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11 Sad Stages of a Dying Marriage, 33 Signs & Love Hacks to Turn It Around

When people get married, the farthest thing from their minds is it ending. But even so, a lot of people find themselves in the stages of a dying marriage.

stages of a dying marriage

Marriage can be beautiful, or it can be incredibly painful if you find yourself in the stages of a dying marriage.

Imagine tending to your favorite houseplant, giving it all the sunlight, water, and attention you can muster. You talk to it, serenade it with love songs *admit it, we’ve all been there*, and shower it with affection.

But alas! One day you notice its once-vibrant leaves drooping, and you realize you’ve been drowning it with too much love. A marriage can be a lot like that houseplant: too little or too much of something, and you’re left with a wilted relationship.

It’s a sad truth that sometimes love can wither, even when we feel like we’re doing everything right. Whether it’s neglect, overbearing attention, or just miscommunication, the stages of a dying marriage can sneak up on the most committed couples.

Understanding these stages isn’t about resigning to failure; it’s about recognizing the signs and knowing when to adjust the ‘sunlight and water’ to keep the love alive.

Just as you wouldn’t throw away a wilting plant without trying to revive it, acknowledging the signs of a struggling marriage gives us the opportunity to breathe life back into it. [Read: 49 Ways to rekindle a relationship or marriage and spark romance with love]

If you feel like you’re caught in the grasp of a dying marriage, don’t despair for not all is lost! Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, many relationships can be resurrected with a little tender loving care and the right approach.

With the tools and understanding that we’ll explore in this feature, you’ll learn how to recognize the signs of a dying marriage and, more importantly, how to nurse it back to a healthy, thriving connection.

So put down that watering can, pick up your partner’s hand, and let’s embark on this journey together. [Read: How to make your husband love you again and rekindle the romance]

The Stages of a Dying Marriage

Embarking on the journey of love is like setting sail on a vast ocean, but sometimes those romantic waves can become stormy seas. Understanding the stages of a dying marriage isn’t about admitting defeat.

It’s about navigating through the tempest to find calmer waters. Much like a seasoned sailor reads the weather, recognizing these stages equips you with the wisdom to steer your relationship back on course.

So, grab your life jackets and compasses as we chart a course through these marital storms, in search of sunny skies and harmonious horizons! [Read: Missed connection – what it means and the best ways to find and rekindle the link]

Stage 1: Disconnection

When we get married, we usually feel emotionally close to our partners. But when this bond starts to fade, then you have the first stage of a dying marriage – disconnection.

1. Symptoms: Roommates, Not Life Partners

Remember when you’d stay up late talking about anything and everything? When your partner’s quirks were endearing, not irritating? In the disconnection stage, couples often begin to feel like roommates rather than romantic partners.

The intimacy, shared dreams, and spark that once ignited their love may begin to fizzle. Conversations revolve around the mundane, like grocery lists and household chores, rather than hopes, dreams, and desires.

2. The Psychology Behind It: Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory, a concept developed by John Bowlby, sheds light on how emotional bonds are formed and maintained. When partners disconnect, their emotional bond weakens, leading to a lack of trust.

Imagine attachment as the Wi-Fi of love—you want a strong, secure connection, not a flimsy one that drops every five minutes!

Emotional Distance: When emotional needs are unmet, it can lead to detachment, where partners no longer turn to each other for comfort or joy.

Lack of Trust: A weakened emotional bond can lead to mistrust. Think of it as a love bank account—if you’re not making regular deposits through affection and understanding, trust can quickly go into overdraft. [Read: Attachment Styles Theory – 4 types and 19 signs and ways you can attach to others]

3. How to Recover From This Stage: Mutual Hobbies and Open Communication

So, your love plant’s looking a bit droopy? Don’t fret! Here’s the water and sunshine to bring it back to life:

Engage in Mutual Hobbies: Rediscover hobbies or activities you both enjoy. Whether it’s salsa dancing, hiking, or cooking together, shared experiences can reignite that connection.

Open Communication: Sit down and talk about your feelings, needs, and expectations. Think of it as a relationship update—discuss the glitches, and work on it together. [Read: 31 Communication exercises and games for couples and secrets to feel closer]

Recognizing disconnection is like catching that sneaky leak in your love boat before you’re knee-deep in water. With understanding, empathy, and a dash of fun, couples can seal the leak and sail smoothly into the sunset once again.

