What to Expect from the First Year of Marriage, from Women Who Have Been There

What's the honeymoon phase really like?
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Monica Gabriel Marshall
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What's the honeymoon phase really like?
Photo Credit: The Kitcheners

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners

Growing up, I didn’t play “wedding day” and never got into dreaming up plans for my nuptials, but I did do a lot of thinking about what life would be like after the wedding. Seven days after we said “I do” was the promised land—when married life begins.

I spent a large part of my childhood in an imaginary world full of all the mundane details of married life. If I could bribe some poor sucker into playing my prop—I mean husband—his name would be “husband,” and he would be very helpful around the house. I would ask him to “fetch” water from the well, and he would eagerly protect us from “bad guys.” At the end of the day, we would hold hands (as his fingers desperately attempted to squirm free), and we would be in love, and I would feel like one chapter of our love story was closed and another was waiting to be opened. They called this “playing pretend,” but for me this was practicing real life; this was really how it was going to be.

The good news is, now that I’m all grown up, my expectations about newly wedded bliss are not solely based off an episode of Little House on the Prairie. But I still do have deeply ingrained expectations of how the first year of marriage should go. In fact, most of us have consciously or subconsciously spent our lives observing marriage. We have watched our parents’ and friends’ marriages and have taken in everything: the things we will imitate or eradicate in our own marriage and the aspects of married life that seem to just be the way things are.

Having expectations about the first year of marriage is natural, but ask any married woman you know, and she will tell you that the first year of marriage is full of surprises. With that said, I decided to ask ten women, who have been married anywhere from one year to forty years, to share five things to expect—or not to expect—from the first year of marriage.

01. It might not feel like the “honeymoon phase.”

We all hear about the honeymoon phase, that feeling of euphoria in the first six months following your wedding day. Many people do find themselves blissfully happy during the first year of marriage—in fact, Claire reports that “it did go as expected as far as being really happy and exciting.”

What is less talked about, however, is the phenomenon we can jokingly call the “What have I done?!” phase.

Leah says she was grateful for her mother’s advice to expect the first year of marriage to be the hardest. “It was the first time I had heard that because many people I know had described that first year as the blissful honeymoon phase,” she says. “I’m so glad [my mom] did warn that, though, because she was right.” Leah explains that despite dating for five years, the first year of marriage was more of an adjustment than she anticipated. “We both assumed it would be easy because we were so in love,” she says. “We were young and seemingly flexible—therefore, not old enough to be set in our ways—but transition is never easy!”

The good news is that having a tough first year certainly doesn’t mean your marriage is doomed—it just means that learning to be married can be difficult. Kristen says that despite struggling with doubts under the strain of adjusting to married life, she feels as though a difficult first year gave them confidence that they could make their marriage last. “It was being able to endure the hardest parts of our vows right away that taught us the meaning of marriage,” she explains. “That first year was crazy, but it set us up so awesomely. The past two years of marriage (out of three) have been tough, but after that first year, we know for sure there’s nothing to come that we can’t endure.”

02. It might not be like your parents’ marriage.

When people consider what a marriage is like, they typically picture their parents’ marriage. Depending on how things went down in your childhood, this may leave you with feelings of eager anticipation—or dread. But, consensus among the married women I spoke to is that the ins and outs of your marriage are not likely to mimic your parents’ marriage.

Claire admits that she was surprised by the way household duties shook out. “I was subconsciously expecting that the division of labor and ‘roles’ would be the same as it was with my parents. For example, I never expected that I would be the one paying bills and managing finances.” The first year of marriage is when we sort out household chores, and it’s likely going to depend on what you each do best. It may be that your husband is not a handyman—unlike your dad—and that’s OK because he sure can cook!

It can also happen that we look to our friends’ marriages to set expectations for our own married life. But, as Leah explains, what works for others might not work for you, and you should be open to that possibility when you first start out in marriage.

