldn’t tell anyone. We weren’t making the kind of money to pay for a ring and a wedding. My mom had never had an engagement ring, just a wedding band. She thought I was being ridiculous. But I wanted it, and when I got it, then we began to make plans for our wedding.

The Blips

The engagement period can create a few “tests.” Many wives stated that the first major stress of married life is foreshadowed during the wedding preparations, fraught with family feuds—on both sides—and ongoing misunderstandings. Miranda, thirty-one, married for three years, believes that her protracted engagement made family problems all the more pronounced.

I come from a family where my father loves big parties and lots of money spent on good times. My husband’s family is also like that, so I figured we’d all be on the same page about the wedding. Instead, my mother and my mother-in-law fought about everything, from the time of the ceremony to the color of the tablecloths. They were sharing the costs, so they both wanted it their way. Now I’m pregnant and my parents and my husband’s parents are already fighting over where the christening will be.

Almost 60 percent of my interviewees said that their vision of the wedding clashed either with their fiancé’s vision or that of his family. Unless the bride and groom are paying for the wedding themselves, the bride’s and the groom’s parents begin to exert their influence. Consider Mara, thirty-three, who comes from a different culture and religion from her husband of eight months.

The start of our engagement was great, until we realized we couldn’t agree on how to be married, or how to raise our children. I think his mother secretly wanted us to break up. We just had to stop having this dreamy engagement and figure out how we were going to deal with these issues. It took us months to sort it out. We decided to be married by two clergy and to raise our kids in both religions. In a way, we were ahead of most couples who are engaged or first married because we knew we had a problem before our wedding and we solved it.

Bride Wars: Competition and Rivalry over Weddings

In the romantic comedy Bride Wars, Anne Hathaway as Emma and Kate Hudson as Liv have grown up as best friends obsessed with their wedding day, including the fantasy that it will be held at the Plaza Hotel. When they learn they’ve unwittingly been booked for the same day, it becomes a fight to the finish. There are brides who tell me it isn’t just the competition between two friends, as in Bride Wars, but conflict churned up among groups of friends who happen to be planning weddings in similar time frames. This rivalry, if it isn’t reeled in, can be over venue, gown, flowers, bridesmaids, gifts, hairdressers, makeup artists, and honeymoons. For example, when Elise, thirty-four, began to plan her “low-key” wedding last year, she had already been to a dozen “over-the-top” weddings.

My husband and I talked a lot about how to get married when we were first engaged. In the end, we got married at my cousin’s house. I was happy with it, but all along, my friends acted surprised. They thought it wasn’t good enough: It wasn’t enough of a party—I didn’t wear a veil, although I wore a gown (and everyone talked about the gown, since I had it made). I felt like I was being judged. I knew that their weddings outshone mine. So I was okay with my wedding for who I am, who my husband is, but I felt like it was compared to all the others—and they won.

Boot Camp for Brides

After several of my interviewees spoke of going to “bridal boot camp,” I Googled it and found more than a million hits. What better way to be motivated to lose weight, have killer abs and calves and a flat stomach, than to do it for your wedding day, and the pre-wedding parties as well: the shower, the bachelorette party, the engagement party. The appeal, of course, is that the bride will be her thinnest, fittest, finest on her wedding day. As Alice, twenty-seven, who went to boot camp for a six-week session at a gym near her home, put it:

I am not athletic, and the only thing that ever made me want to work out was to fit into my wedding gown. I lost eleven pounds and looked amazing on my wedding day. But having to train, work full-time, and plan the wedding—since I wanted to be in charge of every detail—was a lot. Now that I’ve been married for a year, I don’t work out as much. It’s a good thing my husband doesn’t like the gym either. When I say how great I looked after boot camp, at the wedding, he says he loves me this way too.

The Bachelorette Bash

Frequently consisting of a weekend-long debauch that involves travel to an exotic place, the bachelorette party may replace a bridal shower in terms of importance (although those too can be extravagant affairs). Perhaps because the average age of the bride has risen from the age of 23.5 to the age of 26 in the past fifteen years, a bride today, with more single days under her belt, knows how to punctuate this part of the engagement. Consider Amanda, thirty-seven, who had dated several “frogs” before becoming engaged to her prince, and feels that every event surrounding her wedding was meaningful.

I just wanted as many celebrations as I could have when I finally decided to get married. I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I was older than most brides who wore a gown and walked down the aisle; the part I was most excited about was the bachelorette party. My friends and I decided to do a long weekend at an upscale resort. There were ten of us who actually could go and we planned every minute. I was saying good-bye to my single days.