Stage 2: Neglect of Emotional Needs – A Subtle Shift in the Relationship Landscape

This stage of a dying marriage often goes unnoticed, like a silent undercurrent in a relationship. It’s a phase marked by subtle changes that, though seemingly insignificant at first, can lead to deeper issues.

1. Symptoms: Taking Each Other for Granted

Lack of Attention to Emotional Needs: Those daily gestures of kindness and words of appreciation begin to wane. It’s a stage where one or both partners might feel overlooked or unimportant. [Read: 33 Emotional needs in a relationship, signs they’re unmet, and how to meet them]

Routine Over Romance: The excitement of early romance may settle into predictability. The sweet surprises and thoughtfulness that once sparked joy become replaced with habitual routines.

2. The Psychology Behind It: Emotional Labor and Equity Theory

Emotional Labor: Just as a seesaw needs balance to function, emotional connections need balance too. One partner putting in more emotional effort can lead to feelings of inequality and bitterness.

Equity Theory: Think of a relationship as a finely tuned scale, where both partners contribute equally. During this stage, the balance may be disrupted, leading to dissatisfaction and feelings of unfairness.

3. How to Recover From This Stage: Rekindling Connection and Fairness

Reignite Romance: This isn’t about grand gestures but more about reigniting the flame with intentional acts of love, warmth, and connection.

Mutual Support: Imagine it as a regular relationship health check-up, focusing on each other’s emotional well-being, ensuring that support is reciprocal.

The Neglect of Emotional Needs stage is akin to a quiet alarm bell ringing in the background of a relationship. It’s a sign that love needs nurturing, attention, and care. [Read: Emotional baggage – what it is, types, causes, 27 signs, and steps to put it down]

By recognizing these early signs, couples can take steps to restore balance, fairness, and romance. It’s a gentle nudge to ensure that love never falls into complacency, helping couples to continually grow and thrive together. 

Stage 3: Erosion of Trust

Picture a beautiful sandcastle on the beach. Now, imagine the tide coming in, slowly washing away the base. That’s what erosion of trust can feel like. It might not happen all at once, but the gradual wear can be just as devastating. [Read: Trust issues in a relationship – 22 whys and ways to get over it together]

1. Symptoms: Doubts Creeping In

Questioning Motives: Ever get the feeling someone’s reading your diary? Doubting a partner’s sincerity can feel like that – a feeling of vulnerability without safety.

Lack of Reliability: Imagine calling a friend to help you move, and they don’t show up. Now, imagine that friend is your life partner. Ouch, right?

2. The Psychology Behind It: Social Exchange Theory

Trust as Social Capital: Think of trust like money in a relationship bank. Every kept promise is a deposit, and every broken one is a withdrawal. Deplete the account, and the relationship might go bankrupt.

3. How to Recover From This Stage: Patching the Cracks

Transparent Communication: Imagine putting all your cards on the table – fears, dreams, expectations. It’s a risky move but one that can pay off in building genuine trust.

Demonstrate Reliability: Ever hear of the trust fall exercise? It’s where you fall backward, trusting someone to catch you. In relationships, consistently catching each other can rebuild that trust. [Read: 5 Unique traits that makes a person trustworthy]

Erosion of trust can be like finding termites in a wooden house. It’s not a catastrophe yet, but it needs addressing.

Stage 4: Escalating Conflict

Conflict is normal and inevitable in any relationship or marriage. But if it gets more frequent and out of hand, that’s another stage of a dying marriage.

1. Symptoms: When Sparks Fly, But Not the Romantic Kind

Once full of love and understanding, the relationship now feels like a heated debate chamber. Here’s the rundown:

More Frequent Arguments: Conversations turn into conflicts at the drop of a hat. Suddenly, every little thing becomes a battleground. [Read: Are relationship fights normal? 15 signs you’re fighting too often]

Blaming: Pointing fingers becomes a sport, with each partner blaming the other for problems, both big and small.

Increased Hostility: The air gets thick with tension, with a cloud of hostility looming over even simple interactions.

