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Family and Consumer Sciences

College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources

LIFE - Individual Growth and Development

Frequently Asked Questions

How can couples maintain marital bliss through their first year of marriage?

Truth is, they probably can't. The excitement of the wedding often carries through the first 1-3 months. For some couples, the fulfillment of dreams for life together is enough to sustain their "happy honeymoon."

Sooner or later, the most blissful bride and groom experience disappointment--her hair is bedraggled, his (stinky) socks are (still) on the living room floor, he/she forgot to do a promised chore. Anger and affection are part of the same energy of closeness. When conflict interrupts the expected "happy ever after," a new phase may be underway.

Struggling through the many silly and significant differences of everyday life together is the supreme test of any relationship. Partnerships which survive and thrive meet this test during the 6-18 month adjustment period. Those who keep their focus on the love that brought them together--and avoid the temptation to give up or go their own way--can experience a new level of solidarity.

Keys to gaining a new sense of balance and happiness include not expecting to be giddy forever, using challenges to grow together, working on maintaining fun and affection, and seeking out mentors for insight.


Can cohabitation help couples have a happier marriage?

In general, couples who cohabit are less likely to enjoy marital happiness and more likely to divorce. One line of logic suggests that familiarity and practice through living together should help partners work out problems and get to know each other. Their experience in cooperating then prepares them to think long-term and be more ready for marriage. This pattern can take hold for couples who are mature, think ahead, and accept life as it comes to them. Unfortunately, the commitment to working out differences and really getting to know each other is not always there. Ultimately, the willingness to keep options open, not fully reveal self, to separate rather than join assets, tends to endanger cohabiting as it does marriage relationships.

Some scholars believe that marital satisfaction declines more rapidly for cohabiting couples because prior experience reduces the novelty of moving in together. Unrealistic expectations and over-enthusiastic commitment can be the riskiest attitudes for the future of relationships. Yet some of this unrestricted optimism enables many couples to overcome starting out troubles. For cohabiting couples, the novelty and optimism are "used up" before marriage.


We don’t have sex as much as we did before/when we were first married—what’s the matter with us?

Frequency of sexual activity typically decline over the course of marriage for several reasons:

  • Novelty (or forbidden quality) of the activity declines
  • Commitments to other activities increase, sapping energy and time
  • Couples gain a variety of ways to express intimacy (or relieve tension)
  • Physical excitement/need declines, although affection may be sustained
  • Passion declines or sexual activity becomes routine, boring
Each of the abovementioned reasons for decline in sexual activity is typical, but has different implications for the relationship. When affection is strong and partners enjoy their time together, the frequency of intercourse is meaningless. When partners have little time—and that only fatigued at the end of the day—they may feel disappointment with the amount of closeness throughout their relationship. When partners do not agree on the frequency of or satisfaction with their sex life, they may need to compromise or expand their expressions of intimacy.

Human sexuality is complex, but there is no "norm" (either initial contact/drive or comparisons with other couples) for frequency of intercourse or other activity. In general, the quality of intimacy between partners, together with individual needs for novelty, stimulation, and personal growth, are the best indicators for what is "frequent enough."

Frankly, I am so bored with sex, I feel like looking for another partner.

While theories of sociobiology suggest that humans are inherently polygamous, traditional social norms and interpersonal concerns (trust, loyalty, investment in children) reinforce the value of monogamy. When partners are "bored with sex," more often than not there are deeper issues in their larger intimate relationship (affection, belonging, control), or a need for greater energy or spontaneity in sexual interaction. Rediscovering enjoyment, friendship, and shared concern, especially in the context of relaxed, rested time together, can kindle passion underlying the sexual experience. An alternative or temporary relationship is unlikely to supply the deeper relationship needs of partners, regardless of the physical pleasure and novelty it provides.

In addition to the variety of companionship activities suggested above, many couples increase sexual—and relational—satisfaction by talking about their pleasures, experimenting with different positions and activities, or consulting a "sex manual" for information and techniques.

He insists that I have an orgasm every time we have sex, but I don’t want to.

Sex can’t be removed from its setting in relationship—so performance expectations naturally become communication issues, companionship issues, and self-esteem or power issues. Moreover, when someone else attempts to control an experience which is internal to a partner (feelings, beliefs, sensations, wants), the result is conflict within that person and for the relationship.

The greater spontaneity and genuine personal control, the greater the trust and satisfaction.


Do we have enough money to have kids?

