When the First Year Is Hell

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Happy Anniversary to us! (Overpriced Italian food in the pouring rain when I’m exhausted, nauseous, and congested, and when he comes home asking if we really can’t just make tacos and Dumb and Dumber our permanent anniversary tradition, starting now. We are so romantic.)

It wasn’t a specific piece of advice that got me to our first wedding anniversary. It wasn’t the insistence of my closest friends that we’d be able to make it work, no matter what. It was a specific piece of someone else’s story — a story of someone I respected, with a marriage full of love, honesty, and honor.

“Our first year of marriage was hell.”

That’s the phrase I kept returning to, fight after fight after heartbreak after screaming-into-the-void heartbreak.

My first year of marriage was hell, too. Well — to be precise — the beginning of it was.

“Marriage is such a wonderful thing!” I once gushed to a engaged couple a few days ago.

“Bailey lies,” my husband added. “It’s only wonderful after the first seven months.”

And for us, that was true.

I won’t bore you with the details, but they involve selfishness, verbal abuse, cold shoulders, pointless 2 AM arguments about the same exact thing, a lack of trust, complete and utter disrespect for the other’s dignity, and contempt.

It was the most nightmarish thing I’ve ever experienced.

I once sobbed through a wedding out of biting jealousy that the other couple was happy and I wasn’t. I cringed whenever people asked how newlywed life was. (“The worst,” I wanted to say.) I hit rock bottom so many times. I begged for separation, I pined for my single days — anything to end the torture of loving and feeling unloved and the hateful rage that kept spewing out of my mouth because of it.

I am 100% certain, had our pattern of mutual disrespect and contempt and emotional bankruptcy continued, our marriage would have ended.

That is clear.

What isn’t clear is what changed.

Oh, I can tell you what changed, as in, we are now decent people who apologize and say kind words and laugh together and listen to each other and don’t actively seek to make each other’s lives miserable. We’ve got the crucial ratio of five positive comments for every one negative comment down. Our arguments — our rare, contained, occurring-during-daytime-hours arguments — actually end up with mutual understanding instead of despair.

Things have changed, for sure. I’m just not sure how, or why — or why then.

I had imagined me being the one to revive my husband’s affections for me through my mild manners and humility and deescalation tactics. I was the woman, I was the one with the emotional intuition and maturity to win him back. And I was the one who went to counseling.

Not for the marriage. I went to counseling for me, for my faith deconstruction, for the anxiety I felt over shifting beliefs. I blamed all of that for making me the demon wife from hell.

That was the biggest change I made — taking responsibility for my own emotions, working constructively and independently on tackling my anxiety and fear, and finding a skilled listener other than my husband to hear every paranoid, odd, and overwhelming thing I felt.

But through no mild manners and humility of my own (though I really did, mostly, try or intend to try), my husband started treating me respectfully. He’d say something that would tick me off, I’d raise my voice to the highest decibel, expecting the same old repeat 2 AM argument, and he’d gently, humbly, respectfully, apologize.

And he kept doing it, even though I lost my temper every time, even though he lost his temper sometimes.  When he did, he’d stop, take a big breath, apologize, and clarify.

It was like a completely different relationship.

We were communicating. We were conversing. We were healing.

I don’t know why it didn’t work all the other times one of us tried to be the bigger person, or when I poured out my soul to him, or when we researched the key components in a successful marriage. I don’t know what clicked for him, or what clicked for me, or why they clicked at roughly the same time with miraculous results.

Maybe it was a miracle.

At any rate, we acquired these miracle-working communication skills — or he did, or I did, and we rubbed off on each other, or maybe we didn’t, I don’t know — around mid-January. And it’s been heaven ever since.

I want to stress this: the first seven months were literally hell — if hell is the absence of goodness and love and hope. And these past five months have been literally heaven — if heaven is the presence of kindness and laughter and happiness and love and occasional arguments about dishes.

I stress those two things, because it was hard for me to believe that anyone with a hell as real as mine could experience anything like the happiness I’m now experiencing — with the same person. Anytime anyone talked about hardship in their marriage, I doubted either the intensity of their hell or the reliability of their happiness.

As far as newlywed encouragement goes, this is all I got: I walked through hell my first year of marriage.

