Five Stages of Marital Satisfaction

Couple having fun together.

I’ve observed that intimate relationships often grow through five stages. I call them the five stages of marital (or couple) satisfaction. I want to offer them to you to understand the milestones in your progress towards building a happy and thriving marriage. I’m also interested in your thoughts. Do you agree? How do they fit with your experience?

First, let me say that relationships change over time. Some of these changes are externally driven by life pressures and transitions—the birth of a child, a new job, a move to a new location, death of family members, retirement, etc. Our success as a couple has much to do with how well we manage these external disruptions.

But in addition to these external challenges, marriage is a journey that passes through predictable stages. Although each couple’s experience is unique and not all couples will go through every stage or in the same degree, I do believe the stages are common, even universal. I present them to you as a roadmap for understanding your relationship. The roadmap will help you know where you are, where you want to go, and the next steps to get there.

Here’s a diagram.

As you can see from the diagram, there are five stages of marital satisfaction—from the high of enchantment to the low of disillusionment and on to obligation, friendship and mature love.

Stage One: Enchantment

This is the beginning and most exciting stage of the relationship. We can’t get one another off our minds. We want to spend as much time together as possible. We feel excitement, well-being, and even euphoria. The euphoria gives us a sense of closeness and intimacy. Someone loves us unconditionally which is about the greatest feeling in the world. In enchantment, we put our best foot forward by presenting ourselves in a favorable light. We are attentive and giving towards our partners, doing things that we know will endear them. We minimize our conflicts and differences. We also see our partner in an idealized way and experience a profound sense of well-being and aliveness just being together.

Stage Two: Disillusionment

Unfortunately, but inevitably, enchantment runs its course. The light of day casts a new view on things. Our own hang-ups did not disappear. We begin to see one another more realistically. Your idiosyncrasies glare at me and our differences seem daunting. She thinks his parents are more important to him than she is. He thinks she spends too much money. She had no idea he spent so much time watching sports or playing video games. Differences are exaggerated and we engage in power struggles to try and get one another to change. We see ourselves as “right” and our partner as “wrong” during conflict. We conclude that it’s our partner’s fault that we aren’t happy. If only he or she would change or be different.

I don’t mean to imply that all couples go through a deep disillusionment. They don’t. But most will experience a dip as they settle into life together and the high of enchantment wears off and they get to know one another more realistically.

Stage Three: Obligation

We settle in for the long haul. It hasn’t worked to try and change each other so we learn to get along by smoothing over differences and not rocking the boat. Our relationship is not particularly exciting but at least it is stable. We don’t place great demands on one another but busy ourselves with children, friends, work, church, etc. There is still a sense “I could be happy if my spouse would change or do such and such.” However, it is not worth the fight. We stay together but due to social and economic constraints rather than devotion. We have a functional relationship that lacks excitement and passion.

Stage Four: Friendship

We let go of unrealistic expectations and begin to accept each other for who we are. We relinquish the notion that it is our partner’s job to make us happy and take responsibility for our own needs and feelings. Out of respect for one another’s uniqueness, we stop trying to get each other to be different and learn to support one another in meeting our individual needs. It becomes easier to work through disagreements as we begin to develop genuine friendship and positive affection. We turn towards one another, realizing that we can experience lots of fun and pleasure by spending time and doing activities together.

Stage Five: Mature Love

This is the highest stage of marital development. We have matured through experience and surrendered a lot of the struggles of life. Our perspective of life and what is important and not important has shifted. We not only accept but even cherish our differences. Our marriage is a central part of our lives. We share interests and activities and enjoy our common life. We have developed a deep appreciation and ability to honor each other. Our focus turns from getting (what’s in it for me) to giving (how can I be of service and support you). There is an unconditional love and oneness within our relationship. We belong together. We rediscover enchantment and joy.

My Observations

I’ll offer my observation that about 5% of all couples are in the enchantment phase of marital satisfaction. About 20% are in disillusionment. At least 40% are in the obligation stage, 30% in friendship and 5% in mature love. Although those numbers are based on observation and not research, they certainly correspond with the overall divorce rates of above 50% in western society today.

Our high divorce rate means that a majority of people are not satisfied in their marriages. Some are living in disillusionment in which they’re downright alienated from one another. Many more are living in obligation in which they’re not really happy but have settled into life together for the long-haul.

What is Mature Love?

I think it’s fair to say that most couples have an innate desire to grow towards a more mature and loving marital relationship. But, what does this mean? What is a central tenet of mature love? Many have spoken of this. A famous psychiatrist by the name of Harry Stack Sullivan wrote that love exists when the satisfaction and security of another person becomes as significant as one’s own satisfaction and security. M. Scott Peck, author of the best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled, asserts that love is less a feeling and more a commitment to the growth of another person.

