Cowboys are wise.  At least, I think so.  The main reason I say this is that my dad is a cowboy, and I’ve always found him to be a source of great wisdom.  But more to the point, having watched a few old westerns from the silver screen in my time I learned a lesson about dealing with problems and bad guys:  Head them off at the pass!

What does this have to do with marriage?  In my most recent column I talked about the challenge of troubled marriage relationships, and suggested that many times such relationships can change for the better.  But as I’ve pondered this issue, it struck me that this bit of “cowboy wisdom” applies clearly to troubled marriage relationships.  One of the critical ways to encourage healthier and happier marriage relationships is to head problems off at the pass.  In other words, early on prior to marriage and in the early years of marriage.  

You’ve all heard the mournful statistics about high divorce rates.  But what concerns me most about the high number of divorces is when they tend to occur.  I’m concerned for young couples.  The National Center for Health Statistics reports that the majority of divorces occur for couples married less than five years, and that the proportion of divorces each year is actually highest for couples married three years.  Three years!  

Now, I think it would be really interesting to get a large sample of Latter-day Saint couples in the first five years of marriage and find out what is happening.  What are the major challenges they face?  What tend to be the most difficult issues?  That would be really interesting, but would also cost quite a bit of money.  If you feel like making a donation, give me a call.  In the meantime, I’m going to cheat a little bit and share the results from just such a study – with Catholic couples in the first five years of marriage.  Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska has a terrific Center for Marriage and Family and, through its affiliation with the Catholic Church, conducts some very interesting research.  

Top Ten Issues in Early Marriage

Without going into great detail, in December 2000 Creighton University released its executive summary of this study, “Time, Sex, and Money:  The First Five Years of  Marriage.”  They developed a large national, random sample of 947 couples who had participated in a premarital education activity, and tended to be in first marriages, Caucasian, pretty well educated, and in their twenties and thirties.  I’ll make an outrageous scientific assumption and suggest that young Latter-day Saint couples are not dramatically different from young Catholic couples, though actually a little over 30 percent of those in the study were in mixed-faith marriages.  So, what’s going on?

The list below is a compilation of the “Top Ten Issues in Early Marriage” for these couples.  The couples rated if an issue was problematic and also how intense the issue was as a challenge.  The “Top Ten” issues emerged by combining the frequency of an issue with its average intensity level for couples.  In other words, these are probably important issues to help young couples prepare to discuss and resolve as marriage unfolds for them.  

1 – Balancing Job and Family

I must admit this surprised me at first.  But I’m increasingly persuaded that the pell-mell rush toward “careerism” in modern society spells disaster for many young marriage relationships.  Making work and family harmonize is difficult enough when one spouse is working, and yet for the majority of young couples today both husband and wife are engaged in the job market.  Challenges include work interfering with couple time, working different shifts, fatigue, and raising young children.  We must work, but we must not let work become a barrier to marital well-being.  I spoke recently with a friend who had turned down the opportunity for a high-profile judicial position, and when I asked why one thing he said was that taking the job would distract from his marriage right now.  A high councilor in my stake recently reminded us that Doctrine and Covenants 42:22 states, “Thou shalt love thy wife (or husband) with all they heart, and shalt cleave unto her (or him) and none else.”  It doesn’t say “no one else,” referring only to other people, but “none else,” meaning no other person, activity, or pursuit in life, including work, should take priority over drawing close to a spouse in love.  

2 – Frequency of Sexual Relations

This issue was cited as a problem more often than any other issue but one in the study, and had a high level of intensity.  Notice that the issue is not “satisfaction” but “frequency.”  First of all, it is common in the early years of marriage for couples to be learning each other’s sexual needs and preferences.  But second, this issue is most likely related to the first issue of sufficient time together also.  Couples troubled by interference with work or other commitments, stress and fatigue, and possibly young children, often find it difficult to connect meaningfully in their emotional and sexual relationship.  A healthy dose of patience, open and positive communication, and mutual respect can do wonders in this area.  But a key thing to consider is that patterns established by couples in their early years tend to become habitual patterns that persist in later years.  If couples in the early years of marriage do not work to understand and adjust to each other in the sexual relationship, it may become a recipe for continuing frustration and disagreement.  This topic deserves a couple’s time, knowledge, and attention.

3 – Financial – Debt Brought Into Marriage

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once counseled young couples at BYU to do a little “plastic surgery” and get rid of credit card burdens.  Easy credit makes for hard marriages.  The financial basics of living within your means, managing a household budget, paying bills promptly, and avoiding purchases on credit are critical to starting marriage out favorably.  Debt brought into a marriage can literally trap a couple for years in financial bondage.  This issue is, in my opinion, the “sleeping giant” that emerges once many couples have married and takes a heavy toll on them.  Good credit counseling and sound financial education are helpful to many couples who face this challenge.

4 – Financial – Husband’s Employment

A husband’s employment situation can be challenging for many couples in early marriage due to several factors, including lack of sufficient income, job instability, or a sense of too much time at work.  It is important to understand the role that work plays in the lives of men.  For most men, their personal happiness and sense of esteem are strongly connected to how satisfied they are with their work and the feeling of accomplishment it gives them.  In many ways, men also express commitment to their families by working for their families.  This suggests that wives need to recognize how husbands often feel they are sacrificing for the family through work, while husbands need to understand that work cannot become the primary focus for them.  The Savior sacrificed for those around Him with direct and constant expressions of time and love, and this is how couples in early marriage, especially husbands, must also sacrifice for each other.  

