Can a married couple be too close for their own good? Can intimacy lead a couple to break up? New brain science shows us that it can. If couples have not mastered the changing stages of marriage, breakup is possible, and often predictable because the human brain dictates a series of natural responses during the life of a relationship. How we handle those stages can make or break a marriage.
For 20 years I have been studying how women’s and men’s brains affect marriage, from the first blush of romance all the way through to lifelong partnership. Understanding the behavioral differences involved can be the key to making love last a lifetime.
Stage 1: Romance
When two lovers come together, their brains begin to “fall in love.” The couple’s pheromones — chemical signals that work through our senses — are very high, so when they smell each other or look into each other’s eyes, their separate male and female minds become like one. High levels of oxytocin, a bonding hormone, may hide irritating behaviors from each other. But “lovers’ bliss” ultimately ends, and a new biological stage of the relationship begins.
Stage 2: Disillusionment
After a few months or even a year, our hormones and brain chemistry begin to change, and our “thinking” brain — the cerebral cortex — may notice that our partner is flawed. We feel anger toward each other, irritation, even fear at times. If we married our partner during the Romance stage, we might, in Stage 2, begin to have second thoughts.
Perhaps the wife starts wondering, “What could he be thinking?” as he lies on the couch watching TV instead of doting on her. She feels rejected, especially since he no longer tells her what he’s feeling when he feels it.
He can’t understand why she’s become critical of him about little things. They’ve been together a few years; they may have a child by now. What else could she want? He feels he’s doing something wrong, but can’t figure out how to fix it.
The brain chemicals that took over during the early stages of courtship and romance have dissipated, as if a rug was pulled out from under love. How easy it is to think there’s now something wrong with ourselves or our partner. How easy to say, “He/she is not the person I married.”
But this confusing place is a normal stage, a chemical letdown in both their brains. It’s also a necessary next step in helping two very different brain systems come together for life.
Stage 3: Power Struggle
Two people who experience Disillusionment will usually initiate Power Struggle. They will counter the invisible chemical letdown by trying to change each other back to who they were — or thought they were — in the Romance stage. A man and a woman who are in love and struggling in this way will have the added difficulty (and ammunition) of being neurally “different” — for the male and female brains think, act, behave and even love quite uniquely.
This is a painful time. But couples who are locked in Power Struggle don’t realize their brain differences can actually be the key to long-term marriage.
After Romance ebbs, the man may want more independent activities, the woman more contact with friends. While this tendency has a foundation in learned behaviors and gender roles, hormones like testosterone and estrogen support these differences.
What’s the impact of this on marriage? Well, one of the main reasons we pick at each other mercilessly during the Power Struggle stage is our differing attitudes toward marital independence. Not surprisingly, first marriages that end in divorce last an average of seven to eight years — the very time we are trying to “change” the other person.
Yet nature does not allow us to turn back the chemical and neural clock. Nature keeps moving forward in the life cycle. A new stage of marital love awaits when the couple can finally discover each other, both as lovers and as men and women. It will require one or both to awaken to something that has been hiding beneath the surface.