After the early days of romance, the marriage relationship can deteriorate if the couple is unaware of the four reasons the flame fades and the proven methods to develop a sustainable marriage.
Spoiler alert: don’t read further if unless you’re interested in understanding some of the challenges married couples face over time and what you can do to avoid them.
If you are newly-married, working out your relationship can become more difficult as excitement and hope become burdened with the reality that none of us is perfect. Your mate isn’t perfect and you’re not.
The flame that warmed romance and love on your wedding day doesn’t fade overnight; the fires and the dreams die gradually and subtly. The flame fades slowly.
Working closely with couples and individuals for nearly four decades, we’ve observed a consistent progression couples follow from initial disappointment towards long-term bitterness and isolation:
- Stage One: The Days of Romance
- Stage Two: The Days of Reality
- Stage Three: The Days of Resentment
- Stage Four: The Days of Rebellion
As the flame fades, it can be rekindled, so stages three and four do not have to happen in your marriage. You’ll see why at the end of this blog entry. Like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, you’ll have an opportunity to change your future.
First, though, let’s look at the how the flame fades when couples are not prepared.
Stage One: The Days of Romance
No need to spend a lot of time on this stage. If you’re married, or have been in a relationship, you know how electric and exciting it is when you first realize your attraction to someone.
For some of us, the other person becomes all-consuming. We start imagining how great life might be with him or her in it. Certainly this person will fill the voids in my life and help me create a wonderful life.
The result is that most marriages begin with each mate loaded with more expectations than their spouse could ever fulfill.
During stage one, partners regard romance and sex as the metric by which a good marriage is measured.
Everything is bright and hopeful.
The routine of life has not ground down the excitement. Neither spouse is overly tired and the pressures of job and home don’t dominate. Children may not be on the scene yet. Setbacks are easily overcome.
Generally, we’ve found the first stage lasts a year or two.
Stage Two: The Days of Reality
The second stage tends to occur within three to five years of marriage. This is the point when reality sets in and the “knight in shining armor” loses some of his luster and the princess becomes slightly les.
Let’s look at Julie and Jim. Julie gets up by six, gets dressed, grabs some coffee and is quickly off to work. After a hectic day at the hospital, she arrives home by six. Being the better cook, she fixes supper for herself and Jim. While Jim finishes the dishes, Julie knocks out some other chores. Julie is already thinking about getting up early the next morning, and she has had no real time for herself or Jim. Realizing his hope for romance is dashed, Jim sulks.
Outside forces exert more pressure. Jim’s job isn’t working out so well. Pretty soon he has to take a lesser-paying position at a different company. Now he feels pressure from Julie, who doesn’t want to be trapped by financial circumstances.
They have a second child. Julie keeps a lot of the burden of raising the kids while trying to balance her career. But she doesn’t have enough time in the day or physical stamina to manage so much. In small but increasingly frequent ways, she begins to push Jim to the bottom of the priority stack. He becomes another problem to be solved.
The euphoria of romance is quickly replaced by the realities of life. During this sobering stage, feelings begin to wane.
Romance gives way to a lukewarm embrace. Intention gives way in the clutter of daily living. Frequent expressions of love disappear, followed by an unwillingness to serve the other.
Left unchecked, a scary feeling settles into the pit of Jim and Julie’s stomachs: they wonder if they make a mistake by marrying each other. This is where the flame fades slowly.
Stage Three: The Days of Resentment
When feelings have changed and creative, sacrificial acts disappear, marriage partners begin to deeply resent each other.
Blaming begins with statements like “You never talk to me anymore,” or “We neverhave sex anymore,” or “You always…” It becomes obvious when one partner has reached the point of feeling “stuck” with his or her mate.
The one who feels stuck resents the other’s inadequacies and may even resent God for allowing the marriage to occur. The other feels judged, rejected, misunderstood and angry.
Thus the cycle of resentment has begun, and the flame fades.
When couples reach this point of deep resentment, they begin to lose hope. If they don’t get help, they typically move in one of two directions. First, they may tragically move toward divorce. Or they move towards a compromised marriage.
A compromised marriage is one in which people don’t really deal with their mistakes, attitudes, weaknesses, and differences. Instead, each goes his or her own way and purposely avoids the volatile areas of the marriage.