5 – Financial Situation

Money issues, according to President Gordon B. Hinckley in his pamphlet “Cornerstones of a Happy Home,” are a source of more marital problems than almost anything else.  Just as couples in early marriage come to the relationship with different backgrounds regarding how to celebrate Christmas or drive a car, both husband and wife also have different backgrounds regarding how to think about and handle money.

 For example, what if you get an extra $40 in your paycheck?  One person might think, “Savings account,” while the other might think, “Date night at a nice restaurant.”  The problem then becomes not the money, but how to handle the money.  A couple’s financial situation is a combination of their income, their expenses and debts, their budget plan, and their individual and shared feelings and actions about handling money.  Two keys for Latter-day Saint couples include financial honesty with the Lord (payment of tithing and fast offerings) and with each other (open and positive discussion of budget, purchases, etc.).

6 – Expectations About Household Tasks

Interestingly, the “top” issues are the ones that couples must always continue to deal with — like taking out the garbage.  There will always be garbage, and somebody has to take it out.  Who?  When?  How?  According to my wife, somewhere in my DNA the Lord embedded a function known as “garbage removal specialist,” because in our home that’s one of my standard household tasks.  It is very helpful for young couples not only to think about and discuss who will do what household tasks, and how often, but how they are expected to be done.  For example, is someone doing the dishes a “wrong” way . . . or just a different way?  The more flexibility and mutual helpfulness there is in this arena, the more happy a young couple tends to be with the care of home and children.

7 – Constant Bickering with Spouse

The seventh most problematic issue for couples in early marriage was constant bickering with a spouse — complaining, arguments, sarcasm, put-downs, fault-finding, disagreements.  Notice it’s not so much the “yelling and hollering.”  It’s simply the lack of civil and caring conversation.  It’s a pattern of consistent negative interaction that becomes a habit and eventually a form of bondage.  I watched a sitcom recently and noticed that the couple interaction portrayed as “normal” consisted of constant put-downs, criticism, blaming, and name-calling.  Try this exercise.  Pick five or six television shows that depict married couples and track what kind of communication is depicted as normal.  You’ll be shocked — it’s constant bickering.  Yet as I thought about what might happen in my own marriage if I spent 2-3 days talking to my wife the way I saw such interactions portrayed on mainstream television, I quickly realized that I’d be risking the happiness of my marriage.  Couples should be sensitive to this possible pitfall in early marriage.

8 – Communication Challenges

Communication with a spouse and resolving major conflicts were both areas of primary concern for many couples in early marriage.  Learning effective communication takes some time in early marriage.  Men and women tend to communicate differently in some ways.  Each person may have a different type of personality style regarding communication.  And each spouse comes from a family with often different styles of communicating about issues or resolving problems.  Most research on marriage shows that communication and conflict resolution are two areas of primary importance that couples can actually learn to change if they need to do so.

9 – Challenges with Parents or In-Laws

Whether it is hostility between a husband or wife and in-laws or lack of time with parents, issues regarding parents or in-laws rank high on the list of challenges too.  I often will ask couples in a marriage enrichment class, “Are your in-laws outlaws?”  This often launches a discussion about relationships as a couple with each spouse’s family of origin.  Most spouses often feel protective of their own families of origin and so may be hurt, disappointed, or offended if there are problems between the person they married and their own families.  President Boyd K. Packer has remarked on the importance of recognizing that marriage creates a new family on the records of the Church, and that even parents and close family members must respect the boundaries of this new family and let it develop its own character, traditions, and activities.  

10 – Time Spent with One’s Spouse

Time is the substance of life.  What we do with our time is so important to the quality of our experience in life.  I know a couple who had a trauma in their lives with the loss of one of their several children.  One thing I noticed about them was that after this loss the husband began to come home from work for lunch.  Every day.  To be with his wife.  It seemed a little thing, but over time it has become an unspoken commitment to the importance of time with each other as husband and wife.  Such daily “connecting moments” are pearls of time in the course of each day and help a marriage to stay young at heart.    

Cornerstones of a Happy Home

A classic and profound talk on the fundamentals of a happy home, and indeed, a happy marriage, is “Cornerstones of a Happy Home” by President Gordon B. Hinckley.  It is available as a pamphlet from the LDS Church Distribution Center.  But I first encountered its precepts on the wall of my father- and mother-in-law’s home as I courted my wife.  My mother-in-law had framed a pattern that shared this simple formula:

Four Cornerstones of a Happy Home

      – Mutual Respect
      – Soft Answers
      – Financial Honesty
      – Family Prayer

As I re-read the wisdom of President Hinckley’s counsel in this address, I marveled at how directly his counsel on these four cornerstones of a happy home applies to the challenges identified in early marriage.  Prophets truly have the power to see life’s issues clearly and to provide guidance and counsel for our life’s journey.  

Happy homes begin with happy marriages.  Happy marriages begin with a willingness to understand and address the challenges that come early in the path of marital travel.  If we are to make a difference in troubled marriages or reduce the likelihood of divorce in early marriage, we must begin early.  We must help our youth and young adults understand and prepare for what they will face.  We should reach out to couples in the early years of marriage who can use wisdom, support, and knowledge.  

Do something.  Get a copy of “Cornerstones of a Happy Home.”  Read it and apply it in your own life.  Share it with an LDS couple that is recently married or preparing for marriage.  Talk with them about the top ten issues they might face and how to prepare well for marital success.  Drop me a note about what you do, I’m always interested.  Together, perhaps, we might help the early years of marriage become a beginning point for long and caring years ahead for someone we love.