Right after my husband and I got married, I talked him into going to a dance on our university campus. I was sitting on his lap with my arms around his neck when a co-ed approached and remarked, “It’s so nice to see a happily married couple who still love each other.” I remember thinking, “Uh…It’s not like we’ve been married for five years…we’ve been married for about five minutes…and you have no idea what my marriage is like from observing me in one limited context, but…ok, if that makes you feel happy….”
I was uncomfortable with her observation because while I WAS happy, I was also struggling with an array of conflicting emotions.
There is a cultural expectation that engagements and marriages will be singularly happy events, devoid of uncertainty, sadness and fear. In part, that expectation is why so many people suffer in silence and don’t seek resources for help during these stages. They can feel shameful if they aren’t blissfully happy. The colliding emotions often generate anxiety about whether the marriage was the right decision.
Possibly more often than not, the transition to marriage precipitates an onslaught of competing emotions. There can be elation, relief and contentment simultaneously with grief, sadness and fear. Newlyweds can experience disenfranchised grief, or grief around something that isn’t acknowledged because people expect you to be happy. However, with all the required changes in the life cycle shift, grief and loss, with other concomitant uncomfortable emotions should be expected.
Many couples cruise into married love problem free, which is great, but couples routinely struggle in unique ways during this transitional life stage. As a marriage therapist who sees many couples surprised by the difficulties inherent to married life, I want to acknowledge expected barriers in adjusting from a “Me to We,” paradigm.
Some emotionally-laden challenges that regularly impact the transition into marriage include:
- Negotiating a joint identity. It can feel out of control to be connected to another individual impacting your life and potentially your identity. I still remember 29 years ago how frustrated I was when my husband was late or forgot something he said he would do. I grew up in a family where being late was not acceptable and if you said you would do something, you moved heaven and earth to do it, because that’s just how it was—mine was a “so let it be written, so let it be done” household. The End. My husband was confused at my reactions when he made us 15 minutes late somewhere, or when he said he would do something and then forgot. It messed with my identity of being on time and responsible. “Good people” weren’t late nor forgetful. I figured that he didn’t care about me enough to be on time or work harder to remember. On the flip side, he couldn’t understand my level of frustration, I think because so much of his identity was linked to his adaptability, patience, and presence. In his mind, “good people” didn’t get upset over something like a spouse’s tardiness. Over the years, I’ve become more accepting of his habits, and he has tried to be more on time to adapt to my slightly obsessive qualities, but finding that middle place for a couple identity was challenging.
- Loss of individual identity. People often sacrifice important parts of themselves for the marriage. I absolutely don’t think I gave up my identity, but there were parts I struggled with. I didn’t love switching my last name when so much of my life had been associated with my father’s name, whom I adored. I was a “Cluff,” not a “Schade,” and to tell you the truth, 30 years later, I still identify strongly with my maiden name.
- Adjusting to couple process. This sounds general, but what I’m referring to here is the fact that individual decision-making changes. Instead of doing what you want to do when you want to do it, marriage requires a commitment to collaborating and cooperating, thinking of the marriage partnership instead of oneself.
- Integrating with in-laws. It is true that in-laws are an everyday conflict area in marriage. As the youngest of six children, with all married siblings, my family had plenty of time to get used to in-laws. I thought the family process would be similar in my husband’s family. In short, he was the golden boy, the oldest and the first to get married, and it was nothing like the integration of in-laws in my family. This is an area where it’s probably best to have no expectations. I see many couples with various types of in-law problems. Because of that, my main goal as a mother-in-law is to just support my daughters-in-law in a way they want to be supported without being critical or intrusive nor completely disinterested, and to just love them; and since I have three of the best daughters-in-law on the planet, that has been so easy.
- Negotiating finances. Many couples can struggle here because of previous debt or dissimilar spending habits. Combining finances is fraught with stress for many if not most couples.
- Negotiating household routines. Even though this may seem trivial, when the transition is already stressful, things like squeezing the toothpaste from the middle (I get it—my entire life, my father hammered home that toothpaste tubes are to be neatly rolled from the bottom), failing to install a new roll of toilet paper, folding the towels in half instead of in thirds, etc. can just highlight differences and exacerbate frustration.
- Friendsickness. This is a term often applied to college students who move away from a network of friends. This can also come up in marriage when people miss their old social networks. I can remember experiencing a great deal of pain and loss over my old social networks, because friendships shift after you get married. I didn’t have the same access to my single college friends, and “friendsickness,” is an accurately descriptive term—it became what I believe is a type of ambiguous loss.
- Adapting to new social norms and expectations. In short, “adulting,” on steroids.
