Is the first year of marriage the hardest?

Wedding Advice

“The first year of marriage is the hardest,” I told my friend, trying to be comforting. The truth is, I’m not sure why I said it. It’s just something people say—I had no idea if it’s true or just helpful to hear. Why would the first year be the hardest? I assume that it was some kind of hangover from before people lived together when marriage meant getting used to someone being all up in your space for the first time. But, in the 21st century when nearly half of women live with a partner before they’re married, does it make a difference?

It does. Because even though it may seem like old-fashioned advice, the first year of marriage is still a challenge. If anything, modern life has made marriage even more complicated. You’re just starting to come down from the wedding, and suddenly you’re worried about combining finances, working around your two careers, the shared engagements of your two families, and are beginning to feel the realities of married life. Plus, the stresses of being a young adult are still there—student loan debt, the rising cost of living, not having enough space—but suddenly it’s doubled. 

You have to think about yourself and your partner. And the real problem? It’s taboo to talk about it. In an age of social media-primed “perfection,” you worry about looking unhappy or ungrateful, even like a bad partner. But there’s no shame in admitting that you’re struggling, and having a tough time doesn’t mean you regret getting married. Talking about it can do you a whole lot of good.

Here’s a look at some of the unique challenges the first year of marriage can bring into a relationship and what you can do to navigate the shift in dynamic.

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Facing the Honeymoon Blues

If you find yourself a bit depressed after your wedding, it’s okay. Honeymoon blues are normal. You have both been caught up in time-consuming wedding preparations. It is a sure bet that once you don’t have that stress to deal with, you will have a sense of loss. It’s similar to the post-holiday let down that many people experience. However, it is important not to ignore this period of depression.

Being prepared for the newlywed blues can help you get past them. It’s time to move on to setting the marital stage for the rest of your lives together. As mentioned by Dr Huston’s study, a top priority for newlyweds should be keeping the romance alive. There are other priorities a couple will need to face as well.

Several major goals that need to be settled the first year include how to allocate and handle money, who is going to do what chores, ways to spend free time, finding time to have sex, dealing with in-laws, understanding differences in spirituality or religion, learning how to deal with conflict, and discussing expectations.

Unfortunately, many couples avoid topics that may become heated, but doing so will do a disservice to your union.

Wedding Advice

You’re no longer dating

When you first met your spouse, you were in the category of “dating,” which not only meant that you went on dates, but it meant that you were courting each other. This often changes once a couple has been together for a while, especially after marriage. The solution? Never stop dating. “Continue to do the things you did that made your person fall for you in the first place and keep up on the newer quirks they enjoy about you,” says Jacob Kountz, associate marriage and family therapist at Kern Wellness Counseling. “Do your best to reminisce the beginnings of your relationship, continue date nights, and keep communication open constantly.”

You expect more from each other

Now that you’re married, you may knowingly, or unknowingly, expect more from your significant other—and vice versa. “Who is expected to handle household duties? Who takes care of paying the bills? Who does what, where, when and why?” says Kountz. “Some of these questions may have obvious answers depending on your interests, strengths and upbringing, but this may not be as apparent to your partner.” He recommends sitting down with your spouse and going over each other’s strengths, weaknesses and expectations to gain a better grasp of what each of you expects.

Check out our post on What is a happy marriage like?

You have another person to care for

You most likely cared for your partner before you were legally wed, but marriage makes this feel more like an official duty. “Though marriage is defined as the joining of two people, it’s important to take care of yourself, too, as burnout can occur which can negatively affect your marriage,” Kountz explains. “Continue to place focus on the relationship, but if you don’t continue to take care of yourself in that process, by doing things that make you feel good, such as exercising and seeing your friends, the relationship could suffer.”

Your expenses become joined

Especially if you’ve been living together, you probably already share some expenses, but marriage takes things to a whole new level. You may be joining your bank accounts and even paying taxes together. “Values around spending and saving often don’t line up, and anything you haven’t already discussed and ironed out is likely to become a big issue in your first year of marriage (and beyond),” says Amy McManus, LMFT, relationship therapist and owner of Thrive Therapy, Inc. in Los Angeles.

It’s harder to avoid disagreements

Up to this point, you may have been able to avoid talking about tough topics where you don’t agree, but McManus explains that it’s much harder to avoid them once you are married. “If you do manage to avoid them, resentment is sure to build as you each become more and more frustrated over things that are left unsaid,” she says. One thing she always recommends to her clients is to learn how to discuss topics when they strongly disagree with their spouse. “A compromise can decide some things, but many things have to be an all-or-nothing choice, like whether or not to have children,” she says. “It is important to have a system in place for discussing topics on which you have different values or opinions, so that you each know you are heard and understood, even if you never actually do agree.”

You’re merging your two families

Before you were married, your family was “your” family and your partners were “theirs”. Now that you’re married, however, your two different families have blended into one. “If not explicitly discussed previously, the couple’s have to learn how to integrate different facets of each other’s family style and dynamics into their unique style, as the couple is essentially forming their own, new family unit,” explains Rachel Smith, LMFT Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Sex Therapist. “In the first year, couples also determine how to share their time between families, while also learning to establish boundaries with their families.”

Pregnancy and children change things

One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that 70 per cent of couples who had a baby within the first year of marriage reported a decrease in marital satisfaction and stability. Smith explains that this often occurs due to the fact that children require a significant amount of energy and attention that was once given towards the other partner in a relationship. “Couples often lose sight of each other’s needs because all of their time and efforts are going to their children rather than the relationship itself,” she says. “Being a parent also brings out different parts of yourself and there often needs to be a shift in roles and rules within the family (and at each stage of the child’s life) that most newlyweds were not prepared for.” 

