Here at the Collaborative Center of Southern California (CCSC) our clinical work often begins with couples that have made the decision to move their relationships toward divorce. At this starting point our mental health professionals are interested to assess what marriage cycle the presenting couple is in. And how their “previous marriages” evolved. Even if they were to each other.
Based on my years of practice, in most long-term relationships spouses generally marry each other 3 times. The 1st marriage usually occurs pre-children (“pre-children”). The 2nd one during the years of co-parenting and work (“children and work”), and their last marriage once their children are leaving/have left the home and retirement looms (“post-children”). Many couples mark their 1st marriage with a formal celebration of some kind. It is the other 2 that quietly occur without any conscious awareness of any remarriage taking place. It is in the adjusting to this next marriage that problems sometimes emerge. In my post-graduate training I was taught to identify challenges within “developmental milestones.” This meant pinpointing events that forced a family to change the way they related to one another. Many of these events are normative, like the birth of a child, or the adding of another one. Other times they are unexpected and traumatic like a death or a fire. For couples, I consider the transition from “1 marriage to the next” to be a developmental milestone. A couple has to re-adjust to a changing relationship between them. It is this unaware experience that can create marital problems.
The pre-children marriage typically occurs in relative youth. A couple is more emotionally and sexually agile because they carry less responsibilities. Even if they don’t realize it there is more time! There are less distractions and they are able to focus more fully on one other. In contrast, the children and work marriage is a different and distinct marriage. A couple must now manage the multiple stressors of juggling a marital relationship alongside a co-parenting relationship. A couple cannot attend to each other the way they used to. Men can feel ignored and women can feel stressed by being everything to everyone. The post-children marriage is partially a return to the original marriage. A couple must now figure out how to re-attend to each other without the distractions of their busy family and work lives. They must now figure out if they still like each other and if they still want to be together in retirement and for the duration of their lives.
It is not uncommon for the mental health professionals at the CCSC to hear couples discussing anger and hurt from their current post-children marriage that occurred years ago in their pre-children marriage. A husband, for example, realizing that he had been “grieving” a time when he felt noticed by his spouse. Or that same time when a wife felt like her husband wanted only her. Marital transformation even when the starting point is divorce occurs when a couple becomes more conscious about their various marital life cycles. And its impact on who they were, and who they are, both individually and as a couple.