If it feels like the beginning of your marriage was a blissful extension of your wedding party before "real life" set in, you're probably right. New research suggests that most couples do, in fact, go through a honeymoon period.
In a study published in a recent issue of Social Science Research, Spencer James, an assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, looked at data from women in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth starting in 1992, when the survey began including questions about marital quality. James then used advanced statistical techniques to suss out marriage satisfaction patterns.
Rather than finding one dominating trajectory with little variation, as previous research has suggested, James found quite a bit more nuance and complexity to the average paths. Some marriages started bad and got worse; some started well and stayed about the same; some started well, got worse and then improved -- all at completely different rates.
"There are as many ways to be happy in marriage as there are people who are in marriages," he told The Huffington Post.
Similar to past research, however, the average path of marital happiness James found was starting high initially and then slowly declining, but that marital experience also varied depending on race, income and other factors. African Americans, low-income earners and premarital cohabiters all generally had lower marriage satisfaction than their counterparts, even if their counterparts also experienced a gradual decline. These three groups were also more likely to experience a later uptick in marital happiness.
So the prior literature wasn't entirely wrong -- it's just not so simple, after all.
James did, however, stumble upon one universal relationship truth in his new research: Marriage is almost always better in the beginning. James explained that marriages generally thrived just after the wedding, when social and community support are at their peaks. The big party, the lavish gifts and the encouraging well-wishes don't hurt, either. All of that fanfare, James said, will do wonders for a marriage, but that support eventually fades with time as "real life" sets in.
"When you couple that with the fact that people now have children and they start dealing with some of their [marital] issues, maybe they realize their spouse isn’t as perfect as they once thought," James said. "You can get a little bit of an upward tick, but you don't see anything returning back to honeymoon level [later in the marriage]."
That's not to say that it was a stark drop downhill after the honeymoon period for everyone. Whatever path marriages took after the first couple of years -- whether couples stayed relatively happy or had troubles -- they just didn't seem to get back to being as happy as they were in that initial stage.
Overall, these findings suggest that it's important to realize that your marriage is unique, so comparing it to any other relationship could do more harm than good. James' biggest piece of advice after sifting through the marital nuances is to find your own way to be happy in a marriage, without seeking out a pattern to guide you.
"It's your marriage, it’s not society's," he said.
Perhaps establishing realistic expectations is the trick here: If you don't expect marriage to be an extended honeymoon, you'll be more equipped to deal with all of life's curveballs as a couple.