How we did it, I don’t really know. It took two people deciding to change. Any advice or formula I can offer will only affect one of those two people.

Whether you can walk through it too, I don’t really know either. But at least four people have — my husband and I, and the couple whose first-year hell allowed me to keep going.

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28 thoughts on “When the First Year Is Hell

  1. Mrs. Q

    Yep, the early days are rough. I said the other day people shouldn’t give up on marriage until they’re past the 7 year mark (barring abuse of course.) This book may be too conservative & anti-feminist to you but The Alpha Females’ Guide to Men & Marriage has some great tips that have made our relationship even better. Basically author Suzanne Venker’s advice is to be nice, make less of a fuss, and yes, have more sex. I don’t agree w/ everything in the book but it has some sound advice. Another helpful book was Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages. I learned that acts of service makes me feel loved while my spouse responds to affection. Once we knew this about each other it became much easier to accept each other.

    Congrats on surviving the 1st year! I hope you two continue to pray together, laugh together, and have patience with yourselves…and each other.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I’ve heard about the 7 year mark, too. And I agree with the gist of Venker’s book — all of those things have definitely helped!! ;) I read “The 5 Love Languages” ages ago, and it’s been a lifesaver in figuring out both mine and others’ needs in a relationship. Just the concept that we speak different languages in regards to giving and receiving love is such a helpful things to know!

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  2. Laura Jinkins

    I’m so glad you both chose to stick it out. The pre-marriage advice I received from a cousin was this:

    “There will be mornings you wake up, roll over and look at him and think, ‘My God, what have I done?’ Don’t worry. It will pass.”

    It sounds funny, but I think the interpretation is this: Don’t give up. Love is something we CHOOSE. Much like joy. We choose to focus on the good in the person that is driving us nuts, and in return, they choose to focus on the good in us. We think about them — what we can do for them, rather than what they’ve not done for us. And in the sowing of the seeds of caring for each other, rather than ourselves, it comes back to us. Or at least that’s been my experience.

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  3. Jasmine Ruigrok

    You go, girl. Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is not quit. I’m so grateful that—by whatever collective means He used—God helped you guys get to a place of love and goodness towards each other.

    I’ve heard it said that couples who go through hell in the early years of their marriage have the fortitude to endure in the later years. People who get life picture perfect and on a platter early on, I’ve seen fall apart in their 40’s-50’s. That could be total hogwash, but I think the principle stands: we are refined through fire, even though it sucks like nothing else when you’re in it. That’s my two cents for your blog this week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      I wonder if any studies have been done on that observation. It makes sense. I think so much of it depends on if the couple actually heals and mends after the hell, or if the hell only lessens a bit — that is to say, whether the hell was purgatorial and strengthening, or just annihilating. I think that’s just a general principle of life: sometimes what kills you makes you stronger, and sometimes, it just kills you. But I think, at the very least, leading a life of privilege, with no challenges or hardships, and/or not anticipating the possibility of challenges or hardships, can really screw someone up.

      “We are refined through fire, even though it sucks like nothing else when you’re in it.” That’s an exact Bible quote, right? ;)

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  4. WorkinMama

    Virtual hugs to you and your hubby both. I’m glad to hear things have gotten better and you’ve made it through.

    Mutual respect and kindness go a long ways. That’s the beauty of egalitarianism. Respect is a two-way street. I believe that you can’t love someone without also respecting them.

    My husband and I just celebrated seven years, and we both truly agree that they have been the best seven years of our lives. We have been through some really horrendous life circumstances together, and we have been there to support each other.

    Our relationship has always been strong, but we did struggle in the beginning with how to resolve conflict. We had never fought or argued about anything before we got married. Literally never.

    We had our first argument a couple of weeks after out honeymoon. I had just gotten home from a 14 hour night shift at an extremely stressful job, and I wanted a chocolate milkshake. My husband had already packed my cocoa powder (along with most of our other belongings) into cardboard boxes because we were getting ready to move. And he hadn’t labeled the boxes. I was really irritated. Couldn’t he remember where he put it? Why hadn’t he labeled the boxes?

