Pleasant and Not-so Pleasant Surprises from the First Few Months of Marriage

So marriage is a few years off (at least), but every now and then some girl gets you thinking about it and you freeze up. Sure, we've all heard horror stories - and some of them are true. But it's not all bad. Take it from Jack as he gives you the low down on the highs and lows of the first six months.

When I first agreed to be someone's husband, I knew I was in for trying times. Accordingly, I steeled myself by researching solutions to problems I assumed husbands faced: picking out an engagement ring, cooking up whiz bang proposal ideas, learning how to smoke cigars and appreciating football.

But as it turned out, every aspect surrounding marriage that I thought would be an issue worked itself out naturally while everything that I never considered turned out to be a challenge for which I was wholly unprepared. All in all, I learned that getting married and staying that way takes more than wearing a tux for one day and hiring a DJ. But I also learned that some of the changes that I dreaded as a bachelor turned out to be surprisingly okay.

Here are some of the pleasant and not-so pleasant surprises I've encountered so far:

Meet the Parents

Pleasant: It ain't so bad.

I don't care how rich Ben Stiller got by playing off stereotypes about in-laws: my wife's family rocks. Sitcoms and the big screen like to instill an inordinate amount of trepidation when it comes to meeting the extended family of your future spouse. I think it might be one of the foundations of bad situation comedy along with getting trapped in a walk-in cooler with your arch-nemesis or an “intimate gathering” turning into a raucous house party (subsequently joined by a pop punk band, a dude carrying a keg on his shoulder, the pizza delivery guy, the cops and then the parents home early from their cruise).

That's not to say that there aren't some differences between my wife's family and mine. They are Catholic, I am (sort of) Episcopalian. The men in her family are engineers and the men in mine are English majors. Her dad likes Rush Limbaugh, I like Ira Glass. My family functions are tame, wine-sipping, screened-in porch affairs that wind down around 9pm while hers are boom-ba stickin' all night polka parties.

You'd think that these were the makings of a semi-hilarious box office smash, but they aren't. Because all it boils down to is that we are family and we treat each other as such. And if either of our respective families were the type to violently or passive aggressively haze a guest, then chances are we wouldn't have made it into adulthood with our sanities intact anyway.

Meet The Parents

Not-so Pleasant: More birthdays, more weddings, more funerals.

The downside of doubling your familial connections is that you are also doubling your obligations. I often find myself at a birthday party and shaking the hand of the wrong person, or meeting someone for the first time at their wedding reception or, worse, at their visitation. I've also had to cancel a couple nights out with the boys because my wife's great aunt's second cousin was in town for the week and we were all going for brunch.

But on the flip-flip-side, I've been getting a lot more birthday cards than when I was single. These issues of unfamiliarity with my new found kin are just a matter of the connections being new. Some of the gestures that my new extended family have made in order to get to know me have been quite surprising and touching: receiving a congratulation card for a new job, housewarming gifts and showing a general interest in what I do (which I'm not really sure what that is), for example.

Bottom-line: Meeting new people with different values and different ideas is, surprisingly, not that bad of a thing. If you find yourself unable to be cordial with someone who is a little different than yourself then I'd say you have some more deeply-seated issues than merely being a fish out of water.

Finding Free Time

Not-so Pleasant: Say goodbye to downtime.

As an introverted nerd, I used to thrive off of alone time. I would spend entire weekends in college without leaving my apartment, only putting on pants to answer the door when the pizza man came. I'm the type of person that unwinds by pursuing markedly anti-social hobbies: video games, home recording, blogging, listening to episode after episode of Wiretap with Jonathan Goldstein while playing Bookworm on MSN Zone.

But once I became a married man, a homeowner and a salaried employee, all of these practices became impossibilities. There is simply not enough time in the day. If I were to put in my 8 hours, eat dinner and then disappear into my man-cave for the rest of the night, I wouldn't spend a single second with my wife.