Economists estimate that today's parents will spend over half a million dollars, on average, to raise a child from birth to age 21. Most of us probably think we can't afford that, and if you look at rising credit debt among families raising children, that may be right.

Since parents in all economic levels are raising healthy, happy kids, the first question is "How to they do it?" And the most critical answer is "By accepting and enjoying their circumstances and letting go of artificial expectations (e.g., kids have to have new clothes, cars must be paid for with cash, accidents can't happen, etc.). For more information on these attitude components, check "How do we know we're ready to have kids?"

Shortening the gap between income and outgo can occur in several ways:

  1. Ask for help. It's pretty typical for starting out expenses to outstrip resources and friends, family, and community organizations can often provide temporary assistance. For instance, low income housing or reduced-rate mortgages are available to couples short on cash. Family Planning, Women-Infants-and Children, and Best Beginnings programs offer free or low-cost health and wellness services during pregnancy and early months of child-rearing. Head Start provides educational opportunities for children and families who qualify on income guidelines.
  2. Get creative. Consider how to continue doing things you like to do, but at a lower cost. For instance, go out to eat at a fast food rather than expensive restaurant, make a special dinner at home, or just order dessert every other time. Look into low-cost options such as beans and rice for dinner, buying baby accessories at a garage sale, or postponing a new car purchase. Expand thinking to take account for resources (e.g., obtaining child care from a grandparent, exchanging clothes or child care with other families) rather than thinking only in terms of money exchanges.
  3. Plot a budget. Consider not only current expenses, but added costs including doctors, diapers, or child care. Allow some room for flexibility as unexpected expenses are not unusual.

Avoid booby-traps. Adjusting only by borrowing more may radically alter monthly expenses or lifetime goals; depending on relatives may lead to resentment.

Unplanned pregnancies: When the circumstances are already limited, take stock current assets, budgeting skills, and options. A credit counselor or bank can help with these items. Think about how you goals and resources can be adjusted to meet needs.

Your money or your time: When can one income go further than two?

Couples, especially new mothers generally say that the transition to parenthood is the most stressful adjustment of their lives. If this takes place soon after the marriage or as an unplanned event,, stresses can be even greater. Recent research suggests that if one or both partners' incomes are low, that a single income may be less costly than trying to maintain two careers.

Couples would do well to calculate the practical realities as well as both economic and emotional costs of one parent "stopping out" to care for children. If an employer offers high-quality infant care, including sick baby treatment, parents may find the support they need. Flexible hours, with opportunities for temporary leave for feedings or emergencies, may also aid adjustment. In many smaller communities, however, not only do employers not offer benefits but the amount and cost of infant care makes it more costly than staying home. While child care tax credits reduce overall family expenditures, if pre-child costs of working (clothing, transportation, child care) were marginal, continued employment may not produce a net profit.

How can we manage money rather than have money manage us?

While money management is a complex skill, with many options, two steps are critical:

  • Awareness and Goal Setting: Thinking through, not only expected fixed (rent, car payment) and flexible (food, light bill) costs month-to-month and year-to-year provides a couple with a sharper awareness of spending priorities and the actual expenses linked to them
  • Skills in Budgeting, Financial Planning, and the Discipline to follow through on those plans develop a pattern of intentional spending, saving, contributing, and investing which places individuals in control of their financial future (or at least better able to influence the expected and manage the unexpected)

Should couples have an equal amount of money to spend?

Most partners enter relationships with the notion that resources and decisions should be equitable. That is, over time they should even out, rather than be 50/50 in every instance. Couples whose commitments require moment-to-moment monitoring of rewards lose trust and flexibility critical to coping with a variety of challenges.

Should couples decide equally on all financial decisions?

Deciding on major financial decisions together helps a couple build financial intimacy. Financial intimacy is the ability of a couple to make financial decisions together and to be honest about your thoughts and feelings on a financial decision. Couple's who are financially intimate are able to be completely honest on what their financial expectations are. For more information on financial intimacy checkout "Financial Intimacy".

A key issue is trust in partner's ability and good faith. In this a couple should decide what kinds of items are critical and necessary. At what point is an item a luxury that requires joint decision making? How much should a product or service cost before both are involved in deciding about it? Before one person can decide but at least tell the other one what decision ha been made. How much forgiveness are you willing to give your partner in the face of a mistake?

There are times when making a decision without your partner is more efficient. If couples where to sit down and make every financial decision together that may take up a lot of valuable time that could be used for something else. Besides this one partner may have more knowledge or time to research options than the other. In those cases it would make sense for him or her to handle the details alone.