    My husband was so upset about the mere fact that we were arguing, that he seemed to lose all sense of reason and became an emotional mess. He was so focused on arguing about the fact that we were arguing and how that was going to affect our relationship, that he couldn’t focus on the REAL issue — that is — what had he done with the essential ingredients that I needed in order to make a chocolate milkshake? He thought that I “needed some space” (as he explained later) and he thought it best to step away from the situation, so he stepped out of our tiny apartment into the parking lot.

    I was so hurt. I thought, “The man can’t even have a rational discussion with me. He must be so angry that he can’t even speak to me. Now he’s just walking away from me!” So I opened the door and I’m like, “Come back in here!”

    Looking back, it’s kind of funny now. He has learned to realize that the sky is not going to fall down just because we disagree about something (or even argue), and that “giving me space” is just going to upset me, and I have learned to use a kinder tone of voice and not automatically assume the worst of him.

    You guys look so cute and happy together! Happy anniversary!

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      YES. I am SO grateful for the idea of mutual respect in egalitarianism. Knowing that both of us require respect for a functioning, healthy relationship was key.

      Erich and I *always* fought (our relationship got off to a rough start — hence, it was in such bad shape when we actually put a ring on it), so I can’t imagine how devastating it must be for a couple who never fought to suddenly find intense disagreements during marriage!! But I feel like, even with our history of argumentation, we had to learn anew in marriage everything you mentioned: the importance of kind words, DON’T GIVE ME SPACE, and don’t assume the worst.

      We *are* so happy together!! Thank you!

      Like

  5. David

    Look at YOU, persisting! /Both/ of you. First years ARE tricky, and it sounds like maaaaybe Erich deserves some credit for giving you a flat “no” when you wanted to separate. Which is weird because this is an egalitarian blog, and this isn’t something we’d normally praise a guy for.

    But life is strange and takes you to interesting places! And FWIW, you deserve credit for TAKING no for an answer.

    Like

  6. deb

    “It took two people to change…” The secret of successful and even at times, blissful marriage. The willingness and the work of TWO people who completely and utterly depend on Jesus alone. Unfortunately, we don’t all get to experience this. Thank God everyday that you have..

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Oh no!!! Do keep in mind that this is OUR story, not a universal or even probable outcome of your first year. We had a lot of unresolved issues and red flags going into marriage, and I was personally shifting in ways that affected our marriage. I know plenty of people who have had and will have happy first years, and I sincerely hope you will be one of those people. :)

      Like

    • WorkinMama

      Don’t worry, Kristen! Each individual couple is different.

      Other than a few ridiculous arguments about things like chocolate milkshakes (see my other comment above), my first year of marriage was absolutely wonderful! Actually, all seven years of marriage have been wonderful for me and my husband/best friend. Not that we haven’t been through some difficult life circumstances, but we have been there to support each other.

      If I could give some advice to a newlywed couple (or someone who is about to get married), it would be this:

      1) Love your neighbor as yourself. Your spouse is now your closest neighbor.

      2) Do unto others as you would have them do to you. “Others” includes your spouse.

      3) In light of 1 and 2, mutual respect and kindness go a long ways. Many evangelical churches and marriage books teach that men primarily need respect, while women primarily need love. This is a false dichotomy. As human beings, we all need to feel loved AND respected. In fact, I believe that you can’t truly love someone without respecting them.

      4) Have lots and lots of sex! It helps create a strong physical and emotional bond.

      5) Give yourself (and your spouse) permission to say no to sex if you are truly not up to it at the moment. I was raised in an evangelical/fundamentalist culture that said that a wife must never, ever “deny” her husband, because those poor men have such fragile egos and it would just destroy him and destroy your marriage if you don’t give him whatever he wants, at the exact moment he wants it. But if “no” or “later” are not an option, then “yes” becomes meaningless. If sex becomes a duty or a chore, then it’s not fun anymore. If a person forces themselves to have sex when they really don’t want to, it will often lead to anger and resentment down the road, ultimately killing desire and enjoyment. Besides, a normal man doesn’t want to be married to a robot.

      Fortunately, I never bought into the idea that “saying no to your husband is a sin,” but I know people who do practice that mentality, and they are not happy and neither are their husbands. In other words, mutual consent and desire are essential.

      Bailey, I hope I’ve not said anything too graphic for your blog.

