How to Thrive (or Survive)
After the First Year of Marriage

Letter #1

Introduction: The first year of marriage can be so painful that divorce seems like the only escape. That's why more people divorce in the first year of marriage than any other. But the first year can also be a couples' best year of marriage. From my perspective, this is also a tragedy because it means the remaining years are not as good. I try to help couples avoid both of these outcomes.

In this column, I will present three letters from newlyweds. The first is from a man who is clearly star-struck. He represents the ideals of couples who are still on their honeymoon. While some wish they could share his attitude, I try to show how his ideals can undermine the strength of a life-long marriage.

The second letter is from a man who is also star-struck, but his wife has been struck by the realities of his insensitivity. How can they turn things around quickly enough to avoid being caught in the blame-game?

Finally, the last couple we'll hear from has just about had it with each other. Their daughter is keeping them together, at least for a while. No idealism here. But their love for the child may force them to make their marriage sensational.

Dear Dr. Harley,

I am a newlywed--7 months--and I know God couldn't have given me a more wonderful mate for life. We are very happy, and our unconditional love is, and always will be, I hope, the cord that holds us together.

But we get so busy with our own schedules that we don't really have time for each other. A couple of my friends have suggested that we continue to "date" each other by purposely and purposefully doing things together. Well, it's just not as easy as it sounds. It's awkward now to plan a specific time together, and yet I know that if we don't do it, we're not going to know each other any more.

What do you suggest?


Dear R.B.,

Your friends are right. Unless you take time to "date" after marriage, you will probably not be able to meet the needs that were met before your were married. Of course, it depends on which important emotional needs you have, but I would imagine that affection, conversation, and recreational companionship were among those that you met for each other before marriage. Without taking time to be with each other, you can't meet those needs after marriage.

Incidentally, many women consider affection and conversation as preconditions for sexual fulfillment. If you do not spend much time talking to each other, and being affectionate, I can almost guarantee you that your sexual relationship will eventually suffer.

A date should be the time you set aside to meet each other's important emotional needs. You should be enthusiastic about what you have planned, because it should give you what you need the most. If either of you think it's a waste of time, it's because you are not meeting each other's needs.

Before you were married, you met each other's emotional needs on dates. What you did on dates caused you to fall in love with each other. Unless you continue to do the same thing now, you will lose the feeling of love that makes you think your love is unconditional.

Your dates don't need to be exactly what you did before marriage. In fact, you may be able to meet each other's needs without actually "going out." But in my experience, spending an evening at home with Joyce (my wife) can easily turn into us working on personal projects without spending much time with each other. For us, even though our children are married and out of the house, we have to go out to give each other the attention we need.

When you say that your schedules are too busy to get together for dates, I would interpret that to mean that you are making scheduling decisions independently of each other. When you look at your schedules, you find there is no time for dates. But if you were to put the dates in first, and then schedule everything else around them, you would solve your scheduling problem.

You or your wife may also find that the time you spend together on dates does not meet your needs the way it did before marriage. If that's the case, do something different until your needs are met. We all change, and what works at one point in time won't always continue to work.

Now I will tackle an issue that gets me into all kinds of trouble -- unconditional love. The position I take seems almost sacrilegious, but the more I have thought about the issue, the more convinced I am that I'm right. And I also believe that my position is consistent with the highest moral values.

You mention in your letter that your "unconditional love is a cord that holds us together." But I believe that unconditional love usually ruins marriages instead of saving them.

The gist of my argument is that unilateral love (unconditional love) lends itself to a lifestyle where one suffers for the happiness of the other. It's easy to get into the habit of living that way, and there are many well-meaning spouses who give unconditionally, only to find themselves repeatedly on the short end of the stick. They begin to think that they are natural "givers" and their spouses are natural "takers." But it turns out to be a matter of perspective. If you talk to their spouses, they think they are the givers.

It seems almost everyone thinks they are givers and hardly anyone sees the taker side to them. Most of the spouses I've counseled think they are the ones giving the most in their marriage, and that leads to deep resentment. After having given unconditionally for a while, and getting little in return, human nature seems to come up with a new idea, "Why not take unconditionally?"

So a spouse sees a counselor who supports the idea of "taking care of myself" for awhile. You know what that means? It means doing whatever makes you happy regardless of how it makes your spouse feel, a sure formula for marital disaster.

Why would any professional counselor suggest such a thing? You have to be there to understand it. Imagine you are counseling a person who is depressed to the point of suicide, and you ask what the problem is. You discover that the person's spouse is making selfish demands that are causing untold sorrow for your client. The solution is simple: "Stop being a care giver, and start taking better care of yourself."

What about unconditional love? Am I not supposed to do whatever I can to make my spouse happy, even if I must sacrifice? Am I not supposed to let my spouse do whatever he (or she) wants to do, even if it causes me pain? Many people faced with their spouses' infidelity, drug addiction, gambling, and physical abuse believe in unconditional love. Their counselors help them see that their belief in unconditional love is destroying them.

Then the counselor goes too far. In reaction to unconditional love, it is suggested that you stop being a "care-giver" entirely. You are encouraged to believe in unconditional love -- for yourself! Those who follow that advice are headed for divorce, but in most cases, no one thinks the marriage is worth saving anyway.

These marriages are worth saving, and they can be saved, but it requires a new rule that is different from the two we have been discussing. First, lets take a moment to review the two unhealthy rules:

  1. Unconditional Love for your spouse: Do whatever you can to make your spouse happy and avoid anything that makes your spouse unhappy (even if it makes you unhappy).

  2. Unconditional Love for yourself: Do whatever you can to make yourself happy and avoid anything that makes yourself unhappy (even if it makes your spouse unhappy).

The first rule is wrong because it does not take your own feelings into account, and the second rule is wrong because it does not take your spouse's feelings into account.

I think you can see by now where I am headed. I want a new rule that takes the feelings of both you and your spouse into account simultaneously. The rule should read: Do whatever you can to make you and your spouse happy at the same time, and avoid anything that will make either you or your spouse unhappy.

To make it seem a little easier to understand and apply, I have changed it to read, "Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse." I call this rule the Policy of Joint Agreement.

The Policy of Joint Agreement is a healthy compromise between the two unhealthy rules because it recognizes that the feelings of both spouses are important and should be accommodated simultaneously in marriage.

The problem you are having with scheduling time together is a reflection of the fact that you do not follow the Policy of Joint Agreement. Right now, your schedules are made with unconditional love as your guide. If one of you wants to do something badly enough, you simply allow it to happen without any objection. As you are finding out, it leads to an insidious drift apart where, some day, you will find that you are strangers. Don't let that happen. Follow the Policy of Joint Agreement now, and keep following it for the rest of your married lives.

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