Life Stages of a Healthy Marriage

My husband and I are celebrating our eighth anniversary this week. Naturally, my mind is full of memories of our wedding, honeymoon, and the almost 16 years we’ve spent together.

Every year, our anniversary is also a time to reflect on how much we’ve grown over the course of our marriage. This marriage is still young, but we’ve experienced a lot in that time.

How do you think healthy marriages age? I see it lining up pretty closely to human years (which makes sense, of course—we’re not dogs!). I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and it’s the metaphor I like best—maybe because it’s so deeply relevant to our life right now, with three kids at three different stages.

It seems apt, though. Consider:

The first year or so is full of awe and rapid growth and sleeplessness, setting the stage for lifelong bonding and changing everything about your life. Just like babies, newborn marriages need a ton of care and attention to mature well. Sometimes that care and attention are difficult and take a lot out of us. Often it’s an absolute delight. But always, we are rewarded tenfold.

Then there are the toddler years, full of youthful energy and excitement about new experiences together. Spouses in this stage need to talk through feelings often and have those feelings validated, as well as learn to listen to one another with respect and restraint. It’s a great time to learn each other’s languages, and start communicating in big ways.

In the preschool years, new settings are both exciting and, at times, overwhelming, and we have great fun and some shaky moments, too. The playful adventuring is how we gain confidence in ourselves and trust in each other after the newness of life together wears off, and the challenges of the real world start to look bigger. There’s still so much reliance on one another for support and guidance, but expectations are higher, too.

The school-age years of marriage are busy and creative, as we learn to look beyond our relationship and see how our family unit plays a broader role in the world around us. Many couples have children at this point, and/or greater commitments to their careers or local communities, and juggling these responsibilities in addition to managing their own emotions and relationship can be tricky at times. It’s much like a school-age child learns to pursue new interests and gain more independence—but still needs a restful home and loving family to recharge with. If a marriage is nurturing, it’s a comfortable place to call home in stressful periods.

I imagine the adolescent years as busy and transformative. These will be the years when we have older children in activities, a bit more freedom to pursue our own interests, and maybe career moves and retirement planning to think about—that sort of transitional phase where so much of our focus is on near-term stress for long-term gain (just like high school, right?). I think it’ll be easy to feel like teenagers who want to be independent and taken seriously, which will make it all the more important to check in and reconnect frequently. We’ll need to harness the intensity of it all for good, and not let it spiral without structure.

And maturity in marriage? Those will be the years when things feel a bit more steady. Certainly plenty of circumstances will come along to rock the boat, and, like any long-married couple, we’ll need to continue practicing all the skills we’ve learned to help us stay sharp. Maybe there will even be a crisis or a curveball that will force (or inspire?) us to change and grow more than we thought we’d need to, so far in. But above all, being ourselves—together—will come a little more naturally, and there will be an even stronger foundation to lean on when the world feels shaky.

Anyway, this is how I imagine it. At eight years, our marriage is firmly school-age. We haven’t encountered the rest yet. But I find myself really anticipating the adventures ahead and looking forward to the growth that remains before us, as well as the comfort.

What I do know is this: None of the beautiful qualities of any of these “life stages” in marriage are a given. Just like people of all ages can lose themselves if they and their loved ones aren’t invested in their health and wellbeing, so, too, can marriages at any stage. I pray every day that my husband and I receive the grace to be selfless, attentive, and patient enough to keep investing in each other.

Marriage is the foundation of society. It’s the most central way we build families, lift up our beloved, help each other get to Heaven, and instill faith and compassion in the next generation. It is a privilege to live this vocation. It is also a lot of work.

Sometimes we take this critical relationship for granted. We see and work with our spouse day after day, and we may find ourselves expecting their help more than their affection. It’s so easy to fall into that trap—to make the beautiful normalcy of marriage into a thing that fades into the background. I pray it may it never be so, for my marriage or for yours. Because our spouses deserve better, and it is our great privilege and duty to give them the very best of ourselves.

There is no greater force against evil in the world than the love of a man and woman in marriage. After the Holy Eucharist, it has a power beyond anything that we can imagine. – Cardinal Raymond Burke

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