Understanding Relationships The Four Marriages Within a Marriage


By Gary Moore 

There is a natural tension in healthy marriages: we continue to grow as individuals, and the marriage relationship also grows. This natural tension, which if recognized and dealt with, is healthy. However, a long view of marriage is necessary to be able to understand and deal with this reality. 

In 1988, Dr. David Augsburger published a book titled, Sustaining Love – Healing & Growth in the Passages of Marriage. The thesis of the book is that there are four marriages within a marriage. I teach a class titled Sustaining Love Through the Passages of Marriage that is based, in part, on this book. I’m currently hoping to release an online version of this course sometime this fall. 

We all change over time. And, as persons change, the marriage changes. It has to. So be aware, be prepared and embrace it. As the marriage is renegotiated, the persons grow. Each becomes more of what she always was, yet never has been; more of what he wanted to be, yet never could be. 

I use a bicycle metaphor to explain the four marriages within a marriage. In marriage number one, the strongest personality of the two is pedaling and steering the bike and the other person is sitting on the handlebars. In marriage number two, they are “fighting” to see who is going to pedal and steer and who is going to sit on the handlebars. In marriage number three, they each have their own bike and ride at their own speed. But, they never let each other out of their sight. In marriage number four they are riding a bicycle built for two. 

This joint journey requires a lot of personal as well as marital growth. Such growth entails four revisions of self-understanding; four kinds of self-esteem; four stages of handling differences and difficulties. 

Included is a lot of letting go of old habits that don’t work any longer. There is also a good deal of letting be on issues that one comes to realize are not all that important, and a surprising amount of letting come what will as the new relationship unfolds. 

The experience of oneself, of one’s partner and of the relationship that connects us is so different that one looks back with surprise that we stayed so long in that old way of being. One looks at the other with wider eyes, seeing new sides, feeling new feelings, understanding new insights about this well-accustomed yet provocatively unfamiliar person. 

Life and growth should be redundant words, but observation of others and reflection on oneself reveals embarrassing periods of being stuck in routine. Growth and marriage should also be repetitive, but most marriages alternate quiet periods of stability with brief passages of change and maturation. Growth and change are not ends in themselves. In fact, growth for growth’s sake is the philosophy of a cancer cell. The goal of growth is wholeness, completeness and maturity. The real failure in life is to fail to grow toward such goals. 

Your present marriage is only one of many you will experience if you continue life together. Marriage is not a single style of relating, committing, trusting, negotiating, conflicting and growing. When there is growth, then there will be multiple marriages within the marriage – a series of marriages that unfold as the persons grow. 

Marriage offers one of the few safe arenas in which a person can discard the illusions, fantasies and false hopes of childhood and grow toward authentic adulthood. In the permanence of a marriage relationship, one can develop the qualities of adulthood that can be simulated or bypassed in other relationships – qualities such as honesty, self-disclosing, humility, tolerance for and love of differences. 

D.H. Lawrence wrote, “I should say the relation between any two decently married people changes profoundly every few years, often without their knowing it; though every change causes pain, even if it brings a certain joy. The long course of marriage is a long event of perpetual change, in which a man and woman mutually build up their souls and make themselves whole. It is like rivers flowing on, through new country, always unknown.” 

Creative change in marriage is facilitated by an understanding – a long view – of the four basic “marriages within a marriage.” 


Gary Moore served as associate pastor at Cloverdale Church of God for 15 years. He does couples’ coaching and leads couples’ workshops and retreats called MUM’s the Word. He does a weekly radio program called Life Point Plus on KBXL 94.1FM at 8:45 a.m. on Fridays. Monday mornings at 10 a.m. he does live relationship teaching called MUM Live on his Facebook page Mutual Understanding Method. He may be contacted at [email protected]. 



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