Ask yourself this: What do you want your marriage—and the marriages you serve—to look like? Almost 18 years ago, my wife and I attended a marriage conference where we covered the stages of marriage.
Thinking through the “stages of marriage” is important. Sometimes, we just need to take something that seems complicated and break it down. Knowing the stages can be a powerful tool for assessing which stage you’re in—so you can know what to do next.
As a church leader, you know the importance of constantly working on your marriage. I want you to read this post twice. Once for you. And, once for the couples to which you minister.
Think about which stage you’re in and which stage the couples you serve are in. Maybe pick one struggling couple and assess which stage they’re in. Knowing which stage you’re at helps you ultimately address the issues properly.
Many marriages are simply too busy. With all that’s going on, it’s easy to drift. I know many marriages struggle because they’re living a pattern of complacency for too long. It’s sad how fun and creative we often are when we’re dating. But then, once we get married, the romance stops. Intentionality and communication slows down. Life happens. Rather, life seems to take over.
For example, while dating Tonia (who’s now my wife) in college, I served as a student pastor at a church an hour away. I made that long drive twice a week. At least once a week during these years, I would bring Tonia flowers. Then, some time into our marriage, Tonia kindly reminded me, “You used to bring me flowers.” We get so busy that we stop enjoying each other and having fun. I blame those beautiful little blessings we call “kids”! The point is: what started out as awesome starts to become less than stellar.
Maybe you’re reading this and you’re saying: I’m a leader, but I want a better marriage for myself. Or, the couples I serve need to read this. Your marriage and the marriages you serve can move from complacency to thriving. We’ve seen it.
Let’s do this. Let’s figure out where you are in your marriage. Once you identify where you are, you can chart out where you want to go. There’s an old saying, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” To help you find where you are, I want to run through the four stages of marriage that Brad and Marilyn, co-founders of Grace Marriage, teach couples.
As you review the four stages ask yourself, which stage are you in?
Here are the four (4) stages of marriage:
Stage 1: STRUGGLE
In this stage, communication is hard. Small things spark big arguments. So, you either stay quiet and try to avoid issues, or when you try to address something—you don’t make progress.
Sex is usually rare. The couple rarely dates. And, to be totally honest, one or both spouses don’t even want to go on a date. Both spouses live hurt and frustrated. Things are not going in a good direction. So, if you are in this place, you may need to go get help.
You have to be proactive if you want to change. It might be you’re in such a rough spot you need to seek counseling. But, the longer you wait—the more difficult it will become. Plus, who knows, opening up communication, and spending fun time together—it may result in a huge breakthrough.
Question: Are you in the struggle stage?
Stage 2: STABLE
If you’re in this place, it’s common to hear, “We’re doing OK. We’re fine.” You may not argue a lot. In fact, you may still have some enjoyment in communication.
However, you probably sense you’re not growing. You might still date occasionally or with another couple. But, you’re not intentionally investing in each other. Communication is occurring—but most of the discussions are just about what needs to be done and who’s going where.
Physical intimacy might still be happening but there’s room for improvement. We don’t want you to stay in a tolerable coexistence. So, if this is you—you have so much potential for growth—you just need a commitment and a plan to make your marriage grow.
Question: Are you in the stable stage?
Stage 3: GROWING INTENTIONALLY
Couples in this phase, they’ve made it a non-negotiable to invest in their marriage. It’s one of the biggest priorities in their life. Their marriages are becoming stronger and stronger.
These marriages are characterized by a rhythm of spending quality one-on-one time together on a weekly basis. They make a point to come together physically, regularly. The focus of each spouse is shifting more and more to blessing the other.
They’re growing affection for an appreciation of one another. They’ve adopted an investment and a growth mentality in their marriage. This stage is really an exciting stage to be in.
But, there’s another stage. It’s the stage we want you and your couples to be in.
Question: Are you in the growing intentionally stage?
Stage 4: THRIVING
Here’s the stage we ultimately want to help you arrive at. This is what we call the thriving and helping stage. New life is breathing in the relationship on a consistent basis. You’re growing in the knowledge of each other and insight.
You’re dating and your communication and sex are a regular part of your marriage. Things just keep getting better. When you’re in this place, you have so much to offer others. You’ll be equipped to help other couples in their marriages. And, your marriage becomes an encouraging example for this world to see.
You’ll be a walking billboard for marriage. Does this mean everything is just smooth sailing? No, struggles hit, health issues happen, job losses occur, toxic family members cause problems, kids struggle…it’s funny how life just keeps happening—until it doesn’t. ; )
But, in this last stage, the struggle only grows the marriage. You’ve built on a foundation of grace. You experience deeper levels of communication and can see when trials come—they only bring you closer. That is our prayer for you.
Question: Are you in the thriving stage?
Here’s the point: You don’t have to stay at “Stage 1 STRUGGLING” in your marriage. Can God work at any stage? Yes. But, let’s work in our marriage to be more about prevention instead of needing a prescription. Work now. Work later. Work, work, work on your marriage.
I’ll come back in the next post with more tips for you and the marriages you serve. But, I can’t leave you hanging in this post without a couple of tips.
So, what does it take to get to a better stage?
#1 Put your marriage under GRACE.
First, it takes putting your marriage under grace.
Maybe you need to stop being critical of your spouse and stop dwelling on what you don’t like or what he or she isn’t doing. Start loving your spouse.
You might find you both start moving toward one another instead of moving away. Beautiful things can start to happen. Think about it. We’re all broken people with flaws. The ministry of reconciliation in Christ allows us to have a blast together despite wounds and hang-ups and struggles.
#2 Give your marriage INTENTIONALITY.
The second thing it takes is intentionality. We decide we will make our marriage a priority. We’re reading marriage books. Decide you’re going to spend a lot of time together and you’re going to invest in your marriage.
So, now, it’s time you discuss this with your spouse. Discuss these questions to start:
- Where do you find yourself in your marriage today?
- Is your marriage under grace?
- Do you hold struggles against one another?
- Do you focus on what you love about one another or do you focus on what you wish was different?
- How much one-on-one time are you enjoying together each week?
- How much one-on-one time would you like to enjoy?
Now, get one big win. Commit to a weekly rhythm of undistracted one-on-one time together. I want you to do well and we pray this post sparks helpful conversations.
Question: Now that you know the stages of marriage, which stage are you in now?
Homework: Pick one couple in your church who’s at Stage #1, reach out to them and review the stages of marriage with them. Let me know how it goes.
Ryan Sanders is a native Tennessean living in Washington, DC. He has been married to Tonia for almost 17 years and they have three children. He is currently a doctoral student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he received the Master of Divinity. He is a Fellow at The Colson Center for Christian Worldview and serves as Lay Pastor at McLean Bible Church.