2. The Psychology Behind It: Enter John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen”

Dr. John Gottman’s famous “Four Horsemen” concept explains the escalating conflict with uncanny accuracy:

Criticism: This isn’t about specific issues anymore. It’s broad and sweeping statements like, “You never care about my feelings.”

Contempt: The disdain and lack of respect can manifest in eye-rolls, mockery, or sarcastic tones.

Defensiveness: Rather than hearing each other out, partners protect themselves by refusing to acknowledge valid concerns. [Read: Why do people get defensive? 14 reasons and ways to handle them]

Stonewalling: Sometimes, one partner might completely shut down, refusing to communicate altogether.

These behaviors signal trouble, but understanding them is the first step towards rebuilding.

3. How to Recover From This Stage: Repairing the Relationship’s Foundation

When the relationship’s foundation shows cracks, here’s the toolkit to repair it:

Therapy: Professional counseling can act like a guided workshop, where couples learn to understand each other better, facilitating healing and growth. [Read: Relationship therapy – 25 clues to know if it’ll help your romance]

Conflict Resolution Strategies: These are the building blocks to a healthier relationship. Learning to ‘fight fair,’ using constructive communication, empathy, and focusing on the issue rather than attacking each other, can transform conflicts into opportunities for growth.

In this stage of a dying marriage, escalating conflict in a relationship is like a fork in the road. One path leads to continued misunderstanding and bitterness, and the other leads to growth, deeper understanding, and renewed love.

With the right guideposts and a willingness to work together, couples can choose the path that leads back to a loving and harmonious relationship. [Read: How to resolve conflict – the 15 best ways to cut out the drama]

Stage 5: Breakdown of Communication

This stage is like a bridge starting to crumble; it may still function, but there’s a clear need for repair. The old saying goes, “Communication is key,” but what happens when that key starts to rust?

1. Symptoms: Speaking Less, Misunderstanding More

Avoidance of Difficult Topics: Fearing conflict, couples may steer clear of challenging subjects. It’s like having an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about – eventually, it gets pretty crowded!

Increased Misunderstandings: As communication deteriorates, even simple discussions can turn into a game of broken telephone. Couples may find that they are not on the same page – sometimes not even in the same book!

2. The Psychology Behind It: Transactional Model of Communication

Transactional Communication:

This model explains how communication is an ongoing, two-way street. Picture a tennis match; if one partner stops hitting the ball back, the game breaks down. It’s a dance of give and take, where both partners’ reactions continuously shape the conversation.

3. How to Recover From This Stage: Building a New Bridge of Understanding

Active Listening: This is like giving your partner a hug with your ears. Encourage partners to lean in, nod, and make eye contact. Asking follow-up questions like, “What I hear you saying is…” can ensure that the message received matches the message sent.

Structured Communication Time: Think of it as a date with words! Setting aside time to talk without distractions *like phones, TV, or kids* can create a safe space for open dialogue.

It’s like opening a window to let fresh air into a stuffy room. [Read: 55 Personal questions to ask someone to make them open up and talk to you]

The breakdown of communication can feel like trying to drive with a foggy windshield. You can still move forward, but everything is unclear and potentially dangerous.

Addressing this stage with empathy, skill, and humor can be like turning on the windshield wipers – suddenly, the road ahead becomes visible.

Stage 6: Loss of Identity

It’s always wonderful to spend quality time with your spouse, but if you don’t have any personal identity anymore, then that is a big problem.

1. Symptoms: Becoming Strangers to Ourselves

This stage is characterized by a complex and somewhat paradoxical phenomenon. While marriage aims to unite two people, it can sometimes lead one or both partners to lose sight of themselves. Here’s how it manifests:

Feeling Trapped: One might feel stuck in a role or routine, unable to express individuality. This is a very common feeling in the stages of a dying marriage. [Read: Feeling trapped in a relationship – why you feel stuck and what you MUST do]

Losing Oneself: Partners might begin to notice that they’ve abandoned personal interests, hobbies, and even friendships, leading to a sense of loss or emptiness.

2. The Psychology Behind It: Identity Theory and Marital Roles

Identity Theory helps us understand this stage by highlighting the relationship between roles and self-concepts in a marriage:

Roles in Marriage: Roles as a spouse, parent, or caregiver might overshadow other aspects of identity, leading to a feeling of confinement within these roles.