Themed Wedding Showers

Wedding showers are often three-generational: the bride and her friends; the mother of the bride and mother of the groom and their friends; and the grandmothers. Emily Post online points out that today there can be several showers, taking place in various parts of the country and hosted by assorted family members and/or bridesmaids over the course of the engagement period. The conventional themes of a bridal shower include lingerie showers, handkerchief showers, and kitchen showers; more hip showers include sushi showers, chocolate showers, stock-the-bar showers, stock-the-pantry showers, wine-tasting showers, and room-of-the-house showers. And the etiquette today extends beyond inviting the mother of the bride and mother of the groom to include inviting stepmothers from both sides. Rachel, twenty-six, thought a wedding shower wasn’t her style when she got married two years ago.

I wanted a shower and I didn’t want a shower—I kept going back and forth. I thought there was so much going on with the bachelorette party, planning a big wedding, including a rehearsal dinner, that I couldn’t get involved. I also didn’t want to ask so much of my friends. But I was worried that if I didn’t do it, I’d be missing something. I know my mom and mother-in-law wanted the shower to happen, and they were right.

While Rachel was ambivalent about a traditional shower, Nora, thirty-five, tells us that she and her fiancé opted for a “couple’s shower,” where the couple is showered with gifts to begin their lives together. While men were once banned from the shower (just as brides were once surprised by the ring and the proposal), the couple’s shower is a modern version of a sacred female ritual. Nora tells us:

My husband and I were so close during our engagement three years ago that I told my aunts, who were hosting, that I wanted a couple’s shower. They were upset. My one aunt said that the next thing would be the groom approving the wedding gown. But we did have a couple’s shower for the house—from gardening tools to a wine cooler to bookends. All his friends and my friends were there and we danced and partied. My aunts saw this as an engagement party, like I’d ditched the shower.

Just as I was about to conclude my research on this portion of Phase One, a friend told me of her niece’s bridal shower, one that had humor and a roomful of friends and family on a Sunday afternoon. The bride’s girlfriends put a temporary clothesline in the living room and hung women’s panties to connote each period in the wife’s life. This began with a thong and ended, eight pieces of underwear later, with a large pair of Hanes cotton underwear.

Bride Styles

In moving toward the actual wedding day, there are several types of brides working the system. Clearly the pinnacle of a romance and the celebration of a life together are the motivation, yet the bride’s personality and manner remain front and center.

The Traditionalist

Brides who are traditionalists are in search of the pomp and circumstance; they imagine their vows exchanged in a house of worship, a white gown with a train and veil, and a reception in elegant surroundings. More than half of the wives with whom I spoke said they had been engaged for at least a year, most for more than eighteen months, in order to pull a traditional wedding together. Consider Ashley, thirty-one, who tells us that she was “all over” her wedding plans.

I wanted the wedding of my dreams, and when my parents told me their budget, my fiancé and I went to his parents and then dug into our pockets. My parents were against this, but my in-laws understood that we needed more cash. My mother said this kind of money could go to a down payment on a house. But I wasn’t rational. I wanted everything to be just so for this event—from the bridal shower to the bridesmaids’ gifts to the rehearsal dinner.

Maiden Name Versus Married Name

I find it ironic that as I’m writing this section of the book, my eldest child, Jennie—a bride of six weeks—and I are having a conversation about keeping one’s maiden name, which she has chosen to do. My thought is that hers happens to be a great last name and also a profound part of how she sees herself. Yet surprisingly enough, Jennie’s decision goes against the trend. As Katherine Butler wrote in an article on entitled “7 Reasons Married Women Keep Their Last Names,” it is likely that an American woman who marries today will take her husband’s name. Butler reports that three million women do so, comprising 90 percent of wives who marry per year. Yet there are brides who have lived, worked, and socialized plenty before they decided to get married; their maiden names are their brand. Consider Maggie, thirty, about to marry and determined to keep her maiden name.

This is about my credibility, my success, my name recognition. If actresses did it in the fifties till today, why can’t I do it? I’m in a business where people know me by this name, and I’m not about to give that up. My mom struggled with it at work and ended up hyphenating her name. That I won’t do.

Sydney, thirty-two, concurs with Maggie. With her wedding five months away, she recently explained to her future husband why she has decided to keep her name.

I can’t give up my name. I am so attached to it that I think something awful would happen to me. My husband-to-be isn’t thrilled, and that makes me think he’s old-fashioned. I know it’s weird to cling to my name—but I feel like I’ll get lost in the marriage if I don’t.

