By Jennifer Anthony
A flowing frock on a blushing bride and the nervous excitement of the husband-to-be, fluffy tulle and fresh cut flowers, flustered caterers and mothers with glistening tears: classic images of new marriage. But if you’ve suspected or discovered that storybook romance and forever fairytales are quickly overwhelmed by budget battles, household chores, and long lists of unmet expectations, well, you’re not alone.
In the midst of the height of wedding season, Scene offers you a look at some of the unsung, less-glamorous sides of marriage preparation and maintenance, looking beyond the wedding planners, music selections and honeymoon destinations. Couples who’ve been there and done it, as well as experts on relationship topics, offer their insight and a glimpse of reality.
Twenty-two years ago, Beverly Stevens left her job as an executive at Citibank in the San Francisco Bay area to follow her heart to a 96,000-acre New Mexico ranch managed by her new husband, Danny. The culture shock and the instant motherhood to Danny’s children might have proven too much for a couple without the Stevenses’ commitment to each other and to communication.
“She had a couple of ‘Aha!’ moments of, ‘Lord a’ mercy, I stepped off into a big mudhole here!’” Danny said.
In the beginning, Beverly worked in the ranch kitchen, feeding more than 100 guests a month. “All Beverly did for several months was cook and wash dishes, and then all of a sudden you’ve got three little boys running around,” Danny said, referring to his three pre-teen sons. “And she’s going, ‘These little people don’t act real cool!’”
Beverly recalls those early days of her marriage to Danny, trying to help make a life for her new family in a place so different from her previous home.
“Not only did we give each other a lot of forgiveness and grace, but we gave ourselves a lot of forgiveness and grace,” she said.
Being willing to communicate made all the difference.
“You need to talk it out, or you need to get over it,” Danny said about conflict. “You don’t stay mad for days and weeks and forever. You get over it. You work it out and go on. And we did that.”
If experts and married couples from all stages of life have one piece of advice in common, that advice is to communicate, no matter how awkward or difficult it may be. From increasing intimacy to rescuing relationships in crisis, communication is a powerful tool that takes practice to master.
The first place most couples hear about communication is in premarital counseling. Meeting with a counselor for sessions before the wedding can help couples predict future conflict with amazing accuracy, said Tim Dunn, LPC, LMFT, an instructor of psychology at McMurry University and a marriage and family therapist in private practice. Common areas of conflict early on include finances, different styles of communicating, and decisions about roles.
“When it does happen a couple days, a couple weeks, a couple months in, you can at least say, ‘Oh yeah, we talked about this,’” Dunn said. “’This is not a huge deal. It doesn’t mean we have a bad marriage. Now we actually know someone who can help us through that.’”
Mike and Cara Marcantonio, who have been married about 18 months, are thankful they took advantage of premarital counseling.
“Mike and I felt like we were on the same page regarding pretty much everything, and I think we were, but it’s the small things that I think are so important to really communicate about,” Cara said.
Those small things that can explode into major conflicts can be as simple as who will clean what, who will fix things that break, and how much money can be spent without consulting one another, Dunn said.
When conflict arises during the first year of marriage, even for couples who took advantage of premarital counseling, getting help right away can make a big difference, Dunn said. He has seen many couples who have been married 10 or 15 years wrestling with issues rooted in the first few months or years of marriage. Dunn said when these early conflicts arise people often think, “Oh my gosh, that’s how you really are? I can’t believe I married you.”
Instead, Dunn encourages couples to take an attitude of “sooner the better” when deciding whether to ask for help working through a particular situation. Even one session to address a relatively small conflict can ward off damaging effects years later, he said.
“When things start to hit, it doesn’t mean that your marriage is in the dumps and you can’t survive,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you’re not meant for each other, all that silly stuff on movies. It means, ‘Hey, it takes work.’”
Finances have the ability to ignite conflict like few other issues in marriage. The most important thing is communicating instead of letting things go unsaid until there is a crisis, said Jeff Atchison, owner of Big Country Financial and Retirement Services.
“As soon as a couple is thinking about marriage, they need to be on the same page about finances,” he said.
It took almost a full year before Chase and Meredith Churchill felt like they were in sync financially. The couple has been married a little over a year now. Looking back, Meredith said they finally sat down one day with a spreadsheet and said, “We have to figure this out.”
The next step, Atchison said, is to find the starting point financially. This includes sharing information like credit card debt, student loans, assets and liabilities. The third step is to set financial goals for spending, saving and retirement.
