Almost all of us know about the five stages of grief identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying” – shock/denial, bargaining, depression, anger and acceptance – but almost no one knows about the stages in which a marriage deteriorates and dies. To me, this information is so important that all couples who marry should be required to know what they are so they would know when they were in trouble and get help for their relationship before too much damage has been done.
I became interested in understanding whether one could predict that a marriage would die before my own divorce in 1993. Some of my friends had mentioned that they believed there was a turning point in a bad marriage when a person just knew their relationship was over. They would tell stories of their friends or relatives identifying that one last thing someone did or didn’t do that caused their spouse to say, “That’s it, I am absolutely, positively, done.”
“Joe said it was when his wife flipped him off in front of the kids that one last time,” said one friend. “She’d done it before, but this one last time was the final straw.”
I filed that thought away, and then when my turn came a few years later I was also able to identify a similar moment of clarity. That divorce in 1993 so blew my mind that it ignited the ferocious need for understanding and knowledge that still exists to this day, and witch ultimately ended up in the creation of this web site: I simply could not understand how I could go from loving someone so much to wanting to get away from him so intensely in 8 short years. What happened? How could it have been prevented?
I read every book I could find. Went to therapy, workshops, and seminars and became sort of a local relationship guru in San Antonio, where I lived at the time, writing and speaking about how to make wise relationship decisions and prevent divorce.
All of these things helped, but it wasn’t until graduate school (2001-2006) that I began (seriously) researching the subject and found that similar to the four stages of cancer, marriages that end deteriorate in four distinctive and predictable stages, and once a marriage moves from stage one to two, it will ultimately die if nothing is done about it.*
Why had I never heard of that?
The madness is that couples could easily avoid the deterioration process simply by being aware of the stages and getting help as soon as they realize their relationship is in trouble. This sounds easy, but one of the crazier things about this phenomenon of human behavior is that once a person becomes unhappy in the relationship, he or she usually keeps it to him or herself and processes it alone in an internal conversation until the secret is finally revealed in one devastating conversation.
So, here are the four stages that will allow you to immediately diagnose your marriage. Stages, that if they became common knowledge, could change the whole relational world, and I’m not kidding.
Caution: What you find out my scare you, and if it does, perhaps it will motivate you to get off your butt and take your marital problems seriously. Getting the help that you need is always a good thing.
The Four Stages of a Dying Marriage
- Disillusionment. You become aware, “Uh oh, I may be unhappy in this relationship. I’ll just sit with it and see if it’s serious or just a phase.”
- Erosion. You conclude, “It IS serious. This could lead to divorce … Oh wait, I am NOT going to divorce because (place your many reasons here). I’ll just have to accept it and keep going.” Your partner may begin to notice signs of your unhappiness via snide or sarcastic remarks or passive aggressive behaviors.
- Detachment. “My discontentment is getting worse! I will find a way to survive and find some happiness for myself by detaching and involving myself in activities that take me away from him/her like (put your activity here … it may be an affair, going back to work or school, travel, working out, etc). Your discontentment may become obvious to outsiders as now you are likely to exhibit it around others.
- Point of no return, also known as “The Straw.” (You know, the one that breaks the camel’s back, the one my friend described years ago?) It’s the moment of clarity that one day arrives … we don’t know when or how or whether it will be over something big or small, but it will happen … When your partner says or does one last thing that causes all fog to lift and a personal declaration of, “You know what? I won’t be married to someone who would do (or say) something like that!” In that moment the decision to let the marriage die is made, and the brutal truth is often revealed to the spouse then or very soon after.
Many individuals decide to divorce at this point, or if not a legal divorce, they become emotionally divorced, meaning the person who hit the point-of-no-return gives up and stops caring about their spouse. They allow the marriage to die, even though they may remain legally married. One of my clients described it as a decision to check out of the marriage …
“For me it was completely over at that moment,” he said. “But I still stayed married to her for another four years, until I could get the kids out of the house. But there was nothing there, my feelings for her were gone.”
Far too many couples make it to this point, and far too many are on their way.
Treating relationship issues seriously and dealing with them quickly and directly could change the rate of divorce in the United States drastically, and that is my personal goal.
If you see your own marriage has entered into the process, know that it absolutely, positively will go through all of the stages unless something is done. This is a good time to visit with the Marriage Crisis Manager to figure out what the best path is for you. No matter what you decide, I strongly urge you to bring up the issue of your discontentment with your partner as soon as you realize you are in stage two. Please do not be afraid of going to therapy and asking for help. You will be amazed at how much a therapist can help.
*I researched and wrote my 2006 dissertation on how people in long-term marriages decide to divorce. The four stages were what I found during the course of the research.
Scholar Diane Vaughan, Ph.D., also described stages of marital deterioration in her 1986 research-based book, “Uncoupling.”