As the old cliché goes, ‘falling in love is easy, it’s staying in love that’s the hard part’.
And while divorce rates have been slowly declining, the percentage of marriages ending in divorce increases more rapidly in the first 10 years of marriage than it does after – meaning fewer couples then ever are celebrating their paper anniversary.
News of Jenson Button and Jessica Michibata’s separation comes at the end of what may be ‘the year of the split’.
The couple called it quits after just under a year of marriage, and join a roster of photogenic pairings who have gone their separate ways, showing there’s no real guarantee of happy ever after for anyone.
Even if you consider your relationship to be solid, what is it which makes the first year of marriage such a potential minefield?
Relationship expert, psychologist and author Judi James explains the down-sides of the so-called ‘honeymoon period’.
“The first year of a marriage is the time when all the magic dust of the wedding itself has blown away and the perception gap begins to show itself.
“I.e. the size of the difference between the idealised view of your partner and the ‘happy ever after’ aspect of marriage – and the reality.
“Couples often get so swept up with the engagement and wedding period that they forget to discuss their individual expectations of what a marriage should look, sound and smell like.
According to Judi, even the elusive ‘unconditional love’ may in fact come with conditions.
“Change can also be a huge problem. Even people who claim to have met ‘the One’ will still have optimistic expectations about changing their partner’s behaviour to create the perfect fit.
“This tendency to plan a ‘make-over’ can destabilise the first year of a relationship.
“The classic definition of team-building applies to a marriage, with the stages running through ‘Forming’ to ‘Storming’ then ‘Norming’ and finally ‘Performing’.
“Newlyweds tend to underestimate the ‘Storming’ stage when there will be a need for co-operation, flexibility, negotiation and assertiveness to build the relationship into something that is complimentary and long-term rather than one-sided and therefore unfair in terms of flexibility and behavioural change.”
All bets are off after a walk down the aisle
Although Jenson and Jessica have parted after less than a year of marriage, they had been together since 2008.
But according to Judi, the length of the relationship prior to marriage may not have as much impact as expected.
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter how long you have been together, as all bets can be off once you have walked down the aisle.
“We tend to believe we get to know someone better the longer we are with them but in fact the opposite can be true as we start to trade on assumption rather than remembering to be open-minded and perceptive.
“Sometimes there is less risk of a split when both are flexible, open-minded and still learning and listening to their partner to create a good ‘fit’ than if they feel they have a thorough knowledge of them and have built what they see as compatible behaviours around an assumption.”
In the spotlight
Unsurprisingly, living in the public eye can make that first year particularly tough.
“Celebrities and public figures tend to be more needy in terms of someone who will fit into their lifestyle and offer constant emotional support.
“There is less ability for them to be flexible or supportive of their partner’s lifestyle and needs as the job will always tend to dominate. Egos tend to be bigger and inflate and deflate at an alarming rate.”
The scrutiny and media intrusion doesn’t help either: “Celebrities often take one of two approaches when picking their marriage partner.
“They will either opt for someone keen to share their spotlight, i.e. an existing celebrity or a ‘wannabe’, or they pick someone more private and ‘normal’.
“Both can be a recipe for disaster! When they go for a sharer they can become competitive with one another, and a private partner can find the constant intrusion unbearable.
“Celebrities also tend to have a larger gap between their public and private personas. The partner they pick to suit the public one won’t always create a good fit with the private one.”
Getting to two years
For those of us either working our way through the tricky first year, or about to step into the ring, Judi advises: “Lower your expectations to a more flexible and reasonable level and see resilience as a vital skill.
“Think about any time you have started a new job. Excited though you might have been it would have taken about three months of confusion and anxiety before you started to feel confident and learn what you were doing in terms of work and expectations.
“A marriage can be pretty similar so don’t be shocked if you encounter bumps straight away.
“Be flexible but not over-flexible. Sometimes it is useful to be passive but to take on that role full-time is only going to create more problems in future.
“Avoid moaning about any problems to friends and family. Everyone has their annoying habits but forming your own ‘army’ of supporters might not be the best way of dealing with them.