Interplay of Self-Concepts: If one’s self-concept becomes overly intertwined with the marital role, individual aspects might fade, contributing to identity loss.

This isn’t about choosing between being a spouse or being oneself; it’s about harmonizing the two. [Read: 25 Honest, self-reflection questions to recognize the real YOU inside]

3. How to Recover From This Stage: Rediscovering the ‘Me’ in ‘We’

Here’s the toolkit to help couples rediscover their individual selves within the partnership:

Encourage Personal Growth: Marriage should be a safe space for personal growth. Encourage each other to pursue personal goals, hobbies, and interests.

Engage in Independent Activities: Spending quality time alone or with other friends can help restore balance and foster individuality. [Read: 24 Fun challenges to do with friends to bond and create fun memories]

Communicate: Open dialogue about feelings of loss or entrapment can help partners support each other’s individual paths while nurturing the relationship.

The Loss of Identity stage in a marriage can feel like a challenging maze.

But with understanding, love, and a commitment to both personal and shared growth, couples can navigate through this stage to a richer, more fulfilling relationship that celebrates both the ‘me’ and the ‘we.’ [Read: How to communicate with your spouse without resentment or fighting]

Always remember that retaining individuality within a marriage isn’t a selfish act, it’s a necessary aspect of a healthy, loving relationship.

Stage 7: Emotional Isolation – The Lonely Islands of Love

Have you ever been at a bustling party and still felt utterly alone? Now, imagine that feeling, but the party is your relationship, and the crowd is just the two of you. Welcome to the stage of Emotional Isolation. This is another stage in a dying marriage.

1. Symptoms: Islands in a Relationship Sea

Emotional Walls: Picture building a fort as a kid. Fun, right? Now, imagine building an emotional fort in your relationship. Not so fun. These barriers create isolation zones that can feel like living on separate islands. [Read: Am I emotionally unavailable? 32 signs you are and the fastest ways to fix it]

Loss of Empathy: It’s like trying to taste a meal through a glass window. You can see the flavors but can’t experience them. Losing empathy means you’re aware of your partner’s feelings but can’t connect with them.

2. The Psychology Behind It: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Unmet Emotional Needs: It’s like craving a home-cooked meal but getting fast food instead. According to Maslow, we have essential emotional cravings. When these are unmet, it’s like being served an unsatisfactory substitute.

3. How to Recover From This Stage: Building Bridges Between Islands

Emotional Check-ins: It’s like a friendly customs officer asking how your day was at the border of your emotional island. Regularly checking in on feelings can be the first step in tearing down those barriers.

Couples’ Activities Focused on Connection: Think of it as a romantic vacation on a connecting island. Activities that foster connection can be the boat that brings those islands closer. [Read: Romantic dinner date ideas – 17 fun dates you both will never forget]

Emotional isolation can turn a relationship into a gloomy archipelago where love becomes a distant horizon. But if you break down those walls, and build those bridges, soon enough, you and your lover can be enjoying sunsets on the beach of love. 

Stage 8: Loss of Intimacy – When Closeness Feels Like a Distant Memory

This stage paints a portrait of a relationship where the flames of passion have become mere embers, and emotional sharing feels more like reading the headlines instead of the entire story.

The connection, once deep and robust, may start to feel superficial. [Read: 20 Revealing signs that show that you may be growing apart]

1. Symptoms: Growing Apart in the Bedroom and Beyond

Decrease in Physical Intimacy: Whether it’s a lingering hug or a passionate kiss, physical touch may lose its spark, turning into routine gestures rather than expressions of love.

Lack of Emotional Vulnerability: The profound conversations that once bonded the couple may vanish, replaced by more trivial and surface-level discussions.

2. The Psychology Behind It: Intimacy vs. Isolation *Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development*

Intimacy vs. Isolation: Erikson wasn’t talking about Friday nights alone on the couch but rather the fundamental need for deeper connections. Intimacy, according to his theory, involves emotional sharing, trust, and the courage to be vulnerable with one another.

3. How to Recover From This Stage: Rebuilding Bridges of Intimacy

Open Conversations about Intimacy: Just like discussing your favorite pizza toppings, talking about intimacy can lead to a satisfying relationship recipe. Be open about what makes you feel connected, both emotionally and physically.

