Dr. Burford is a Christian minister practicing science-based couples therapy through Couples Therapy Inc. He works with all couples with a specialization on couples wanting a biblical perspective. This post originally appeared on his blog.


This article is in five sections. This first section discusses Marital Stages. Part 2 discusses Addiction and Relationship Stages. Part 3 covers the first of two personality disorders I cover: Borderline Personality Disorders and it’s impact on relationships. In Part 4 I discuss The Narcissistic Relationship Cycle and its various subtypes. In Part 5, and the final part discusses The Borderline with Narcissist Relationship Cycle, covering how they get together, their conflicts and treatment approach.


Marriage goes through many stages over the course of a lifetime together. While these stages are common, the presence of mental health challenges, personality disorders or addiction can significantly disrupt the typical relationship cycle. This article examines both the normal marital stages as well as the cycles that emerge when one or both partners are affected by issues like Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, ADD, Bipolar Disorder or Depression. By understanding these patterns, couples can work to establish healthier ways of relating.

Many have written on the stages of marriage, some finding three, four, five, six, or even seven stages. There is plenty of crossover among the lists. I have chosen to use the stages identified by Sari Harrar and Rita DeMaria in their book, The 7 Stages of Marriage (2007). The labels that follow are theirs, the abbreviated descriptions are mine.

Passion Stage

This is the “honeymoon” stage filled with magic and romance. We’re attracted to the differences between us; they’re “cute” or admirable. Phenethylamine blinds us to imperfections. Dopamine spikes every encounter. Our partner is our chief source of endorphins. Being together is our chief pursuit, other interests are de-prioritized, work, school, chores and other tasks are most enjoyable when we can do them together.

Like the childhood fascination with magic giving way to the adult recognition of illusion, this stage does not last. But that doesn’t make it any less real or any more expendable than childhood. It is formative; it is our foundation. During this stage we experience feelings that drive a connection that reinforces trust, producing oxytocin that fosters trust and enables commitment. We learn what it means to learn about and appreciate someone so wonderfully unique. We graciously yield to one another, living in consideration and other-centered love. We give the relationship plentiful food and oxygen (time and feel-good experiences) to keep it not only alive, but growing. This stage gives us an experience of youthful health to strive for whenever the relationship gets sickly. Not that we return to it exactly, but rather than fall for the same temporary feelings in an outside relationship that wounds or kills the marriage, we can return to these sentiments toward our spouse to bring our marriage back to life. Like playing a favorite old song, we can see in our spouse’s eyes the person who amazed us on that first date, and can treat them with the prioritization, love and respect we did then.

Realization Stage

Sometimes described as the “honeymoon ending,” this is where our eyes are opened to our significant differences and the realities muted by phenethylamine loudly announce themselves. We discover that oneness does not mean sameness. We inevitably notice that our spouse does some things differently (spelled  “wrong”). Differing temperaments or genders or families of origin or belief systems show up in everyday decisions and it seems in every room of the house. Idiosyncrasies that we once thought cute become annoying. Disappointments, differing priorities, and a struggle to understand the alien being we married lead to unpleasant discussions that can threaten to kill the marriage through harmful fighting.

The opportunity here is to recognize that the perfect human doesn’t exist—and that you’re not that perfect human, either. Marriage has been defined as a commitment of lifelong love between two imperfect people. Better to accept the differences and idiosyncrasies of the person you’ve chosen to love and who has chosen to love you, than to fall for temporary feelings for someone else who will also wind up being imperfect. (And your relationship with this fantasy mate will be imperfect, too—guaranteed—because you’re there.) The Realization stage is an opportunity to accept a real person, not a dating app image. It is choosing to see the positive side of traits we could view negatively; to concentrate on what we like and admire about our spouse. This is a time for expecting and accepting that we won’t like all the same things, do everything the same way, have the same cadence, or prioritize the same things. A helpful lens to don at this stage is to see our spouse the way we hope our son’s or daughter’s spouse will see them—for their good qualities, not their bad, for we know they have both.

Rebellion Stage

Former interests resurface or new ones are formed and pursued. These might include separate friendships, individual forms of recreation or exercise or relaxation. There may be different educational, political, topical, or career pursuits not shared by—and possibly not supported by—one’s spouse. A chasm begins to grow as each partner defends what is important to him or to her. These different interests and pursuits compete for time, energy, space, funding, and the family’s limited margin. There is jockeying for whose interests will be prioritized, whose educational pursuits will be allotted tuition and study time, whose career will determine whether the family will move. Whereas the Passion stage minimized our differences, and the Realization stage acknowledged and tried to welcome them, the Rebellion stage revolts. We rebel against each other, setting up self-defensive camps to protect what we consider valuable—and if push comes to shove—will defend as more valuable than what is important to our spouse.