What is significant about these definitions is that love is not merely a feeling. It is a way of being, a way of acting. Love, at its essence, is an action which is undertaken to benefit or strengthen another person. The challenge is to learn to give more than you demand; to focus outward and become a more compassionate, forgiving, nurturing, and loving person.

The couples I know who have achieved a mature marital love understand this principle. They have become “other-centered.” They think of their responsibility in marriage as giving, serving and bringing love and fulfillment to their partners.

Remember the story of the couple in my article on the Myths of Marriage? I mentioned an older gentleman who gave counsel to a young couple about how to have a happy marriage. As he and I talked on a number of occasions, he shared with me how he learned to do this. It didn’t initially come naturally to him. In fact, he was quite critical of his wife. But as he learned to accept her and love her for who she was he found great joy in making her his object of love and service. His heart literally changed as he learned to love her (love as an action and not a feeling).

An Intermediate Step

This kind of love is a great goal and one we can begin practicing immediately. However, I want to suggest another, intermediate step towards the goal of mature marital love and that is building friendship.

Researchers at the University of Denver put an advertisement in a local paper asking for happy couples to share their secrets of success. These volunteer couples then filled out a survey with over 50 questions on all aspects of marriage. The researchers were surprised to learn that the number one factor in their happiness was having fun together. Other things mattered, but nothing was more important to these couples than fun.

Fun helps you move from obligation and even disillusionment to the friendship stage of marital satisfaction. Playing together in a relaxed way not only brings enjoyment but strengthens the bonds of marriage. Couples who play together stay together. Although not the only dimension of the friendship stage, learning to have fun together is a stepping stone to getting to the more mature love stage of marital satisfaction.

What do you think?



  1. Snowcatcher

    I cannot believe no one else has commented yet! My uncle used to tell me it’s not really love until you hit seven years. I grew up wondering if it takes everyone seven years to figure out what love really means. I think your phases are pretty darned accurate, and I feel blessed that we didn’t experience deep, unconquerable ruts in the second and third phases, perhaps because both of us had previously survived long-term relationships that never truly reached the friendship stage. I think both of us went into this relationship caring more about each other than ourselves because of what we’d both previously endured. Now we have a life-altering diagnosis that is so heartbreaking, the fun and play are much more difficult to achieve. But I think the friendship and mature love give us zillions of reasons to keep trying. Every day, we try to identify and magnify the “magic” that brought us together and cements the commitment we’ve made to each other.

    • Roger Allen

      Thanks for your comments, Snowcatcher. Many of life’s lessons are hard-won but only won if we are open to the learning. I’m happy you guys learned from your previous relationships and came into your marriage caring about each other deeply, in spite of a life-altering diagnosis. So nice to magnify the “magic” that brought you together. Couples who can look back and find joy in their early relationship are so much more likely to thrive. I’m happy for you.

  2. Jim Arbuckle

    If only someone had given us this concept 44 years ago, maybe we would have understood what was happening to the joy and fun we had when we were dating. Recently I has an eye opening accident where I became totally paralyzed and had to be spoon fed and cared for in every way by my wife. During that time I realized how much she cared for me and how much I appreciated and needed her. After 5 months of healing, physically I am about back to normal, but our relationship will never be the same. None of the annoyances and criticisms matter. I realize how dedicated she is to me and how she was willing to sacrifice to take care of me. Now that I know how dedicated she is to me those little things don’t matter.

    • Roger Allen

      Your story is amazing, Jim. You may look back at your accident as a blessing, in the long run, because of how it shifted your feelings and perceptions about your relationship. Your story confirms the importance of giving and receiving pure love. How do others get there but without going through such trauma?

  3. Rachel

    Excellent article, Roger! I can see my relationship evolution through the framework you shared. It has made me want to work harder at mature love. I always enjoy reading your thoughts. It gives me direction and new perspectives. You are wonderful! Thank you!

    • Roger Allen

      Thank you, Rachel. I’m pleased the article is positive motivation. I think mature love is our destination and takes a real commitment, as well as personal growth, to get there.

  4. Madhavi Mahavadi

    Great article with valuable information! I can completely relate to each of the stages. There are times when I feel that I go through all the stages in matter of few days – kind of a circle :). I guess that is life. I would think that it is not necessarily progressive stages from enchantment to mature love but rather a combination at any given time in the marriage. It is a balancing factor – just my thoughts.

    • Roger Allen

      Thanks, Madhavi. And, I’d agree with you about cycling through the stages quickly. I think we can characterize ourselves at one stage, overall. But we can also move pretty quickly between them as our circumstances, perceptions, moods, needs and feelings shift. There is an ebb and flow to how we feel in our relationships.


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