Many men and women today think of marriage as the end of a romantic journey. Like the fairytale couple who overcomes gigantic obstacles to arrive in the end at the altar, real-life couples often assume that “the one” has been found and acquired and the most trying challenges are in the past. The truth, then, can be shocking when both man and wife find that married life, although filled with joy, is also incredibly difficult.
Introduction to married life can be especially hard on men. Sometimes men hear from sitcoms that socks on the floor and forgotten anniversaries will cause marital discord. But we don’t hear enough from husbands about the real challenges and difficulties of married life. As a result, newly married men can end up assuming that as long as they don't make the mistakes of sitcom husbands, everything will be easy.
But even though he’s not completely insensitive and he totally loves his wife, this guy will still end up having disagreements and arguments and even strange periods of relationship ennui.
Newly married and soon-to-be wives can help their guys thrive in early marriage by becoming aware of some of the unique challenges they will most likely face. Here are three challenges to be aware of and how to handle them.
01. Men can feel inadequate when difficulties arise.
We all live most of our lives in an atmosphere of personal achievement. Anything can be accomplished if you just work hard enough, right? This attitude can get you through school and work and help you fake it through some relationships, too. But not marriage.
In a marriage, suddenly, there are problems that you can’t just fix on your own. You can’t simply put your shoulder down and plow through marital strife or pull an all-nighter and figure out the right thing to say to your wife in every context. This can be disorienting and even discouraging for men who may not be used to failure. Not every marital misstep or challenge is a failure, but it can feel that way sometimes.
Engaged couples can prepare for this kind of challenge by acknowledging beforehand that issues and difficulties will definitely arise and that they are a part of even the healthiest marriage. Simply open up the conversation about conflict and how you plan to resolve it. Premarital counseling is a great way to get off on the right foot and prepare a couple to deal with conflict positively and proactively.
Wives can help their husbands not by ignoring mistakes but by focusing on how dealing with issues is part of the success of a marriage. When you have to say something negative, try to frame it in a constructive way or add something positive about your husband to the conversation. “I really appreciate the effort you’re making in this area, but…” is a lot easier to take than a straightforward criticism.
02. Men are trained for competition.
Some studies suggest that competitiveness is a learned behavior. If this is true, men in our society are trained in the spirit of competition early on. This learned competitiveness isn’t bad per se, but it’s totally unhelpful as marriage prep. If you start to think of a disagreement or argument in terms of “winning” and “losing,” then you’ve already lost. The same is true when salaries, chores, and gifts acquire a competitive character. Because a marriage isn’t just two people who like each other enough to share forever a bed and a bank account. It is two people who become one. This means that “winning” is actually hurting yourself.
Both husband and wife can avoid this pitfall by trying to understand their partner instead of demanding to be understood, by giving without secretly expecting something in return, and without comparing words and affections. If you notice a disagreement turning into a competition, steer that conversation back toward something productive with the “I feel X” phrases every marriage counselor recommends.
03. Openness doesn’t always come easy, especially when it concerns perceived weakness.
Vulnerability is difficult for most people, but men sometimes struggle more in this area. For instance, I don’t like people to know I’m sick. I’d rather just go about my business and have everyone else ignore my stifled coughs. Even if I’m bedridden, I don’t want my wife to make a fuss over me. I just want to take my medicine, sleep for a day, and be ignored. I know not all men are so reticent with their illnesses, but plenty of us still struggle with issues of openness and vulnerability, especially when it comes to weaknesses. This tendency might be amusing when it involves secretly taking a swig of Robitussin, but it can be harmful to other aspects of relationships.
For instance, I’ve long suffered occasionally from mild depression. I never talked about it with anyone because I thought of these feelings as an embarrassing sign of weakness. But, once we were married, my wife obviously noticed something was wrong from time to time. Once I finally was open with her about this issue, we were able to discuss and discern ways it had affected our relationship and how she could help me in the future. This kind of openness is crucial in a relationship not just for individual issues but for the overall health of a marriage. Studies show a strong correlation between self-disclosure and satisfying relationships.
Have a straightforward conversation about openness and what kind of relationship you’d like to build. Don’t force or pressure disclosure. But do try to be understanding and ask questions to show you value the openness. Be attentive when your spouse does open up. Offer positive responses and support. Don’t jump right in with advice or criticism. Instead, work toward understanding first. Perhaps most important for encouraging openness is simply being open yourself about fears, concerns, and problems.
No marriage will be free of challenges or disagreements. For newlyweds, the key is to anticipate these challenges and be prepared to communicate and work towards understanding. Remember that marriage is not the end of a journey, it’s a living gift that requires attention, work, and nurturing to thrive and grow.