When FamilyShare asked you, our readers, what questions you want to get a therapist’s opinion about, we discovered one great fear is if their spouse will change after marriage, and if they do, how? Why do people change after marriage? We talked to psychotherapist Mary Fisher to find out why.
Q. What is your initial response to why people change after marriage?
For many people, marriage is a monumental event that bears huge significance and involves lifelong hopes and expectations. We can’t help but have expectations about what marriage will be like and how marriage will change us, but whatever we expect it to be, it isn’t usually that.
One change to expect immediately or soon after marriage is coming to terms with reality, which a lot of people experience as a let down or like the loss of a dream.
Q. Are there any types of physiological or psychological change that happen when you get married?
Developmental psychology is an entire field that’s devoted to studying how we change not just in childhood, but from birth until death. Certainly marriage doesn’t prevent us from continuing on our normal human development.
A physiological and emotional change is that for some people marriage coincides with their sexual debut.
While we become sexual beings much earlier than when we marry, for many people marriage is when they really begin to explore sexual intimacy. They start to understand who they are and their identity with sexuality with another person. We all have expectations about what sex will be like or should be like, even how sex works, even though it’s not something most people know how to talk about openly and productively.
Sex can be connecting, pleasurable, liberating, exciting if it’s done well, but it’s an art form that takes time to learn. It can be a really powerful catalyst for change.
Q. I’m glad to hear you talk about changes in sex, because that is a common concern we hear about: the changes in sex after marriage. What are some healthy expectations for people when they get married whether they’ve been sexually active before or not?
Expect change and see if you can be just a little friendlier toward it. There’s some research that suggests that romantic love is supposed to start and it’s supposed to end, and then couples go into a period of conflict or power struggle. And if they are able to successfully navigate the power struggle, then they move into this phase of ‘real love,’ so to speak.
Expect that conflict is going to happen, and if you can learn better conflict resolution skills, you’ll be able to navigate these changes more readily and with less distress.
Q. What should someone do when those changes are abusive?
Being willing and open to pursue professional help is really important there. Psychologist David Schnarch says that marriage is the cradle of adult development, so it’s really how we grow. And some of the changes that happen can be too difficult for people to handle on our own; some changes can feel really abusive.
Q. You mentioned the different phases couples go through in their marriage. What are some of the common changes couples experience besides sex?
Western culture values stability over a lifetime. We want to stay the same, but research actually suggests our personalities are shifting over our entire lifespans.
Expect that we are going to be changing in really fundamental ways. Not just in “I really like this restaurant,” or “My taste in magazines is shifting.” It can be a really deep, deep change in terms of who we are as people.
Personality changes are a normal thing to expect. Changes in values, changes in spiritual or religious belief. Those are also really normal, really common things couples can expect to occur. Even if couples are starting off with the same religion, a lot of people will find that one spouse eventually decides they don’t believe anymore and stops practicing that religion or they believe it differently than they did when they were first married.
Certainly when couples have children there are enormous changes. Research is really clear that while a lot of people find great meaning in having children, their quality of life takes a huge dive while they are having children and raising them. That’s something to expect.
I think if couples are expecting that those changes will happen, they are a little bit less distressing when they do happen.
Q. You help individuals and couples who are transitioning out of their faith. I know this is complicated, but what is one bit of counsel for couples who are trying to navigate a change of faith together?
You’re right, it is complicated. I think approach it in two parts.
One is attending to oneself and your own feelings about what’s happening in terms of the changes.
The other part is attending to your partner.
You’re looking to hold on to yourself and your own beliefs and values and your feelings about the changes while really working to be curious about your spouse’s world and how it might be changing.
To change such a fundamental thing as religion or spiritual practice can be really, really frightening and painful and often involves a loss of identity, so try to be curious and kind and compassionate while the spouse is making this transition. This will not only support them to have a healthier, more successful change process, but also can really protect and nurture the marriage and the relationship and buffer the effects.
Q. It’s a common fear for couples getting married that their partner will change, but what hope is there for those getting married?
Oh, I love this question. I think it is fundamentally hopeful!
Change is tough. We humans like the status quo, but it is so hopeful because it suggests that we are always growing, that we are always learning. Being in a close relationship or marriage can be a great catalyst for our growth, so I think to recognize that even though change be frightening, painful, difficult, it can ultimately lead to us becoming who we really are.
Q. As a therapist, what one life hack would you recommend?
Sex Talk Tuesday!
Some couples who have a more spiritual focus in their lives will call it Sacred Sex Talk Tuesday.
This is an assignment I give to all of my sex therapy patients, and I do it myself. Most of us aren’t raised talking about sex around the dinner table – we don’t know how to do it, and most of us are very uncomfortable talking about sex, but developing comfort talking about sexual intimacy with our spouses is crucial in creating a safe, loving and pleasurable sexual relationship.
So every Tuesday, or when we’re busy, one Tuesday a month, my husband and I sit down together and have a sex talk, and I’m going to describe the structure:
Each partner takes a turn being the talker and the other the listener.
1. First the talker shares something they enjoyed sexually
For example, “I really loved it when you rubbed my feet and pulled on my toes in bed last week.”
2. Second, they share something they would like to be different or they didn’t like
For example, “I just couldn’t focus the last time we made love. I let myself get distracted by thoughts about that presentation” or “I would like more touching and caressing,” and then they can talk about what kind of touching and caressing.
3. Third, they share something they really appreciate or enjoy about their partner sexually.
For example, “I love it when you tell me what you enjoy. It lets me know that you’re enjoying what I’m doing, and it gets me excited.”
4. The listener expresses gratitude that the talker has shared
This is really important because it can be such a vulnerable, even sacred thing to share one’s erotic world, and it’s important to help make it safe to share. For example, “Gosh, thank you so much for sharing what you enjoyed and what you didn’t enjoy about our sexual relationship.”
5. And then the listener reflects back what they understood and asks for clarification
And that’s Sex Talk Tuesday.
Q. What else do we need to know about changes in marriage?
I think Esther Perel, who’s a writer and psychotherapist, makes a really important point. She says that some people have two or three marriages in their adult lives, and some of us do it with the same person.
She’s saying that basically if you’re married for a long time, you’re going to have a few different marriages with that same person. Expect that big change will happen, and you’re going to grow because of it.
Editor’s note: We’ve edited the interview for content and clarity.