Many couples assume that if you live together, getting married won’t really change your relationship, according to clinical psychologist Lisa Blum, PsyD, who specializes in Emotionally Focused Therapy. But things do change – and with these changes come potential obstacles.
Even if you haven’t shared a home, you may not be prepared for the new challenges of matrimony. “These days, many couples wait a substantial amount of time before they actually get married, so the typical triggers of the redefinition of the relationship are simply there in the shadows, waiting to spring,” said psychotherapist and author Jeffrey Sumber, MA.
Why does marriage change a relationship? According to Blum, there are two reasons. For starters, being married feels different internally for couples. Secondly, people, including family and friends, treat you differently and perceive you as a unit.
According to Sumber, some partners might even panic the first year after realizing that “this is now our life together so we might as well get comfortable.” This “may even lead to a power struggle to make sure our own preferences and wants are met early on and thus create a trend into the future.”
Below, Blum and Sumber share their solutions for the most common challenges newlyweds face, along with general tips for a happy and healthy marriage.
Marriage Challenges & Solutions
Challenge: Becoming a unit. Once you’re married, you become a unit legally, socially and religiously, Blum said. As you navigate becoming a unit, differences are naturally magnified. Take the example of differing political affiliations. When you get married, you might wonder what your political commitment will be as a couple and where you’ll donate your money, Blum said.
The same questions surface surrounding finances – how do we spend our money? – and cultural and religious practices, she said. Even celebrating birthdays differently can become a big issue.
Families tend to be more tolerant of unmarried partners having separate plans – even if they live together, she said. But once you’re married, there’s more pressure to attend events jointly.
Solution: Unmarried couples also tend to have greater acceptance of doing things separately and differently, Blum said. But once the papers are signed, there’s the implicit expectation that you’ll do things one way, she said. “I don’t think that needs to be the case.”
Instead, when brainstorming solutions, step back and discuss whether you’re OK with doing activities separately, she said. Can you find a solution that lets each of you do what you love while letting the other in? As Blum said, “Rather than an ‘either or’ solution, could it be a ‘both and’?”
One couple Blum knows attends their own church twice a month and goes to the same services once a month. She’s also seen other couples alternate years for the holidays.
Again, the key is to avoid the assumption that there’s one right way – even if it looks very different from how your family of origin does things, Blum said.
Challenge: Decreased intimacy. Even within months of the honeymoon, some couples see their sex life change dramatically, Sumber said.
Solution: “It is essential that couples maintain an open dialogue about their sex life well before the wedding and then maintain this conversation long into the life of the marriage,” Sumber said. For some couples the solution is to schedule intimacy nights during the week, he said.
Challenge: Doing chores. Even if you’ve lived together for a while, who does what can still become an issue when you’re legally married, Blum said. That’s because longstanding attitudes and feelings about the role of wife and husband may creep up, she said.
Solution: Rather than fighting about taking out the trash, dig deeper. Talk to your partner about what doing certain chores means to you, Blum said. When you share the meaning and history of specific tasks, it makes negotiating chores much easier, she said. For instance, some people may feel disempowered not doing the bills or knowing their financial details.
Blum gave the example of a spouse who refused to sweep or vacuum the house. To her husband this came across as stubborn, sparking arguments. It turned out that as a child, the wife was overworked and nothing was ever good enough. Part of her rebellion as an adult was not doing the floors, Blum said.
What also helps is to make a list of household tasks and divide accordingly, Blum said. But don’t forget to include the invisible responsibilities, too. One of Blum’s professors used to call the tasks that required planning, organizing and monitoring the “executive functions of the house.” For instance, this might be keeping track of the dog’s medicine or knowing when to pay the bills.
General Marriage Tips
“The more you talk, the better”, Blum said. Couples often mistakenly assume that newlyweds don’t have any issues, so they avoid talking about the frustrating areas in their relationship, Sumber said. As a result, problems just snowball. “We compound our issues over time and feel resentful that nothing has changed even though we haven’t explained our needs,” Sumber said.
That’s why communication is key. In fact, “One of the greatest practices for having a happy, healthy relationship is open, honest, and kind communication,” Sumber said. “Many people forget to be kind in the transmission of uncomfortable information like sexual challenges, annoying quirks or troubling behaviors,” he added.
Blum agreed, and noted the importance of being willing to communicate about your differences without getting defensive or aggressive. It’s important for both you and your partner to be able to articulate how you feel about a certain tradition or issue and truly listen to each other, she said.
Create your own ways. Families can sometimes refuse to be flexible and become critical or judgmental if couples are trying new or different traditions, Blum said. If that’s the case (“and other options appear contentious”), she recommended creating your own traditions. For instance, you might spend Christmas Eve at home and then visit both families the next day.
Seek counseling. If you’re stuck on an issue, see a therapist who specializes in couples. This way, you hash out the tough stuff before problems worsen and multiply. Many of Blum’s clients confess to having had serious problems for years before seeking counseling.
Also helpful is finding a list of premarital counseling topics (like this one) to discuss together, she said.
Write down your agreements. Keep a record of your agreements on various issues, Blum said. This isn’t a contract or something written in stone, but a reference point, she said. The process of writing agreements down requires both partners to get specific about their solutions and helps them gain clarity, she said.
Have fun. It’s important for couples to keep having fun, Sumber said. This might include regular vacations or short weekend getaways, he said. He also suggested weekly date nights, such as nice dinners, couples massages, movie nights or game nights. “Take turns organizing and planning date nights to be sure that the relationship is a priority and that fun and play remain at the center long into the life of the marriage.”
Be grateful. Sumber reminded readers that all relationships are voluntary, and that partners are there by choice. “Someone, even someone I may not always like, is choosing to spend their days and nights with me. That’s pretty remarkable and we tend to take that for granted!”
Another key point to remember: “Relationships are work and just because we love one another doesn’t mean we are not here to challenge, trigger, grow and learn from each other,” Sumber said.