First Dates to 50 Years

Navigating relationship ups and downs

It is difficult to think of a time more blissful than the beginning of a romance. You can’t get enough of your new love and everything seems perfect. During the initial days of dating, it is not unusual for people to amplify the good while ignoring any negative aspects. Tara Vossenkemper, a relationship therapist and the founder of The Counseling Hub, says this fresh and exciting stage, often referred to as the honeymoon phase, can last from six months to two years.

“In the honeymoon phase, the other person is hormonally and chemically like a drug to you,” she says. “You feel really in love and almost obsessed with them.”

Marriage counselor Walter Coplen, founder of Coplen Christian Counseling, notes that this phase is fun and feels good, but it is not realistic. As it fades, couples enter into a more balanced state that reveals the truth of their relationship.

“You begin to see that the person you are involved with isn’t perfect,” Coplen says. “They may not be meeting all your needs, and they can’t read your mind. There can be a little bit of struggle with that. If the two people are willing to work on it, they can get to the stability phase, where they can have a more realistic relationship.”

The end of the honeymoon phase can be jarring for some couples. Marital therapist Laurel C. Harlan, founder and director of Human Dynamics Inc., says people should realize that the change is inevitable.

“People think that how the relationship is at the start is how it is supposed to feel all the time,” Harlan says. “That’s a different kind of love than a love that is long-lasting. It’s just not sustainable. You light a match at the beginning, and there is a spark, but it is going to burn out.”

Healthy Transitions
The transition from the fantasy to developing and maintaining a healthy relationship that spans decades is
a process.

“There is this idea that you go from falling in love to standing in love,” Vossenkemper says. “Standing in love is more about commitment and consistency. The ‘in love’ intensity fades, and it is replaced by companionship and a deeper intimacy. If you can get through that dip and into this new phase of love, the relationship, as long as it is healthy, can become more stable.”

Coplen believes couples can build a strong foundation by discussing their likes and dislikes, dreams, hopes and goals. He says it is also essential to find out your significant other’s views on practical topics such as money, having children and where you want to live.

“I strongly encourage people to take their time,” Coplen says. “When people go through these stages over the course of a year or two, it gives them a lot of time to get to know themselves and the other person in the context of the relationship. It is critical to learn each other’s personalities, and also about each other’s family backgrounds and histories.”

Good Groundwork
When a twosome feels ready for the commitment of marriage, there are steps they can take to get ready for life beyond the wedding. Many couples seek premarital counseling through their religious institutions. Kevin Wilburn, founder of Triumph Christian Counseling, provides premarital and marriage counseling services that combine biblical principles with professional counseling practices. He says premarital counseling is a wise choice for engaged couples.

“It helps ensure that the future husband and wife are committed to the challenges that marriage will naturally entail,” Wilburn explains. “It also offers the opportunity to learn, in a very pointed manner, what specific obstacles or opportunities for growth may likely be encountered and the level of commitment for positive change.”

Wilburn says Christian couples should enter into marriage with a clear understanding of its biblical intent. Although he recognizes that marriage can look different for couples who are dealing with issues such as adultery and abuse, Wilburn says marriage is meant to reflect Jesus Christ’s process of refinement as he keeps covenant with the church.

“It is cut and dry,” Wilburn says. “As soon as Christ can turn his back on the church, which he says he will never do, we can turn our back on our spouse. A true understanding of covenant offers no Plan B once a couple has spoken the words, ‘I do.’”

Secular couples can also benefit from counseling sessions before they walk down the aisle. Premarital counseling can help people make sure they understand each other’s values and are on the same page when it comes to handling conflict, Harlan says. However, she cautions that if a couple needs premarital counseling to work through major issues, it could be cause for concern.
“People are generally on their best behavior before the wedding, so if the couple is already having problems at this point, that could be a red flag for what might come later,” Harlan says.

Prenuptial agreements are another form of marriage preparation. Amy Salladay, a family and estate planning attorney at Columbia Family Law Group LLC, says she recommends that all soon-to-be spouses sign one of these contracts, which detail how they will negotiate the financial aspects of their marriage.

“Prenuptial agreements force a lot of couples to talk about uncomfortable issues, including finances, children, working or not working, and what happens to assets owned prior to marriage in the event of his or her death,” Salladay says. “My experience is that prenuptial agreements often result in couples talking through and agreeing on important issues before they actually get married, which is a very good thing.”

If children are part of a couple’s plans, they should consider the impact that parenthood will have on their union. It is crucial for couples to make their relationship the cornerstone of the family, Harlan says.

“Kids need a lot of attention, and they can be exhausting,” she says. “You have to figure out how to care for them and still have time and energy left for each other.”

Vossenkemper suggests applying the “magic six hours” theory to stay connected. The concept, introduced by marital researcher John Gottman, is that couples can make dramatic improvements by devoting an extra six hours per week to their relationship. The formula incorporates a mix of quick actions, such as taking two minutes each morning to learn one thing that is happening in your partner’s life that day, with longer rituals, like a weekly one-hour meeting with your spouse to talk about areas of concern within the relationship.

“When you have a child, everything about your life is thrown into upheaval,” Vossenkemper says. “It can be hard to navigate. Logistics and scheduling can take over, and you stop touching base with each other. If you don’t make your relationship a priority, you might be left feeling like you don’t know your partner by the time you are empty nesters.”

Devoting at least two hours a week for a light-hearted and relaxing date night can give couples the chance to de-stress and focus on each other.

“Variety is the spice of life,” Coplen says. “A willingness to be spontaneous, laugh together and do things that create connecting experiences is so important. Don’t lose sight of the fun side of life and the fun side of the relationship.”

Unhappy Endings
Unfortunately, even when both sides give it their all, marriages don’t always stand the test of time. Growing apart, infidelity, addiction, abuse and mental illness are some common problems that tear people apart. In her role as a divorce attorney, Salladay strives to address her clients’ unique circumstances to help them reach an amicable resolution.

“It’s not my job to advocate or push for a divorce, and I let every client know that,” Salladay says. “It’s my job to help clients through the difficult process of divorcing once that person decides it is time to get divorced. I almost always ask about marriage counseling, and I have a handy list of marriage counselors that I refer clients to at the outset.”

Harlan tells people not to give up hope too quickly. She has worked with couples who have gone through painful situations, like adultery, and come out on the other side with a stronger marriage.

“If couples, even ones that have strong relationships, are being honest with you, they will tell you that there were years within their marriage where it wasn’t all that strong, or all that great,” Harlan says. “But, they hung in there, and they worked on it. They found their way back to each other. It certainly isn’t easy, but it is possible. It takes both of you really working on it to make the marriage last.”

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