Things To Do In The First Year Of Marriage

“A great marriage is not when the perfect couple comes together. It is when an imperfect couple learns to enjoy their differences.” Dave Meurer

Here are a few things you can do in the first year:

  • Talk about finances: Chalk out the expenses and share the financial burden. Even if both or just one of you is working, plan your monthly expenditure rather than spending money arbitrarily and going broke before the month ends. If there are any outstanding loans, huge credit card debts, unstable jobs or any probable financial crisis, be transparent about them with your partner.
  • Plan the pregnancy: Parenthood is magical, but it comes with great responsibility and an added financial burden. Therefore, assess the family income, your career plans, and familial support you are likely to get, before planning your pregnancy. Schedule an appointment with the doctor, and learn about the pros and cons before bringing a new life into your world.
  • Express your expectations: Most marriages hit a low either when the expectations from your spouse are too high or when they are not communicated clearly. Hence, to avoid any conflicts, share your expectations with them and have a clear understanding of theirs.
  • Understand the importance of small gestures: Simple acts such as showing affection through your body language, being proactive, and helping each other with the household chores go a long way in bringing joy to the marriage.
  • Show respect and be responsible: Respect each other and your extended families. Even if there is a difference of opinion, express it politely and by being respectful. Be responsible for all your actions.
  • Do not compete for superiority: Marriage is a relationship between two equals. Neither of you should think that you are superior to your partner. Be accommodative and respect your partner’s views.
  • Strive to become your partner’s strength: The first year of marriage is the transition period for all couples when they undergo infinite changes. Hence be supportive, calm and patient with your spouse. Husband and wife must become the strength of each other.
  • Don’t keep a score: Tracking the fights or favours is a very bad idea. It’s not going to help your relationship in any way but will spoil it in the long run.
  • Nurture the relationship: Spend quality time with each other and pay attention to details. Comfort your spouse in tough times and show them that you are there, no matter what life throws at you. It is important to connect, and your spouse must be your priority.
  • Communicate: Chat, talk, express. Share your thoughts honestly. We cannot stress enough on the importance of communication. Marriage is a relationship where the partners must be able to talk about anything to everything with each other. There are no barriers or limitations. Talking is the best exercise to improve a marriage.
  • Give space: It is important to spend a lot of time together, but it is equally important to know when to leave your partner alone or give them the desired space. Your spouse may want to have their lone time to reflect on their thoughts, relax or spend time with their friends. Let them have what they want.

The battle is half won if a couple has vowed to never give up on each other. The journey together begins on the first day of marriage and will continue till eternity if the couple is keen on sticking around with each other forever.

So, is the first year the hardest?

Multiple studies have been done on the question, and while the exact results vary, almost no research suggests that the first year of marriage is the most difficult. A recent one from the U.K. found that the first year tended to be relatively good. The challenges of adjusting to life together are real, but they’re offset by the new-ness of the honeymoon period. So yes, the first year of marriage can have its challenging moments—every year of marriage will—but it’s often not the hardest.

According to the survey, year five is the one most commonly cited by couples as the most difficult. The honeymoon period has worn off, family and financial realities have started to set in and, well, the struggle is real.

Note that just because a lot of couples noted the fifth year was hardest doesn’t mean every couple feels that way. There are some statistical norms at play here, but just because those norms don’t apply to you doesn’t mean something is wrong. Year five might be the toughest for some couples. It also might be year three. Or it could be several years in a row. Studies like this can help you learn the landscape of what marriages often look like, but they’re not blueprints. They’re just studies.

So what else do these studies find? Well, for those who are feeling like the fifth year is an especially challenging one, there’s good news. Couples that tough out the first five to seven years are much more likely to have longer, happier marriages. In many cases, the difficult years teach them tools for managing conflict and prioritizing their relationship. Those resources end up making a world of difference over the next few decades. In fact, according to a 2012 study, couples that have been married for 40 years are happier with their relationships than newlyweds.

So what can we make of these studies? A few things.

The first thing to remember is that marriages have rough spots. Yours. Others. It’s incredibly common for marriages to endure seasons in which you feel disconnected emotionally, relationally and physically in your marriage. You shouldn’t ignore these things, but you also shouldn’t be worried about them. Take difficulty as a sign of something that should be addressed and worked on but not a sign that your marriage is on the rocks. Good marriages go through hard times. The best marriages got that way because they endured hard times.

The second thing to remember is that there are benefits to toughing out difficult times in a marriage. Financial difficulties, frustrations with parenthood and just a general blah feeling of boredom are all issues worth exploring with the help of a counsellor and trusted experts. These are things that will be part of any marriage, and the more intentional you are about learning how to navigate them, the better your marriage will be in the long haul.

Which leads us to the third takeaway. Try to seek out real, tangible help actively. Seek out relationship counsellors in your area and book an appointment, even if you don’t feel like you currently need one. Start taking care of your money right away to put yourself in a better position for the future. The more intentional you are about acquiring resources like this, the better shape you’ll be in for the future.

But It Doesn’t Have to Be a Disaster

There’s no need for the first year of your marriage to be unhappy. Sure, there’s a lot to be stressed about—but try to keep some perspective. If you find yourself feeling low or irritable, take a breath. Are you and your partner fighting because they’ve done something wrong? Is the marriage the problem, or are you just taking out your feelings of frustration on your partner? Often, if you take some time and think about it, the problem will lie somewhere else.

By the same token, if there are problems with your partner, don’t feel like you can’t mention them now that you’re married. Just because you’ve committed to someone for life doesn’t suddenly make it less annoying when they leave their toenails everywhere or forget to ask you about your day. It’s more important than ever that you keep communication open. At the very least, let yourself vent to your friends. It doesn’t make you a bad partner—and they’ll understand.

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