My husband and I got divorced before we got married.

Well, not really but we had a tumultuous dating relationship that culminated in a broken engagement and two years of non-communication. So when we announced our second engagement (three years later), neither of us were surprised when our skeptical friends predicted, “You guys are going to have a tough first year of marriage.”

Their dire warning did not come true but did amplify our anxiety each time we had a fight. (The first one happened nine days into our honeymoon.) In retrospect, I suppose they were trying to warn us that year one might have some relational chop—which it did.

Despite the lopsided perspective that we witness on social media feeds, our experience was not unique; many couples have a surprisingly difficult first year.

This reality does not mean that we need to fear the worst or assume divorce is inevitable. (And contrary to urban myth, the divorce rate has never reached 50 percent Furthermore, rates plummet for couples who regularly engage in religious activities together.) It does mean that we should not be surprised when we feel unhappy or find ourselves muttering Why on earth did I say yes to this person in the first place? 

In order to move through those feelings and avoid unnecessary first-year misery, try remembering these things:

Having a rich, satisfying marriage requires a tremendous amount of intention and vision.

It’s drilled into us to be intentional about our budget, retirement and exercise routines but for some inexplicable reason, not our marriages. Ask yourself what kind of marriage you want to have in five, 10, 20 years and plan accordingly. The plan unequivocally needs to include developing peer relationships. Marriages can’t survive without the support and fellowship of honest friendships.

Regarding your goals, if you want your marriage to be characterized by hospitality, don’t wait until your apartment looks perfect. Open your home to a regular gathering of friends before your first anniversary. If you want your marriage to be characterized by grace-filled communication, do the work of figuring out why your default tends toward impatience.

Pay attention to your expectations, specifically those connected to the first year of marriage.

Often, we don’t realize we have expectations until they are crushed. Feelings of disappointment function like the yellow warning light on the dashboard indicating unmet needs and expectations. Once we understand this, we can begin to discern our wants and needs.

For example, if you feel disappointed that your husband is only interested in sex on the weekends, you probably came into the marriage with an expectation for more frequent sex. If you feel frustrated that your wife has a habit of reading late into the night, you probably expected her to share your sensibilities for an early bedtime. By tracing the disappointment back to its source, you can begin to acknowledge your expectations and then openly discuss them rather than simply blaming your spouse for failing to meet those needs.

Learn how to have constructive conflict.

When two fully formed adults start sharing their lives together, there’s bound to be conflict. It might come up over how you share household responsibilities, romance, in-laws, parenting or finances. Regardless of the cause, create guidelines for how you have conflict so that you can avoid having conflict about how you have conflict. Your guidelines might include discerning your spouse’s perspective, never raising your voices and abstaining from defensiveness and all forms of passive aggressive behavior (this includes withdrawing and sarcasm). Remember, the goal in conflict is not to win or be right. The goal is to understand and love each other.

Faithfully confess and fully forgive.

After more than 20 years of counseling other couples, my husband and I firmly believe that we should not keep any secrets from each other. We live in a culture where over-sharing is the norm but true confession seldom happens. While your 900-plus friends might not really need to know how you feel about your morning cappuccino, your spouse does need to know that you spent three hours watching porn over the weekend. Confession is both intimidating and humiliating but it moves us incrementally toward holiness which results in a greater capacity to love.

Of course, without the hope of forgiveness, confession is terrifying. After we receive forgiveness vertically, we have an obligation to give it away horizontally, first and foremost to our spouse. If you aren’t interested in being emotionally or physically intimate, explore if you have some pockets of unforgiveness.

Remember that you can’t change your spouse; you can only change you.

Marriage has an uncanny way of revealing our selfishness, biases and secret fantasies for our spouse to become more like us. For the first 10 years of my marriage, rather than recalibrating my expectations and learning how to love my husband, limitations and all, I expected him to change. This resulted in resentment and lots of unnecessary conflict. Now I know better. My goal is not to change him, but to allow any frustrations and irritations to reveal where I still need to grow. This is the deep and lasting work of creating a truly Christian marriage.

Want to find out how you can improve your marriage? This online relationship assessment can help.

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