In contrast is Phillipa, twenty-five, engaged to be married next year.

I want to take my husband’s name. It’s better than my last name and it will make us closer. It will be better for our children, too. He’s so glad I decided this and I know my mom is sorry and says, “Keep your own name.” I don’t want to do that.

Phillipa’s decision is influenced by her age—since millennial brides find it more enticing to take on their husband’s name than do those brides who are borderline Gen-Xers. There is also the practicality of it—as Katie Roiphe writes in her essay “The Maiden Name Debate”: “In a mundane way, having the same name as your children is easier.”


The micromanager wants control and the final say on the details and thought that goes into the wedding (including the ideal honeymoon). A majority of brides in this category admitted that they had become overly involved, that every aspect of their wedding was a reflection of themselves. Alexis, thirty-three, married two years ago, returned the table linens three times and shopped for her wedding gown for months on end.

I had this attitude that I was the bride and it was my day—my time. My husband was quiet and kind of meek. I kept saying I wanted the ceremony to have love poems, I wanted roses scattered about, I wanted ten bridesmaids—a few flower girls and ring bearers. He knew I was in charge. The problem was, I couldn’t concentrate on us because I was so busy getting everything right for our wedding.

Bridezillas: The Modern Monster Bride

A step beyond the micromanager is a bridezilla, a bride with behavior patterns common enough in the bridal industry today to be the stuff of film and television. For starters, there’s Bridezillas on WE tv. Portrayed as a hit original series on its Web site, the show consists of reality TV “with more meltdowns, confrontations and shocking revelations” of brides on their wedding day. According to Jenna, twenty-seven, just back from her honeymoon, morphing into a bridezilla is par for the course.

I know that I became another person the closer I got to my wedding day. The last two weeks until the wedding were crazy; my mom was the mom of Bridezilla. Then it calmed down, the bad feelings and fights from the start—over what the bridesmaids wore, how I thought my hair should look, why I carried on so about the DJ—all disappeared. Before that I would cry all the time, scream at everyone, including my fiancé, my closest friends. If someone said something, I’d go nuts—be a monster.

Final Destination: The Wedding

After the rituals of the engagement play out, there is no higher order to express love, devotion, commitment, and passion than to exchange wedding vows. When I asked wives in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties (some on second or third marriages) how the actual wedding factored into romantic love, virtually all said they relished the wedding. They viewed it as both a ceremony and segue to the momentous event: marriage. Rebecca, twenty-six, who was in law school when she married a year ago, found wedding plans both exhilarating and exhausting.

When I got engaged, my fiancé and I were living in my hometown. Then we moved for work and my mother planned the wedding with her sisters. I was just so excited that it was happening. There had been arguments about where to have the ceremony, the amount of guests, what my mother and grandmother wanted … but as it got closer, it was finally less stress and more about how I was going to marry my fiancé, who had been my boyfriend all through high school and college.

Linda, forty-five, was married for a second time three years ago, and relished the wedding.

I had been married once before, then lived with someone for ten years. So we both came from long relationships and we wanted our wedding to be so special. We kept saying we were too old to be a bride and groom, and maybe that is true. We ended up having twenty people and a dinner at a restaurant after the church. I loved it—I loved that we were finally married.

Finessing the Honeymoon

Brides today are not only travel savvy but much more adventurous than they were a few decades back when it comes to honeymoons. Honeymoons described by the interviewees for this chapter included trips to Asia, Africa, Australia, the Greek Isles, and Europe, along with the more tried-and-true romantic getaways in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Hawaii. For the micromanagers discussed earlier, the honeymoon plans were another stressor, but the rewards were evident. Brett, thirty-one, thought her honeymoon last year was worth all her efforts.

When my husband and I got on the plane for a ten-day trip to France, we were too tired to speak. It took us days to calm down and to believe the wedding had happened and that this was our honeymoon and we were officially married. Everyone at the hotels called us Mr. and Mrs. and that was a shock. The honeymoon was all about us—we were alone finally—and it was a great trip; I had found wonderful hotels and restaurants.

Wife in Play

Once the newly minted wife has returned from her honeymoon, the identification of wife sinks in. Wives during this early phase of marriage aspire to keep the passion alive in the midst of some hectic times (moving into a new home, returning to work, writing thank-you notes for that pile of wedding gifts). Virtually every wife viewed passion as high-octane—an insatiable sensation of romantic love.

