“The first year of marriage is the hardest,” I told my friend, trying to be comforting. The truth is, I’m not sure why I said it. It’s just something people say—I had no idea if it’s true or just helpful to hear. Why would the first year be the hardest? I assume that it was some kind of hangover from before people lived together, when marriage meant getting used to someone being all up in your space for the first time. But, in the 21st century when nearly half of women live with a partner before they’re married, does it really make a difference?
It really does. Because even though it may seem like old-fashioned advice, the first year of marriage is still a challenge. In fact, if anything, modern life has made marriage even more complicated. You’re just starting to come down from the wedding and suddenly you’re worried about combining finances, working around your two careers, the shared engagements of your two families, and are beginning to feel the realities of married life. Plus, the stresses of being a young adult are still there—student loan debt, the rising cost of living, not having enough space—but suddenly it’s doubled. You have to think about you and your partner. And the real problem? It’s taboo to talk about it. In an age of social media-primed “perfection,” you worry about looking unhappy or ungrateful, even like a bad partner. But there’s no shame in admitting that you’re struggling, and having a tough time doesn’t mean you regret getting married. Talking about it can do you a whole lot of good.
Why It’s So Hard
According to relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, as it turns out, the first year really is the hardest—even if you’ve already lived together. In fact, it often doesn’t matter if you’ve been together for multiple years, the start of married life is still tricky. “I think that there are a few main reasons that the first year is so tough,” says Hartstein. “The year leading up to the wedding is usually very stressful and fraught.” Well, that’s an understatement.
Even if you have an amazing wedding and a ton of fun planning it, life after the big day can still be tricky—because suddenly it’s over. “There also can be a bit of an anti-climax post wedding,” Hartstein says. “People have been working towards this goal for a year or two and it’s over in one night. It can be tough or disappointing to pick up the next day or after the honeymoon and get on with regular life.” So, when regular life sets back in and there’s no more flurry of excitement, it’s tempting to blame the most recent life change—marriage.
Another reason the first year of a marriage is different than just being in a couple is simple: marriage is different than just being a couple. “It’s simply different from cohabitation,” Hartstein explains. “Even though they look like the same thing, with cohabitation there’s always a relatively easy out. With marriage, you have signed a binding contract. You are in a permanent union and the stakes just feel higher. Every fight or disappointment within the marriage may feel more significant and more loaded because this is it.”
Whereas before every little fight may have seemed like no big deal, now you suddenly have the “oh-my-god-this-is-the-rest-of-my-life” factor making it all the more intense. And while you’re dealing with that feeling, don’t forget about your in-laws. Because they’re family too, now. Try not to panic.
And that’s just the emotional side of things. The practicalities of married life are difficult, especially at the beginning. You’re suddenly legally responsible for each other’s finances, which is a massive change, and discussing money can always be a powder keg. Plus, there’s the huge weight of the admin, especially if you’re changing your name. Updating bills, licenses, passports, deciding on joint accounts, writing thank you cards—it’s easy to see how the stress can build during that first year, when the reality of married life begins to sink in.
But It Doesn’t Have to Be a Disaster
There’s no need for the first year of your marriage to be unhappy. Sure, there’s a lot to be stressed about—but try to keep some perspective. If you find yourself feeling low or irritable, take a breath. Are you and your partner fighting because they’ve actually done something wrong? Is the marriage really the problem or are you just taking out your own feelings of frustration on your partner? Oftentimes, if you take some time and think about it, the problem will lie somewhere else.
By the same token, if there are problems with your partner, don’t feel like you can’t mention them now that you’re married. Just because you’ve committed to someone for life doesn’t suddenly make it less annoying when they leave their toenails everywhere or forget to ask you about your day. In fact, it’s more important than ever that you keep communication open. At the very least, let yourself vent to your friends. It doesn’t make you a bad partner—and they’ll understand.
If you’re struggling in your first 365 days, take some comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. If you keep some perspective and don’t use your marriage as a scapegoat, you should glide through just fine. “The good news is, the tough first year of marriage doesn’t last forever,” Hartstein says. “Couples settle down and get used to the marriage and most go on to have many easier, less bumpy years after that. At least until they get to the first year of having a child.” Not so fast—let’s get through the first year first.