Cultivate Intimacy Through Shared Experiences: Think of shared activities as the glue that binds a relationship.

Whether it’s cooking together or a spontaneous road trip, these shared experiences can reignite the sense of connection and intimacy. [Read: 59 Fun things to do on a road trip to create awesome memories together]

The Loss of Intimacy stage isn’t a dead end but a call to action. Like watering a parched garden, nurturing intimacy requires attention, effort, and care.

By recognizing this stage and taking intentional steps to reconnect, couples can rekindle the warmth, trust, and closeness that define a thriving relationship

Stage 9: Emotional or Physical Infidelity

Infidelity is toxic to a marriage. And so, when one or both of the people start to step outside the marriage to get their emotional and/or sexual needs met, then that is another stage of a dying marriage.

1. Symptoms: Drifting Apart, Looking Elsewhere

When emotional or physical infidelity enters the picture, it’s not always a sudden, out-of-the-blue occurrence. It can be the culmination of ongoing issues in the relationship:

Emotional Detachment: Feeling disconnected from one’s partner can create a void that might be filled elsewhere. [Read: 29 Signs someone is detached and doesn’t care about you or your feelings]

Seeking Connection Outside the Marriage: A longing for connection, understanding, or validation may lead one or both partners to seek these emotions outside the relationship.

2. The Psychology Behind It: Freud’s Defense Mechanisms

Here, Sigmund Freud’s theory of defense mechanisms offers a lens to peer into the underlying psychology:

Projection: A partner engaging in infidelity may accuse the other of being unfaithful. This is projection, where one’s unacceptable thoughts or feelings are attributed to someone else.

Denial: Another defense mechanism might be denial, where the person refuses to accept that they are seeking emotional or physical connection elsewhere, thus avoiding the underlying issues.

These defense mechanisms can act as barriers to honest communication and self-awareness, making the problem even more complex. [Read: Self-centered people – 40 signs and ways change yourself or deal with one]

3. How to Recover From This Stage: Navigating the Rough Terrain Together

If couples find themselves on this rocky path, it’s not necessarily a dead-end. Here’s how they might navigate back to solid ground:

Couples’ Counseling: A trained therapist can provide a safe space to explore underlying issues, feelings, and facilitate a path to rebuilding trust.

Rebuilding Trust: This is often a slow and painstaking process, requiring transparent communication, commitment from both parties, and, often, forgiveness. [Read: How to trust again and give someone your heart when you’re scared]

Understanding Underlying Issues: Encourage introspection and communication to understand what led to the infidelity in the first place. Addressing these root causes can prevent them from undermining the relationship in the future.

This stage of Infidelity in a dying marriage is indeed a difficult one, laden with complex emotions and potential heartache. However, it’s not necessarily the end.

With professional guidance, determination, and a willingness to understand and work through the underlying issues, couples can rebuild, grow, and even strengthen their relationship. [Read: 36 Ways and questions to fix a broken relationship and rebuild it with love]

Stage 10: Loss of Hope and Motivation

This stage is like being stuck in quicksand. The more you struggle, the deeper you sink, and hope starts to fade. It’s positioned at a critical juncture, where couples might feel as though they’re looking down a tunnel and the light at the end has gone out.

1. Symptoms: The Fading Light of Hope

Cynicism and Resignation: It’s like having a leaky bucket with no plug in sight. No matter what you pour into the relationship, it just seems to drain away. This can lead to a “why bother?” attitude, where efforts seem futile.

Emotional Burnout: Ever run a marathon with no finish line? That’s what emotional burnout can feel like. The ongoing strain may drain the energy and passion, leaving indifference in its wake. [Read: Should we break up? 35 signs it’s over and past the point of no return]

2. The Psychology Behind It: Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness: Imagine a hamster on a wheel, running and running but getting nowhere. This psychological concept reflects a feeling that no matter what you do, nothing changes. It’s a heavy cloud of resignation, where efforts feel meaningless.

3. How to Recover From This Stage: Rekindling the Flame

Focus on Small, Achievable Goals: Think of this as finding stepping stones across a river. Breaking down seemingly insurmountable challenges into smaller, manageable tasks can start to build momentum. It’s like planting seeds of hope and watering them daily.