Ground Rules for Financial Decision Making:

Establish goals and priorities for spending

Discuss criteria for routine purchases, taking advantage of bargains, integrating major purchases into monthly budgets

Review and talk about financial status and obligations at least once a month

Set criteria for seeking financial counseling or assistance

Household Roles

What’s wrong with traditional expectations—she does all the cooking, he does yard work?

Many couples accept and do well with stereotypical male/female roles. However, traditional roles present several problems—talents and interests vary, contributions (hours or stress) are not always fair, schedules get in the way, variety and flexibility are the spice of life. Partners who agree to share roles are more efficient, more satisfied, and more effective models to children. Sharing roles such as budgeting/paying bills allows both partners to understand issues and make decisions—two heads are better than one, and if one dies, the other is able to go on. In parenting, moms and dads have different styles and interests to offer children, which have greater impact when kids see them working together and sharing equally in household responsibilities.

What about different standards of housework—who’s to say what’s a good job?

Depending on our skill, experience, and values, each of us has a peculiar idea of how—or how well—any given task should be done. When our standards clash with a spouse—especially after we have bugged them about doing anything at all—conflicts may touch power and intimacy as well as practical dimensions of our relationship. In such situations, partners benefit from examining their expectations:

  • What needs to be done, how often, and how well?
  • How does this task fit into the daily workload—have we tried to balance our loads?
  • Do we need to discuss/direct how to complete the job (especially if one partner is inexperienced)?
  • What should a person do when his/her partner’s work is not done or doesn’t match their standard—when is it appropriate to skip it, mention it, or do it for the other person?
  • How can partners discuss differences in standards and agree on a shared value?
Critical skills for setting ground rules and discussing differences include:
  • Stating expectations/assumptions matter-of-factly (rather than bossing or humiliating—in fact, being willing to calmly and objectively explain—and accept your partner’s viewpoint—after a conflict will help)
  • Agreeing on high standards for a few priority items, or all items for which health and safety concerns or time allotments allow. Setting incentives or consequences which reward each partner equally (i.e., shirt/socks on floorà no laundry)
  • Assisting and encouraging each other on boring or difficult tasks (nothing is easy at fist, some things are never fun to do)
  • Accepting agreed-upon standards (i.e., not hanging/nagging on to ideals), forgiving genuine slips, and calmly holding a partner accountable for promised contributions

How can I get my partner to understand that this house takes two caretakers—not one caretaker and a slob who messes it up?

If this is your situation, congratulate yourself that you have married a partner who "balances" your tendency to obsess on neatness. Differences can be healthy if they help each partner balance and grow. Of course, differences can be fatal if they’re held too rigidly (that includes insisting on never cleaning up) or always produce points-of-contention. In today’s busy world, each partner needs all the help he/she can get. Moreover, shared effort builds energy and good will while unilateral service breeds resentment.

Probably the most important principle of human relations is that just because someone ought to behave in a certain way (to get the job done, be fair, help out, etc.), he/she won’t necessarily act accordingly. Without other evidence, it’s a good idea to give a partner the benefit of the doubt. Even with evidence, playing the martyr, complaining, playing tricks, or guilting tend to have results opposite to gaining cooperation. Stating the need as you see it, offering (not) to perform certain critical tasks if a partner does (not) follow through, and doing what you can (rather than determining to do everything, regardless) are steps which may engage cooperation of a spouse rather than increase hostility or resistance.


Is it normal for there to be competition between my wife and my mother?

It is somewhat normal for there to be dissension between your mother and your wife in the beginning. Your mother is more likely to feel the loss of you more deeply than your father. Often times your father will see your marriage as you taking on manhood and becoming his comrade. Your mother, on the other hand, is more likely to feel as if your wife is taking her place. It is your wife that may be doing your laundry and cooking for you whereas at one point it was your mother.

Reassure your mother that although you have started your own family that you still love her and that she is a very important part of your life. If your mother pushes to the point that you are forced into making a decision between your mother and your wife you need to set-up boundaries with your mother and prioritize your relationships. For more information see "Boundaries".

It is just as important that your wife is reassured that she is loved and that she is the most important person to you. A core task in a marriage is setting up boundaries so that each of you feels comfortable in the situation. If your wife is feeling uncomfortable, take the time to understand what you can do to make her feel more comfortable and support her as she tries to make a relationship with your mother.

