Theory U Marriage: How Midlife Couples Can Navigate the 5 Stages of Love


Public Domain via WikiPedia 5 Stages of love: Are you stuck at stage 3?

My parent’s marriage began to unravel at midlife. After he turned forty, my father became increasingly depressed when he couldn’t make a living doing the work that he loved. He had a “nervous breakdown” and was committed to a mental hospital. My mother was forced to take a job outside the home, and I became a latchkey kid, long before the term was invented.

Midlife was not just a problem for my family. It is a problem for everyone. Dr. David Blanchflower, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, conducted a monumental research study with data from 500,000 individuals in 132 countries. In each case, he found that “people’s happiness rose and fell in a U-shaped curve, and that it hit a low around the ages of 47 and 49.” 

The consistency of this result surprised him. “The expectation was that I probably wouldn’t find that this dip in happiness was the same everywhere; but we found it’s present in America, Germany, Thailand, Pakistan, everywhere,” he says. With few exceptions, other research has uncovered the same pattern—where happiness is generally high in young adulthood, starts to decline slowly until reaching a low point around our late 40s, and then rises again. In his book The Happiness Curve, author Jonathan Rauch writes, “The happiness curve would not show up in as many data sets and places as it does, including among apes, if it were not to some extent hardwired.”

Blanchflower speculates that the happiness dip in individuals may have to do with “getting real”—finding their dreams for themselves aren’t coming to fruition, which can be a harsh reality check. As we’ll see shortly, “getting real” is part of my own U-shaped curve central to the 5 Stages of Love. 

The U is also a major focus of the work of systems researcher Dr. Otto Scharmer. In his book The Essentials of Theory U, he says,

“We live in a moment of profound possibility and disruption. A moment that is marked by the dying of an old mindset and logic of organizing. And one that is marked by the rise of a new awareness and way of activating generative social fields.”

Dr. Scharmer goes on to describe the shift he and his colleague at the Presencing Institute, Kelvy Bird, are seeing, which is captured in the image below. 

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Dr. Scharmer says,

“If we picture ourselves on the left-hand side of the image, we can see a world that is disintegrating and dying (the structures of the past); on the right-hand side we see the new mental and social structures that are emerging now. The challenge is to figure out how to cross the abyss that divides the two: how to move from ‘here’ to there.’”

Scharmer describes three major divides confronting society today. 

(1) The ecological divide: unprecedented environmental destruction–resulting in the loss of nature.

(2) The social divide: obscene levels of inequity and fragmentation–resulting in the loss of society.

(3) The spiritual divide: increasing levels of burnout and depression–resulting in the loss of meaning and the loss of Self.

Based on my work with families, I would add a fourth divide.

(4) The couple divide: increasing stress and conflict in our most intimate relationships, particularly at midlife, leading to broken marriages just when the couple could be enjoying their lives the most.

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

Growing up, watching movies on love and romance, I thought it was all very simple. One day when the time was right you’d look across a crowded room and your eyes would lock on your soul mate and you’d see that they were gazing at you with the same wonder and excitement. With violins playing in the background, you’d float across the room into each other’s arms. Nature would take its course, you would soon be married, build a wonderful life together, have children, and you’d all live happily ever after. 

As for most adults, it didn’t work out that way for me. It took me many years of confusion and heartbreak, as well, as two failed marriages and broken families, before I figured out that my simple view of love and marriage—Stage 1, fall in love. Stage 2, become a couple. Stage 3, live happily ever after—was seriously flawed. 

Here’s a different view of love and marriage drawn from my best-selling book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationship and Why the Best is Still to Come.

Drawing on Otto Scharmer’s work on Theory U, think of these 5 Stages as being arranged along the letter U. 

In the old model we are taught to believe that Stage 1, “falling in love” is the most passionate, exciting time of a relationship. At Stage 2, we believe we may give up some of the initial passion and ecstasy for a deeper bonding that comes from creating a life together. We expect Stage 3 to be the reward we get and the joy of “living happily ever after.” Instead, we often run into conflict, distancing, and disillusionment. We lose trust in the person we are with and marriages often crash at this point.

