The early years of marriage are the time for the formation of life dreams and for setting those dreams in motion. Each of the mates had an identity as a single and they must now adjust to having an identity as a couple. When they have children, they will be identified as a “family.” During these early years they establish their patterns of relating to each other, generally choose their career direction, where they will live, their friends, and what lifestyle fits them as a married couple. The choices are setting the foundation for the rest of their married years.
The first year of marriage is the most dangerous with the highest potential for divorce. Several factors can tip the scales toward success during the first year and the years that follow. Applying some practical insights will not only help the marriage survive, but also will make it more satisfying and fulfilling.
1. Personal Maturity If both mates have sufficiently matured, they will bring strength to the marriage. Areas of immaturity, “carryover baggage”, are likely to cause stress in the relationship.
We’ve observed that a major area of immaturity causing marital stress in the early years is a poor self-image. Because people with low self-esteem are essentially uncomfortable with themselves, they tend to keep looking outside themselves for approval. They believe they’re unworthy — therefore, they are suspicious of approval when it does come. These people are prone to please other people and are afraid to speak their own opinions. They may become very destructive, trying to bolster their own ego by cutting other people down.
People with a poor self-image frequently tend to be perfectionists, which only reinforces inadequacy. They plan too much in a day and never enjoy the accomplishments they achieve. “Enough” is never enough.
People with a low self-image frequently are embarrassed because they feel inadequate. They may be very secretive. It’s hard for them to be vulnerable or to receive advice and counsel from others. They often procrastinate. “I’ll put it off until tomorrow because I’ll probably do a better job then.” They are so afraid of producing something inferior that they produce little or finish it late.
Obviously, people who know and feel comfortable with themselves will be better marriage partners. They can continue their personal growth and encourage their mate’s growth without feeling threatened.
2. Individual Identity A second concern for couples in their early years is independence and separation from their parents. An inappropriate attachment to parents may exist because one or both feels incapable of living married life without the support and guidance of the parents. Sometimes dominant parents have so controlled their children that, even as young adults, they aren’t able to think for themselves or to act on their own. In a sense, the umbilical cord has never been cut.
Some Christian parents have misunderstood the biblical instruction to “train up a child.” They feel that the child should think and respond to life as the parent thinks and responds. However, that verse goes on to say, “Train up a child in the way he should go.” The biblical meaning is that God has a unique direction for each person, and the role of the parent is to help the child discover that uniqueness. The child should not be a clone of the parent.
The young adult who comes into marriage having established his or her own identity will be like a bird on the wing, free to fly, instead of like a kite on a string. Once a person has an individual identity, he or she is ready to be an interdependent marriage partner, able to be independent but also able to share and contribute to his or her mate.
3. Realistic Expectations Another tendency in the early married years is to expect that marriage should solve all of life’s problems and bring ultimate happiness. Happiness actually is related to our adjustment to God, the people around us, and to our environment. Happiness is our internal response and our personal determination to be happy, not something that comes from the outside. In other words, if we don’t know how to be happy on our own before marriage, we’re not likely to be happy in marriage. Marriage is a voluntary sharing of our happiness and experiences. It is expecting too much to ask that our mate make us happy.
4. Down-To-Earth Image Another important task of people in the first years of marriage is facing the reality that they have married a “real” person rather than an “ideal” one. They have not married a “vision,” but they may try to superimpose that vision on the human being they’ve married. They either ignore the weaknesses of the human being or expect that, with a little bit of help and encouragement, their mate can be changed to become the ideal. Reality may strike like a giant wrecking ball. The mate is not perfect, not ideal, and never will become like the fantasy.
We hope that the reality of who this person is has been faced before the couple were married. If not, it must be faced in the early years so that the necessary adjustments can be made to have a long-term successful marriage.
5. Healthy Adjustments Another hurdle in the early years of marriage is adjustment to each other. The most mature, well-balanced couple with a deep understanding of themselves, of marriage, and the realities of their future together will still have many adjustments which will cause some degree of stress.
One couple came to us in tears after one month of marriage. They were so sure that God had called them together, yet now they were having arguments and misunderstandings. Had they misunderstood God? Was it wrong for them to be married? Whatever happened to the romance, the magic, the wonder of it all? It disappeared as they started the adjustment process. They hadn’t misinterpreted God’s leading in their lives. They had, however, missed the point that all marriages must adjust in several major areas during that first year of marriage.
Following is a list of the issues that need time and energy for adjustment. We suggest that you read the sections of our book Traits of a Lasting Marriage that cover these concerns in detail.
Money — how do we earn it, who manages it, and who spends it?
Work — who works, how much, and how is that integrated with the rest of our life?
Decision-making and leadership — how are each one’s gifts and abilities utilized. How is mutuality achieved in the marriage?
Sexual adjustment — is each one being fully satisfied?
In-laws — is there a true interdependence as peers with the parents?
Leisure — are our emotional batteries being recharged?
Roles — who does what in each part of life?
Children — will we have them, when, how many?
Friends — do we have couple and individual friends?
Spiritual life — are we growing spiritually and individually as a couple?
6. Intimacy Foundation An overriding cause for much of the marital stress of the first years is the preoccupation with living life, resulting in a failure to build intimacy in the marriage relationship. Before marriage, much of your time and personal energy was spent in getting to know each other. Many couples assume that after marriage they don’t need to keep at this process of developing intimacy. However, the adjustment process will tend to drive you apart unless intimacy continues to be cultivated.
Intimacy demands time together, effective communication, a willingness to know and be known to each other, and a desire to meet the needs of each other. As a couple in the early years of marriage, you need a “commitment” to build an intimacy base. Then at each of the later stages of marriage, you will be held together because you have built intimacy, not just because of obligations, such as the mortgage or children. Any investment in each other now will be enjoyed all of your lives. If you invest now, in the midst of being very busy, you’ll receive the reward of a strong marriage for the rest of your years!
Reprinted by permission by Jim Conway Ph.D. Copyright 2000.
Read more from Jim at Midlife Dimensions.