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Great Beginnings

By Jane Mahoney
For the Journal
    Ah, the first year of marriage. It's full of surprises. Sometimes it's the little things: The strange feeling of someone sleeping beside you in bed. The strange political views of your new spouse that hadn't surfaced in earlier discussions. Or the discovery that your tender-hearted new wife must take in every stray cat within a five-mile radius.
    Little things, yes. But a partner's approach to the small surprises may be a harbinger of things to come, especially how well a marriage might weather larger storms in the future.
    "The major problem that all couples have is that they try to change each other," says Michael J. Mullins, senior pastor at Bethel Heritage Church and an officiator at hundreds of wedding ceremonies over the past few decades.
    Mullins, married 32 years himself, believes that the first year of marriage oftentimes is the most difficult.
    "Couples wake up the morning after the wedding, and life hits you," he says. "It's a whole new world."
    In interviewing three newlywed couples, we wanted to know what that whole new world looks like with the benefit of having the first year under their belts. In talking with them and the folks who prepare couples for the altar, what we found was a storehouse of advice on getting the perfect union off to a great beginning.
    Newlywed Julie Baum, 27, has this take on first-year surprises: "Life is surprising in general. Whether married or not, you have to be prepared to roll with the punches."
Bumps in the road
    First-year issues can run the gamut— from money to family to sex to lifestyle to just plain old compatibility. Odds are, say counselors, those issues will come up right away.
    "That first year of marriage is a real important year because so many of these life issues and conflict issues come to surface in one way or another," says Mullins. "And how couples resolve conflict is so important."
    After putting their best foot forward during courtship, newlyweds may find that they struggle with the day-to-day realities of married life, Mullins says.
    It's his role to prepare couples for that step through weeks of premarital counseling. Sessions explore everything from personality differences to spending styles.
    Tamara Auger, a licensed professional clinical mental health counselor, has been hearing marriage woes— and successes— throughout her 20-year practice. She's found that no matter the issues, it comes down to getting on the same wavelength.
    "The more you can be together in your views, the less conflict in your relationship," she says.
    Talk, talk, talk, she advises couples. And better yet, talk before the wedding.
    "There are many areas where people should be compatible for smooth relationships," she says. "Talk about family commitments. How important is this to you? How much time do you spend with family? What will you do when the holidays come around? Talk about finances. Is one person a spender and the other a saver? Will one handle household finances? How does your partner spend his free time? How does he live his day-to-day life? Talk about sex. Are you both in synch with the type of intimacy needed? Talk about kids. Talk about goals.
    "People fall in love and feel wonderful," Auger says, "and they don't tend to look at these underlying issues. Everything's wonderful, and it's scary to be told at this point there are areas they need to work on. It's easy to think that you love each other enough that these won't be issues. But during the courting stage, people are more willing to concede to the other's ideas. After marriage, there's less willingness to continue conceding and conflict arises. The areas of difference become problems."
    How couples attempt to solve those problems can make or break a marriage, Auger says.
    "It comes down to how much each person is willing to make changes to make the other comfortable," says Auger. "Both must see that they're both making an effort— and not just one making the changes. When one (partner) becomes unwilling, that's when changes occur in the relationship."
    However, that doesn't mean you must marry your clone to have a happy marriage.
Complementary characteristics
    Amy Tarnower, 45, and Arnel Oczon, 41, married since March 2002— each for the first time— have come to relish the differences. While their common love for music, art and books was a big factor in their mutual attraction, they have learned that her sense of adventure meshes exceptionally well with his calm approach to life.
    Tarnower, an oncology physician at Lovelace Health Systems, spends her demanding days tending to sick patients and worried families. "When I come home and am rattled, he knows what to say to help me keep things in perspective," she says.
    Oczon is an electrical engineer at Sandia National Laboratories who admits that if left to his own devices, he'd probably plug into the television or stereo when he comes home from work. He has come to appreciate his wife's arrangements to socialize and travel, as in the trip she organized to Hawaii.
    "I'm not a person to plan big things like that," he says, "but it's that kind of thing that has expanded my envelope."
    The couple's maturity and life experiences made the transition from single life to married life easier, both said. They merged individual households into a new home; the merging of bank accounts has been slower.
    "We were both at a position in our careers that we could see that work is just a part of our lives," Tarnower says. "We were both used to being responsible for ourselves— and for our own happiness. It's very rare for either of us to accuse or blame."
Lean on me
    Julie and Spencer Baum were friends since high school. They dated after college graduation, then were engaged for a year. Three months after their wedding in October 2002, they faced their first challenge when Spencer's father died unexpectedly. The loss was wrenching, but it was not a crisis for the marriage.
    "We needed each other," says Julie, a researcher at the University of New Mexico. "We could come home and cry on each other's shoulder."
    Because the couple's friendship dates back to their teens, there were few surprises about personality styles or shared values. Still, Julie concedes that she's the extrovert in her partnership. "Social" is how Spencer, 28, puts it. And despite an affinity for karaoke performances, Spencer describes himself as more introverted.