The first year has brought challenges that the couple has learned from and developed strategies for addressing, Meredith said.
“We’ve gotten better at hearing the other one out and really talking about it,” Meredith said. “We’re both really stubborn people, and one thing we’ve had to do is remain calm and really hear what the other person has to say.”
That practice is shared by Clay and Beverly Whidden, who have been married 47 years and love to go on fishing trips together. The advice that Clay has carried with him all these years came from a friend during their honeymoon.
“They said, ‘Talk to each other and be honest,’” Clay said. “And never, never stop talking. Because if you stop talking, you’re going to have trouble.”
Even now, Beverly said, they still have to remember to keep talking.
“We are very different,” she said. “We have different communication styles. … Because of that, even after 47 years, we still have conflict. But conflict is normal.”
Dennis and Brenda Greer have been married for 32 years. Even after more than three decades together, they say, talking and sharing the important things with each other is a necessity.
“You’ve got to continue working at it,” Dennis said. “You’ve got to continue pursuing each other. That’s not what our nature is. Our nature wants to be lazy and lay on the couch instead of pursuing that relationship. But even after 32 years, it can get better.”
Road trips to visit family in Colorado are some of the Greers’ favorite times for deep conversation, they said. Dennis and Brenda try to read one marriage book a year together, and often take advantage of car time to do that.
Brenda’s mother, who is in her 90s, lives at University Place. When the family eats there together, Brenda said she loves watching an older couple in their late 80s through the big windows in the dining room.
“I’ll see them walking through the parking lot holding hands, just talking,” she said. “Every day they go for a walk after lunch. … I just can’t help but look at them and be like, ‘Ah, I want to be there someday. Just holding hands.’”
Through the stages of marriage – from engagement to the retirement home – one piece of advice from the Stevenses that helped them mesh as a blended family in New Mexico is to be a little goofy sometimes.
“We laugh a lot,” Beverly Stevens said. “We try to make sure that we don’t take ourselves too seriously or any situation too seriously.”
The rewards of building a life together – serving each other and doing the hard work of communicating – are immense.
“Everybody has ups and downs and highs and lows, but you know the other one is on your side, whatever problem there is, she is going to be with me,” Danny said. “It’s the part of commitment that says, ‘We’re on the same team, and we’re not stopping.’”
Interior Design & Marriage
As new couples master communicating about the big issues like finances and roles within the marriage, another area that can cause surprising conflict is the process of creating a home together. The task becomes tricky when a husband and wife are equally invested in the look and feel of the home but have different tastes and preferences.
Men are beginning to take an interest in their surroundings at home today more than in the past, according to Lynda Gilreath, owner of Abilene Interior Design.
“People are more invested in their home,” she said. “They want it to be a reflection of their personality. There is a trend now for more masculine furniture in size and scale.”
Early in a relationship, Gilreath said, it can be helpful to take note of each other’s opinions of décor and atmosphere at places like museums and restaurants. People’s tastes are often formed by experiences from very happy times in their lives, she said. The opposite is also true – sometimes a person will have an aversion to a particular look or feel because of negative experiences, Gilreath said. Understanding that taste is a deep part of an individual can help spouses honor each other’s opinions.
“Patience is important,” she said. “And you know, just because you’re a couple doesn’t mean you’re going to like the same things. Try to be open-minded, and maybe that doesn’t mean you have to love whatever the thing is, whether it’s motorcycles, guns or mounted heads or whatever, but where each person can have some of the things they like – but maybe not all of the things they like.”
Her advice for gathering pieces for a new home is to stay classic and neutral with the large furniture pieces, and go trendy and bold with accent pieces that can be easily switched out as fashions and preferences change.
She also recommends that if couples are on a budget, they should buy used furniture of a higher quality rather than buying new pieces made of plastic or fiberboard.
“Those are things that can be refinished or reupholstered,” she said. “A lot of times they are in really good condition. They may be 25 years old, but maybe they haven’t been used much.”
In second marriages, Gilreath said, the husband and wife have often already identified their preferences individually. A little compromise in these situations can go a long way.
“I think it can be done through good communication, rather than just saying, ‘No, I don’t like it,’” she said.
Not being afraid to trend toward the eclectic and vintage is freeing to someone putting together a home, Gilreath said, because those styles leave open a lot of possibilities.
“If you make good basic choices, then you can build on that as time goes by,” she said.