I am by no means an expert on relationships, but I want to float a theory I have about marriage. The idea is relatively simple. In spiritual theology, theologians tend to categorize one’s growth in intimacy with the Lord in a three-fold progression. This progression is not strictly linear, and features of each can be experienced at different times. However, the three ages are distinct in that the main features which dominant a person’s spiritual life have general trends. My idea is simply to apply these three ages to the life shared between married spouses. Here goes.
1) Purgative
The first age is characterized by initial sweetness combined with challenges that require great effort. People often talk about a honeymoon period, but I think even within those times, the initial sweetness is not nearly as satisfying as the fully mature love of the later ages.
In the spiritual life, the purgative age is marked by a purification of the attachment to mortal sins. I can imagine that for new couples, there can be a transition of having to die to self. One now must recognize that their life is not self-referential, but involves another person with unique needs and desires. Especially with the birth of children, parents find themselves in a position that demands that they think less about themselves and more about others.
Although these are challenges, they are also incredible gifts. One of the greatest problems is becoming selfish. Our families provide a natural antidote to our selfish tendencies.
2) Illuminative
At this time, communication becomes more fruitful. Cooperation between the spouses, though still not perfect, develops a rhythm and flow to it that is starting to become like second nature.
The couple now has a deeper sense of each other and who they are in the relationship. The spouses have come to internalize each other to such an extent that their wills as starting to conform to each other. St. Thomas Aquinas calls this a mutual indwelling which is an effect of love.
In the spiritual life, this is the age when the virtues become more pronounced. Particularly, prudence is now starting to come to the forefront. Prudence requires experience in order to flourish, and now the couple has sufficient experience to know intuitively what works and what does not.
3) Unitive
I would describe this age by common experiences you may have heard about. Often, older couples are able to anticipate each other in incredible ways. They have so internalized their spouse that it has become as though the two minds are now one. Another example would be that these couples are now able to spend time together in silence, simply resting in each other’s presence. I would say that if all goes well, this is the age in which love really flourishes.
Furthermore, they remain distinct from each other and yet bonded in a deeply spiritual way that goes beyond description. In this communion, the couples become the people God intended for them. This is the age of the saints, but not in the sense of extraordinary graces. Rather, the mark of the saints is the fruits of the Holy Spirit; peace, joy, meekness, etc.
The characteristic that dominates both the illuminative and unitive ages is receptivity and a kind of active-passivity. The married couple has to focus less on doing, and more on simply surrendering to each other in perfect self-forgetting. Couples that come to this third age have mastered this art.
In conclusion, I hope my little hypothesis has at least stirred the desire for growth in your vocation.