When the celebration of a new marriage moves into a daily rhythm and challenges surface, life can feel disorienting. Struggle*, conflict and confusion are markers that marriage can be one of the most rewarding and also challenging relationships.
As a result, many start to question whether it is normal for the beginning of a marriage to be so hard. Dashed expectations and strained emotions only further fuel questioning of the decision to marry. Humans are dynamic, not static, and a natural evolution of growth means change is inevitable — and sometimes exhausting.
Anyone relating to these thoughts and feelings, please know you are not alone. When two people have been doing life one way and then begin the journey of sharing a life, space, finances, and a bed – differences will inevitably surface. Building a life with another person is quite an undertaking. Disagreement and struggle are the norm in relationships, but the key is how couples respond to each other during these times.
Many factors can play a role in a new marriage. Everyone brings into a relationship their own unique stories and perspectives. Family of origin, differing perspectives on conflict, expectations around intimacy, finances and navigating extended family are enough to trigger intense emotions in any season of a relationship.
Humans are dynamic, not static, and a natural evolution of growth means change is inevitable …
Caution against placing the strength of a relationship on the presence or absence of conflict. Life happens: health and employment changes, personal growth, crisis of faith all throw curve balls and shake up a relationship. The pioneering relationship research and writings by John Gottman highlights foundational skills couples need to develop to support the health of their relationship. In his book, The Relationship Cure, Gottman writes:
“It’s not that these couples don’t get mad or disagree. It’s that when they disagree, they’re able to stay connected and engaged with each other. Rather than becoming defensive and hurtful, they pepper their disputes with flashes of affection, intense interest, and mutual respect.”
Gottman also found that many couples wait up until six years before reaching out for help, then often in crisis mode. Getting marital support at the early onset of conflict supports a better outcome and marital satisfaction. Change takes time, so view healing as more of a marathon than a sprint or a box to be checked. Therapists, pastors and coaches trained in any of the following can be a valuable resource for couples: Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, Internal Family Systems, Bowen Family Systems
Though marriage can feel all-consuming at times, it’s also crucial to support and maintain connections with each other’s own friends and individual interests — fueling perspective and healthy outlets when struggles surface. Giving yourself permission to re-evaluate expectations that maybe are hurting the marriage is also an important ongoing relationship practice.
Remember that blame is never helpful. Instead of taking all the responsibility (or none of it), take responsibility for your part in a problem and remember that being human is a flawed experience. Stay curious about your own triggers and respond with self-care and respect instead of placing blame.
… remember that being human is a flawed experience.
When fears and frustrations surface, avoid swimming in the deep end of judgement. Judgement is usually a response to feeling vulnerable. Instead of shutting down or numbing out vulnerability and dark emotions, build emotional literacy so emotions do not negatively run a relationship. Most importantly, be quick to catch and redirect comparing your relationship struggles with those of others. Comparison only serves as salt on a wound. Plus, we are poor judges of what is really going on in an inner life based only on what we observe on the outside.
Daring to love is brave work. Committing to actions that reflect kindness when positive feelings might be fleeting is also an act of endurance. Choosing to face vulnerabilities while rumbling with a life-partner will yield relational grit, grace and a hope that marital struggle can eventually birth a deeper level of love and connection.
*There is a very real difference between the “common struggles” mentioned in this article and the signs of actual abuse. At no point should someone think that harm or threats — physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual — are normal or to be tolerated.
Images via Anna Howard