Beyond that, many wives were influenced by their own parents’ experiences. Some spoke of how determined they were to get their marriages right because their parents were divorced. Other wives said they were resolved to have stronger, more significant marriages than those of their mothers who were still married. Essentially every woman had a sense that without passion, they’d be missing out and would have failed somehow.

Sex Secondary?

In the feature film No Strings Attached, Natalie Portman’s character, Emma, is a high-achieving graduate of MIT, a young doctor resistant to love and commitment. When she chooses Ashton Kutcher’s Adam as her “sex friend,” she doesn’t anticipate falling for him. Emma has her “aha” moment when her sister is getting married. She realizes that sex first, passion and friendship afterward, while not the usual formula, might work after all. Consider Renee, thirty-seven, married for three years.

My husband and I had a sexual relationship first, even though I’m not supposed to admit that. We got married partly because we were so attracted to each other. I wasn’t like my friends who did it in the right order—went on nice dates with nice guys and then had sex eventually. This was a hot romance and we had sex all the time from our first date. Then we decided that we liked each other too. That’s when we knew we wanted to be together. When we come home to each other, it’s an escape—it’s comforting, it’s wild—we’re still hot for each other.

The University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center reports that most adults have sex sixty-one times a year. For married couples, there is a higher percentage of sex than for the unmarried population. That being said, the demands of daily life may intrude on one’s sex life. Women interviewed in this phase said that even their engagement had encroached on their sex life and that they worried about what was ahead. For Mariel, thirty-one, married for seven months, the impetus to have a healthy sex life is strong.

I have friends who have lived with their boyfriends for so long before they got married. The sex was old because everything was old by then. That’s why I knew to keep things moving along. We didn’t live together for a year and then decided to get married. It sounds weird to have date nights already, but it works for us. I don’t want to lose the sex.

The good news is that women these days are conscious of what sex in a marriage means. As psychologist Seth Shulman notes, “Women have been freed up to realize what they need. Being sexually satisfied in a marriage is definitely a part of this awareness.”

Love Theory

In psychologist Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, he identifies three characteristics: passion, intimacy, and commitment. Passion is defined as physical attraction and sexual connection, intimacy as the sense of being close and bonded, and commitment as the decision to be together exclusively. As a romantic relationship moves through time, one of these three characteristics is carrying the most weight. Accordingly, although romantic love offers both intimacy and passion/sex, commitment is needed to complete the triangle. For example, Alyssa, thirty-nine, married for five years, with two young daughters, respects the depths of love in her marriage.

At first my husband and I had sex all the time and would hold hands in the booth at a diner. No matter what we did together we were always touching. After we had children it calmed down a bit but we always make time for each other. My husband told me when we got engaged that he wanted our marriage to be about us and that it would take work. He was right, and what we have together is both romantic and very solid, very strong.

John Lee, author of The Colors of Love, bases his theory on six types of love as a color wheel that can be mixed to make nine delineated love types. If wives move through these first primary styles of love—(1) eros, or loving a person; (2) ludos, or love as a game; and (3) storge, or love as friendship—it seems that passion can become less important as the more serious matter of marriage sets in. Liza, thirty-three, married for two years, prefers being “companionate” to being in a rousing, passionate relationship.

I had a few boyfriends who broke my heart in college. I worried that I’d never find someone who would be true. So when we got through that first rush, then I wanted to see if it would stick. Sex came later too, and that was fine with me. I was looking for emotional stability and trust. This man was a husband, not a boyfriend.

In reviewing the finite aspect of passion, an article in the L.A. Times, “Scientists Try to Measure Love,” by Jessica Pauline Ogilvie, caught my eye. We are told that enduring passion (rather than one that fades with time) begins early on in our romances. Apparently Larry J. Young, a professor at Emory University, found that dopamine (a molecule that functions as a neurotransmitter and hormone) is released when we fall in love. Later on, the “dopamine surge” is replaced with “two key hormones—oxytocin and vasopressin,” and when these are released, they keep us locked in a mating mode. So, in fact, women get “hooked” on their future mates once the relationship is consummated. Then, ideally, sex becomes tied into romantic love and intimacy, yielding commitment. The endgame is that women get to be actual wives, not “almost wives,” or “girlfriends-in-waiting.” Paying attention to one’s wedding makes sense—it’s the ultimate reward for romantic love for women. And when I asked my interviewees about the most memorable period in their marriages, 85 percent of wives in first, second, and third marriages said that it was during the early years—the passionate phase.


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