If I'm married, why (esp. when I visit my folks or in-laws) do I still feel like a kid?

How do couples establish the priority of their relationship in an extended family setting?

Transition to marriage is a critical "boundary shift" for most young adults (or for remarrying partners whose kids and extended families have grown attached to them). When parents are (consciously or unconsciously) not ready to "let go," especially when they have not dealt with their own slumping marriage, aging, or development-beyond-parenting, they may continue to be involved in ways that leave little room for privacy or couple priorities. While family support and loyalty are important to couples, development of a strong partnership is first priority. Not compromising couple time (calmly explaining "we have plans"), privacy ("that’s between my spouse and I"), or loyalty ("I love you, mom/dad, but Joe/Mary is my first priority") are important acts of "boundary setting." . Being willing, perhaps for the first time in life, to accept a parent’s disappointment (or worse yet, guilt), may be the most important step in a parent’s life journey.

Refusing to be "bribed" by financial favors of parents (avoiding "gifts" or "strings") may also be an important part of liberation—and eventual reunion. Non-participation in family gossip or coercion of other "wayward" members may help balance independence and togetherness in the extended familyAt the same time, setting aside time to enjoy recreation, accepting a certain amount of "advice-giving" as an expression of parental care, and accepting support and encouragement that are sincere and non-manipulative establishes a positive pattern of extended family support.


How do we know when we're ready to have kids?

If you have time to plan, you're ready when...

  • both of you feel comfortable with each other (trust, communication, cooperation)
  • both of you have time and priorities for children (and are willing to give up time together)
It also helps if...
  • you have planned what resources you'll need (medical, food, clothing, accessories, and child care expenses)
  • you have experience with children of all ages
  • you have great support from family and friends
  • you have a plan to spend time together and strengthen your marriage
If you don't have time to plan, you're ready when...
  • you've decided to accept the challenge, share responsibilities, and make the best of it (rather than resenting events and wishing things were different)
  • you've begun to make arrangements for mom and baby's health and wellness
  • you've looked into practical changes involving housing arrangements, financial management, and time schedules
When you're ready (or to get ready)...
  • talk to moms and dads you admire to get ideas to aid adjustment
  • read books on child development and parenting
  • go to childbirth classes together

What if kids arrive before we’re ready?

Keep in mind that very few people are ready to be the perfect parent. The two most important steps to handle an unexpected transition to parenthood, no matter what the age or circumstances:

  • Focus thinking on love and nurture for the child. Research on both pregnancy and early care suggests that body chemistry and emotional exchange triggered by resentment can have harmful effects on the fetus/newborn. Infants are more likely to be fussy with anxious, rejecting parents, increasing the difficulty of caregiving for the parent. Thus mentally shifting from "what I don’t like" to "what I need to deal with" is a critical shift for both generations.
  • Set aside time, perhaps with the support (babysitting?) of friends and family, to spend quality time as a couple. One of the most frequent complaints of new parents is their limited—or overstressed—time together. Not only do parenting responsibilities add to the burden of everyday life, but they rob time and positive energy that brought partners together.

In addition, all parents can benefit from learning all they can about child development, parenting, and special qualities or needs of their own child. Background knowledge including what to expect—physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially—as the child matures, how to interact positively, guide and discipline, and how to cope with a variety of challenges, increases a parent’s "toolbox" for handling the parent role. Finally, setting aside time to visit with other parents, family and friends, and professionals who can support and share in this challenging experience, provides a backdrop of support that is invaluable for avoiding crisis or dealing with the unavoidable crises of raising a child.


How can I make my partner happy?

Since emotions spring from within the preson, no one else can "make" happiness or distress (although they can contribute to a climate of cooperation and respect or bickering and self-interest). Also, since nobody is happy all the time--and authentic relationships involve struggles over differences and suffering through tough times together--happiness is not possible (although some sense of contentment and confidence may prevail through troubles).

Partners who are happy, though, tend to have spouses who:

Accept feelings and affirm others (without having to agree)

Demonstrate respect for their views and rights

Are trustworthy and caring

Sacrifice selflessly and gratefully appreciate sacrifices

Show cooperation and teamwork

Forgive and problem-solve

Seek the best in their mate and give the best of themselves

It is worth remembering that when a partner is never happy (emotional mood or angry, withdrawn, conflicted behavior) it may be time to seek professional help.

How can I get my partner to understand he/she needs to make me happy?

