The 5 Stages of Love and the 4 Brain Characters That Determine If Your Marriage Succeeds or Fails


I have been a marriage counselor for more than fifty years. I believe it is true that we teach what we want to learn. My wife, Carlin, and I have been married for 43 wonderful years now. But our relationship life hasn’t always been wonderful. This is the third marriage for both of us. Those who have visited my website have seen my introductory video, “Confessions of a Twice-Divorced Marriage Counselor.”

            Today I had the great pleasure of talking with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard trained neuroanatomist and author of the critically acclaimed bestseller My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey and her latest book, Whole Brain Living: The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters That Drive Our Life.

            I had read her first book and watched her, now famous, TED talk, and had written an article about her work titled, “Four Play: How Your Core Brain Characters Drive Your Love Life.” In the article I first described what she had learned about the two hemispheres of the brain and how different they were. She said,

“Underlying the functional differences between our two hemispheres are neurons that process information in unique ways. The left hemisphere works linearly and methodically and is all about the past and the future, while the right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor bringing multiple streams of data that simultaneously reveal a single complex moment of experience.”

            In our interview, which I will report on in a future article, she said that the left hemisphere of the brain tends to be associated with traditional masculine qualities and the right brain with traditional feminine qualities. A few of these contrasting differences I note below:

            She talked about the work of Dr. Iain McGilchrist, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, who wrote the book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, where he describes the evolutionary purpose of our two brain hemispheres.  

“In general terms, the left hemisphere yields narrow, focused attention, mainly for the purpose of getting and feeding,”

says Dr. McGilchrist.

“The right hemisphere yields a broad, vigilant attention, the purpose of which appears to be awareness of signals from the surroundings, especially of other creatures, who are potential predators or potential mates, foes, or friends.”

            Like Dr. McGilchrist, Dr. Taylor believes society has become dominated by narrow left-brain thinking, to the detriment of our relationships with ourselves, each other, and the community of life on planet Earth which we depend upon for our very existence. Neglecting our right-hemisphere wisdom can also undermine our relationships.            


The 5 Stages of Love and Why So Many Relationships Crash and Burn at Stage 3

            In my experience as a marriage counselor and also in my personal experience I have found that there are five stages of love, but too many relationships crash and burn at stage 3. In my online course, “Navigating the 5 Stages of Love,” I describe the following stages:

  • Stage 1: Falling In Love
  • Stage 2: Becoming a Couple
  • Stage 3: Disillusionment
  • Stage 4: Creating Real Lasting Love
  • Stage 5: Using the Power of Two to Change the World.

Stage 3 is a crucial stage, but few people understand it. No one told us about Stage 3 in understanding love and marriage. Stage 3  is where things begin to feel bad in a relationship. It can occur slowly or can feel like a switch is flipped and everything goes wrong. Little things begin to bother us. We feel less loved and cared for. We feel trapped and want to escape.

Stage 3 is where my first two marriages collapsed and for too many relationships this is the beginning of the end. But Carlin and I didn’t give up, we kept going. There’s an old adage,

“When you’re going through hell, don’t stop.”

This seems to be true of this stage of life.

For too many of us, we were raised on the belief that when we found the right partner, we would “live happily ever after.” We would have our ups and downs, but with the right partner, love would conquer all, things would always work out, and our love lives would get better and better until “death do us part.” So, when we hit the disillusionment stage we conclude that our partner has changed and we need to get out while we can.

What Carlin and I learned was that Stage 3 was not only a stage of love, not an indicator that we had made the wrong choice, but actually the invitation to Stage 4, Real Lasting Love. Stage 3, Dissillusionment, actually had two purposes. The first is to let go of the illusions we all bring to a marriage, all the unrealistic projections we put on our partner that ultimately cause us to feel like we’ve failed because we can never live up to the expectations. The second purpose is to help us recognize the adverse childhood experiences we all grow up with and the traumas that are an inevitable part of life.

Our adult unhappiness and conflicts are windows into our past. In some sense we really do marry our parents, or to be more accurate, we connect with partners who bring out similar issues to ones we never resolved in childhood.

Stage 3 is not meant to be pleasant and easy. We may need expert help and support to navigate the confusing waters (Carlin and I went to a good therapist who helped us tremendously). But Stage 3 is not the beginning of the end, but the beginning of something better. It is a way to heal the past so we can move on to the deeper love we can have with a partner who surfaces our past pain so that we can finally, and forever, heal.

Trauma and 4 Characters That Drive Our Lives

            In her wonderful book, Whole Brain Living: The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters That Drive Our Life, Dr. Taylor says,

“There is now convincing neuroanatomical evidence of the existence of four brain characters. Surgically separating our two brain hemispheres has scientifically shown us that they are not simply two anatomically separate halves of a whole. Instead, the two halves of our brain house completely different character profiles that each exhibit unique wants, dreams, interests, and desires.”

            Dr. Taylor found that in each brain hemisphere there is a “thinking character” and an “emotional character.” Here are the four characters along with some their characteristic qualities:

Left Thinking, Character 1

  • Verbal
  • Thinks in language
  • Thinks linearly
  • Past and future based
  • Analytical
  • Seeks differences
  • Judgmental
  • Individual

Right Brain Thinking, Character 4

  • Nonverbal
  • Thinks in pictures
  • Thinks experientially
  • Present moment-based
  • Kinesthetic/body
  • Seeks similarities
  • Compassionate
  • Collective

Left Emotional Character 2

  • Rigid
  • Cautious
  • Fear based
  • Doubts
  • Righteous
  • Manipulates
  • Selfish
  • Critical

    Right Emotional Character 3

  • Open
  • Risk taking
  • Fearless
  • Trusts
  • Grateful
  • Goes with the flow
  • Sharing
  • Kind

It is our Left-Brain Emotional Character 2 that is always comparing our past trauma and pain to what we might experience in the future. It is this brain character that is so active in Stage 3, Disillusionment.

“It is Character 2″, says Dr. Taylor, “who screams, wails, and rages against all those injustices that it has perceived as hurtful, dangerous, or unfair.”

No wonder Stage 3 feels like we are living with a crazy person. No wonder we want to run away. But the gift, if we can receive it, is to go deeper. We have the opportunity to learn the deeper lessons of love.

It is this character who projects the wounds from the past–often from our mothers, fathers, brothers, or sisters–on to our adult partners. It is Character 2, if neglected, can cause our relationships to go under at Stage 3. But if we understand and communicate with our Character 2, we can successfully navigate the turbulent waters of Stage 3.

“Over the years, it has been the job of this tender and vulnerable Character 2 to hold our past pain in memory for our future protection,” says Dr. Taylor. “If we want to evolve into our best selves and live our best lives, we must create a healthy relationship with our left-brain Character 2. We grow and thrive when we are brave enough to stand in the center of our own pain and listen to what it is trying to communicate.”

Truly listening to Character 2 can help us get through Stage 3, disillusionment, to Stage 4, Real Lasting Love. This is the great gift of our lives. Carlin and I continue to deepen our journey of love as we learn more about the four characters in our brain that guide our lives. We wrote about our own journey in our book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationship and Why the Best is Still to Come.

You can learn more about Whole Brain Living by visiting Dr. Taylor’s website. If you’d like to take a deeper dive into Whole Brain Living with Dr. Taylor, she will be offering “Whole Brain Training for Individuals” beginning June 6, 2023. You can register here.

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