The flame that warmed romantic love and spurred a deeper love doesn't fade overnight; the fires and the dreams die gradually and subtly. In almost thirty years of working closely with couples and individuals, we have observed a progression toward bitterness and isolation in marriage that typically includes the following four stages:

• Stage One: The Days of Romance
• Stage Two: The Days of Reality
• Stage Three: The Days of Resentment
• Stage Four: The Days of Rebellion

Stage One: The Days of Romance

Our media is presently bombarding Americans with an unprecedented blitz that delivers one prevailing message: Experience the finest, most tantalizing things in life without taking personal responsibility. That is the ultimate fantasy, and its message comes constantly, delivered by the ever-present TV, and the 600 advertising messages that the average American sees each day.

Nowhere is this message clearer than the realm of romance. Marriage is portrayed as negative. Fantasy sex is portrayed as quick and positive. And love is confused with sex. Sex and love are greatly distorted from God's original purpose.

The values of our culture are diametrically opposed to God's values. These messages completely contradict the biblical teaching that love requires commitment. Only the Bible can offer a clear picture of marriage and family. The influence of Hollywood's values on our culture has been devastating. People are bound together on the basis of humanistic experiences or a rootless romanticism based on feelings. The result is that most marriages begin with each mate loaded with expectations that few spouses could ever fulfill.

During stage one, partners regard a good marriage as romance and often good sex as good marriage. The stage of romance typifies the first year of marriage, although this stage may last the first three years. Everything is bright and rosy; neither spouse is overly tired. (After all, there are no children, at least for the first nine months.) Romantic feelings prevail, and the pressures of job and home don't dominate.

This cultural worldview has set them up for disappointment and hurt. Since so many relationships are not grounded in the Word of God, the crash is swift and painful.

Stage Two: The Days of Reality

The second stage usually occurs within the first three to five years of marriage, but may begin in the very first year. Sometimes the myths about sex and romance are destroyed before the honeymoon is over. Sooner or later, reality sets in.

Often reality is a harsh reminder of simply running out of time, as seen in the lives of Julie and Jim. Julie gets up by six, gets dressed, cooks, and is quickly off to work. After a hectic day at the office, she arrives home by six, fixes supper, eats, and finishes the dishes by eight. Washing clothes or house details may keep her busy until ten o'clock. By that time Julie is already thinking about getting up early the next morning, and she has had no real time for herself. Her husband Jim, oblivious to her workload, has been watching television all evening. By 10 PM, he has fully relaxed after his busy workday; now he's ready for romance.

And Julie? Emotionally, Julie is unable to respond. Jim wonders what's wrong with her! After several years, instead of experiencing marriage as a sexy honeymoon, Julie finds herself fighting for enough strength and personal time just to hold herself together.

Jim was idealistic when they married, a true believer in the romanticism of marriage. Deep in fantasy love, Jim loved to hold his sweetheart, and he thought his job was great. Before long, however, he became frustrated and unsure about his future. Changing jobs was not an option since he would likely have to return to a starting salary. Now he feels pressure from Julie, who doesn't want to feel trapped by financial circumstances, and he doesn't want to upset her even more.