Consider Professional Guidance: Sometimes, a relationship needs a GPS, and therapists or counselors can provide that guidance. They can help navigate out of the quicksand and back onto solid ground. [Read: The reason’s couple’s therapy isn’t working for you]

Loss of hope and motivation is a critical stage in a relationship’s decline, but it’s not necessarily a dead-end. Like a garden overrun with weeds, with the right tools and effort, it can bloom again.

Stage 11: Preparing for Separation

Some marriages just can’t be saved regardless of how hard you try. In these circumstances, it can be better just to come to terms with the fact that it is over and then prepare for separation.

1. Symptoms: The Unwinding of Shared Lives

In this stage of a dying marriage, both partners may recognize that the relationship is on a perilous path, and the signs are often clear:

Disengagement from Shared Responsibilities: Whether it’s finances, parenting, or household chores, one or both partners might begin to disengage from these shared roles. [Read: 27 Most common relationship deal breakers that push many couples apart]

Building Separate Lives: This can manifest in separate social activities, distinct financial arrangements, and a general shift toward individual living even within the marriage.

2. The Psychology Behind It: Kübler-Ross Stages of Grief

The Kübler-Ross model, commonly associated with the stages of grief, offers a poignant parallel to the process of separation:

Denial: “This can’t be happening to us.”

Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”

Bargaining: “If we just try this one thing, everything will be fine again.”

Depression: “I don’t care anymore; it’s over.”

Acceptance: “We need to move on, separately.”

Separation in a marriage is a profound loss, and grieving is a natural part of the process. [Read: 12 Stages of grief in divorce, ways to read them, and the right steps to cope]

3. How to Recover From This Stage: Mapping a Path Forward, Together or Apart

The goal here is not always to prevent separation but to navigate it with integrity, respect, and care:

Honest Conversations: Open and honest dialogue about feelings, needs, and expectations can prevent further damage and facilitate a respectful and collaborative approach, whether the decision is to work on the relationship or part ways.

Professional Help if Needed: A therapist or counselor specializing in couples’ therapy can provide a safe and neutral space for these conversations.

Emphasize Self-Care: Encourage both partners to take care of their emotional well-being, whether through support groups, therapy, or other means. [Read: How to take care of yourself emotionally and avoid falling apart]

Stage 11 of Preparing for Separation, is an intensely emotional and complex phase. It can be filled with sadness, anxiety, confusion, and sometimes even relief. While it may mark the end of the marriage, it doesn’t have to mean the end of personal growth and healing.

The Garden of Love

Think of your relationship as a garden. When freshly planted, it blooms with vibrant colors and fragrant blossoms. But, like any garden left unattended, the weeds of misunderstanding and the pests of neglect can sneak in.

Does that mean you abandon the garden? Toss your trowel and gloves and declare, “That’s it, I’m growing cacti!”? Of course not! [Read: Tumultuous relationship – 29 signs you’re in one and the best ways to fix it]

Instead, grab that watering can filled with love, compassion and hope. Roll up your sleeves and get to work on those weeds *and maybe, just maybe, the occasional sneaky gopher of doubt*.

Sometimes, all your relationship garden needs is a bit of TLC to transform from a patch of dry earth into a flourishing bed of joy.

So, don’t give up if the roses seem to wilt or the daisies look a tad droopy. [Read: Relationship rut – why it’s common and how to admit it and fix it]

Even the mightiest of oaks started as a tiny seed that someone believed in. Your relationship, like that mighty oak, can grow tall and strong, with branches full of happiness, resilience, and trust.

And remember, if you find yourself tangled in the vines of conflict or uprooted by change, it’s never too late to plant a new seed of hope and watch love blossom anew.

Invest in your love garden. Nurture it, laugh with it, and let it bloom. Because at the end of the day, love isn’t just about the flowers; it’s about enjoying the gardening together.

[Read: 51 Secrets to reconnect with your spouse and improve your marriage ASAP]

So, if you think you are in the stages of a dying marriage, there are things you can do about it. It doesn’t have to die – you can resurrect it. But both of you have to want to put in the effort.

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Carol Morgan LP
Dr. Carol Morgan
Dr. Carol Morgan has a Ph.D. in communication and is a professor at Wright State University where she loves corrupting young minds. As a relationship and succes...