The Science of a Happy Marriage

Can a married couple be too close for their own good? Can intimacy lead a couple to break up? New

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.
Stage 4: Awakening

What many couples don’t understand is that before drifting apart, there is an earlier step that goes unnoticed. In Romance, Disillusionment and Power Struggle, the man and woman become too close, erasing one another’s individuality. A man might see his wife’s emotionality, need to communicate, desire for sensual romance, even attitude toward housework as a waste of time. She might see her husband’s habits, hobbies, preoccupation with work, and need for independence as dangerous or selfish. In Stage 4, the couple awaken to the realization that they’ve been too close to each other in unhealthy ways and must now psychologically separate. This separation does not mean divorce — it means understanding. In this new stage, the thinking brain overrides emotional responses that could cause conflict and a feeling of grief over their lost romance.

A man might step back and say nothing when he sees his wife doing something that irritates — he just mentally steps around it. A woman might supportively say, “I get what that’s about now,” when he does something equally irritating to her.

Ultimately men realize that women are right: A relationship is most likely doomed if there isn’t enough togetherness. But men are right, too: It is most likely in serious trouble if there is not enough independence.

When we are too far away from each other, that amazing love we knew at the beginning will die. Yet when we are so close that one person will not allow the other to be himself or herself, the marriage can’t survive. Understanding the strengths of male and female chemistry is the key to success.

Stage 5: Long-Term Marriage

The balance between the prototypical male and female ways of relating is a balanced state of love I call Intimate Separateness. The Power Struggle of Stage 3 dissipates, and strategies of mature love that nurture both intimacy and separateness take over. Couples live together, raise children, love and are loved, but not because they’ve become the same as each other — in fact, because they’ve learned to be happily different.

To Foster Intimacy

  • A happy couple in a happy marriage develop bonding rituals, like date nights, family dinners, talking on the phone or e-mailing when one of them is traveling. These rituals become the pillars that hold up the marriage. Every moment of the relationship does not have to be intimate — the husband and wife know that the bonding rituals will sustain the power of love when life gets busy and stressful.
  • They practice kindness and politeness with each other in at least 95 percent of their interactions. There is perhaps no one who deserves better treatment than one’s spouse, but when we’re locked in Power Struggle, we think our partner should be our constant object of stress ventilation. The frontal lobes are really doing their mature job when we realize how a good marriage depends on kindness.
  • They resolve arguments rather than letting things fester. Sure, they get angry and argue, but they make sure to apologize for meanness, and solve their conflicts. When needed, they get help from friends, extended family or professionals.

To Protect Separateness

  • They appreciate each other’s eccentricities and differences, especially as woman and man. Perhaps he hogs the remote control when they watch TV. Instead of reacting, she chuckles. Or perhaps she wants to talk about her feelings with him; he understands how important this is to her as a woman and takes the time to listen.
  • They develop different sets of friends, generally female for her and male for him, and encourage each other in these friendships. Over the years they may find that even while their spouse is their best friend, they are still getting much of their emotional needs met through others.
  • They allow each other different marital domains. If a special project, a hobby or sport, a way of socializing is very important to one, the other helps promote that. This way, each partner has a personal place, a time, an activity which brings meaning and power.

There’s tremendous value in knowing that your feelings toward one another are likely to change over time and that change is normal. Your brain chemistry plays a role, and there’s no point in fighting it. Instead, let biology guide you toward understanding, and natural, long-term love. After all, human beings are creatures of nature, and nature is very wise indeed.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest