by Nancy Van Pelt
When he walked through the door of the church, I thought he was the most handsome and appealing man I’d ever seen! Harry was stationed at an Army base near my home town. On our first date we went to an air show where we threw dimes into vases that would become ours if the dimes landed inside. We won a pair this way, which we jokingly said we would use for our home when we married and became missionaries overseas.
We continued dating and fell more and more in love. Eventually Harry popped the question and wedding fever set in. The wedding took place at my parents’ home, which overlooked the water. The organist struck the first notes of the “Bridal Chorus” from Lohengrin and I walked down the aisle. Although the little flower girl began to cry and refused to scatter her rose petals, we had a storybook wedding. The ceremony went off without a hitch. The day was blissful. Everyone agreed that it was a picturesque and romantic wedding.
But—after the wedding comes a marriage.
Reality sets in
Most couples find that within a few days after the honeymoon, reality hits swift and deep. Yes, they feel elated over the excitement of settling into their first home, but they must also be prepared for the disillusionment that surely follows—a letdown from the bliss and glamour of the all-absorbing interest they had in each other. Thus the expression, “The honeymoon is over.”
The groom suffers more from severe symptoms of disillusionment than does the bride. Grooms tend to resent their loss of freedom, their new household obligations, and the financial worries. But brides feel let down as their new husbands begin to take them for granted. The masks that each wore prior to marriage soon drop away. The real self with moods and temper appears.
The first year is usually the rockiest in most marriages, with half of all newlyweds reporting significant marital problems. Newlyweds report dramatic increases in the number of arguments they have after the wedding; their tendency to be critical of their heretofore perfect partner, and their feelings of self-confidence.
During the first 12 months, a couple must face the most problems with the least experience. To be truthful, the future of the marriage depends on the adjustment that takes place during this time. The most teachable time for a couple are the first six weeks following the wedding. Gradually they learn that they must share their partner, that they cannot have l00 percent of his or her interest, affection, time, or attention. Employer, parents, friends, and relatives—all make demands.
Also during this disillusionment phase, the young bride may be shocked to find that her usually well-groomed husband wakes up with bad breath and a scratchy beard. He may find her blanket-robbing and teeth-grinding to be turnoffs. Other newlyweds find out the hard way how much time, effort, and money it takes to maintain a place to live. Whereas most couples are realistic enough to understand that maintaining a house takes time, they don’t recognize how much time and effort it takes to shop, cook, and maintain a household with endless tasks.
What saves us from despair is that we tend to dream of happiness rather than drudgery. If we imagined only the routineness of marriage, none of us would ever marry! The fact that six out of 10 new marriages in the U.S. fail proves that disillusionment sets in early, hard, and fast.
Once you get a little experience under your belt, however, you realize that your marriage will survive even if you have some disagreements. You also learn that some arguments are inevitable. You can still be friends and lovers although you don’t always agree on every issue. You will learn, too, that even if you can’t solve every problem you encounter, this does not signal the end of your marriage. At this point, you can become less anxious about annoyances that pop up and realize this happens even in the best of relationships.
Each year you spend together as a couple increases your chance for remaining married. By the time you reach your fifth anniversary, the possibility of divorce begins to decrease year by year.
What makes couples happy?
It is difficult to isolate the factors that make couples happy. But how you react to your mate in three basic areas and how your mate reacts to you largely determine your happiness level. These areas are: (1) Your expectations for the future; (2) communication patterns; and (3) how you make decisions and settle disagreements.
Expectations. It is important that you clarify expectations early in the marriage. How well you get along thereafter is determined by how well you understand expectations and agree upon them in advance. When you and your mate agree, you can build confidently for the future, one doing one job and the other doing another. In the end, you will enjoy mutually satisfying results because of your joint efforts. If you want a rambling one-story home and your mate wants a two-story colonial style, you will soon be at cross-purposes.
Your expectations usually center on five basic areas: (a) how you want to be treated; (b) your concept of how your mate wants to be treated; (c) what you believe are your responsibilities and rights; (d) what you perceive are the responsibilities and rights of your partner; and (e) what you expect from marriage in the long run.
Some young couples deny they have such expectations or think they can change them to suit any situation that arises. But expectations cannot be changed that easily. They accumulate over a lifetime and become an intimate part of you. To change them would be enormously difficult. Your expectations are as much a part of you as breathing. Just as you are not aware of inhaling and exhaling, you do not realize how deeply your expectations are embedded in you.
The more changes that need to be made, the more difficult it will be. The marriage that requires the fewest changes in economic, social, personality, and religious needs is the most likely to succeed. The marriage requiring the most changes between persons of vastly different cultural backgrounds is the most likely to fail.
It only makes sense, then, to clarify all expectations prior to marriage, discussing them openly and honestly. If they conflict, you will need to discover a process by which you can alter, accept, or discard them. The position some take at this point—my way is the only one way to do things—must be dropped. You must realize that there are several ways to accomplish any task.
Obviously, the more clarification of expectations that takes place prior to marriage, the less clarification needed after marriage. Try as you may, you will not be able to foresee them all. Many adjustments will still follow. But this is what marriage is all about: taking two different family systems of thinking, feeling, and behaving, and striving to blend them into one harmonious relationship.