I offer a different understanding of the 5 Stages of Love:

Stage 1: Falling in Love

Falling in love feels so good, it’s like being high on a drug. In fact, we are on drugs. It feels so wonderful because we are awash in hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen. Falling in love is nature’s trick to get humans to pick a mate so that our species carries on. Falling in love also feels great because we project all our hopes and dreams on our lover. We imagine that they will fulfill our desires, give us all the things we didn’t get as children, deliver on all the promises our earlier relationships failed to fulfill. We are sure we will remain in love forever.  And because we are besotted with “love hormones,” we’re not aware of any of this. What we think of as the best and brightest time in our relationship is actually an illusion.

Few of us want to hear what playwright, George Bernard Shaw, had to say about this stage. 

“When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”

Stage 2: Becoming a Couple 

Many of us reach stage two but continue to long for the crazy, hormonally driven, passionate love of stage 1. At Stage 2, our love deepens, and we join together as a couple. This is a time when we have children and raise them. If we’re past the child-rearing stage or choose not to have children, it’s the time when our couple-bond deepens and develops. It’s a time of togetherness and joy. But our joyful life is built on a foundation that is not real. It is not real love, but the illusion of love.

During this phase, we experience less of the falling head-over-heels “in love” feelings. We feel more connected with our partner. We feel warm and cuddly. Most people will have children during this stage and are surprised at how difficult it is to balance having time for ourselves, our partner, the children, our friends, and our work. Often we lose touch with ourselves, and we have less quality time as a couple.

Stage 3: Disillusionment

No one told us about Stage 3 in understanding love and marriage. Stage 3 is where my first two marriages collapsed, and for too many relationships, this is the beginning of the end. This is a period where things begin to feel bad. It can occur slowly or can feel like a switch is flipped, and everything goes wrong overnight. We wonder what happened to the person we married. It can happen at any age but is most common at midlife.

We become more irritable and angry or hurt and withdrawn. We may stay busy at work or with the family, but the dissatisfactions mount. We wonder where the person we once loved has gone. He seems to have gone from Mr. Nice to Mr. Mean. She has transformed from the queen of the ball to the wicked witch of the west.   

There are two responses people have to the pain and discomfort of disillusionment. One response is to turn away from the relationship and get out. The other response is to turn towards the relationship, go deeper, and open up. Otto Scharmer calls the first response absencing and the other response presencing. 

Presencing is the doorway at the bottom of the U that allows us to move to Stage 4, Real Lasting Love. Stage 3 isn’t the beginning of the end as many fear, but the truly transformative stage to get real with our relationship and heal our past wounds. 

There’s an old adage, “When you’re going through hell, don’t stop.” This seems to be true of this stage of life. The positive side of Stage 3 is that the heat burns away a lot of our illusions about ourselves and our partner. It also surfaces a lot of the traumatic memories of abuse, neglect, or abandonment we experienced as children. As we work through stage 3, we can heal our present problems, but also our past traumas, which often are at the core of many of our present conflicts. 

Stage 4: Creating Real, Lasting Love

One of the gifts of confronting the unhappiness in Stage 3 is we can get to the core of what causes the pain and conflict. I’ve found that 90% of the conflicts in our present relationships have their roots in the past. Healing the past allows us to heal our present. As we let go of our illusions about our partner, we begin to see them as flawed human beings just like us, doing the best they can to love and be loved. 

When we are able to open up to each other we become more real to ourselves and each other. I recall the words of Margery Williams in the classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit: “Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

There’s nothing more satisfying than being with a partner who sees you and loves you for who you are. They understand that your hurtful behavior is not because you are mean and unloving, but because you have been wounded in the past, and the past still lives within you. As we better understand and accept our partner, we can learn to love ourselves ever more deeply. 

Stage 5: Embracing the Power of Two to Change the World

No one has to remind us that the world is not doing too well. There are continuous wars and conflicts. Racial violence seems to be everywhere. The coronavirus is still with us. We wonder whether humans can survive. I wondered if we can’t even find peace between two people who love each other, what chance do we have to create a world that can work for all its peoples?

But now I look at the flip side of that question. If we can learn to overcome our differences and find real, lasting love in our relationships, perhaps we can work together to find real, lasting love in the world. 

The energy released, when couples come through the presencing portal at the bottom of the U and embrace the power of love, can truly change the world. If you are a midlife couple or expect to be someday, I invite you to join me at and support our mission to help men and women live fully, love deeply, and make a difference in the world. If you’d like to read more articles like these, visit my weekly blog here

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