- Creating new boundaries with families-of-origin. Neither my husband nor I have intrusive or controlling families, so we didn’t have to work hard to set boundaries, but many couples must learn how to set boundaries in systems with previous enmeshment. I did, however, feel differently about how I could approach my parents after marriage because I was supposed to “put on my big girl panties.” When I was struggling, I couldn’t call them because I didn’t want to create worry; I knew my father would be distressed if he thought that I was even slightly unhappy. Also, the protocol in my family was to do your duty and shut up about it—there’s no question that you just do what you’re “supposed to do,” so I didn’t think there was any point talking about it. My parents wouldn’t have chastised me, but I knew they would worry and feel helpless to help me.
- Integrating rituals and traditions from two separate families. Because rituals and traditions are deeply infused with meaning, deciding how to enact holidays and other celebrations can be somewhat complex and potentially conflictual.
The phenomena described here about grief and loss with marriage transition are processes I’ve witnessed with other married couples as well as experienced myself. For the whole first year of my marriage I was engulfed in a heavy cloud of sadness related to my losses. That just elicited confusion and guilt, because I was supposed to be happy, wasn’t I?
I still dearly loved my husband, was physically attracted to him, viewed him as one of the best humans on the planet, felt lucky to be married to him, admired him, and believed he was an awesome choice for me long-term. I can safely say I still feel the same way about him, because he is truly wonderful.
But I still felt loss, grief and sadness in the transition. Then, on top of feeling abnormal and broken, I felt shame because my feelings were directly wounding my husband, who is at heart a kind, gentle and highly likable person. Every time he saw me cry, he felt terrible and perceived that I must not love him, so I withdrew from him to protect him from my sadness, which just increased my loneliness. He had no idea what to do with me. This sounds so dramatic, but I honestly felt like a part of me was dying. I tried to hide my suffering from him unsuccessfully.
I went through stages of sadness, confusion, shame, fear and depression until I finally just went numb. I regularly went through the motions of life robotically, feeling nothing. I can remember believing I just could just stop feeling and detach from my emotions entirely. I hadn’t previously experienced this kind of emotional pain, requiring such extreme measures.
As part of my emotional withdrawal to avoid hurting him, I completely threw myself into school and became obsessive about getting the highest score in all my classes, telling myself it’s what I had to do to get into graduate school. In addition to matriculating full-time, I took two different jobs, began a volunteer shift at a women’s shelter, and started a pre-professional organization on campus. I kept myself too busy to feel anything. It was my way of having control over something when my emotions and life felt so out of control. I never did feel like I could talk to anyone about it, which I don’t think was helpful. This is the type of situation where therapy might be really helpful, when the outside world doesn’t know what to do with your pain. In marriage, it’s also best to go to therapy sooner rather than later. I’m hoping anyone can possibly be helped from my disclosure to know that if they are experiencing any of these things in the newlywed stage, they aren’t alone.
Knowing that mixed emotions are likely the norm with marital transition, here are some things you can do to smooth the passage:
- Make a study of marriage. Read recommended books. Listen to podcasts. My husband and I routinely listened to audio recordings for marital improvement because it was my chosen profession. It normalized our stress and taught us strategies to improve our communication and negotiation. I couldn’t pay my husband to read a marriage book, but he might listen to one on audio.
- Seek out humor. Laughter really does make so many painful things manageable. I realize many people are more serious than I and probably don’t see the need or see it as silly, but for many people, just finding ways to share laughter can be bonding.
- Expect and allow grieving. Of course, you’re going to miss things from your single life! Acknowledge that almost any life transition with gains comes with some losses of leaving another stage behind.
- Connect with old friends. Actively seek out safe past connections to help alleviate losses.
- Make time for individual self-care. Transitions are inherently stressful, so actively do things to increase comfort. Get a massage. Participate in a hobby.
- Actively make new friends as a couple. One way of acknowledging gains is to make new married friends. Invite them over to play games.
- Create your own new traditions and rituals. For our first Christmas, my husband and I were so busy with finals that we didn’t have time to buy a tree until two days before Christmas, and literally found one for a dollar. I quickly handmade a bunch of inexpensive ornaments with materials around the house. It was cheap and ugly, but it was ours.
- Practice active acceptance. This implies owning your situation for all the conflicting parts it offers, which overlaps with grieving. It’s ok to desire acceptance and not feel it right away. Acceptance might need to happen repeatedly—think of it as a process more than an outcome.
- Exercise patience with yourself and your spouse. Expect it to take time to integrate all the emotions that come with transition.
- Master a metamorphosis mentality. Marriage really is a metamorphosis, so think in terms of how you want to shape the change together.
Remember that struggling with the transition to marriage isn’t predictive of future happiness. Sometimes couples think that early struggles mean they never should have been together and they are doomed for relationship disaster. One couple I saw years ago laughingly reminded me that when they were expressing hopelessness that their early years of marital struggle meant they were doomed, I said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t join with you in your catastrophic narrative.” Somehow that was validating that they could still create a marriage free of problem saturation. It’s true. In the absence of ongoing affairs, abuse or addictions, you can likely shift your narrative for the future.
In other words, you can influence the engineering of your own roller coaster ride.
Make it a good one!
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