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University of Wyoming Extension

College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

LIFE - Individual Growth and Development

Patterns of Adjustment / First Three Years

No matter what our society hopes about living "happily ever after" (and we do invest much more on the 20-minute wedding than on the next 20 months of life together), marriage on earth represents a struggle to adjust. Typically, the first three years are the most difficult—25% of marriages occur in this time frame.

Optimism plays a role in both letdown—our expectations of everyday life mostly ignore and exaggerate the glories of sharing a day-to-day routine together…and in survival—if we didn’t hope so recklessly, we might be overwhelmed by the boredom or challenge of everyday life.

Living together before marriage produces mixed benefits. Couples are typically "not totally themselves" even when they share a bed or shower, and their "real selves" are more likely to show up after marriage. Cohabitation, though, tends to make partners more realistic about each other and the relationship, perhaps losing some of the optimism that gets non-cohabiters "over the hump" of year 1-3 challenges.

The Happy Honeymoon describes most couples’ first six to twelve months, with few serious problems and an overall sense of satisfaction with life together. The excitement of enjoying a romantic vacation (for those who take a honeymoon), moving to a new location, setting up house together, getting positive attention from family and friends, and enjoying both recreation and decisions tends to overshadow conflicts or difficulties, especially in the first six months. Beginning at about six months, bad habits, differences of opinion, challenges of time or money, or just plain boredom raise the first doubts about "happily ever after." For those who prepared for it, communication skills, priority on positive times together, and shared learning to meet challenges blend realism and optimism. Signs that the marriage is off to a good start include:

  • Enjoyment/valuing/scheduling of time together after the first few months of wedded bliss
  • Balancing work/family/recreational commitments
  • Formal (books, workshops, marriage enrichment group) and informal (couple or family gatherings) efforts to learn couple skills, with efforts to apply them in real life
  • Acceptance of differences, problems, or challenges as part of marriage, and enjoyment of meeting the challenges together

From about 12 to 36 months (varying from couple-to-couple), disillusionment may set in. One’s partner no longer seems the "knight in shining armor" or "maiden princess" that romanced him/herself into the imagination. Everyday routines and hassles over the smallest issues may test nerves. Unseen habits or unspoken dreams for the relationship may be revealed. Challenges of mortgage and car payments, busy schedules, childbearing, or sexual adjustment may call for new learning and coping skills—and burst the TV illusion that life will always be happy and problems will be worked out in half an hour with good humor. The ways a couple copes with the differences, difficulties, and disappointments of the first three years often make-or-break the length and quality of their lives together. Learning skills—communication, problem solving, and conflict resolution—as well as finding a support group or mentor couple can aid adjustment. Successful coping with this difficult phase (which will repeat itself periodically) includes:

  • Accepting and addressing (rather than avoiding or blaming) disappointments and differences with practical problem solving skills
  • Setting short-term goals and gaining control over practical issues such as time and money management
  • Prioritizing fun time together and acceptance-in-spite-of-shortcomings, affirming that "things will work out in the long run"
  • Ability to seek support (formal and informal) from a strong relationship (i.e., individual help or encouragement in addition to rather than in spite of partner; couple help beyond rather than instead of their own efforts), and confidence in a position of "not having to have all the answers" or "not having to show a perfect marriage"

From 18 to 36 months, couples "settle in," beginning to accept—or shape—the quality of their life together. Those who cannot reframe or readjust often break up. Those who do move forward have a better idea of what to accept and how to change things for the better. If the marriage is going to turn out anything like they hoped, they work out ways of talking through troubles, planning and working toward shared goals, prioritizing everyday moments and special times of affirmation, and accepting a few idiosyncrasies of their partner, recognizing that they themselves have proven far from perfect. By the third year, partners should have worked out:

  • A pace and patterns of shared and separate spaces (time to self and time with other; "my business," "your business," and "our business"
  • Several ways of addressing difficult or stressful issues (coping strategies ranging from humor to problem solving to seeking support to exercise or recreation)
  • A consistent system for financial decision-making and managing money, short and long term
  • Multiple ways of showing affection, respect, and intimacy, together with ego/emotional control over negative emotions and reactive behaviors
  • A network of supportive friends and acquaintances, together with a more adult-to-adult relationship to parents and extended family
  • At least a general sense of immediate and long-range goals, linked to personal and couple development and sense of purpose

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