Every book, movie, or show tells a story.
But how do they tell it?
Most stories appear to fit into a pattern called “The Hero’s Journey.”
Frodo in Lord of the Rings, Moana in Moana and T’Challa in Black Pantha all cycle through common story plot points.
Frodo begins in Hobbiton, is entrusted with the ring, begins his quest, goes through tests & trials, fights multitudes of orcs, delivers the ring back to Mordor and returns to Hobbiton changed.
Moana is similar. Moana starts on her home island. She’s entrusted with the Heart of Te Fiti, travels across the sea, goes through tests and trials, faces the lava monster Teka, and returns the Heart of Te Fiti which brings plant life back to the islands. Then she sails home, changed.
Marvel’s Black Pantha also seems to fit the pattern. T’Challa (Black Pantha) takes his place as king of Wakanda. He goes through tests and trials, almost dies and loses his crown. Then, he has to defeat his corrupt stepbrother. He regains the crown—bringing peace to Wakanda.
Relationships are no different.
Marriages follow their own similar pattern with six stages: “Normal Life,” “Fall in Love,” “Wilderness,” “Wrestle” “New Life” and “Return.”
So many couples seem to forget that they’re on a journey with different stages, and in doing so, lose hope.
They get stuck in the day-to-day, real challenges of being married and can’t see how to “fix” the stress they feel.
These feelings are valid, and they are speaking to genuine experiences of disappointment, rejection, confusion, anger, sadness, frustration, etc.
Many of these feelings will go unnamed, unrecognised and unacknowledged because of our overarching belief that “marriage is loving” and “I’m meant to love my husband” / “I’m meant to love my wife”). These “shoulds”, while essentially true, can prevent us from acknowledging the subtle pain, frustration, dissatisfaction, stress, disappointment, resentment, fear, or hopelessness that goes on just below the surface of our psyche in marriage.
If couples can, however, see the path ahead, they can more easily decide how to move forward.
Your story is not over yet.
So let’s dive in.
This is my Relationship Lifecycle, based on The Hero’s Journey model of storytelling:
Stage 1: “Normal Life”
“Normal Life” covers the time period pre-relationship. You’re unaware of the adventures that await you. This is the part of the story when we’re in our default mode. It’s a safe, steady, innocent place with a certain level of relationship nativity because we haven’t yet been in a committed, long-term partnership. Your daily existence is where you gain important skills that you’ll need on the journey ahead.
Stage 2: “Fall in Love”
“Fall in Love” is the chapter of life when the spark of love lights us up. We find someone we’re attracted to and begin to find commonalities, friendship and love with this person. There’s a mutual growth of affection. Eventually, the relationship goes from “we’re dating” to “we’re engaged” and then “we’re married.”
Even though these three steps are distinct, I refer to them as part of the honeymoon phase. Instead of describing the post-wedding holiday, the honeymoon phase is an umbrella term for the love, attraction, idealism, and commitment that categorise this part of the relationship lifecycle. This step reveals your commitment to your path and your willingness to walk it, whatever it may contain.
Stage 3: “Wilderness”
“Wilderness” is the dryness that eventually surfaces in all relationships. This is the phase no one wants to move into, but it’s impossible to avoid. It’s a blessing in disguise because you can’t get to “New Life” (which includes the best sex of your life), without going through the “Wilderness” first.
The “Wilderness” is what naturally happens when we all try to stay the same to avoid the discomfort of change. It involves a deep emotional crisis that you must overcome for your relationship to survive. You may get to a stage in your marriage where you’re non-consciously broadcasting, “If you really love me, you will accept me as I am,” to your partner. This sounds good, but the message underneath the message is usually closer to: “If you really love me, you will accept the limitations I accept, believe the mistruths I believe, and not make me feel uncomfortable. Do all that and you’ll have proved you really love me.”
The “Wilderness” is first and foremost a holy invitation, but it often feels lonely and painful. You must rely on all of your talents and the experience you’ve accumulated along the way. Only via some type of “death” can your relationship be renewed.
This is the stage that couples can get unwittingly stuck in, and in doing so, pile grief and suffering onto themselves unnecessarily. Go towards the pain, unearth it, and metabolise it. The light of the world is in you. Let God scare away the dark.
Stage 4: “Wrestle”
“Wrestle” is where you face the lies you’ve always believed about yourself and God. You wrestle with God and come out victorious, realising God says you are indeed far more valuable, loved, whole, accepted and welcome than you ever knew was possible.
But to get to these truths, you have to face the shadows. You have to face the lies and overcome them—well, realise they’re just an illusion. But the illusion puts up a good fight!
Stage 5: “New Life”
“New Life” is when you are able to engage in your relationship in a new way because you are new—or you realise you are! You invite your spouse into a greater, deeper, richer experience of life. You’re more solid and less anxious about or reliant on their approval. You are willing to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done.
Stage 6: “Return”
“Return” is the path back to ordinary life, except it’s no longer ordinary in the same way. It’s fresh and bright and new—the same but different. You and your relationship are changed forever. The lies that once took hold are things of the past. You’re more in love than ever before and are able to share that love with the world.
So, where are you in your Relationship Lifecycle?
Stephanie Renee Cluff