Since I was a child, one of the common phrases I’ve heard circulate topics of adulthood is that “the first (year/baby/etc.) is the hardest.” Even in my early high school years when those adult concepts — university, marriage, babies — were still not really on my radar, the phrase was one that I adopted to suit my own teen drama. In fact, I said “the first one is the hardest” to my friend the night she broke up with her boyfriend. I think my sister said it to me about my own breakup. My coach said it to my team following our first varsity loss. Sheryl Crowe taught me that the first cut is the deepest. See what I mean? It’s just one of those things people say, even if it’s not necessarily true. (Indeed, I would argue that my fifth relationship and breakup was harder than every single one before and after. And I think losing in the playoffs hurt more than losing the pre-season scrimmage.)
But when it comes to marriage, it’s true: the first year is the hardest. Or so I’ve seen.
My marriage is hard, and I did not expect it to be. I was blessed with a damn-near-perfect example of what a marriage should be, too. My parents’ relationship was a true partnership, both parts taking and giving equally from one to the other. My husband’s parents operate in large part the same way. Further, my husband and I were friends for a long time before we started dating, and we lived together for years before he offered me a ring. In summary, we had perhaps the most solid examples of marriage — and the most solid foundation of friendship — that one could want going into a relationship. As a result, I firmly believed that we’d beat the notion.
So why is my healthy relationship so much harder now that we’re married?
When I asked my mom this (yes, I still go to my mother with these things at 28), she said, “Years ago, most couples didn’t live together before they got married, so the challenges were different. In some ways, your grandparents didn’t know who they’d married, so there was a lot of learning to be done for the sake of a partnership.” That’s true. Chances are, 40 years ago, couples would not have had the opportunity (or the freedom) to discover that they can’t stand how their partner walks in their slippers. Or that they put the toilet paper roll on backwards. Or that they don’t fold the towels the way you showed them 100 times.
But today we know virtually everything there is to know about our partners before we marry them — and even before we date them. Have a question about her/his past? If you can’t find the answer yourself, I’d be willing to bet you have a friend with an FBI cap that could find the answer for you. (I really do have a friend like this, and I should secure her an FBI cap somehow.)
“The challenges of early marriage are different today,” my mom continued. “You know him inside and out. Every quirk and bad habit, you’ve seen before. So what do you think it could be?”
I sat with this question for a while and could come up with only one answer: it’s because it’s permanent now. I mean, think about it. Nothing has really changed other than the fact that we now have a piece of paper saying we’re legally bound to each other forever. And we did know that going in — we know what marriage means, thankyouverymuch — but now that we’re actually in it, the stakes seem much higher and everything hits us much harder. A quirk that while previously was a little annoying but was also cute is now way less cute and way more annoying, and not going away any time soon. But the good news is that — although I’m not a doctor or relationship counselor — after careful personal research and begging questions of dearest family, I’d like to offer you just a few tips, peer-to-peer:
1. Allow yourself time to settle into the idea of permanence, and take it one day at a time.
The idea of permanence can easily become overwhelming, especially to my generation, where changes to anything, really, can be made in the blink of an eye. In this age, we are constantly thrown new information, new opportunities, new hair, new clothes, new phones, new shoes, new books, and OK, we’ve got it. But as a result of having a life accustomed to change on a dime, permanence carries a weight that your emotions will take advantage of. Your feelings hurting in the moment as a result of a conflict with your life partner will translate to “my feelings will always be hurt by this person in this same way because I’m stuck with them.”
It’s simply not true.
So rather than allowing the idea of permanence to feel like a weight on your chest, focus on one day at a time with the human you’ve committed to. And when you hear Squints saying, “FOR-EV-ER,” on a loop in your head, turn it off. In fact, maybe avoid The Sandlot for a while.
2. Stay off social media following any disagreement.
Do not enable the world to pour salt on an open wound. I can’t stress this enough. Marriage is hard in the age when you are bombarded with everyone’s bliss every time you sign into social media. Every “look how happy we are” Instagram post from a peer seems like a punch to the gut following a fight that ends in tears or a smashed dinner plate (that one hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve thought about it). Remember that Instagram is a small square snapshot of someone’s life, and what other couples have in their squares does not and should not affect your feelings about your life or your relationship. Separate the sparkly show that you see from the real backstage pass.
In fact, instead of reaching for your phone for a distraction that may end up hurting you and your relationship further, if your physical and mental space allows, try sitting quietly with your thoughts. Which brings us to the next tip…
3. Change your lens.
I’ve recently started the habit of self-reflection. Real self-reflection. The kind that requires you to tear down the self-righteous pedestal you’ve built beneath your own feet, brick by brick. Once you’ve done that, it becomes much easier to ask yourself some tough questions for the sake of your relationship. I encourage you to ask yourself these questions following an argument with your spouse: 1. Did I make the effort to actively listen to what she/he was saying to me? 2. Do I think that she/he feels heard or understood?
Seeing each situation from your partner’s point of view is so important to the healing process. Remember: there is no room for ego in mutual healing. To be clear, that does not mean to set your points or feelings aside — they are just as important and necessary for both parties to understand. What I mean to say is do your best to remove any unnecessary anger, resentment, sadness, entitlement, or any other emotion surrounding the situation for the sake of healing and growing together.
4. Say what you mean, not just what you want them to hear.
This is a tricky one to explain. Aren’t those the same thing, Emily? No indeed. Often when my husband and I argue, there are many things I want him to hear: “I’m angry” and “You’ve hurt me” are usually the big things, and trust me, I can make those points LOUD AND CLEAR. But what I mean to say in those moments is something different: “This hurt my feelings,” and “This is how and why it hurts my feelings,” and “I know you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, so how can we fix it moving forward?”
I suppose the simplest way to explain this point is always try to be as clear as you can with your message. Speak with intention. This is not easily done and it’s certainly not something I’m good at, but this subtle change in dialogue is something that I am trying to do and keeping it in the back of my mind during escalated moments is helpful to me.
To take this one step further, do your best to remember your partner’s intention in whatever they’ve done that’s bothered you. In a healthy relationship and scenario, your partner’s intent was not to hurt you, and if you actively consider this it will change your response to the situation.
5. Remember that you can’t change who they are, but you can help them grow.
Remember that you knew who this person was before you married them and that you married them because you love them, and recognize that your current frustration with them is not rooted in the fact that they need to change in order to fix the situation.
The idea that a person can/should change who they are at their core (e.g. introvert vs extrovert), is a dangerous one and can be detrimental to a relationship of any kind. However, the idea that a person can grow is something that I think is absolutely critical to the success of any healthy relationship — especially when it comes to marriage. As their partner, you have the power to help your spouse understand how there is an opportunity for them to alter their approach to a situation to the benefit of your relationship. Likewise, be open to possibility that you will need to alter your approach to certain situations in order to grow in this partnership as well. (To help with this, see Tip No. 3.)
At the end of the day, every marriage is different. I’m sure (read: hopeful) that there are couples out there for whom the first year of marriage was a breeze. And while mine has proven to be trying at times, I am confident that the love that I have for my partner and the love that he has for me will take us successfully through this first year.
After all, it doesn’t last forever.