Study Finds First Year of Marriage Is Not the Happiest
by David Gibson
Does marriage begin at its high point, with couples enjoying their greatest life satisfaction during their first year together as husband and wife? Not according to recent research conducted in Australia. It found that the most satisfied couples were those married 40 years or longer.
Some commentators appeared astonished to hear that the long-term prospects for marital happiness are greater than they imagined. But another finding of this research also took many by surprise, namely, that the wedded couples reporting the least life satisfaction were those in their first year of marriage.
That finding flew in the face of the common assumption that a wife and husband never appreciate marriage as much as during their first year together. The study found that newly married couples tend to get off to a somewhat slow start in marriage. Their sense of satisfaction is lower – not disastrously lower, but decidedly so – than longer married couples.
It is vital, however, that newly married couples not lose heart, since things are quite likely to bounce back for them in their second year, according to the study report’s lead author, Melissa Weinberg, a psychologist at Deakin University’s Australian Centre on Quality of Life.
She would urge couples, she told me, “to realize that the situation improves with time and to continue to harness” their connection so that they “can work through any troubles together.”
Weinberg was commenting on a chapter on marriage in the latest Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, released in early December. It found that marriage, indeed, contributes positively to overall wellbeing. Yet it also found that people married less than a year experience lower levels of wellbeing than people in any other year of marriage.
A purpose of the index is to promote public and political awareness of the social factors underpinning human wellbeing. The index is a project of the quality of life center at Deakin University and Australian Unity, a financial services and health care company.
“One might be tempted to think newly married couples are blissfully happy and over the years that feeling will gradually abate as they settle into a long life together, but this turns out not to be the case,” Weinberg said.
She pointed out that “big changes occur in the first year of married life, and not all of them are comfortable for newlyweds.” Moreover, she said, “significant costs can be associated with a new marriage — the cost of the wedding for a start, and potentially the costs” of purchasing a new home.
She expressed concern that “there may be pressure on some engaged couples to have a big wedding that perhaps they cannot really afford” and that “even though they might have the perfect wedding, it can come at a cost to their wellbeing in the first year of marriage.”
The situation for newlyweds “boils down to what I call a wedding hangover,” Weinberg said. She defined this hangover for me as “the come-down effect following such a happy celebration.”
Weinberg thinks couples build up to their wedding day “as the best day of their life” and then find “reality biting as they tote up their wedding bills and get back to work after the honeymoon.”
Catholic Bishops Urge Perseverance
Catholic leaders in marriage ministry are well aware that the beginning years of wedded life bear challenges for couples.
In a 2001 speech in San Diego, Calif., H. Richard McCord Jr. called the first five years of marriage “critical” and “vulnerable.”
“We’ve just begun to develop a picture of this group and to gain some insight into their issues and concerns so we can respond ministerially,” he said. McCord retired at the end of 2011 as executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.
He asked: “How does a parish connect with the newly married? And, once connected, what can it offer?”
Something that should not be overlooked, he said, is the “value of inviting the newly married (who may also be newcomers to the parish) into the existing activities of the community.” McCord advised parishes to recognize and welcome these couples and integrate them into their community’s life.
He also encouraged Catholic communities to “look for natural opportunities such as the birth of a first child or baptismal preparation to help the couple reflect on their marital relationship at this time in their lives and take steps to strengthen it.”
The U.S. bishops observed in their 2009 national pastoral letter titled “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan” that on their wedding day a couple “says a definitive yes to their vocation of marriage. Then the real work of marriage begins.”
“Getting married” will not “magically confer perfection,” the bishops said. However, they added, “the love to which the spouses have been configured is powerful enough to transform their whole life’s journey.”
After marrying, a couple “is challenged to grow, through grace, into what they already are: that is, an image of Christ’s love for his church,” said the bishops. They added:
“‘Become what you are!’ might be a great exhortation to newly married couples, especially given the strong tendency nowadays to reduce the love of the marriage bond to only a feeling, perhaps the romantic love of courtship and honeymoon. When that feeling dries up, it may seem to them that they have nothing left and that they have failed.
“It is at these very times, however, that their vocation as spouses calls them to go further, to ‘become what they are,’ members of a marital communion defined by the unbreakable spousal love of Christ for his church.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.