Although it has been a few years since I was planning my own wedding, I still remember that time well.
My (now) wife and I were so caught up on the details of the day that we didn't have a lot of time to think about what came after the wedding. Like most couples, our wedding was a day to remember. But after the bouquet was tossed, the toasts were done, the guests went home and we got back from our honeymoon I noticed that being married was a whole lot different than being engaged. Many couples expect their first year of marriage to be nothing short of a fairy tale and are caught by surprise when the first year proves to be filled with challenges as opposed to an extended period of honeymoon bliss.
Over the last four years, I have been co-directing a longitudinal study of marriage following 301 eHarmony and non-eHarmony couples from engagement through their five year anniversary. During interviews after couples' one year anniversary marker, many expressed their surprise with how challenging that first year actually was, saying:
"I thought the first year was going to be easy"
"There are more ups and downs than I expected"
"We felt some big stress"
Despite these challenges, most of our couples were still very satisfied with their marriages, believing that their union was meant to be and the relationship would last a lifetime. It showed how well couples could cope with challenges and still be optimistic about their marriage.
Moreover, challenges in marriage can be a good thing. Couples who face moderate stress when their marriage is relatively strong can adjust to the stress and their relationship will get stronger and be better prepared for the bigger challenges that all couples eventually face. Think of it like getting inoculated, a little bit of challenge to your marriage early can make it stronger for future tests. In that spirit, here are a few things that you are likely to experience in the first year of marriage, and what research has told us about creating teachable moments in the face of these experiences.
1) Life stress. Life has a tendency of getting in the way of a marriage, and a lot of the time we fail to recognize that the fights can be caused, and made worse, by the stress we experience outside of our relationship. Stress tends to eat up mental and physical energy which leaves us tired, worn out and less likely to be patient or understanding with our partners. That little annoying thing your husband does with his fork at dinner suddenly becomes enraging... if you are under a lot of stress.
Unfortunately, most people do not recognize the toxic effects of stress. Instead of making an external attribution like "my partner and I aren't getting along because we are both so stressed out" we attribute the behavior to our spouse "I never knew my partner could be so annoying, why doesn't he consider my feelings!" The first makes you think about ways to change your situation, the second makes you wonder why you got married. And it is easy to see how quickly things can turn ugly if you keep making internal instead of external attributions. Be sure you are aware of the stress in your life and how it can impact your relationship.
2) In-laws. The image of the interfering disapproving in-laws making a young couple's life difficult has long been a comedic punch line. But the reality is that the family you have and the one you are marrying into can make a big difference in how your marriage will turn out. Your social circle can make a relationship much easier by providing good support, being there to celebrate the good times and providing the practical advice necessary for both little and big events.
It can also make things much harder by giving bad advice, failing to provide support when times are hard, and, unfortunately for some couples, actively trying to get the couple to break up. Knowing where you stand with your in-laws, where your spouse stands with your family and always working to keep those relationships as positive as possible will make your marriage easier.
3) Sexual challenges. For some couples, getting married means the start of their sexual relationship, for others sex has been a part of their relationship for a long time. If your sexual relationship is just starting, it presents new challenges to the relationship. You will need to become comfortable both with your own sexuality and how to please your partner (on the upside, women, your sexual satisfaction is likely to keep going up over the years).
For others, sex may have become a bit stale and in need of a reboot (guys, try doing more housework.) Sex in a relationship can open the door to greater intimacy and satisfaction, but you need to be able to communicate about your sexual relationship.
4) Your first big fight. Conflict is a natural part of any relationship, and almost all couples will have experienced it before they get married. Still, the first major conflict after marriage can feel very different because you are now officially committed to the relationship and may get spouses wondering if they made the right decision. You aren't alone.
Conflict can be hard, but learning how to manage conflict well can be a big benefit down the road. Two major warning signs to watch for is the display of contempt during conflict, which is a powerful predictor of later divorce, and a demand withdraw cycle, where one spouse demands more interaction and the other pulls away. This cycle of interaction is self perpetuating and can be toxic to a relationship over the long term.
These aren't the only things that come up in the first year of marriage, only some of the most common ones that our couples talked about during their interviews. And every couple is a little different. Some couples will never struggle with sex, others will be lucky enough to get wonderful in-laws and still others will find ways to manage stress so well, they never seem to get anxious. Your marriage will be many things, some good and some not so good, but your first year of marriage is an important milestone to cross, so remember to take time to smell the roses and enjoy each other's company.