The 4 Stages of Marital Culture Shock

The normal in one "culture" and the normal in the other "culture" can sometimes differ greatly. And, it can be a bit of shock to stumble, sometimes rather jarringly, upon these cultural differences.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

"Wait, you want me to do what?" I asked, flabbergasted that Ted, my husband of less than a year, would even suggest such a thing.

He repeated calmly, "Get the oil in your car changed yourself." Growing up, I'd watched my dad take care of any and all vehicle-related concerns for my mom. He did the same for me once I started driving. And he wasn't the first man in our family to do so. My maternal grandfather was the same way. So I automatically assumed my man would follow in their footsteps. Because, well, that's what all good husbands do, right?


Looking back, I realize that this oil-change incident was one of my initial tastes of something I've come to believe we all hit in our first few years of marriage, and that's this: marital culture shock.

What exactly is marital culture shock?

I'm confident we all know what "culture shock" is. But, just to clarify, let's look at how the Oxford Dictionary defines it. This online source points to it as "the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes." The reality is, when two people get married, in many ways they are merging two cultures. Even though they have a lot of commonalities going into their union, they're both bringing different family histories, upbringings, perspectives, personalities, habits, and ways of doing day-to-day life into marriage. The normal in one "culture" and the normal in the other "culture" can sometimes differ greatly. And, it can be a bit of shock to stumble, sometimes rather jarringly, upon these cultural differences.

So how can you, as a newly-married couple, better prepare for marital culture shock in your relationship?

According to many social scientists, there are four stages of culture shock. In my experience, I've found that these stages can apply to marriage too. And I believe that being aware of them as a couple is a great way to help ease the transition. So let's look at each one.

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Stage

A presentation from Northeastern University in Boston describes the Honeymoon Stage of culture shock as when we "experience emotions like excitement, euphoria, anticipation, and eagerness. Everything ... is new and exciting." It is, as defines "honeymoon," a "period of blissful harmony."

It's at this point that our new spouse's different ways of doing things are either overshadowed by the newness of our union, or we're so eager to please - as I was with the folding of t-shirts - that our automatic reaction is to try to please. Basically, we're intrigued, not bothered by our spouse's culture.

I encourage you to enjoy this stage. Seriously. Enjoy it.

Stage 2: The Frustration Stage

Next comes what's termed the Frustration Stage. That fort of collective wisdom, Wikipedia, describes it as a time when "differences between the old and the new culture become apparent and may create anxiety. Excitement may eventually give way to unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger as one continued to experience unfavorable events that may be perceived as strange and offensive to one's cultural attitude."

Anxiety, frustration, and anger over the unfavorable, the strange, the offensive. Yup. The honeymoon's over.

This is when the fact that our spouse insists we have the oil changed ourselves, or that we not touch their shower towel, rubs us the wrong way. Or perhaps, as I talk about in my book Team Us, their work schedule begins to intrude upon when we feel dinner should be eaten. Worse yet, we discover that they don't get excited about holidays like we do and, in fact, we may have very well married the Grinch.

Stage 3: The Adjustment Stage

The Adjustment Stage, as described by Northeastern University, is when "one becomes familiar and comfortable with the culture, people, food, and language of the host company." Wikipedia notes that it happens as "one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines."

I like to refer to this stage as when the process of "marrification" really kicks in. It's when we, as couples, move past our frustration and realize that the united state of marriage takes time, and that's okay. We start to adjust and create routines based on the knowledge that saying "I do" doesn't magically transform us - two once-single people - into a couple ready to instantly share everything. That, instead, it's a process that requires steady, consistent, purposeful, grace-giving, forgiveness-extending growth together.

Stage 4: The Acceptance Stage

Finally, comes the Acceptance Stage. This is where an individual is able to "compare" the good and bad of their old culture with the good and bad of the new culture. With this comes the ability, as Wikipedia notes, to be "able to participate fully and comfortably" in one's new surroundings. Think "resignation," but without any of the negative connotations of that word.

In my experience, the Acceptance Stage in marriage takes hard work and intentionality. It comes after we've taken the time to accept that our new family isn't going to be just like our original family. Instead, it's a new entity birthed of two cultures coming together to form a new culture. Which, if you stop and think about, is really exciting. Like chocolate and peanut butter. Or peanut butter and jelly. Or jelly and fish. Jellyfish are a mystery ... as well as exciting. Like the Acceptance Stage of culture shock.

There you have it. The four stages of marital culture shock. Twelve years later, Ted and I can say that we've survived and, as a result of walking through the stages together, have formed our own more perfect, not-yet-perfect, union.

Yep, I'd say we've both adapted quite nicely to this shared culture of ours.

Go To Homepage

Before You Go