The wedding bouquet's been tossed. The band's stopped playing. You're home from the honeymoon. There's a good chance that the last year or so of your life has been taken up with planning the big event. So now that it's over, what comes next?
When I got married, seven years ago (at age 28), I didn't really expect much to change. My husband, Neal, and I had already been living together for three years. We'd weathered my appendectomy, his mother's death, international trips, hyperactive-kitten ownership, and countless job changes. Our bank accounts, pitiful though they were, had already been joined. We knew from better-and-worse. So I was surprised when, as soon as we returned from our two-week sojourn in Italy, I felt, well, different.
Checking off the "married" box on forms; saying "my husband" instead of "my boyfriend"; being called "Mrs." on invitations—it all felt strangely monumental: more grown-up, serious, and permanent than I had anticipated. I felt closer to him, more conscious that we were in it for the long haul. "It's like you've moved from sitting on a stool—comfortable, but your back aches a bit—to sitting on a chair: much more support,"agrees my friend Jennifer, who's been married for 14 years.
But not everyone has it so easy. Some of the best couples I know had rough starts. One friend, Aaron, who has now been happily married for 12 years, describes his first year of marriage as "horrible." He and his wife were isolated, constantly moving, and completely broke. They hit bottom with a knockdown, drag-out fight over what his wife called the "selfish" purchase of a $7 cheesesteak sandwich. "That story sums up our first year," he says. "Fighting over the money we didn't have and nearly killing each other because we had committed to something so big."
In the long run, however, that rocky first year served them well: "I firmly believe that because we built this thing from the ground up, we have a greater stake in each other's lives and the marriage as a whole," he says.
The thing is, marriage is big, and there are times—particularly in the first year—when it can seem terrifyingly huge. (I'd be lying if I said I never woke up cold in the middle of the night and thought: Oh. My. God. I am looking at 50 more years of sleeping with a compulsive blanket thief.) You are essentially co-owners of a brand-new company with a lifetime's worth of appointments and a million items of business: Who makes the money? How do we spend it? When are we going to have kids, if at all? Are you really going to put the couch there? Your mother is going to come and stay with us for how long?
According to Mikki Meyer, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist, couples are often blindsided by new expectations of how things should or shouldn't be now that they're married. Reenacting scenes from our parents' marriage is one of the most common first-year problems. "People start to replicate their family-of-origin issues, often unconsciously," Meyer says. "The husband may think, My mother always cooked dinner and greeted my father at the door!" But if his wife works as many hours as he does, good luck with that.
"If I could tell couples one thing," Meyer continues, "it would be this: The first year is an adjustment time, during which they're going to learn things about their partner that they never knew. The challenge is to look at the issues and talk through them. Nothing will ever go away unless they understand it and talk it over together. Marriage is work on every level."
The good news? If marriage is work, it's also the paycheck. When my cousin Rhoades and his wife, Hannah, got married 10 years ago, the minister said that one of the most important things newlyweds can do is recognize that they are in charge now. They get to decide what their life together will be like. And one of the best ways to start that life is by creating new rituals—like hosting Thanksgiving (sans Uncle Ned's gin-addled soliloquies), or planning a romantic yearly vacation, just the two of you. Rituals, she said, become "your thing"; they bond you as a couple. They also help you—in the best way possible—to break free from Mom and Dad.
This struck a chord with me. I remember thinking: Maybe she's onto something there.
Ten years later, Hannah, Rhoades, Neal, and I have an ongoing family tradition of spending Easter together with our kids—now four, five, and six. Few things make me as happy as a wife and mother as staying up late with my husband and cousins, hiding Easter eggs by flashlight, and then watching the kids tear around the house shrieking as they find them the next morning. Over time, such moments are what create the unique and lasting fabric of a marriage—influenced by our parents, sure, but ultimately our own.