Communication. If you and your partner want to learn how to get along well with each other, you must develop a system of communication so that each of you understands how the other feels about each issue. Ideally, husband and wife should be able to discuss every subject of interest or concern to them. But couples quickly learn that certain subjects create fear, anxiety, doubt, or anger. However, the fewer subjects you put outside the bounds of discussion, the fuller and more satisfying your communication will be.
When emotions are brought out for discussion, they can be analyzed and dealt with for what they are—feelings. Feelings are not bad. They are transient in nature, and we wouldn’t be human without them. The real question is, Are these feelings appropriate to express now?
Here are some guidelines for expressing feelings properly:
1. Speak without anger or hostility. Lower your voice rather than raising it.
2. Be clear and specific. Think as you speak, and state clearly what you mean.
3. Be positive and be appreciative. No faultfinding, blaming, judging, name-calling, or other negatives.
4. Be courteous and respectful of your mate’s opinion even when you don’t agree.
5. Be sensitive to the needs and feelings of your mate.
Now some guidelines for being a better listener:
1. Act interested in your partner. Maintain good eye contact and respond with a smile or a nod of your head.
2. Use appropriate phrases to show agreement, interest, and understanding.
3. Ask well-phrased questions that show interest and encouragement to speak.
4. Just when you think you are through listening, listen 30 seconds longer.
I recommend that all newlyweds refrain from getting a TV set during their first year of marriage. Watching TV robs you of hours you could spend communicating. When this happens, something is lost from the relationship. It is essential that you knit yourselves together during the all-important first year to form an inseparable bond of intimacy through good communication.
Reaching decisions and settling disagreements. Prior to marriage, you probably didn’t picture you and your mate bickering, arguing or engaging in put-downs. You may have seen your parents do this, but you probably told yourself that when you got married, you would never do that. And the younger you are, the more likely you expect to manage every problem cheerfully and graciously.
However, as you settle into the routine of married life, you will constantly have to make decisions concerning daily routines, roles, and major goals. Every time you make a decision, you are building a pattern for the future. In other words, when you encounter this decision again, you will not proceed through the usual negotiations. You will likely rely on the previous decision made.
But how will decisions be reached? Will one make the decision and try to win the other over? Will one always have to give in? Newlyweds are sometimes shocked to learn that it is absolutely basic to their relationship to air their feelings aloud as they come to a decision. Unless each verbalizes, they will never understand the underlying feelings about why they disagree.
It is not the disagreement but the pattern you establish during the early weeks and months for handling them that is important! Here are some points to remember:
1. Be willing to discuss any problem.
2. Try to resolve differences without making one “right” and the other “wrong.”
3. Avoid angry outbursts. “Blowing your top” rarely produces positive results. Anger almost always arises when our self-worth is threatened. Instead of anger, how much better to recognize why you are angry and seek to discover why you feel you must defend yourself so strongly. Whereas romantic gestures and loving words put deposits into your love bank, angry outbursts make huge withdrawals. Guard that your account does not get overdrawn.
The in-law crisis
In-law problems rank at the top of difficult areas for newlyweds. More than any other problem, disagreements over in-laws affect the early years of marriage.
Parents have a hard time letting go of a child they have cared for so long. During the early weeks and months of marriage, both sets of parents look over the new addition to the family and judge by their own standards. Studies show that the husband’s mother will pose the biggest problem because she identifies more closely with the wife’s role. She may be critical of how another woman performs a role she has handled successfully for years.
Some helpful hints:
l. Establish your own home after marriage. Do not live with parents even temporarily. It is impossible to develop intimacy in someone else’s home, even when parents promise to leave you alone. Living with parents makes you feel as if you aren’t grown up yet, and you will feel restricted in many areas. Your sex life will be affected.
2. Work at establishing a good relationship with your in-laws. A new husband might send a bouquet of flowers to his mother-in-law on her birthday. A daughter-in-law would send her new mother-in-law a gift on Mother’s Day. Invite them to dinner or take them out. The rewards can be great. If you treat your in-laws like friends, you will find them treating you the same way.
3. Accept your in-laws as they are. You might like to make a few changes in them, but they might like to make a few in you too. Give them time to adjust to you and to the loss of their child.
Never, never, never . . .
* discuss the faults of your mate with your parents;
* quote your family or hold them up as models to your mate;
* give advice to your in-laws unless they ask for it;
* make a trip to your in-laws your vacation;
* threaten to (or actually do) “go home to Mama.”
When you visit your in-laws, make your visits short. If they give advice, accept it graciously. If it is right for you, use it. If not, ignore it. Enter marriage with a positive attitude toward your in-laws. Determine to enjoy your new family.
The last word
Harry and I experienced numerous problems in our early years. Even though we were not teen-agers, we were young, naive, and unlearned in the disciplines of married life. We tried to work out problems on our own, but weren’t doing too well.
We went to church faithfully, had family worship with the children, and did all the good things Christians are supposed to do. But things got no better. Had it not been for our faith at this point, we could have thrown it all away, figuring that what we had together wasn’t worth saving, that it might be better to go our separate ways and not torment each other any longer.
The Christian faith in which we had been raised held us and would not let us go. Today we are stronger than ever in the Lord’s love and in our love for each other, which helped us work through difficulties. And we learned that we would get out of our marriage what we put into it.
A successful marriage requires courage, determination, humbleness, and yes, a sense of humor! If you can learn to make merry over mistakes, high heaven promises a clean-up squad to sweep away the broken pieces and give your marriage a fresh beginning.
This article is excerpted from Nancy’s book The Compleat Courtship.