Does Marriage Really "Change Everything"?

Does Marriage Really “Change Everything”?

Start telling people you’re engaged, and you’ll start hearing a chorus of sage advice–the most popular one being, “Marriage changes everything!” But is this much-echoed adage really true, or is it just an old wives’ tale? (And who better to know about marriage’s long-term effects than old wives, anyway?) I posed the question to 28 couples whose marriages ran the gamut from a few weeks to a few decades. Here’s what they had to say:

The Love Life

You’ve heard of the “honeymoon period,” and it’s true. A major event like a wedding brings with it an immediate emotional change as you and your newlywed spouse adjust to your new, intimate roles in each other’s lives. Amy, married five years, recalls, “There was the joyous honeymoon-bubble of positive emotions, but as awesome as that was, it wasn’t permanent; we eventually returned to equilibrium.”

Don’t view equilibrium as a bad thing, however. Trying to sustain the intensity of that just-married feeling would quickly burn anyone out. Instead, get ready to enjoy all of the periods of special closeness that will surface throughout the many years of your marriage–not just the first one.

If you don’t engage in premarital sex, marriage brings an obvious change in your love life. But you’ll also hear many jokes along the lines of, “Do you believe in sex after marriage?” There seems to be a consensus that wedding vows signal the end of romance. As funny as jokes may be, there’s no actual evidence that your love life will plummet after saying, “I do.” Although you can expect your romantic life to evolve along with the other aspects of your life as you mature, the changes are more tied to the passing of time than marriage. Jim, married 31 years, puts it best: “What people don’t realize is that everything changes in marriage because everything changes, period. Married or single, you’re not going to conduct your life the same way after five or 10 years.” Take comfort in that when planning your long-term romantic goals.

The Finances

Now that many couples live together before marriage, there are fewer changes associated with finally seeing your significant other in his “native habitat.” The little surprises, like how stinky your husband’s dirty socks are, or how loudly your wife burps after drinking orange cola, are already smoothed over by the time you slip on wedding rings. However, there is one immediate change that marriage still brings on: the finances.

“Mike and I were together for six years before we got married, so getting married didn’t really mark a change in our relationship. But it did mark a change in our paperwork,” observes Clay, married 15 years. “Taxes, health insurance, student loans; that sort of thing.”

Amanda, married six years, agrees. “My health insurance became amazing.”

“There was no more living like roommates,” says Geoffrey, married five years. “No more saying, ‘You owe your half of the rent,’ and all that that implies. It’s like we’re joint managers of a household now, and we have to consult each other on decisions that previously I might’ve just made myself since I was spending my own money.”

Randie, married 35 years, gives some practical advice: “The plus sides of marriage are that you get certain automatic legal rights like inheritance and the right to make medical and funeral decisions. The down side is that you are legally responsible for each other’s debts and you are responsible for each other’s medical bills.” In other words, you’re now an inseparable team–and that can be comforting or scary.

Couples have different approaches to merging money in a central account or keeping personal accounts separate, but the end result is the same: you’re now responsible for each other monetarily. For marriages between “spenders” and “savers,” that can mean an increase in financial arguments. It can also mean an increased feeling of intimacy as you plan for your future together.

The New Family

How does marriage change things? Marielle, married three years, answers, “I’m going to go with ‘I have no idea’ because I got pregnant within two weeks of getting married. So being married for me is synonymous with babies.” 

After marriage, the next step is often starting a family. And that’s where the changes really start. “For us, marriage didn’t change our relationship much. But having kids? That forced some conversations about religion, and extended family, and ‘how to’ that certainly led our family in different directions than we anticipated,” Clay and Mike recall. Suddenly, your relationship sprouts entirely new discussions about whose family gets to see the kids for Christmas–or what holidays the kids should celebrate, period.

There’s no denying that kids are a major turning point in a relationship. “We were initially focused inward entirely on each other,” says Laura, married 24 years. “Now we fight back to back to support our family.” Raising children often brings up differences in core beliefs that would have remained dormant in a childless relationship. But are the differences post-childbirth really due to marriage? Some would argue the two remain separate.

Outside Perception

If you changed your last name when you got married, you’ve already taken the first step in presenting a unified relationship front for outsiders’ perceptions. “We started cooking more and keeping our apartment cleaner,” says Waldo of her three-year marriage. “I think partially this is because we’re doing what we think married adults do.” Now that you’re a unit, your relationship becomes almost like a brand; in some cases, you even adopt a new nickname like “Kimye” or “Brangelina.”

“A lot of it probably comes down to external social pressure, not internal dynamics,” Marielle explains. “So, prior to marriage, moving in with your partner when they get a job in a different city is considered foolhardy, whereas after you’re married it’s considered weird if you don’t move. Going to a wedding stag is considered weird. Spending holidays apart is considered weird.” Once you’re a married team, tongues will start wagging if you spend too much time on individual pursuits.

The flip side of this, however, is that marriage gives you a solid excuse to spend more time with each other. Helen, married 10 years, observes, “My girlfriends used to tease me about wanting to stay home with my boyfriend instead of going out dancing with the girls. Once we got married, they gave a lot more respect to spending quality time with my husband.”

“The biggest deal is that people look at us differently since we have publicly announced that we will try to make things work out together for the rest of our lives,” says Mindy, now married two and a half decades. “It is probably easier for our kids to say that their parents are married. And, since we have been married for almost 25 years, we now have gloating power too.”

Comfort and Security

The commitment of marriage can be a little intimidating, but it also comes with a feeling of safety. Michael and Laura, married 24 years, recall, “The most significant, immediate feeling was that we were a team planning to build a life together. It was a feeling of security and comfort and mutual support.”

The “safety net” of marriage can be a beautiful support during hard times, but it can also carry a risk of stagnation. Life is all about gradual growing and evolving, after all, regardless of marital status. “We’ve been very fortunate that for the most part we have changed in compatible ways,” Michael and Laura say. “There were periods of time when we grew in different directions. It took conscious effort to steer ourselves back together.” To keep marriage from becoming stale, it’s important to keep it flexible, too.

In the end, if you have an honest and respectful relationship with good communication before you get married, you’ll likely continue the same relationship after marriage. A long life always brings changes with it, and good marriages flex and evolve with those changes as they occur.

If you’re like many young couples, in fact, you’re likely to experience only one sudden and undeniable change as soon as you say your marriage vows: your pushy mothers will finally stop asking, “When are you going to get married already?” and start demanding, “So when are we going to see some grandchildren?”