“Before getting married and into that first year, I had pictured myself as a rock star stay-at-home mom and my husband as a happy high-powered attorney. For the first years, we tried to make that setup work, only to realize that our initial expectations weren’t actually making us happy,” Leah says. “Admitting that wasn’t easy, especially because many of the happy couples we know had gone that traditional route, so we assumed it was the only recipe for a happy marriage. Letting that go and finding our own way was a little scary and took a certain amount of humility. Now we both work outside the home in more flexible and less high-power careers that we both love, and we share child-rearing responsibilities pretty equally.”

It’s natural to model our idea of married life off our parents’ marriage, and many of us have a lot to learn from their example. Talk to your future spouse about your parents’ marriage and his parents’ marriage. How did they do things? What would you like to carry into your own marriage? What would you rather not repeat? This should help set realistic expectations when it comes to “doing things how they did” in that first year.

03. It might not be date night every night.

When you were dating, time spent together was (hopefully) pretty intentional. When you were in the same room, you were enjoying each other’s company, getting to know each other, flirting, and cuddling. Now that you’re married, you are in the same space almost 24/7, and it may feel like you should be entertaining each other and spending quality time together like you did when you were dating. But the word on the street is that getting used to being in the same room or the same house and not “hanging out” can be tricky.

Christine says she subconsciously expected to share in an activity with her husband every night, but that was not how it worked out. “I remember getting home from work in those first few months and thinking, ‘What should we do tonight?’” But she soon realized that although setting aside quality time was important, time spent in the same space would often be independent of one another on a day-to-day basis. “He had schoolwork, and I had to prep for class the next day, so we weren’t playing board games by the firelight every night.”

This may sound like a letdown if you were thinking married life was just one long sleepover. But Margaret, married forty years, says that even time spent “doing your own thing” feels like time together after a while. “When my husband and I were first married, I felt as though we should be doing something together all along,” she says. “But over the years I have found that we feel one another’s presence as we go about our separate projects, and that is a very comforting thing.”

The lesson here is to savor all the “together” time you have on your honeymoon and then—just like you did when you were dating—be sure to set aside intentional quality time together in your married life.

04. It might not have to be a power struggle.

In the first year of marriage—and especially the first few months—married life can be viewed as a bit of a power struggle. As we begin to lay out ground rules and divide the labor, we are faced with the questions of when to dig in and when to be a bit more accommodating of our spouse’s little habits and idiosyncrasies.

“Someone told me that the first few years of marriage can be a power struggle,” Charlotte shares. “You are so worried that [your spouse] might do that [annoying] thing forever, so you feel the need to call each other out about everything. Something as silly as squeegeeing the shower can seem like an issue of monumental importance.”

But Charlotte also says that she avoided this dynamic by anticipating the tendency to stake your ground. She explains that she found peace in her first year of marriage by “leaving one or two things unsaid every day.” Charlotte explains, “Obviously if it’s super important, you need to speak up, but most of the time I find that if I just say less—I don’t always have to mention when he leaves his shoes in the middle of the room—I feel better because I usually forget the thing that annoyed me.”

So maybe instead of ramping up for a power struggle that first year, we should anticipate finding common ground and practice patience in those little annoyances.

05. It might just keep getting better with time.

Most engaged couples eagerly look forward to the newlywed stage as the best time in their lives. But, honeymoon phase or not, the overwhelming consensus among married women is that it only gets better with time.

Leah, who admits to a tough first year of marriage, says, “[More than] ten years later, we are infinitely happier in our marriage than that first year even though our life doesn’t necessarily look easier from the outside. A huge part of that happiness is due to the fact that we’ve learned to let go of our expectations, in a good way.”

“Our marriage definitely got easier—and better!—over time because we learned to lean in to each other to improve it,” Charlotte agrees. “We read a ton of books and are learning about how to make each other deeply happy.”

These women admit that marriage certainly gets more complicated and busier, and it requires more sacrifice as life goes on—especially if there are children in the picture. But, as Claire puts it, “Life isn’t easy, marriage and family isn’t easy, but there is a lot of joy in the struggle and satisfaction in solving the problems that continually arise along the way.”

There’s plenty to look forward to in the first year of marriage, but stay on your toes, and be prepared for married life to challenge you in ways you never imagined. Most of all, be open to a love that is much better than you expected—even better than playing make-believe with your generic “husband” neighbor-friend.