The Most Important Fact to Know About The 5 Stages of Love


            One of the most important things I learned about The 5 Stages of Love was that too many relationships hit the rocks at Stage 3. It’s at stage 3 that disillusionment sets in and I often hear statements like these from clients. “I still love her, but I’m not in love with her anymore. I think things may be over for us.” Or “We’ve grown apart and just want different things. Every time I try and get close, he pushes me away. I can’t go on like this.”

            There’s one fact most couples don’t know about relationships, that if they knew, would change their understanding of what makes for a successful love life. I’ll tell you what it is shortly, but before I do, I want to share a little more about my own experience with love.

            I went through two marriages and two divorces before I learned this important fact of life. My third wife, Carlin, and I have been together now for 41 years. The early years weren’t easy. We struggled, had fights, withdrew. But we didn’t give up.

            We both came to understand that we both had grown up with faulty love maps. Both of us had lost fathers when we were young and were raised by mothers whose love maps were distorted by their own wounds. We both learned to be very self-sufficient. We vowed that we wouldn’t settle for a so-so marriage. If it wasn’t great, we knew we could survive and thrive on our own.

            Neither Carlin or I had grown up with a healthy models for love. As a result, like many people, we had an unrealistic understanding of what constituted a healthy relationship. Fortunately, rather than bale out as we had done with our two previous relationships, we went deeper. We shared what we had learned in our best-selling book The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationship and Why the Best is Still to Come.

            I’m now developing a new training program for men and women who still believe in love but don’t have a lot of time to waste. If you’re interested in learning about the programs, drop me a note to and put “5 Stages of Love” in the subject line. I’ll send you more information.

            Marriage and family experts Ed Tronick, PhD and Claudia M. Gold, M.D. have written an important book, The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships Are the Secret To Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust. They point out that most of us have grown up with images of “the perfect romance and partnership.” We see it in our movies, magazines, and romance novels.

“Many people carry an expectation of perfection for both themselves and their relationships,”

say Drs. Tronick and Gold.

“The concept of being in sync with people who matter to them has a kind of mythic quality. They aim for perfect attunement and may experience profound disappointment when they do not achieve it.”

            I remember going to a lecture with the world-renowned psychologist Carl Rogers. Both he and his wife were in their 80s at the time. He had told us that they had been married for 62 years at the time. At one point he turned to his wife and with a warm, loving smile, he asked, “Do you remember that rough patch we had in our marriage?” I was surprised to hear that my idol had ever had a rough patch in his marriage. But I was totally stunned when he went on to say, “We had a rough time during those fifteen years we struggled, but we got through it.” She smiled back and sighed.

            I could imagine this icon of therapy having some difficulties in his marriage, but fifteen years of difficulty, how could that be? It was a question that didn’t get answered in his lecture. Over the years I dismissed the anomaly and still was sure my marriage would be free of discord. I wouldn’t settle for a fifteen-year rough patch.

            Luckily, my wife Carlin and I did learn that rough patches are not signs that the relationship needs to end and disillusionment is actually the third stage of a good relationship. From Dr. Tronick and Dr. Gold I learned about their research that uncovered a startling fact. They learned about it when they studied the early relationship between a child and their mother and discovered that even good relationships were fraught with mismatches and disconnections.

 “An idealized notion of parental love,”

they said,

“might be epitomized by da Vinci’s Madonna and Child, in which Mary and her infant son gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes.”

When they studied hundreds of parent-child interactions, they discovered, to their surprise, that most of the interactions were far from the ideal.

“We began by videotaping typical parent-infant interactions. In subsequent frame-by-frame analysis of these videos, we slowed down the tape, gaining a window into the moment-to-moment interactions that we could not appreciate in real time.”

            They went on to share the most important fact that most of us never see.

“After months of research, we were unable to deny the actual pattern. In typical healthy parent-infant pairs, on average 70 percent of the interactions were out of sync. Disconnection was an inevitable part of the interaction.”

            I was amazed to see these statistics. I knew that good adult relationships are based on having had good parent-child relationships. I had assumed that in good relationships most all of the interactions would be positive and both would be mostly in sync and connected. But the truth was that this was only true 30% of the time.

What Can We Learn From This Most Important Fact?

            First, learning this one fact, helped me understand why my first two marriages ended. My disillusionment resulted from my misunderstanding the meaning of our interactions. It was clear that we had reached a point in our marriage when it seemed like we were often out of sync. There was a mismatch and I concluded, incorrectly, that I must be with the wrong person, that we’d grown apart and if I was going to have the marriage I wanted, I would have to leave.

            But here I was learning that having a relationship that was in syn 30% of the time was success, like a baseball player who consistently hits .300 was considered a success. No one expected batters to hit .700 or even .500 or .400. Hitting .300 was considered plenty good enough. If you got above that, you were doing really great.

            The second thing I learned is that focusing on how often we were out of sync, where we missed each other, was the wrong place to focus. The most important thing wasn’t how often we missed each other, but whether we reached out and reconnected after we had a disagreement or misunderstanding.

            In marriages that fail at stage 3, couples become disillusioned and focus on the breaks in the relationship and discount the times when we reconnect. Too often we fail to even try and reconnect because we feel our partner can’t change, that they just don’t care. But knowing that our failure to connect 70% of the time is actually an indicator of success, allows us to stay in the game and keep trying.

            Tronick and Gold conclude,

“What a relief to learn that in primary love relationships, humans are in sync only 30 percent of the time. That the number is so low should relieve the pressure many people feel to seek perfect harmony in their relationships as adults. As long as there in an opportunity for repair, mismatch in 70 percent of interactions is not only typical but conducive to positive and healthy development and relationships. We need the normal messiness in order to learn to trust each other.”

            Third, I learned that what we focus on expands. If we put our attention on all the times we are disconnected from our partner, we’ll get more disconnections. If we put our attention on times we reconnected, we’ll get more of that. Focusing on the negative, gets us more negative responses. Focusing on what is working in our relationships, gets us more of that. Appreciating our partner for what they are doing well, gets us more positive. Paying attention to all the things our partner is doing wrong, gets us more negatives.

            One response garners hope. The other response garners hopelessness. It is our choice.

            So, my friends, don’t give up too soon. Not all relationships can get through stage 3, disillusionment, to stages 4 and 5, but most can. I’m here to teach you how. If you would like more information about our upcoming training programs, drop me a note to and put “5 Stages of Love” in the subject line. We’ll send you information on all our programs. I look forward to hearing from you.

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