In my last post, I suggested an imaginary list of “Top 5 Regrets from the First Year of Marriage.” There are at least five things I’d do differently, but I’m not actually sure “regrets” is the right word. Regrets in particular somehow imply regret in general, which I don’t have. Given the opportunity to do it all over again, I’d definitely still choose to get married and to the same person. But our first year as newlyweds was rough.
Newlyweds. The word inspires songwritten images of carefree Sundays that begin with playful games of “Guess Who Cooks?” and end with reading poetry from overdue library books under the apple tree in the backyard (credit to David Harris for that one). Our first year wasn’t like that. We did have an apple tree in the backyard of our first rental house, but we also had a moldy basement.
I do a fair bit of pre-marital counseling in my practice and lately my philosophy is shifting. I used to work through a pre-established set of topics to help couples prepare for marriage. At the end of six sessions, we’d check the box off and the happy couple would head off to marital bliss. The problem with this sort of pre-marital counseling is that it implies that you can prepare for marriage before you’re actually married. But I don’t think that’s possible or healthy.
More recently, I’ve been asking couples to throw out the notion of pre-marital therapy and think instead of “transition to marriage” therapy. Giving couples an extended vision for therapy helps cement the preparation and acknowledges that only the only thing that can prepare you for marriage is actually being married. It turns out there are Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, but in my work with newlyweds I focus on priorities more than principles. So, without further ado, here are:
Three to Four Priorities for Newlyweds
1. Have a Thing: In the Gottman vernacular this would be “Create Shared Meaning.” Basically, it’s the idea that couples need to get proactive about forming a marriage culture that is uniquely their own. We spend most of our lives forming our identities through our family of origin. Then, one day we decide to get married and take on a new identity. I encourage couples to start by “Having a Thing.” Sometimes it’s the creation of a ritual – like Saturday morning hikes. Sometimes it’s the cultivation of a value – like generosity or hospitality. Sometimes it’s agreeing on a dream and working toward it – like a 5 year anniversary trip to Ireland. In order to have a thing – together – you have to get to know your partner’s hopes and fears, you have to focus your vision, you have to make sacrifices. Having a Thing is a fun and relatively easy thing to prioritize.
2. Fight Fair: Again, in the Gottman vernacular, this would be “Managing Conflict.” There’s a reason that songwriters are drawn to images of carefree Sundays rather than stress-filled Mondays. Conflict isn’t poetic, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be artfully done. It is important for couples to recognize that conflict is inevitable and that the sooner they identify their problem issues, the better. The hardest lesson I learned during my first year of marriage was how selfish I was. I wasn’t very good at picking my battles and so we fought about everything from how to spend money to where to store the toothbrushes. When couples do the hard work of understanding the anatomy of their conflict and establishing healthy patterns of relating, it can help secure the foundation of the relationship in the long run. Fighting fair is a less fun, but arguably more intimate, priority for the first year.
3. Collect Resources: In my last post I mentioned that you need to find a financial advisor. This is an example of what I mean by resources. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I think you should also find a good therapist – one for each of you and one for your relationship. Get to know your neighbors. Get a library card. Take a cooking class. Basically, get to know your community and the resources that are available therein. Marriages aren’t meant to exist in a vacuum and knowing where and how to get help from (and give help to) your community can go long way…especially when the newlywed phase fades into the “we’ve been married a while, now what?” phase.
4. No Regret: All things considered, this may not belong on the list. Some of the most successful pre-marital therapy concludes with the couple deciding not to marry. Or at least not yet. Marriage is hard work and you’re bound to make mistakes. Regrets are okay. Regret is another thing altogether. I hear way too many stories of divorcing couples who say things like “I ignored the warning signs” or, “We shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place.” Don’t ignore the warning signs. Keep your eyes open for the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse and reign them in. Early in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, we ask this question: If you had your life to live over again, do you think you would: (a) marry the same person (b) marry a different person (c) not marry at all? Be sure to give your relationship the scrutiny it deserves so that 5, 15, 50 years later you answer (a) with confidence and conviction.
If you have your own list of “Top 5 Regrets from the First Year of Marriage” or something to add to the list of “Three to Four Priorities for Newlyweds,” please send them my way (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’d love to hear your thoughts.