The first year of marriage is a bit of a contradiction. Widely heralded as the honeymoon period, it's also rumoured to be the worst of all the years to come—an intimidating prospect for all those couples who are about to start their next chapter together.
Like any new experience, getting married is bound to present its own particular set of challenges. But according to Rachel A. Sussman, L.C.S.W. and relationship expert at Sussman Counseling in New York City, those challenges needn't torpedo a couple's post-wedding bliss, as long as they take the time to consider what's ahead and anticipate areas that will require compromise.
"I don’t see the first year of marriage being the hardest, I think it’s an old wives’ tale," Sussman tells Women's Health. "The first year of marriage should be really joyful. Couples that have a lot of problems [during] the first year of marriage had those problems to begin with."
Of the couples Sussman counsels, the ones who have a rocky first year tend to be the ones who buried conflicts during their engagement. They didn't address lifestyle preferences and habits; they didn't strike a balance between work, leisure, and family time.
That said, most of Sussman's premarital counseling clients cohabitate before tying the knot, and she thinks doing so helps make the first year a happier one. "There really aren't a lot of surprises" when you've lived together for a while, she explains. And testing the waters pre-marriage is becoming more and more popular. The U.S. has seen a marked uptick in the number of unmarried, cohabitating couples. Between 2006 and 2010, 48 percent of women ages 15 to 44 lived with their partner before getting hitched, a figure that was 11 percent higher than it had been in 2002 and 41 percent higher than it was in 1995. Indeed, the majority of Americans agree that moving in together before marriage mitigates the risk of divorce.
Wylie Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with East-West Psychotherapy in New York City, also believes that living together pre-marriage can help couples iron out some of their relationship wrinkles. "The first year of living with another person can reveal idiosyncrasies that may not have been obvious when the two lived apart, such as habits of cleanliness or how each partner copes with conflict," she tells Women's Health. "But the first year often brings with it too a sense of optimism that contributes to each person also having a more forgiving attitude toward the other, which is essential for healthy relationships."
Still, living together doesn't preclude the possibility of marital problems, Goodman says, and it isn't guaranteed to make the first year easier. But the couples who have the hardest time early on tend to be the ones who have longstanding disagreements they haven't resolved, she says.
Ronald Katz, Ph.D., a couples' counselor with Couples' Therapy New York, says when his clients have trouble in nuptial year one, it's typically because they've failed to account for the daily logistics: shared bank accounts, household chores, and the question of maintaining personal independence while also operating as a unit. The clash between individuals' time-tested lifestyle approaches and world views can make the first year of marriage the most difficult—"even more difficult than the first year of having a child," Katz tells Women's Health.
Another reason for the early hardship, Katz says, is "the realization that this is a real commitment, it’s a legal commitment." You've both put a ring on it, the union is suddenly very official, and you haven't developed the communication mechanisms to effectively reconcile your differences.
That's why all three counselors emphasize the necessity of communication—before, during, and after the wedding. Katz recommends being explicit about your expectations and conceptions of marriage well before saying "I do." And if your goals don't line up, Sussman advises seeking professional input quickly before your wedding.
But it's also crucial to remember that relationships require regular maintenance."When we join our lives to another person in a bond of monogamy, it’s also inevitable that power struggles will appear at some point," Goodman says. "In healthy marriages, each partner comes to the relationship aware of their issues, so that they can talk or fight fairly through differences without alienating their partner or losing their own sense of self. No marriage is without conflict. Good marriages have a strong friendship at their core."
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.