Feature Archive

Newlyweds' 5 Biggest Pitfalls

Experts say unrealistic expectations, avoiding conflict after marriage can lead to disaster.

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

Love and marriage may "go together like a horse and carriage," but most newlyweds set off without a shared road map. Each partner comes to the journey with their own set of directions including -- assumptions about roles, expectations about how to spend time and money, and deeply held beliefs about children. Then there's also -- baggage. Experts say it takes desire, honest communication, and hard work to move a relationship from the romantic stage through the power struggles to a loving marriage based on shared meaning. Get off to a good start by avoiding these five major pitfalls:

  • My family does it this way.
  • Marriage will make me happy.
  • My partner will change once we're married.
  • Talking about issues like his rowdy friends, her credit card debt, when to have kids, and who should clean the toilet, will take the bloom off romance.
  • We should avoid conflict at all costs.

My Family Does It This Way

His family sits down together around the dining room table for dinner every night. Her family scatters and grabs dinner on the run.

Couples often underestimate the influence of their families. "People go into marriage with expectations that are engrained almost subconsciously," says Addie Leibin, MS, LMHC, a private mental health counselor in Winter Park, Fla. "They think, I'll get married, and I'll do it like my family did it. But you can't build a house with two sets of blueprints. The whole object is to come up with your own set of plans. It's not your mom and dad's house."

Mark Freeman, PhD, agrees with Leibin that families operate on both conscious and subconscious levels. He counsels couples and teaches a class called "Marriage and the Family" in his roles as director of personal counseling and instructor at Rollins College, also in Winter Park. On a conscious level, he says, when there's interference from one of the spouse's family members or a person doesn't have total allegiance to his or her spouse that creates problems within a person's marriage.

On a subconscious level, families provide the frame-of-reference that individuals bring to the marriage regarding money, gender roles, and other important issues. "Know each other well enough to find out what the stated expectations are, and recognize sometimes there are unconscious expectations. For example, you could say 'I'm open and like to deal with things,' but in your own family when conflict arose, you shut down. So it's the stated vs. the unconscious. Sometimes we have the best intentions to be one way, but then a coping strategy from our own family comes up and violates the thing we are. We're human, not perfect."

Marriage Will Make Me Happy

He's lonely and has no friends. She feels inferior to her prettier, smarter, and wealthier sister. Both believe marriage will make them happy.

"In the early stages of a relationship, everything is beautiful," says Leibin. "Couples have to understand that love is never enough, and marriage doesn't make you happy. Happiness is a do-it-yourself job."

According to a 15-year survey reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, an individual's level of happiness before marriage is the best predictor of happiness after marriage.

My Partner Will Change

She assumes he'll stop having lunch with his ex-fiancee. He assumes she'll give up expensive spa weekends with her friends.

Marriage inevitably means compromise, but couples need to compromise without giving away too much of what they value. Freeman advises articulating a marital contract that addresses the expectations each has for the other. "The expectations can be high, but make sure they're realistic," he says.

One task he addresses with couples in pre-marital counseling involves helping them overcome romantic illusions and unrealistic expectations. "When the romance diminishes, the relationship moves to a power struggle, and for a while, each person tries to change the other. Even though people mouth the words that they don't want to change the partner, they still try. It's a developmental stage, and if couples resolve it in a healthy way, they move into stability and long-term commitment. Marriages that blow up early have a romantic view, and once that's dissipated they think the marriage is broken and can't be fixed."

Leibin tells WebMD that rather than compromise and share, some couples continue to lead separate lives after marriage. "They end up pulling apart. Couples should be friends and learn to work together. I believe in a Saturday night date ritual, and maybe she makes the plans one week and he the next. It's a time to share their lives and try to understand each other's worlds."