    "We're both very willing to compromise," says Julie. "I'm willing to stay home and rent a movie. Spencer's willing to go out on the town sometimes. We're both willing to make adjustments."
    Pastor Mullins includes personality tests as part of his approach to premarital counseling. It's a window for partners to see how their mates handle conflict, and better yet, try to understand why they may take a certain approach.
    "I believe that God made us the way he wants us to be," he says. "Our job is to make ourselves pliable in a relationship, not to try (to) change the other person. When people begin to confront issues and understand themselves, their mates and the marital relationship, I see a bonding. When eyes are open, they're able to enter the relationship more freely."
Ties that bind
    Common values, beliefs and goals help bond couples, according to Auger. So does time together.
    "Do things together and make each other a priority," Auger advises.
    That, too, is the advice of Jan and Bob Miller, 20 years into their marriage. "We do most everything together. That's our goal and we work hard to make it happen," Jan says of Bob, her second husband. "I still don't take this marriage for granted. We make a point to talk things out."
    The retired Millers, with seven grown children between them, conduct Christian faith-based Marriage Encounter weekends for other married couples wishing to renew and strengthen marital bonds. Those couples are encouraged to live as couples, not what the Millers call "married singles" with separate goals, interests and activities.
    Bob Miller advises married couples, newlywed or not, to "respect and encourage" their partners. "Bring out the best in them and do not feel threatened by it," he says.
    The Baums try to follow advice from Julie's mother: "Put romance in every day."
Friends for life
    Stephanie and John Luna called themselves "best friends" when they married in July, following two years of dating and nine years of friendship.
    Stephanie, 23, is a customer service representative with Southwest Airlines, and John, 22, is an electrician and aspiring firefighter.
    "We've been friends for so long that our tastes have co-mingled," says Stephanie. "We've learned that communication is the key. It's not about looking at what you want, but doing what you can to make your spouse happy."
    With a deep commitment to their faith and their membership in Victory Love Church, the Lunas lived at home with their respective parents until their wedding day. The biggest surprises during the first few months of marriage, they say, were growing accustomed to the freedoms and responsibilities of living on their own— things like paying their own bills, fixing all their own meals and taking on a mortgage for the house they bought together. Their nine-day honeymoon to California was the first time the two had been alone together on a trip.
    "You know in the movies how couples hold each other all night long?" says John. "Well, that doesn't always work out so well if you're trying to sleep."
Letting go
    Forgiveness is the linchpin of any relationship, says Mullins. And he defines that as "learning how to forgive and to forgive quickly."
    "Don't carry a scorecard," he says. "Don't keep track of dates and issues. If you forgive me of something, you will never throw it up in my face again. If we aren't bringing up yesterday, it gives us energy to work for today. Most of the issues that cause divorces are small things that people can't let loose of."
    Auger recommends approaching problem areas with discussions about feelings and motivations rather than anger and accusations.
    "Explain what makes you feel comfortable or uncomfortable as opposed to saying 'YOU always do this,' '' she says. "It opens a lot more ways to find a middle ground."
    A successful marriage does take work, she says. "Some couples fit so well they don't perceive it as a lot of work. But for others, the give-and-take and wondering 'Do I say something?' seems like work."
    Even couples with different approaches to spending money, intimacy and things as basic as what makes them feel safe (i.e. aversions to moving or changing jobs) can find some common ground. "It's a matter of each person being willing to give," says Auger. "People can make any of these areas work, but the more differences there are, the more difficult it will be."
    Many couples, however, are stronger for their personality differences.
    Those little surprises can bring extra dimensions to a new marriage, new ways of looking at a familiar person. Spencer Baum discovered his wife's soft touch for stray animals; Tarnower and Oczon live harmoniously with different political outlooks; Stephanie Luna realized just how fond her husband is of televised sporting events.
    Communication is a priority for the Baums. "We take it very seriously," says Julie. "If we're angry or upset, most of the time it's because we haven't tried to understand the other's view. We try to talk stuff out before it gets big."
A generous spirit
    Negotiating roles can be a touchy subject in many marriages. "Women, in particular, have been raised to believe that everything will be equal in a relationship," says Auger, "but the concept of what that means can be disappointing. Women tend to give too much and feel disappointed when they don't get it back. My focus is to help people realize that men and women give differently to a relationship. Different does not mean bad."
    Different, in fact, can be very good. Just ask Tarnower and Oczon, each of whom waited a long time to find the right person to wed. The best thing about marriage, they say, is the intimacy of having another person in their lives.
    Tarnower, who loves to cook, enjoys having somebody to feed. Oczon, a tinkerer at heart, reaps pleasure from knowing that somebody appreciates his work around the house and yard.
    But ask Tarnower if there were any major surprises in the first year of marriage, and she pauses, then smiles. "I'm surprised it gets better!"