So, instead, we have to find ways to relax together, which, sadly, usually entails me watching Grey's Anatomy (it was easier for me to get caught up in the McDrama than it was for her to develop a main on Super Smash Brothers) or shopping for window treatments (I didn't even know what this word meant before I tied the knot).

Pleasant: Hello, accountability.

But on the other hand, now I have a flesh-and-blood reason to get off my duff and be productive. It's shocking how lazy I can be when no one is supervising. If it weren't for my wife, I'd probably spend all my evenings laying about picking potato chips off the front of my shirt. Her saying, “I'm bored, you're boring me,” has galvanized me to leave my comfy groove on the sofa and seek out some novel experiences.

Bottom-line: Don't count on logging 40 hours a week leveling your drow ranger. But then again, it's probably time to grow up and get to business anyway.


Money Matters

Not-so Pleasant: Combining spending philosophies.

Fiscal geeks and matrimonial cynics aver that marriage is first and foremost a pretty decent financial arrangement. I'm not sure that anyone in their right (or left) mind would marry solely for the minimal tax benefit, but I do know that the melding of two souls in holy, loving union also entails melding two checkbooks and financial philosophies, no matter how haphazardly.

Before I met my wife, I lived a simple existence with little income and few expenses. I was a full time student and a part time plasma donor and didn't own a car or go out to bars (at least not the type of bars that charge as much for a martini as the grocery store charges for an entire jug of vodka). I ended up being frugal by choice, choosing to purposefully pinch pennies rather than take on a job in addition to my studies.

Now that we write checks from the same account, things have been a bit difficult for me. Granted, I have a full time job now, but the change of magnitude in income and expenses is staggering to me. It's still a bit hard for me not to measure large purchases in pints of plasma (i.e. “Holy crap, I would've had to donate three gallons of plasma in order to pay for this night out!”) But my anxiety merely comes off as stingy and miserly, given the fact that we were both gainfully employed. Old habits are hard to break, I guess.

Pleasant: Friends with benefits.

Once we got hitched, though, one splendid perk manifested itself: benefits. As a writer by passion and profession, my insurance coverage was paltry at best. A claims adjuster from my benefits provider passed on one dire piece of advice to me through a personal connection:

“Don't get hurt. It'll cost you.”

After that, I began treading extremely carefully on my way to work: looking all ways before crossing the street – checking my left, right and behind me, just in case there was an errant street sweeper bearing down on me – and then treading through the crosswalk in measured, predictable steps, so as not to catch a motorist off guard. I kept my eyes at my feet, walking carefully up stairs, afraid that a stubbed toe could cost me a fortune.

My wife, meanwhile, belongs to a union and has astronomically better benefits than I do. It's almost like we are from different countries: her from a cradle-to-the-grave socialist nation and me from the eat-or-be-eaten jungle. But now that we are kin, I'm in. I can now break my leg with impunity (other than, of course, having a broken leg) and I fully intend to live life to its fullest (bungee jumping, alligator wrangling, text messaging while driving).

Also, looking down the road, now that I'm covered in case of catastrophe, I'm no longer a slave to the nine-to-five. In lieu of universal health care, most Americans cling to their cubicle jobs when they might rather strike out alone as a consultant or freelancer or artist. But by being covered on the medical benefits front, I am free to take on a bit more risk in order to further my career. One of the strongest assets you can have while transitioning to self-employment is a stably employed spouse.

Bottom-line: A spendthrift and a scrooge seemingly don't mix well. But hedging ambition with stability can be a synergistic smash.

Keeping The Spark Alive

Not-so Pleasant: Familiarity breeds boredom.Marriage inset

Unlike the ever-burning Olympic flame (absent of protesters, that is), the spark of infatuation doesn't easily stay lit. The aspects that initially made your relationship exciting – the novelty, the mystery, the anticipation – are going to be virtually nonexistent once you start spending every waking hour together. After seeing her good, bad and ugly sides, little will come as a surprise (and what does will usually be unpleasant). In my experience, after being united in matrimony, my wife has become almost like an extension of myself. Thus, seeing her is like seeing myself in the mirror – and I'm not quite narcissistic enough to be taken aback by my own beauty.

