Stronger Marriage

Adjustments in the Early Marriage Years

by Thomas R. Lee, PhD
Department of Family and Human Development
Utah State University

As one young woman said, "Marriage is not what I had assumed it would be....Marriage is like taking an airplane to Florida for a relaxing vacation in January, and when you get off the plane you find you're in the Swiss Alps. There is cold and snow instead of swimming and sunshine. Well, after a while, when you buy winter clothes and learn how to ski and learn to talk a new foreign language, you can have just as good a vacation in the Swiss Alps as you can in Florida."

This young woman was able to work to make her marriage a happy one, but she first went through a period of "disillusionment" when the difference between the realities of marriage and her romantic ideals became very clear.

When couples realize that some things aren't what they expected, they are likely to think that something is wrong with their marriage and perhaps things would have gone better in a different marriage to a different person.

That's not necessarily true, though. Almost everyone suffers some serious disappointments within a few months after marriage. The main reason disappointment with marriage is almost inevitable is that our culture views a happy marriage as one of unending romance. Romantic love, however, is almost certain to fade with time. This is because romantic love is based on physical and emotional longing and desire. Once these desires are filled, that "big turn on" of romantic love becomes less intense.

In addition, the romantic approach we take to courtship and mate selection leads us to idealize our spouse unrealistically. Sooner or later, these expectations are re-examined and compared to more realistic ones. Spouses sometimes accuse each other of changing but it is more likely that they are just finally seeing each other as they really are.

There have been many definitions of love, and love means something a little different to each of us. I like the definition given by psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan best: "When the satisfaction or the security of another person becomes as significant for one as is one's own satisfaction or security, then the state of love exists."

The good news about the disappointment couples might experience in the early years of marriage is that once spouses accept one another as they really are, they are able to develop the kind of bond Sullivan describes. That kind of attachment is far more durable, secure, and rewarding than the romantic love usually depicted in the media today.

To turn this "honeymoon's over" period into a growth experience requires work. Here are a few important points:

1. Look at this period as a transition all couples go through, not as a sign of a bad marriage.

2. Concentrate on adapting yourself rather than trying to change the other person. In doing so, you'll find attitude may be responsible for a good share of the problem and the best way to change someone else's behavior is to change your own. People are more likely to change when they feel accepted.

3. Share your feelings about the adjustment with your spouse. This can, of course, be destructive if it is not done with consideration. Don't attack, accuse, or name call. "You lied to me about yourself," will not be very helpful. "I don't know about you, but I'm feeling like things are different than I expected" can open the door to discussion. It will probably be reassuring to both to realize that the spouse has also had feelings of disappointment and the need for adjustment.

4. Strengthen the marital commitment. Rather than using energy to wish for someone else (with whom there will be just as many or even more adjustments) invest effort in being a good partner and doing all you can to be considerate of your partner.

5. Pour on positives. One of the simplest, but most significant things couples can do is to ignore the negative and lavish each other with positive appreciation, praise, and affection. Research has shown that strong marriages need a balance of five positives to one negative.

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