Couples need tools to surmount obstacles
By Julie Baumgardner
22 June 2008
“For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health.” Most couples have every intention of keeping these vows. What happens? Why do so many marriages drive into the ditch during the “honeymoon” years?
I have attended the weddings of many young people in love who were ready to conquer anything that came their way. Until they said “I do,” that is. Then the fun really began.
In conversations with newlyweds, most admit they had no idea how difficult the first year would be as they moved from “me” to “we.” In fact, many seemed shocked by the challenges of adjusting to life as a couple.
Diane Sollee, founder of SmartMarriages.com, believes the very term “honeymoon phase” gives newlyweds false expectations.
“They believe that if they are deeply in love, things will just work,” she says. “If instead they have lots of disagreements, they start thinking they married the wrong person. We need to help them understand what is normal in relationships. Just as in anything else, expectations are crucial.”
I know of one newlywed couple who lived in the same city as his parents. The wife felt that since they saw his parents frequently, it would be fair to spend holidays with her out-of-town parents. He was sentimental about the holidays, however, and thought that was totally unfair. She became extremely angry and upset with her husband, and the intensity of feelings around this totally surprising disagreement came close to being a deal-breaker during their first three years of marriage.
Studies indicate that every long and happily married couple usually has approximately 10 irreconcilable differences. It is surprising how soon after the wedding these differences can appear.
“Marriage education can help prevent couples from going into shock when they disagree,” Ms. Sollee says. “We would help couples by simply renaming the first years ‘clash of civilizations stage’ because this is when two people bring all they’ve learned up to this point to the task of setting up a whole new family and civilization. It’s a wonderful opportunity to decide how they are going to do everything from eat, sleep, work, raise children, deal with in-laws, make love, keep house, save, spend, etc.
“A couple that is a team … each with their own valuable perspective, can approach their differences as building blocks of the marriage adventure instead of seeing their differences as signs of incompatibility,” she says.
John Gottman, noted marriage researcher, has found that couples who stay happily married disagree as much as couples who divorce. Studies show that all couples fight about money, sex, kids and time. Research also shows that couples who understand the normality of these disagreements and learn management skills do better.
Ms. Sollee says, “Entering into marriage without foreseeing conflict and having the tools to deal with what’s coming would be like setting off to climb Mount Everest and just hoping you have what it takes.
“When people first started climbing Everest, most failed,” she says. “Now the success rate is much better because people have maps of the terrain and know how to prepare.
“The same is true with marriage. The experts have figured out what’s coming and can give couples the tools they need to succeed,” she says. But if couples don’t go in with more realistic expectations, “you can fall in a crevasse and blame it on all the wrong things – your spouse, your mother-in-law, etc. You can end up leaving a perfectly good marriage for all the wrong reasons.”
So if you are a newlywed, or are busy preparing for marriage, think of your marriage as a great and noble adventure, a wonderful exciting challenge. You want to be as knowledgeable and as well-equipped as possible to bridge the crevasses, deal with the weather and take care of each other so that your marital team can plant your marriage flag on the mountaintop.
Julie Baumgardner is the executive director of First Things First, an organization dedicated to strengthening marriages and families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
See also Smart Marriages web site