Forget it. Nobody can be "made" to make someone else happy (their phony attempt would probably be detected anyway). However, it does help to share with each other...

favorite activities and interests

spontaneous joys which raise spirits

what lifts your spirits when sick, bored, discouraged, or overstressed

favorite foods and fun for relaxation

signals for needed time alone

signs when help with chores would be welcomed

Emotions and happiness tend to run in cycles. These cycles are influenced by physical energy and health, experiences of novelty and boredom, bursts of energy or waves of burnout, interaction patterns and demands, and environmental conditions. Partners can be aware of ways in which they drain energy (i.e., teasing, demanding, whining, pouting) or add energy (i.e., accepting feelings, providing encouragement, introducing fun), but often their best contribution is "not to force happiness."

Is it normal for my spouse to cry all the time?

The adjustment of marriage and new life circumstances can cause a lot of stress for an individual. This can be compounded if this involves other high stress changes such as a new job or moving to a new place. It is important to validate a spouse's feelings and to recognize that these feelings are real. Psychologist John Gottman, through extensive research, has shown that validation--acknowledging the other partner's feelings in a supportive way--is key to a marriage, especially for wives. For more information, check the fact sheet on this site, "What's the most important thing a husband can do for a wife?"

When crying happens all the time it is likely a warning sign for the partner as an individual and for the relationship as a couple. The partner may not be adapting well for a variety of reasons. Transitions often create stress and remind persons of a past loss or change. Anxiety over "making the right decision" or "really being ready" can happen to the most capable person with the ideal partner--second thoughts or fears of failure often plague the most conscientious partners. Stress leading up to marriage may dissipate, revealing a physiological problem (fatigue or hormonal issues). Despite confidence in making the right partner decision or readiness for marriage, partners may miss friends, family, or familiar freedoms. Especially in the euphoria of starting out right, partners may not want to discuss difficult issues and "spoil" the happy honeymoon.

If the crying partner can identify a reason for emotions underlying tears, the his/her spouse can just quietly listen and accept. When reasons are uncertain or hidden, couples may want to seek a counselor to facilitate sharing or a medical doctor to identify a physical problem.

How should I respond when my partner gets emotional?

Act normal--tough to do, but not so much when emotions are recognized as a typical, everyday part of existence. In fact, this reality may be easier to accept when a partner has strong emotional responses--hot temper, enthusiasm, sadness, or moodiness.

Emotions are indicators that something is bubbling inside--although not always what's demonstrated on the surface. Taking time to calm down, reflect on the situation and underlying feelings (anger or sadness often mask fear; moodiness may result from fatigue) is an important first step for both partners.

Once each partner is calm, they are better able to sort out the facts, reflect on the feelings, exchange support, and take practical but emotionally sensitive steps to solve the problem.

Probably the best reaction is quiet attention (so long as emotions don't motivate attack), followed by validation (identifying and accepting feelings) and dialogue. After that, spontaneous fun, routine work, or recreational diversions often mellow and bond partners more than further discussion.


How much conflict is normal in the first three years of marriage?

There's no "set" answer. Certainly if a couple argues all the time, becomes more unhappy than pleased with time together, verbally or physically abuses, conflict is becoming destructive. Many couples can benefit from enrichment groups or marriage counselors if they use these signals to seek help.

Beyond that, psychologist John Gottman identified three styles of coping:

conflict avoidant--averting conflict at all costs, often engaging in silent warfare

volatile--inviting and enjoying conflict almost as a form of play

validating--accepting conflict and seeking to use it constructively

In all three cases, research indicated that couples with positive exchanges (clear communication, respectful treatment, affection) more than 5-to-1 over negative exchanges were generally satisfied and optimistic. When that ratio decreased, satisfaction declined and conflict became more damaging.

How can we love each other if we fight all the time?

Actually the emotional energy that draws two egos together sometimes makes it more difficult for them to handle differences—precisely because they have invested so much, each issue seems so significant; because the relationship seemed so perfect, imperfections are so noticeable. Once partners recognize the relationship between intimacy and anger, it may be easier to step back and appreciate the source of the difficulty.

HOWEVER, if argument or abuse has become a lifestyle (the rule rather than the exception), partner(s) need to take a serious look at the pattern each is supporting or allowing. Since such patterns are hard to change, a few visits with a family therapist or workshop with a communications educator may help couples learn skills to work out differences more agreeably.

If skill-learning does not seem to work, or only one partner is interested, and abuse or mutual conflict persists, a separation may be in order.

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