It’s a pretend marriage. On the surface they appear to be all right, but inside they harbor deep resentment.
Sadly, husband and wife go their own independent ways, being careful not to step on each other’s toes.
The husband often loses himself in his work to compensate for the lack of respect at home.
If there are children, the wife often becomes consumed with them to compensate for the lack of intimacy within the marriage.
The pressure may build until the couple explodes in anger.
Ultimately, most compromised relationships lead to a deeper and deeper resentment. If not checked, resentment will destroy a person’s life like a cancer.
Try as they will, compromised couples cannot prosper over the long haul.
Stage Four: The Days of Rebellion
Unresolved resentment commonly impacts men and women differently. Though not always the case, women can become critical, then fearful while men turn hardened and uncaring.
For a season, resentment may simmer behind the illusion of a healthy marriage, fueled by unmet needs. Sooner or later, however, the compounding resentment explodes into overt acts of rebellion against the spouse.
After several years together, Christina’s dreams turned to nightmares. She and Steve had failed to cope with reality in their marriage and resentment consumed each of them.
Warm feelings for Steve were distant history. She didn’t trust Steve and criticized his every move. Her days seemed burdensome, long, and introspective, their soured relationship constantly on her mind.
Fearful, hurting people sometimes take desperate actions to regain a sense of control in their lives, often in the form of rebellion against God and their mate.
In counseling, wives might complain, “Life is no fun anymore,” or “He doesn’t appreciate what I do for him,” or “So-and-so (another man) makes me feel so alive and valued.”
God created women and men in such a way that we require hope. Without it, rebellion can erupt into all kinds of behavior that will deliver the final blow to the marriage.
Steve, like many men will, responded to his unresolved resentment by hardening his feelings toward his wife. How different from those early days—Steve would have literally died for Christina.
Focused on Steve’s weaknesses, she increasingly criticized his actions. Feelings of failure replaced his courage and creativity. Steve retreated. His respect for her replaced with passivity and avoidance. As he pulled back, Christina sought affirmation and love from different sources.
The cancer of bitterness in this fourth stage is predictable, progressive, and will become overwhelming. You may think you have it under control today, but tomorrow it may blow up in your face. As this point, the flame fades suddenly and quickly.
Is There Any Hope when the Flame Fades?
There is no “simple” solution to resentment and bitterness in marriage. But there is hope. It calls for our willingness in two areas.
Overcoming the Sin in Our Lives
The first area concerns overcoming the sin in our lives.
Let’s face it: many times our problems in marriage are rooted in our self-centeredness, pride, and a critical spirit. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ came to free us from the power of sin (see Galatians 5:16-26; Romans 6:5-14).
Power for change comes through surrendering our lives to Jesus and asking Him to fill us with His Holy Spirit.
As the “fruit of the spirit” grows in our lives we can find our way towards forgiving our spouse and overcoming the weaknesses that frustrate us. This is not a “quick fix” but rather a process of growth.
As we learn to surrender our lives to Him and receive the influence of His Spirit, we will experience His freeing power over our sinful selfishness, pride, and critical spirit.
Developing a Biblical View of Marriage
The second area concerns developing a biblical view of marriage. God’s intentions for marriage are clear in Scripture.
Before the fall in Genesis 3, God joins Adam and Eve together as husband and wife. For a brief moment they are one with each other and aligned with God. Since the fall, men and women have struggled to stay united in marriage.
- Reading and absorbing the truth found in the Bible will help you develop a healthy view of yourself and your marriage.
- Joining a small group with other believing couples can also be very helpful.
- Seeking out older, wiser married couples and asking them how they built their marriages can be insightful and encouraging.
- Going to a professional counselor to provided insight and mediation.
(If you are in stage three or four, we’d recommend talking with your pastor and possibly finding a Christian counselor to help you walk back from the ledge—it can be done. We’ve seen many marriages on the brink of divorce that were turned around.)
These are not quick solutions, but they are proven and they work. When he flame fades in your marriage, use these steps to bring it back to life.
If you are following God and trusting in His promises, you always have hope: God designed marriage and He can make it work!