Old stereotypes would have us believe that women are more focused on relationships than men, but I have found that is not true, though men and women do see marriage through different lenses. A loving, intimate, and joyful marriage is just as important to men as it is to women. It is also just as painful and heart-breaking for men when a marriage ends. I know, I have been a marriage counselor for more than fifty years specializing in helping men and the women who love them.
Before I tell you about the five stages of love, I need to tell you about the different lens through which men and women see themselves, each other, and the world. But before I do that, I need to say something about “generalizations.” When I say that men are taller than women, most people will recognize I am not saying that all men are taller than all women. As a man who is five feet, 5 inches tall, I am very aware of this fact. So, please remember this when I talk about men and women.
I also need to say that sex differences have often been used to denigrate or limit one gender, usually the female. This need not be the case. There is good science and research that recognizes sex differences without putting one sex above or below the other or suggesting that women are unsuited for certain roles, such as soldier, professional baseball player, or President; or that a man should not be a nursery school teacher, nurse, or First Gentleman.
I wrote a book, 12 Rules for Good Men, along with “The Good Men Manifesto” about men, who we are, and what we need, so I’ll just touch on a few important differences here that are particularly important in helping a man understand the five stages of love, why most relationships end at stage 3, and what a man must do to save his troubled marriage.
Louann Brizendine, M.D., is an American scientist, a neuropsychiatrist who is both a researcher and a clinician and professor at the University of California, San Francisco. She’s written two books, The Male Brain and The Female Brain, and notes significant differences including the following:
- Medial Preoptic Area. This is the area of sexual pursuit and is 2.5 times larger in the male brain.
- Amygdala. The alarm system for threats, fears, and danger and larger in the male brain.
- Mirror-neuron system. The “I feel what you feel” emotional empathy system. Gets in sync with others’ emotions by reading facial expressions and interpreting tone of voice and other nonverbal emotional cues. It is smaller and less active in the male brain.
- Anterior cingulate cortex. It’s the worry-wart center, fear-of-punishment area and center of sexual performance anxiety. It is larger in the female brain.
- Hippocampus. The elephant that never forgets a fight, a romantic encounter, or a mistake, no matter how old it is—and won’t let you forget it either. It is larger and more active in the female brain.
Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge University has gone a number of research studies on brain differences. In the first lines of his book, The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male & Female Brain, he says simply: “The subject of essential sex differences in the mind is clearly very delicate. I could tiptoe around it, but my guess is that you would like the theory of the book stated plainly. So here it is:
“The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”
The 5 Stages of Love and Why Most Relationships End at Stage 3
In my book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come, I describe the following stages:
- Falling in Love.
- Becoming a Couple.
- Creating Real, Lasting Love.
- Finding Your Calling as a Couple.
Like many people I thought there were only two stages to have a great relationship. First, the magic moment where we meet that special someone and fall in love. Second, we become a couple and live happily ever after. Also, like many whose marriage hit the rocks and disillusionment overcame us, I got divorced, became depressed, decided I had chosen the wrong partner, and eventually tried again.
Unfortunately, like many, I didn’t yet understand the five stages of love and my second marriage also ended in divorce. But, I finally got wise, I mean wise in truly understanding the hidden truths about sex, love, relationships, and marriage. My wife, Carlin, and I have now been married for 40 years and the key is understanding the five stages.
In my article “The 5 Stages of Love: Why Too Many Stop at Stage 3,” I highlight important points in the book. Here, I’ll expand on some subtle, yet critically important distinctions that most people fail to grasp.
- Falling in love is a trick to deceive us.
When we fall in love, we think we’ve found our dream lover, the one we’ve been looking for all our lives, the one we can build a life with and who will make us happy. The truth is falling in love is nature’s trick to get humans to pick a mate so that our species carries on. It feels so wonderful because we are awash in hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen. Evolution has no interest in making us happy, just getting us to pass on our genes.
- Initially we build a life together on a false foundation.
Once we have found the right partner we imagine we will have the regular ups and downs of living, but that we can relax now and focus on career, kids, making a living, and making a life together. We think we are creating real, lasting, love so it’s easy to take our partner for granted. Instead, we are setting ourselves up for disillusionment.
- Disillusionment is not a sign that something is wrong. It is a wake-up call to the true hero’s journey of our lives.
Most people who are together for more than a few years will become disillusioned. “Is this all there is,” we wonder. “This isn’t the person I married. What happened? Where did they go?” We blame our partner, or we try harder to fix ourselves. What we rarely do is understand that disillusionment is the third, and most crucial, stage of love. For those who have the courage, who are true love warriors, you are called to the biggest challenge of your life.
What a Man Must Do to Save His Marriage
- Having a successful marriage is your most important job in life.
Like most men, I grew up believing that my main job in life was to support my wife and family by becoming a successful breadwinner. I figured it was my wife’s job to support us by taking good care of me and our kids. But we live in a new world now. Men and women have changed. The world has changed. Having been through two divorces myself and counseled thousands, I’ve come to realize that men have the skills to make relationships work. We just have to learn them.
Modern marriage is a complex system and men’s brains are hard-wired to understand and build systems. We just have to take the job on, learn the skills, and apply them.
- You must stop putting so much attention on trying to please your woman.
I know, most men are accused of being selfish, of putting too little attention on pleasing their wives. Not true. Men are obsessed with pleasing their woman, but feel like failures. “It seems that no matter what I do, it doesn’t work,” guys will tell me. “After trying and trying I finally give up.” It’s not your job to please her! (Say it again until it sinks in).
- You must stop blaming her for your inability to make her happy.
There were many reasons my first two marriages didn’t work out. I didn’t understand the five stages, but I also blamed my wives. On the surface, I blamed them because they weren’t giving me enough sex, love, and kindness. Really, I was blaming them because I could not make them happy. As a child, I was obsessed with pleasing my mother because I was afraid if I didn’t she would abandon me. Although I seemed to be a successful independent man, deep inside I felt I needed my wife to validate me so I could feel like a real man. If I could not make her happy I felt like a failure and it made me mad as hell.
I had to learn that she is quite capable of making herself happy. She’s the only one who can. You’re not to blame for her unhappiness. The world is not a very happy place these days and it’s not your fault.
- You must find your manhood in the company of other men.
My father was an angry man who became increasingly depressed when he couldn’t make a living to support his family. He eventually had “a nervous breakdown,” was hospitalized and left. I was raised by my mother. “A father may be physically present, but absent in spirit,” says author James Hollis. “His absence may be literal through death, divorce or dysfunction, but more often it is a symbolic absence through silence and the inability to transmit what he also may not have acquired.”
Without a presence of a loving, engaged, caring father, men grow up “with a hole in their soul in the shape of their dad,” says Roland Warren, former President of the National Fatherhood Initiative.
My wife, Carlin, and I have been married now for 40 years. She attributes the success of our marriage, in large part, due to my 41-year participation in a men’s group. The poet Robert Bly said that “Young men must be in the presence of older men in order to hear the sound that male cells sing.” Whether we had an engaged father or not, we can heal the father wound and fill the hole in our collective souls by being part of a men’s group. It’s not surprising that the first rule in 12 Rules for Good Men is to join a men’s group.
Men can’t be fully alive to themselves, to the women they love, to their families and friends, unless they understand and embrace their maleness.
I hope you find these ideas helpful. You can read more of my work here.