Marriage is hard. Everyone from Academy Award-winning actors to your hair stylist to the checkout clerk at Trader Joe’s delights in telling newlyweds this. Of course they rarely have a helpful answer for how to overcome the difficulties. Newly married couples get a lot of “never go to bed angry,” and “always tell the truth.” And that’s it.
The first year of marriage is incredibly important for your future happiness. During the beginning of my own marriage, I spoke with a therapist who referred to the first year as “the wet cement year,” because it’s the time when both members of a couple figure out how to live as partners without getting stuck, without developing bad habits that might trap them later. It’s a time to establish good patterns and ways of being together that should continue for the rest of your marriage.
When I got married, I hardly knew how to take care of myself, much less another person. How could my husband and I create a happy marriage from the start? How could we survive the first year, and come out happier than we were the day we tied the knot? As the child of a wildly unhappy marriage, lacking in marital role models, I was desperate to figure out how to be a good partner and how to successfully navigate the world as part of a pair, without losing myself in the process. So, I set out to crowdsource wisdom. For my new book, How to Be Married, I queried hundreds of men and women, from over 20 countries and all walks of life, about what makes a marriage successful. Here are 8 lessons I learned from people around the globe.
Make your house a home.
Create a space where the two of you actually want to spend time together. Danish women taught me how much this matters. You never want your home to feel like an office or a hotel that the two of you are just passing through. The women I met bought deliciously scented candles and soft blankets by the sackful, and truly embraced the creation of a happy and cozy home where a new couple could get away from the rest of the world.
Don’t forget romance.
Naturally, this advice came from the French. Keep your phone off the dinner table and don’t forget how fun it can be to dress up. Avoid the temptation to spend all of your time together in your sweatpants. And this advice goes both ways — your partner should put in an effort to win you over again and again.
Go easy on yourselves.
Not every day will be perfect, or even good, and that has to be okay. Talk about the imperfections and the pain points. Don’t beat yourselves up. The old adage says marriage is a marathon, not a sprint. And some days will feel like an obstacle course where you have to carry your spouse up a mountain and through a pit of mud. Obsessing over whether you have a strong marriage or whether you’re doing everything “right” are great ways to set yourself up for failure. I heard this over and over from tribeswomen in Kenya and Tanzania, who said they heeded the advice from older women — their marriage mentors — to accept that they wouldn’t learn everything about how to be a wife in a day. It’s a process.
Give yourself permission to lean on your partner.
Of course you can take care of yourself, but one of the nice things about being married is that you don’t have to shoulder life all on your own. Let your spouse take care of you once in a while. Women I met in Holland emphasized the importance of this. They were fiercely independent in their aspirations of achieving their creative goals and traveling the world alone, but they also didn’t think twice about working part-time after having kids and letting their husbands take on the financial heavy lifting for awhile.
Say thank you.
Complaining about marriage is practically an Olympic sport in America. Women all over the world, in literally every country I visited, called out American visitors as some of the worst offenders when it came to complaining about their marriages. Indian women living in small villages along the banks of the Brahmaputra River advised me that having unreasonable expectations for my spouse or comparing my relationship to others’ were surefire ways to feel unsatisfied. Instead, they encouraged me to practice gratitude, being truly thankful for the good things my husband brings to our relationship through regular verbal expressions of thanks. Pay attention to the great things your partner does instead of pointing out the negative. Even a small text message saying thank you can go an incredibly long way.
Take care of yourself.
The most sage advice I got came from an Orthodox Jewish wife and mother in Jerusalem, raising six children. “It’s easy to lose yourself in a marriage,” she told me. “It’s easy to nurture your husband and your relationship and forget about nurturing yourself. Take the time off to reset, and your marriage will be better for it.”
Keep having adventures.
Post-wedding blues are totally normal. After all the excitement of the wedding, it’s natural to feel a dip in your mood. But how can you keep that excitement in a marriage? Continue to have adventures with your spouse. Anthropologist and relationship expert Helen Fisher put it best when she wrote that “research shows that novelty — taking risks or trying something new — can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. I’m not just talking about novelty in the bedroom (although that would be a good start). You can get the same effect from sampling a new type of cuisine together or riding the roller coaster at an amusement park.” Keep learning, growing and trying new things together.
Realize that equality won’t mean a fifty-fifty split all the time.
This final lesson I learned from a stay-at-home dad in Sweden, who had worked on a photography book documenting the lives of men taking government-supported parental leave. When I first got married, I worried that my feminist card would be revoked if my husband and I didn’t split things right down the middle. Now I realize how ridiculous that notion is. There are days, weeks even, when I do all of the housework (laundry, cooking, bed-making), because my husband is swamped with work. Then we switch. Balance in a marriage isn’t about a spreadsheet — it’s about both partners feeling supported. The balance of who does what will ebb and flow, and the most important thing is to be conscious of how it changes.
At the end of the day, the most important thing I learned as a newlywed about surviving my own (pretty hard) first year of marriage is that your marriage is nothing like anyone else’s. What works for someone else may not work for you. Take heed of the advice and counsel of the people you love and trust — then construct your own path. You’re in charge of your own happily ever after.
Jo Piazza is the bestselling author of the new memoir How to Be Married: What I Learned From Real Women on Five Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage.
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