The first year of marriage is supposed to be the honeymoon period, isn’t it?
Well, yes. But also, no. The average couple in the UK has been together for almost five years by the time they get married, and lived together for three and a half of them. Most of us know each other pretty well by the time we say “I do”.
Yet problems can still occur in the first year of marriage, particularly once the wedding sparkle wears off. “I had a friend who had lived one with someone for a long time, they got married and he left the next day!” says Selena Doggett-Jones, a relationship and psychosexual therapist accredited by the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists. “I think there can be a panic in the commitment and what it means; a feeling of being stuck or a fear of intimacy.”
There’s a bumper crop of couples getting married in 2022 thanks to pandemic postponements – and they’ve already been through a lot of stress. But knowing about some of the most common challenges that occur in the first year of marriage can help couples get ahead.
We asked Doggett-Jones to share some of the most frequent themes she hears about why marriages struggle in the first year.
You haven’t discussed having kids
Couples are regularly at loggerheads because one of them wants kids and the other doesn’t, says Doggett-Jones. She finds it “extraordinary” that so many people don’t discuss this before marriage. In her opinion, the baby talk should happen early in a relationship.
“Not to frighten someone off on the first date, but if it looks like it’s going somewhere – and people usually know that within a few weeks or months – then I think it’s important to say: ‘I’m not suggesting we start a family now, but how do you feel about the idea of having kids?’” she says.
You’re in denial about their opinion of kids
Among people who have discussed kids, problems can still arise. “You’d be surprised by how much attraction and passion make people deaf to what they don’t want to hear,” says Doggett-Jones. “I just saw a couple recently in this position and I said: ‘Did you not discuss this?’ They said: ‘Yes but I didn’t think she meant it’ and ‘I didn’t think he was serious’. Passion takes over.”
Another problem is getting married and hoping your partner will change their mind on kids, then being hurt when they don’t. Having honest parenting chats earlier is the only way to avoid these scenarios.
You – or they – forget to make an effort
Sometimes, one partner in the relationship can take their foot off the romance pedal once they’ve put a ring on it, says Doggett-Jones. A common squabble is that one person is always on their phone – so make sure quality time is truly that by disconnecting.
“I think there is still perhaps an idea of: ‘I’ve got him/her now and I don’t have to seduce or flirt or be romantic,’” she says. ”[Psychotherapist] Esther Perel actually asked an audience: ‘What do you stroke last thing at night and what do you stroke first thing in the morning?’ and everybody in the audience got it.”
Moving in with the in-laws
In some cultures, it’s traditional for a newly-married couple to live with their in-laws after marriage. This is most frequently seen in traditional Indian weddings, says Doggett-Jones, where the bride moves in with the groom’s family.
Plenty of others opt to live with in-laws for practical or economic reasons after marriage – and Doggett-Jones often sees these couples in her office.
Moving in with someone else’s family can be a shock, she says, particularly if your partner’s parents have different values or habits to you, or it changes the dynamic between you and your partner. Think carefully about making this choice and if it can’t be avoided, set some ground rules with your partner, including how long you plan to stay for.
You’re not aligned on how you express love
This one perhaps applies more to couples who haven’t been together for a long time before marriage. Put simply, some people express love in different ways to others. Gary Chapman’s ‘five love languages’ splits this into categories: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch.
If you’re someone who likes to express love by saying “I love you”, or wants regular hugs, you might struggle to adjust to someone expressing love through acts of service, like putting on the washing or cooking you dinner.
“Different cultures can sometimes want to give love one way or receive it another way,” says Doggett-Jones. Time (and good communication) will help you recognise each other’s patterns and feel the love, however it’s expressed.
You’re adjusting to parenting
Another common challenge for newlyweds is adjusting to parenting if they’ve tried to conceive in the first year or got married while pregnant.
“It’s a huge upheaval. It can be very welcome, but it can also be extremely stressful,” says Doggett-Jones. “Sometimes women don’t want to be sexual because their body has already gone through quite a bit and they’re perhaps breastfeeding, so the last thing they want is more demands made. Others may want that attention, it’s very variable.”
Sometimes, in heterosexual partnerships particularly, it’s the man who no longer feels sexual desire towards his partner.
“There’s something called the Madonna Whore Complex, where, mostly men, will separate the concept of being sexual and the woman they respect who bears their children. They think she’s not someone to be sexual with, because that’s a ‘dirty’ thing to be doing,” explains Doggett-Jones.
“I see this quite a lot, particularly if someone has had a strict religious upbringing, or if their parents or grandparents brought them up in a culture where sex was seen as something not okay just for fun.”
There are problems in the bedroom
Couples who’ve chosen to abstain from sex before marriage sometimes visit Doggett-Jones because sex has become a stumbling block in their first year.
“Particularly with women, some don’t feel suddenly able to relax and able to have intercourse, so they may experience vaginismus – involuntary spasms of the vaginal muscles – and it makes it painful to attempt intercourse,” she says.
Among couples with a longer sexual history, over-reliance on porn poses the most common sexual problem. While not universal, Doggett-Jones says the most frequent problem is men experiencing erectile dysfunction when trying to have sex with their partner, but not during masturbation.
“It’s very normal to masturbate, but if they’re doing it very frequently with a tight hand, then both the visual stimulus and the physical stimulus is reduced with a partner, and that can be a problem,” she says.
“If you’ve got many tabs open – and if one gets a bit dull you open up another one and another one and another one – you’ve got novelty. Novelty is just about the sexiest thing there is, and it’s also the most difficult thing to have in a long-term relationship.”
You’ve got consuming caring responsibilities
Having to care for in-laws or your own parents is often unavoidable, but it can put a strain on a marriage early on, says Doggett-Jones. The same can be seen in marriages where the couple have a disabled or very challenging child, or if one partner becomes ill and the other is forced to take on a caring role.
In this position, making time for yourselves – and each other – is vital in the relationship and connecting with support groups for others in your position might help.
You’re not willing to put the work in
None of the challenges above mean you’re destined to divorce, but Doggett-Jones says marriages will ultimately fail when couples aren’t willing to put the work in to figure out problems.
“You need to sit down and really look at ‘when can we be together? When can we make us a priority,’” she says. “People come to couple’s therapy and then don’t do the exercises, and I say to them it’s a bit like joining the gym and paying and thinking the weight is going to drop off and your muscles and going to grow, but guess what? You have to go to the gym.
“It’s no good coming to couple’s therapy and thinking one session a week is going to do the trick, you really have to put the work in between the sessions.”