September 21, 2020

What Changes in the First Year of Marriage?

Across the country, young newlyweds are dealing with a host of new challenges and anxieties brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Many have lost jobs or are worried about the possibility of losing work. Others are dealing with the stress of loved ones falling ill. And some — if they are lucky enough — are learning how to spend 24 hours a day with their new spouses, living and working together under quarantine.

Until recently, though, the first year of marriage — traditionally thought of as an especially difficult year of transition — wasn’t so bad for many of them.

For previous generations, a wedding typically kicked off a wave of new responsibilities and experiences for couples: moving in together for the first time, merging finances, starting a family. But today, 65 percent of first marriages start with the couple already living together.

Young couples, especially, are inclined to sign a lease together before getting married, and to delay marriage over all. A 2018 relationships study from eHarmony found that, on average, American couples between the ages of 25 and 34 knew each other for longer before getting married than couples in any other age group.

This means that the first year of marriage can feel pretty status quo. Kaylee Showers, 33, and Dan Sweeney, 39, lived together in Indianapolis, Ind., for three and a half years before getting married in May 2018. Their transition to married life, then, was not exactly monumental.

“We knew each other’s families pretty well, we had integrated into each other’s friend groups,” said Ms. Showers, who works as a project manager at a marketing firm in Indianapolis. “It was just kind of like a continuation of what we had already been doing, except for we have extra jewelry.”

Mr. Sweeney, a stockbroker in Indianapolis, added “And an extra thing to remember beyond our birth dates.”

Today, Ms. Showers and Mr. Sweeney are working remotely and getting used to spending more time together at home. “We’ve adjusted really well,” Ms. Showers said.

For the baby boomer generation, a wedding often meant opening up a joint checking account. But some millennial couples never merge finances at all. And if they do, the first year of marriage is not necessarily when they make that transition.

Liz Higgins, a therapist at Millennial Life Counseling in Dallas, said that the couples she sees often have more complicated financial situations than their parents did when they were getting married. “Generationally many millennials went to college or have accrued some financial debt,” she said. “Maybe they’re already a homeowner. They get married later — that’s a known fact. Understandably there’s going to be some dynamics that come into play with that.”

Riley Henderson, 32, and Amanda Lester, 35, dated for seven years before marrying in Chicago, in July 2016. It took them two more years to open a joint checking account. At first, they maintained separate bank accounts, said Ms. Lester, who works in aviation sales at a carpet company in Chicago, and would split the bills and grocery expenses and reimburse each other via Venmo.

But, she said, “at a certain point, I was like, ‘This is stupid. You live with me, I live with you. Can we just share a bank account and pay all of our bills from the same place?’”

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According to a 2019 Insider and Morning Consult survey, Mr. Henderson and Ms. Lester are not alone. That survey of about 2,000 Americans found that 37 percent of married millennials keep their finances separate from their partners’, compared with just 27 percent of boomers.

Some couples do not see marriage alone as a reason to combine all their assets. Ms. Showers said she and her husband share household expenses but not a bank account. “We both decided against having children, so we didn’t really see a need to pool our resources together,” she said.

Jessie Gaynor, 34, and Robbie Mackey, 36, of Brooklyn, who married last May, have not merged their finances yet, either. “I mean, we’re planning to open a joint bank account but it’s always the last thing on the list,” said Ms. Gaynor, a writer and audience editor at Lit Hub in New York City.

Faiz Osman and Justin Goodemoot, both 35, say their wedding last year in Brooklyn didn’t inspire them to change anything else about their financial situation. They adopted a dog together, but “we don’t have joint accounts,” said Mr. Osman, a coordinator at an investment firm. “He is on my health insurance now, because I have better health insurance through work. But that’s really been the only big change.”

Other couples have found creative ways to share expenses without making much of a change in their financial lives.

Seth Dager, 32, and Eric Ball, 35, got married in upstate New York last year after dating for six years. They also do not share a bank account, but they do share expenses evenly. “We have a joint credit card that we use for our purchases,” said Mr. Dager, the head of creative at Mars Wrigley. “So like groceries or when we go out to dinner, and then we just split that bill, which has really helped alleviate financial pressures.”

