Note: Dr. Allen E. Bergin, an award-winning psychology professor, researcher, writer, and counselor, has written a book to guide Latter-day Saints in achieving self-improvement. In this article, BYU Studies examines chapter 8 of Dr. Bergin’s book, Eternal Values and Personal Growth: A Guide on Your Journey to Spiritual, Emotional, and Social Wellness .

Some people think of happy marriage as a destination reached on the wedding day. Assuming they are entitled to “happily ever after,” these couples do not anticipate the depth and breadth of common marital challenges and therefore are not always prepared to meet them. Such people may even see conflict as evidence of having made a wrong choice in a marriage partner since, according to their expectations, the right choice would have yielded more uninterrupted joy.

Latter-day Saint psychologist Dr. Allen E. Bergin points out the dangers of such thinking: once a person begins questioning the wisdom of his or her marriage choice, “the next step is either resignation to living with a mistake or divorce and renewing the search. Neither remedy is appealing.” Dr. Bergin explains that a feeling of resignation “leads to a lifeless marriage” while “the search-some-more response leads to unstable and soul-damaging serial monogamy,” otherwise known as relationship hopping. In order to avoid these responses, couples can recognize and accept that all marriages go through stages. Humans change. Therefore, relationships change. There is no such thing as an effortless marriage.

If couples keep the perspective that marriage was intended, in part, to teach us to offer Godly devotion and demonstrate covenant keeping, the antagonisms and challenges in marriage can bring growth rather than disillusionment. Dr. Bergin emphasizes the importance of covenants. “If marriages were static-a snapshot’ of two people in the perfect pose of affection, like an engagement photograph-there would be no need for covenant commitment and Christlike consecration,” he says. “People could ensure marital success by searching carefully” until they found someone perfectly compatible. “Such a relationship would be easy indeed,” Dr. Bergin writes, but also “untenable.” Instead, couples are expected to puzzle “through the various shapes and circumstances of their lives, creating and re-creating, fitting and re-fitting a loving and eternal union.”

Couples may have a better time “puzzling” through their relationship if they anticipate the seasons of marriage rather than being surprised by them. Dr. Bergin labels the four stages as visionary, adversarial, dormant, and vital.

  1. Visionary stage. Newlyweds often idealize their relationship. “They expect a blissful future together, and the focus is on us’ and what we’ will do and become together,” Dr. Bergin writes. While this attitude gives marriage a good start, it can also lead to “inevitable pressures” building “in the background” as couples try to ignore problems that threaten the ideal they have constructed.
  2. Adversarial stage. “When the idealized image of an early marriage begins to erode, partners often begin attempting to change one another,” Dr. Bergin states. The result is a feeling of rejection and resentment between partners. This stage can be less damaging to the relationship if partners go into marriage expecting disagreements and planning to use them as an opportunity to solve problems together, thus growing closer rather than more distant. Dr. Bergin asserts that success in marriage often hinges on couples “learning how to communicate and how to resolve conflict.”
  3. Dormant stage. If couples do not solve problems effectively through the adversarial stage, the marriage becomes dormant. “Exasperation and exhaustion set in,” Dr. Bergin explains. “Spouses can become frustrated that their efforts do not produce change.” Then the partners “withdraw from one another emotionally, physically, and intellectually,” substituting work, hobbies, and Church service for interaction with each other. “The focus shifts from the relationship to me-my interests-and allowing freedom for my partner to do the same.” Dr. Bergin explains that to some degree this shift can be healthy because partners stop expecting the marriage to fulfill all of their needs. But in most cases, this stage is evidence of a marriage in need of serious attention. “Partners simply avoid issues with each other and go their own way, shutting out the other,” Dr. Bergin observes. This may be the result of years of accumulated wounds that have never been fully addressed. “When partners give up on each other in this way, the relationship is at greatest risk,” Dr. Bergin warns.

    How can couples move beyond the dormant stage to reignite a happy marriage relationship? “If couples are faithful to their covenants, faithful to the Lord, and prayerful, they will be able to renew their relationship,” Dr. Bergin writes. “Marital therapy research has identified softening, forgiveness, and acceptance as important components in this process.” To achieve such feelings requires healing rooted in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, along with a healthy dose of patience for that healing to take place. Tragically, spouses often break marriage covenants right before the time their relationship would have moved into a more desirable stage.

  4. Vital stage. As couples become more committed to exploring forgiveness and acceptance, “both partners consciously recommit energies to the relationship, eventually forming a stronger bond than in any of the previous stages,” Dr. Bergin explains. “As these changes take root, the relationship experiences a wholeness and radiates vitality.”

Dr. Bergin points out that only couples who stay the course through the difficult stages “bring to fruition the vital stage of their marriage.” This stage rewards the couple with the highest levels of stability, commitment, acceptance, and Christlike love. “Their relationship is deeper, more complete, and more intimate than at any other time.”

Couples who are in the midst of the adversarial or dormant stage, but who long for the Eden-like experience they enjoyed during the visionary stage, are sure to be disappointed. Such high expectations create a chasm between the fantasy marriage and the real marriage that is nearly impossible to bridge. Divorce is often the result of such high expectations. Instead, when couples forgive, accept, and work toward marital renewal, they look back on the visionary stage as enchanting and satisfying, but ultimately shallow. When couples see that the only way to grow closer is through the ups and downs, sorrows and joys of life, they can enter the vital stage. This stage “is a very real redemption of the relationship, but it is not a return to the pristine, ignorant bliss of the visionary Eden . It is mature, stable, committed, nurturing, and loving, with full knowledge and without illusions. It is fully realized intimacy.”

Dr. Bergin encourages, “No matter how bad things may look in a relationship, the potential for change, healing, growth, and happiness is almost always present.” He advises couples to allow hope to motivate their thoughts and actions. “As they approach their seasons of marriage with an abiding, eternal perspective (this too shall pass’), they are more likely to be optimistic about their future together.”

For more ideas on family and personal wellness, get the BYU Studies book Eternal Values and Personal Growth by Dr. Allen E. Bergin.