      Like

      • Bailey Steger

        ^^^ YES to all of this!!! Basic kindness and lots of sex go a long way. ;) I think a lot of marriage advice, particularly when it emphasizes the differences between
        men and women, miss the basic point that we all need daily kindness and respect. It’s really that simple (and that hard, when you’re in a crabby mood and/or your spouse is being unreasonable). And actually, far from being graphic, this reminds me that I want to write about the importance of each spouse’s ability to say “no” to sex. So much good stuff to unpack in your comment!!

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  7. Korie

    Thanks for sharing and being honest! The first year was fine for us… Hard, but not awful. The second year… that was rough. Third year has been a lot of forgiving all the crap that happened in the second year. Hopefully it goes up from here?

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      That sounds a lot like our dating years…our first year of marriage was often a recovery (or a reaction) from all the horrible things we did while dating. I sincerely hope you’re running on an upward incline. It’s hard. Hang in there.

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  8. Leigh McKay

    Oh dear. I’m probably going to be getting engaged soon (have been dating about two years, and friends two years before that), and I’m with Kristen– this sounds scary. But my boy is very steady, and I’m reasonably even keeled. I suspect that living together will bring out the worst, though… but hopefully also the best? Here’s praying. I would love to hear more about the general trajectory of your and Erich’s relationship (when the major ups and downs were during your dating years) :)

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Congratulations on a relationship beautiful enough to lead to marriage!! I would agree that marriage is hard, in the same way that anything worth doing has some challenges at times, some unpredictabilities, and takes some getting used to. But I think living together and being married doesn’t necessarily bring out the worst. When our marriage was in shambles, yes, it brought out our worst (or rather, we brought out our worst to deal with it). But now that we’re doing far better, I’d say marriage brings out my BEST — it inspires me, even when I’m tempted to bring out my worst. Again, this is OUR story, and though it may be common, your marriage doesn’t ever have to look anything like ours. ;)

      Now that marriage isn’t hell, I’ll consider writing more about our relationship trajectory! Thanks for reading — and be encouraged!!

      Like

    • asplashofcreamblog

      Oh, I want to encourage you two ladies who are looking ahead to marriage. We are almost to our second anniversary, and it has been … it’s just been grand. The first few months, we kept sort of looking at each other and saying, “Okay… when are we going to randomly starting bickering and disliking each other?” We didn’t, and we won’t. Of course the giddiness passed, but we remained best friends and sweet lovers. God has preserved peace and understanding between us. We have *of course* felt the rub of adjusting to relentless intimacy with an opposite personality; there have been hurts and tearful conversations where we struggle to figure each other out …But it’s all been in the context of honesty and prayer; we’ve had a deep mutual determination for grace, understanding, and above all, permanence.

      I almost couldn’t bring myself to write this, because it seemed like showing off how I’m awesome at marriage. Ha. This is God’s mercy, and how or why he gave us this, I don’t know. But marriage won’t change your relationship from good to bad, any more than it would make a hurtful and difficult relationship easy. It brings to fullness what is already there. So don’t be scared! Pray and hope and love. When the glitz of the wedding dies away you’ll get to hang out with your favorite person for life. :)

      Like

  9. Courtney

    I love that you’re so real here, Bailey. I’m not married myself, but I have suspected at times that some Christians who write about marriage have a tendency to gloss over the struggles and trials they’ve faced in the midst of it. I very much admire you’re courage for sharing the struggles that you and your husband went through and giving an honest picture of what the first few months were like—rather than painting it as one big fairytale. You don’t have to portray married life as perfect to show it as being good.🙂

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      I appreciate those words, Courtney! Thank you! When I was dating, I felt very frustrated by how unintentionally deceptive married couples were about their marriage. Of course, nobody is obligated to share personal information, but if you’re purporting to be honest, don’t say your marriage is going great when, actually, today was the only good day you had in months, or something like that. It was interesting seeing many newlyweds gushing about their relationship on Facebook, and then seeing those same wives in a private Facebook group be totally honest about how dysfunctional and hard their relationships were. It really discouraged me from working on my own crappy marriage, because I felt like we were long past saving. So that’s why I try to be 100% honest — I want other people to know they’re not alone. And since I’ve been 100% honest about the bad, it’s awesome to be able to say 100% that I’m happy and marriage is great!

      Like

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