couple-middleAged-happyI’ve been a marriage and family counselor for fifty years, but I have a confession to make. For a lot of the time I didn’t really understand love and wasn’t very successful with marriage and family life. I got married to my college sweetheart when we were both young. We had two children and our marriage lasted ten years. When we split up after a great deal of anger, pain, and suffering, she got custody of the children, the house, and most of our friends.

After a year alone, I fell in love again and quickly married. Big mistake! She slept with a gun under the pillow, she said, to protect her from men. That should have made me run like hell, but I was at the time of my life where I was attracted to danger and excitement. The marriage lasted three years and I was lucky to get out alive.

I tried to tell my clients how I thought a good marriage worked, but I felt like a fraud since it was clear I didn’t have a clue. I became increasingly depressed, which got me to see a therapist which I had been resisting doing. I told myself I didn’t need a therapist. I was a therapist and I knew more about mental health than anyone I knew. It didn’t occur to me that grandiosity was not a sign of good emotional functioning.

Gradually my life started coming together. I learned that there are stages to love and if I learned each one, and wasn’t in such a hurry to “fall in love,” I might do better with my own love life and have something useful to teach my clients. My wife, Carlin, and I have now been married for thirty-five years. Here are the stages I learned to embrace. 

couple-happy-laugingStage 1: Acquaintanceship - The stage of acquaintanceship allows us to recognize that each person we meet is a gift from the universe.  We see each person as a jewel to be appreciated without thought of whether they would be useful to us, or if they are marriage material, or might be good in bed.  Instead of screening out everyone except those few we think have “potential,” we take in everyone we meet.

Acquaintanceship acknowledges and enjoys each person simply because they are a fellow human being.

Imagine you were stranded on a desert island and hadn’t seen a human being in twenty years. Then all of a sudden you see footprints in the sand, and then a real, live person. Think how you would feel to meet their acquaintance. Imagine living your life that way now.

Couple SmilingStage 2: Companionship - The stage of companionship is to do what you love to do in the presence of other human beings. Clients often tell me they go to places to meet people.  Yet when I ask them if they enjoy the places they go and things they do, they acknowledge that they don’t. “I hate going to bars,” one woman told me, “but that’s where I have to go to meet people.”

If you want to see someone who truly understands companionship, watch a three year old playing in the sandbox with other children.  S/he is ecstatic to be alive, to be playing in the sand, and to be with other children having fun together. Take one child out and replace him with another and that’s fine.

When we fully engage the stage of companionship we are fully present in the moment, enjoying doing what we love surrounded by others who are doing the same. In the stage of companionship who we are with is less important than abandoning oneself to the joy of doing.

Stage 3: Friendship - This stage of friendship combines being and doing.  It is an interaction between two people who want to practice being themselves by doing things together with a partner.  Where companionship can be done with a number of partners, the stage of friendship comes in pairs. It taps the “power of two.”

We often think of friendship as a process of doing for the other person or having them do for us.  It is really a process of getting to know another person and caring about what they are feeling. In friendship we draw each other out. We care about who they are and how they are feeling and share more and more about who we are and what emotions are present in us.

people couple hugging lakeStage 4: Intimate Friendship - The stage of intimate friendship involves exploring the underworld.  We begin to recognize in the other things about ourselves we don’t recognize or don’t like. We may be drawn to another’s warmth and ease, thinking we are more stiff and awkward. In truth we often see in the other qualities that are there in us, but haven’t been developed. We also begin to see things about the other person we don’t like, which are often qualities that we don’t like in ourselves.

This can be a time of deep connection. It can also feel very uncomfortable. Many people bale out at this stage. I encourage people to hang in there and go deeper. The stage of intimate friendship holds up a mirror to each other showing us what has been hidden and forbidden.

The stage of intimate friendship allows us to reclaim lost parts of ourselves – to re-own our rage, terror, guilt, shame and also to reclaim our ability to appreciate, accept, nurture, and love ourselves. Intimate friendship is about learning to love and accept the “unacceptable” in ourselves and in the other person.

people couple beachStage 5: Sensual Friendship - The stage of sensual friendship involves touching.  Most of us are touch starved.  We never got enough touching as infants, children, adolescents, and adults.  Many of us rush into sex looking for the skin contact we never got.

Sensual friendship is not a prelude to sex.  It is its own dance.  In it we relearn to hold hands and rekindle the heat of touching someone we have gotten to know.  We caress hair, shoulders, legs, buttocks, knees and toes.

To learn sensual friendship we have to practice touching ourselves.  Most of us rarely touch ourselves except when we are being sexual or when we are checking out our flaws.  “Oh, I just can’t do anything about my hair.”  Or, “My thighs are just too big.” 

In the stage of sensual friendship we touch ourselves and our partner simply for the pleasure that we receive and give.

Stage 6: Sexual/Creative Lovers - The stage of sexual/creative lovers recognizes that the purpose of sex is pleasure, creation and bonding.  As we have done with so much else in modern society, we often distill the process of sexuality and seek only the momentary pleasure.

For two million years of human history we sought out sexual partners for pleasure, but also to create children and develop the bond necessary to nurture and raise the children.

Those needs have not changed.  Though we may not wish to create children each time we make love, the stage of sexual/creative lovers recognizes that creation is always involved in lovemaking.  Each act of love creates a bond with our partner and has the potential to create new life – whether the life is child, a poem, a dance, or an affirmation of the rebirth of the spirit.

The dance of sexual/creative lovers continually renews our commitment to life. 

people elder couple in loveStage 7: Spiritual Life Partners - The stage of spiritual life partners recognizes that we cannot truly commit to be with a partner for the rest of our lives until we have gone through the other stages.  It knows that the goal of spiritual life partnership is not happiness, but the spiritual development of each of the partners and the growth of the partnership itself.

In this stage we develop the comfort and security of knowing that the partnership is being held in the embrace of a spiritual presence that teaches each partner how to express and receive ever deeper experiences of joy and ecstasy.

Which stages are most familiar to you?  Which ones are least familiar?  Where have you gotten stuck in the past?  With which stage do you need more practice to become an expert?

I often tell clients, both those who are single as well as those already in relationship, to take a week and practice each stage. What would it be like if you really became acquainted with this person, as though for the first time? Don’t be in such a hurry to get to the “payoff.” Each stage has its own value. Take your time. I’ll enjoy your comments and questions.

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