Keep the Spark Alive Throughout the Family Life Cycle

Keep the Spark Alive Throughout the Family Life Cycle

One of the most popular questions I get from couples is how to keep that ever-elusive spark alive. There are a lot of reasons your spark may begin to sputter– one of them is a lack of novelty, which I talk about in the linked post there. But today we’ll be talking about the challenges to intimacy based on where you are in the family life cycle.

You likely already know all about the life cycle of an individual. We age, starting with infancy and going all the way through elderhood, in the process hopefully making babies that start at infancy and do the same thing. But families go through a life cycle as well. The family life cycle starts when a young adult leaves home for the first time, and it travels through their life of raising children and eventually becoming the parent who launches their own kids, etc. Today I’m going to explain the family life cycle, and how you’re likely to find different challenges to intimacy with your partner during each of the stages. Of course, I’ll also offer ideas for how to keep the spark alive in each stage, complete with a free download.

The download is a group of prompts for Open When letters that correspond with each stage of the family life cycle. You are to write your partner a letter in the space provided that they can open when you guys are struggling with that particular challenge. So download your copy, then read along to learn more about what you can write.



Family Life Cycle Stages

The family life cycle has six stages that I’ll discuss in detail below. But before we start, I want to note that these stages were built around very traditional family structures. Be aware that this is just a guideline, not a code to follow to the letter!

Stage 1: Unmarried Adults Leave Home

This stage is characterized by a young adult leaving the nest, so to speak. Leaving their parents’ house and going off on their own for the first time. If you’re in this stage, you’re probably enjoying the newfound freedom and privacy, and if you’re in a relationship as well, those are wonderful thing for your intimacy. However, this time also brings a great deal of added responsibility, and often a need to re-negotiate boundaries with parents. Not so great for intimacy. And that’s a shame, because when you’re in love at this age, the spark is often really strong.

My suggestion is to set boundaries. Of course, it’s not my job to tell you which relationship to prioritize (in fact, if I did, the therapeutic relationship would be no different than any other in your life) but I can urge you to have honest conversations with your partner about your expectations for your time together. Learn to collaborate when you don’t agree. You may not get all the intimacy you want in this stage while you sort out all your boundaries, so seek solace in the fact that you’re setting the stage for a smoother future by carving all this out now.

Stage 2: Newlyweds

Congrats, you’re married now! At this point, according to the traditional family life cycle stages, you guys would live together now, and your strength is that you have all the time in the world to soak up that spark and be together. In this hypothetical, you also don’t have children yet, so all your time and money is yours to spend on your home, travel, and other leisure. Of course, the obvious challenge here is the flip side of this coin– you’re spending all your time together. But we’re actually going to focus on something different.

The bigger challenge in the newlywed phase is making room for each other’s families in your lives. Often, getting along with in-laws isn’t the smoothest process, and renegotiating your holiday traditions to make room for those of your partner is difficult. Boundaries and honest conversation will be helpful here, too, and still I’d like to bring up the Gottman concept of the Unsolvable Problem.

There are some things in relationships that we cannot control. Our financial situation. Each other’s religions. Who our in-laws are. However, we do have control over how we interact around these things so we don’t become embittered and these problems don’t become layered over the next 50 years. I’ll bring up my mobile metaphor again– you can’t make someone else’s bobble move. The only thing you can fully control is how you react to the situation you have in front of you. If you’re the best possible partner to your spouse, you will find a way to keep the spark alive in this stage of the family life cycle.


Stage 3: Families With Young Children

In phase three of the family life cycle, children have finally entered the system. I’m sure you can imagine that trying to keep the spark alive during this time is extremely difficult, because you’re both (hopefully both!) up all night looking after a baby. Mom might not feel great about her body right now. Your new financial challenges cause tension. You spend very little time with other adults.

But even so, you are in a truly amazing phase of life together, where intimacy can be very strong. I mean, look at what you’ve just created together! That baby is your love personified. A whole new life exists on earth because of your love. And that is the root of my suggestion for you in this stage. This is something worth celebrating! With a date night, at least once a month.


Stage 4: Families with Adolescents

The fourth stage unfortunately brings about the dreaded mid-life crisis. In this phase, you’ve raised your children to the point that they can take care of themselves a bit, and you get some freedom back. However, this can be sad to some people who thrive on feeling needed. To take it a step further, your own parents are beginning to age. Combined, these things have the power to show people the fleeting nature of life. Some people change careers or buy motorcycles, and others question their relationships. They start to wonder, “is this it? Is there more?” Plus, if you’ve fallen prey to the last phase, you may begin to feel fed up with the lack of romance, fueling this crisis even more.

To keep the spark alive for these clients, I often do an activity called a relationship timeline. It harnesses the power of nostalgia to stimulate your feelings for each other. When you download your Open When letter templates, you can create your own relationship timeline in a sense by writing your favorite memories with your partner, going way back to the very beginning of things. Describe your first kiss. Your first date. The first time you made love or said I love you.


Stage 5: Launching Children

Stage 5 is the opposite of Stage 1, during which the children who flew the nest are now launching children of their own. To some couples, this is a time to celebrate, because becoming empty nesters can feel very much like being newlyweds again. Your time and money are all yours to spend as you please, and you have the privacy to *ahem* engage in intimacy any time you like.

Yet for other couples, particularly ones who didn’t set solid boundaries early on, this is the first time they’ve focused on their couple relationship since they were newlyweds. They might have to get to know each other all over again, which can be very intimidating. What if you don’t like who they’ve become, or arguably worse, vice versa? What if the gap between you has just become so vast that you can’t fill it?

These fears are rooted in some truth. It’s no secret that it’s this phase of the family life cycle where most couples divorce. For clients stuck here, I often suggest expanding your love maps to get to know your person as they are now. To learn more about love maps, click the linked post!


Stage 6: Families Later in Life

The final stage of the family life cycle is “families later in life.” At this point, you two become the matriarch and patriarch of your family, and you get to spend time with not only your children, but their children. And still, even when you can revel in all that magic, it’s not always easy to keep the spark alive.

The challenge to intimacy here is actually more physical than psychological, although a medical condition that makes intimacy difficult can lead to feeling depressed and anxious as well. Hopefully, the stigma will be completely eradicated by the time you reach this stage, but just in case it’s not, my suggestion is to make sure you’re honest with your medical professionals, including therapists. In fact, problems in this area are more common than you would ever imagine, and being insecure about them only serves to perpetuate the problem for yourself and future sufferers.


So those are the six stages of the family life cycle, and the intimacy challenges that make it difficult to keep the spark alive throughout your lives together. I hope that you guys download the free Open When letter prompts so when you find yourselves in these situations, you can pause your argument, maybe pop open a bottle of wine, and read what you wrote to each other. If you have any questions, please reach out to me at @nicolelocorrieremft on Instagram, or by email at

1 Comment

  • Chris Posted June 15, 2020 6:11 pm

    Thanks for sharing. My relationship has changed significantly since my children moved out and started living independent, adult lives a few years ago. In general, I don’t think we talk enough about how intimacy and connection changes over time and through the life course.

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