In the current economic environment, some couples are feeling more anxious about their finances in general, even if they feel comfortable with the arrangements they have made with their partners. Ms. Lester and Mr. Henderson are both working from home but worried about the future. Mr. Henderson, who manages production at a distillery, has so far kept his job but said “the floor could drop out at any moment.”

“We had just started to save money with the goal of maybe one day purchasing a place, and all of a sudden that money became more of a teeny tiny safety net,” Ms. Lester said.

Ms. Higgins, the therapist, said couples who are dealing with financial anxiety should create a game plan for how they will deal with potential lost income. But it is also important, she said, to “hold space for each other’s emotions.”

Ms. Higgins says that many couples she sees in premarital and postmarital counseling are looking for help “navigating family dynamics.”

“A lot of millennials, as we know, have those helicopter parents,” she said. “Millennials value family and having that connection going and stuff. It’s a delicate dance and balance to figure out.”

Many couples said that once they got married, their parents started asking about when they would start a family of their own. “It was something that my mom pressed me on for a little while,” Ms. Showers said. “After a few frank conversations with her about just having no desire whatsoever to have children, she’s backed off of me a ton and completely respects our decision.”

Other couples managed to pacify family members while making their own traditions. Sidrah Atiq, 29, and Michael Wiseman, 31, married in Chicago in 2015, and they found a way to honor the more traditional values of Ms. Atiq’s family while starting their marriage their own way.

“We had started looking at houses to buy, and my family wouldn’t allow us to live together ahead of marriage,” said Ms. Atiq, a real estate broker and interior designer in Chicago. “So to bypass that whole issue, we kind of got married at our engagement party.”

“People didn’t really realize that we were getting married — in my culture, it’s called a Nikkah,” she added. “And that’s basically like, you’re legally married.”

After their Nikkah, Ms. Atiq and Mr. Wiseman, a mortgage professional, purchased their home, which they renovated while preparing for a bigger wedding celebration in 2016.

Some couples saw their wedding as the first way to establish their identity as a couple outside their families. Mr. Osman said of his wedding to Mr. Goodemoot, “Because we’re a gay couple and because we paid for it ourselves, we really had a lot of liberty to do whatever we wanted because we didn’t have peoples’ opinions getting in the way. And I think that really helped for us. I think it made it less stressful.”

If marriage is not so different from cohabitation, why are millennials still doing it? The answer — at least according to the couples interviewed — does not really boil down to “tax benefits” or involve much practicality at all.

“I finally felt like I was honoring Seth with the title that he always had,” said Mr. Dager of his husband, Mr. Ball. “For so many years prior to our wedding, it just seemed so odd to call him anything other than my husband. I just felt much more relaxed to finally be living what we had already been living, but have it finally be legal.”

According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, there seems to be intangible benefits to marriage that are not always present in cohabiting relationships. Married adults are more likely than cohabiting adults to say that things are going “very well” in their relationships (58 percent to 41 percent). And, according to the study, they are more likely to say that they trust their partners to be faithful to them and to make responsible financial decisions.

So even though things may not change dramatically in the first year of marriage, couples tend to report feeling better about their relationship over all.

“Neither one of us are religious, but I feel like I know myself better being in a marriage,” said Mr. Goodemoot of his marriage to Mr. Osman. “And I feel like I’ve learned a lot about how much I can care about somebody and how to be more selfless.”

“It wasn’t like a big step,” added Mr. Osman. “But this place that we’re in now, there’s less uncertainty. If we have an argument, it doesn’t mean that this could lead to a breakup. It does feel different, but it’s not like night and day. It’s like we walked into a cozier part of our house that we didn’t know existed.”

Ms. Gaynor and Mr. Mackey celebrated their one-year anniversary in May — with dessert at home. They had saved the topper to their wedding cake, which, they found, survived the year just the same as they did. “The outer frosting layer tasted strongly of freezer, but the inside held up remarkably well,” Ms. Gaynor said.

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