It's easy to fall into routine and boredom. And routine withers attraction and, ultimately, the building of our relationship.

Many relationship experts tout the notion of “continuing to date” your wife even though you are religiously, legally and logistically obligated to stick together. Keeping the relationship moving forward takes a bit of application and spending quality time together. For example, zoning out in front of the TV doesn't quite count – just because you are physically together doesn't mean you are interacting.

Pleasant: Home is where your heart is…

…and that's with your wife. The flip side of familiarity is how good it feels to always have someone waiting for you at home, knowing that you always have someone to talk to, knowing that you always have someone that will stick by you. On the night that I proposed to my wife, we agreed that no matter how insane the other person got, no matter how far off the deep end the daily grind drove us, we would always be there for each other. And that's an incredibly comfortable feeling, especially after being displaced from my childhood home and friends and finding myself in a new environment with new challenges everyday.

As cheesy as it sounds, my wife has become my anchor, allowing me to go out into the abusive world knowing that I have someone who will always welcome me at the end of the day.

Bottom-line: We are hardwired to seek adventure when we are young and restless, but at the end of a long hard day, all we want is a friendly face and a place where we feel comfortable. For me, my wife has become the one I go to for encouragement and in order to recuperate after an emotionally tasking day.

Marriage fight
Photo By Steve Wampler

Fighting the Bad Fight

Not-so Pleasant: Winning the argument could lose you the war.

As a bachelor, I would spend hours arguing semantics or movie trivia or politics with my friends or misguided strangers and actually enjoy it. It feels good to be right and when I was wrong (which was often) I would learn something. Arguing matters of ethics, fact and opinion can only result in expanding of the mind and is usually not taken personally.

Arguing with your wife, however, is an entirely different story. When “discussing” things with your spouse, chances are you won't be expounding on hypothetical thought experiments. Chances are you'll be dealing with very touchy emotional issues that have very much to do with your day-to-day. And chances are that simply being “right” will not solve any problems.

I've found that the my domestic realm is like a completely different world, exempt from whatever Wikipedia or says. It doesn't matter whether I can back my argument with empirical evidence, because at the end of the day, I'm going to bed next to my wife, who is still pissed at me for belittling her in the midst of proving my point.

This means that I have two motives whenever entering into an argument: (1) being right (2) not hurting anyone's feelings. This requires a level of diplomacy that a career in mincing words can't even prepare me for. Oftentimes, it is easier to admit that I am wrong or that the matter simply isn't worth fighting over.

Pleasant: Arguing with your soul mate can be revealing.

Like I said above, a married couple is a single entity. Thus arguing with your spouse is much like going head-to-head with yourself. And there is a lot that can be learned from self-exploration. Your wife may know you better than you do, or at least have the guts to say something to your face that an acquaintance doesn't. You may not have even known that you were mispronouncing “derisive” or that you sound like a pretentious asshole when you reference stuff you learned in your honors seminars from college.

Bottom-line: By proving your wife wrong, you are potentially shooting yourself in the foot. But on the other hand, you may learn a thing or two about tact.

After being alive for a quarter of a century, the only reliable advice that I've picked up is this: expect the unexpected. No matter how many stories I hear or experiences I live through, life always has a way of surprising me, for better or for worse. The adventure of marriage thus far has been no different. And while I've lamented death of old habits, the added benefits of married life have hardly been scarce. With all transitions, it's a matter of learning and adapting to a new reality and making certain sacrifices in order to better my station – socially, personally, emotionally, financially and otherwise. Simply put, you could call it growing up. Whether it's done reluctantly or gracefully is up to you.

Jack Busch

Jack Busch lives in the Pittsburgh area where he writes and edits for fun and money.