I hear this often when clients call for couples counseling. They seem surprised to be in that boat, and wonder how they got there.
Often, before the marriage, so much focus and attention is spent planning the wedding and honeymoon (and overlooking premarital counseling, as I’ve written about before).
The reality of being married and living with each other isn’t what you expected, or your expectations of what marriage is supposed to be aren’t being met. Are those realistic expectations? How much did you talk everything through before marrying?
It’s normal to hit bumps in marriage, early on, and periodically throughout your lives together. At the nine months to a year period, you might be wondering if you made a mistake and if you should just cut your losses. (Hold off on having kids until you get things sorted out. Kids bring joy over the long haul, but decrease marital satisfaction in the immediate term.)
Generally the answer is no, it’s not time to bail (unless there is domestic violence). People pick partners who will draw out their best—and worst—and provide opportunities to grow as individuals and as a couple.
But you do have to work on things throughout your lives together. It won’t always be hard work. At times it will be simple, but consistent:
1. Choose each other every day and say it to one another.
2. Help each other be your best self.
3. Share what you’re grateful for about each other every day (not so much what you do, but who you are).
4. Spend time together without devices. Do stuff you enjoy.
5. Touch, snuggle, arouse, have foreplay, have wild sex and sensual lovemaking.
6. Support, listen, ask good questions (don’t offer solutions unless s/he asks).
7. Do small, medium, and large things for each other to help out (e.g., I took my husband’s truck to get new tires; he came up to Camp Kesem to bring meds I’d forgotten).
8. Give each other gifts at times (doesn’t have to be a birthday or holiday). (Don’t expect a gift and not tell your partner and then get mad at him/her for not doing it.)
9. Have each others’ back, no matter what.
Being intimate (vs. sexual) can be scary. You’re vulnerable when you truly let someone in to see your amazing self, your difficult self, and your shadow self (your traits you don’t even let yourself see because it’s too scary).
A few of examples of expectations and changes:
1. Maybe your partner was engaged and talkative before you got married, and now is quiet and seems withdrawn. It’s more likely that the latter is who that person is wired to be, and now that s/he’s won you over, doesn’t realize you’ll need interaction on an ongoing basis. You can work on this together. Don’t take it personally how a person is wired; they'd be this way with anyone. Help them be their best self. If you’re withdrawing one (Island type) come toward your partner every day. You’ll end up happier in the long run!
2. Maybe you used to spend a lot of time together, just the two of you, and now that you’re married, you seem to do all your activities with other couples. One of you is fine with that, and one isn’t. You can work this out by talking it through, and negotiating (which is different than compromising).
3. Maybe you didn’t realize how much your beloved’s family of origin and/or extended family was going to be part of your married life. You need to discuss this and make your primary commitment to one another and the family comes after that. You can support each other with this. Also, don’t make your partner the “bad guy” with your family. Use “I” statements (e.g., “Mom, I want to spend time alone with my wife/husband this weekend.”) Take responsibility to make sure your partner feels cherished and comes first.
4. Some cultures have parents who visit for extended periods of time. Explicitly tell your mom not to rearrange the house/kitchen, or take over areas/tasks that make your partner uncomfortable. Tell your parents they can come, but you want them to go on some trips while they visit so you can have some time at home alone with your wife/husband.
5. A partner likes to party and drink, hang out with the gang. Now you’re married, and your beloved wants you to be home more and eventually have a baby and be more responsible. If you don’t want to do that, please don’t get married in the first place. Find ways to meet both of your needs.
In life, as well as when you’re married, things happen that are outside your control or change unexpectedly (e.g., a job offer or acceptance to a university in another state, health issues, etc.); you need to have a plan how you’ll handle these things. First, be kind. Create a contract of what your marriage will consist of (Stan Takin’s idea): it’s the constitution of your marriage. Then any decision you have to make either fits that and is a “Yes” or it doesn’t fit and is a “No”.
Remember, marriage takes adjusting to. Don’t let any resentments build up. Don’t sweep things under the rug (it will just get dirtier and beiger under there). Be explicit. Use this format for saying what you need: “When __________ happens, I feel ___________. I wish you would _______________.” There is no blame here, no finger pointing.
Remember, if something is important to your partner make it important to you, too.
Couples counseling at nine months to year post wedding is a very good idea: get on track now, and have tools and skills to keep on track for your whole married life.