The opportunity in this stage is to arrest the development of harmful patterns of fighting that will slowly tear us apart, in favor of learning effective conflict communication that will help our oneness grow. This is a time for respectfully communicating what is important to us through positive requests. Equally important (and often neglected in relationship literature) is to balance active assertiveness of our wants and needs with reflective listening concerning what our spouse values. Conflict reveals that there are two values either opposed to each other or at different levels of importance. What we want are not two self-defensive partners loudly asserting what is important to them, but two curious partners listening to understand what is important to their most significant other. We want two loving partners desiring to protect what the other is trying to protect through rebellion. If each side is crossing over to protect what is being defended by the other, the conflict ceases. The revolution is over; rebels become friends again; each trusts the other is there for them. Both are saying, “If it’s important to you, I’ll make it important to me.” And there is peace.

Cooperation Stage

Life grows more complicated as the years pass. We juggle household responsibilities, growing families, work loads, paying for this and saving for that, health changes, tragedies, extended family idiosyncrasies, aging parents, and more. It isn’t a relaxing day on Daytona Beach; it’s a desperate day on the beaches of Normandy. The last thing you want to be is alone; you want help! Love at this stage looks less like a romance novel and more like an Avengers movie. Disparate partners combine their unique abilities to defeat a common enemy – in this case, stress. Not despite our differences, but because of them we find that we’re better able to handle things together. The self-actualization of the Rebellion stage makes room for self-transcendence (Abraham Maslow’s final realization of the apex of human needs) in this Cooperation stage. The union is preferred over the units; individuation yields to consideration. We’re not focused on which of us won, but on whether together we defeated the forces of evil aligned against us—or got the kids to bed. Whichever…

In this battlefield cooperation, romance is neglected to the couple’s peril. Even warring armies find time to eat and sleep; otherwise they die of natural causes. So do marriages. Don’t allow your marriage to become all work and no play. Make time for play… Together. Get off your cell phones and laptops, and sit by a fire (a candle will do), look at the stars or listen to music together. Read something together. Go on a date. If nothing else, fold laundry and do dishes together rather than separately. Help each other. Make it fun. Go to bed together. Keep the romance alive.

Reunion Stage

Reunions of any type look back upon how things were “back in the day.” That day may have been high school, boot camp, college or “back when the kids were little.” Reunions are about remembering who we were then and getting reacquainted with people as they (and we) are now.  We expect people to change between reunions; to grow older, hopefully to become wiser, to be pursuing old interests at a different level and new interests because they’re growing. We remember the adventures and how we stood side-by-side. Maybe we reconcile, overcoming those times we faced off against each other. But it’s a time of coming together again without all of the chaos and stressors (at least not exactly the same stressors) straining our friendship. And it’s a time of renegotiation of what our friendship will be like at this stage. How will we be there for each other? What will we do together?

In the case of marriage, this reunion and renegotiation may take place several times as our context changes. The end of the parenting years is a natural time for reunion, but so is the end of deployment, the achievement of a degree, the end of a trying experience, the change of a career, and others. It is a time to renew and renegotiate our friendship, figuring out our new roles relative to each other, learning how to be there for each other at this stage, finding ways to feed and fuel the romance, such that we remain boyfriend and girlfriend even while being aging husband and wife.


This term does not refer to explosions between spouses (though that may happen, too), but “explosions” are crises, illnesses, deaths in the family, job losses, unwanted moves, bankruptcy, the death of a dream, etc. Explosions rock your world—both of your worlds, and your world together. Like Reunions, explosions can occur at any time and at multiple times within the span of a marriage. When the ground shakes like this, we look for something stable to cling to. The marriage can be this stabilizer if we are committed to be there for each other in good times and in bad, for better and for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. If we have this confidence in each other, the explosion won’t blow us apart, but throw us into each other’s arms. If we learned in the Cooperation stage to trade the self-protection of Rebellion for the sacrificial protection of one another, then we will have experienced in less explosive times the safety of seeking comfort and strength in one another. We will have learned to listen, to empathize, to comfort and to support one another—all the things we both need when our world is rocked.


Perhaps because of the above stages, many couples who share decades of life together report a high level of marital satisfaction in their golden years. This makes sense from the lens of Attachment Theory. Through the challenges of the preceding stages, couples have come to experience one another as their primary source of acceptance, friendship, comfort, nurture, safety, security, love and respect. Having walked hand in hand through life and discovered what it takes to build a meaningful marriage, there is the wisdom to not look for a better marriage with someone else, but to continually build into one’s current marriage what will make it even better at each stage. It is continuing to practice all the skills learned in each of the above stages. It is intentionally keeping high the ratio of moments that feel good between us (deposits into the Love Bank, to use Dr. Gottman’s metaphor), so that they far outweigh the moments that feel bad (withdrawals). It is not seeing the best years as behind us, but seizing the opportunities we have to make the present moment the best it can be. It is seeing in the eyes of our spouse the cute young thing we were lucky enough to date and lock lives with decades ago. It is thanking God for him or her and letting God melt our heart. The end of life does not necessarily look pretty, but the companionship at its completion can be beautiful.

Section Summary

While marriage naturally goes through many stages, the presence of addiction, personality disorders or mental health challenges can dramatically disrupt the typical relational cycle. Gaining insight into these patterns is the first step towards healthier relating. In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at how Borderline Personality Disorder, specifically, impacts romantic partnerships.

Read Part Two: Addiction and Relationship Stages.