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The First Three Years of Marriage

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT


During the first three years of marriage, couples are seeking to shape and mold two separate lives into one mutual existence. When and how to eat, sleep, have sex, use money, fight, work, and relax are typical issues that must be negotiated and defined from both an individual and mutual perspective. Along with these and other challenges that most couples must resolve, interfaith, intercultural couples encounter a lot of additional challenges related to their religious and cultural differences. In order to illustrate some of these challenges, the followng interview of a ficticious couple named Tina and Harold is offered.

Tina and Harold

Tina (25) and Harold (25) have been married for almost two years. Tina is a second generation Greek Orthodox American. Harold was raised in the Methodist Church and comes has a Scotch-Irish background. Both met at a small liberal arts college, dated for about one year, and were subsequently engaged and married in the Greek Orthodox Church.

When asked to describe some of their experiences since marriage, Harold begins the conversation with the following observation. "It's been an interesting two years. For a while I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But I suppose our love for each other has buffered us from any serious negative residual effects." Nodding in agreement, Tina remarks, "It's been harder than I thought it might be for me also, but I think it was harder for Harold. He seems to be the one who had to make most of the adjustments."

When asked to elaborate further, Harold continues. "I wasn't exactly embraced with open arms before the marriage. Tina's mom even went so far as to tell me that it was difficult for her when she realized that Tina would not be marrying a Greek boy. And for a long time after the wedding, most of her family seemed cold and distant toward me. Tina interjects, "I don't think it was that long , Honey, maybe a few months. When they realized that I was happy, and you weren't going away, they began to soften."

"I suppose ," says Harold. "But from my vantage point it seemed like a long time. And then when they began to warm up to me, this was also an awkward time. My family tended to relate differently to one another t han Tina's family. From what I've discovered, Greek families tend to be more involved and aware of each other's business. They also tend to be more emotionally expressive people. So when Tina's family started treating me like one of the family, it was rather difficult for me to know how to interpret all this new type of behavior. But don't misunderstand me. I like Tina's family, and have learned to adjust to their way of interacting. It was just hard at first, that's all .”

Harold pauses, looks at Tina as if to ask if she has anything to add, and then continues. "Then there was the religious issue. I was raised in the Methodist Church, and I wasn't really going to church very much when I met Tina. But since she has such a strong faith in God, to please her, I began attending the Greek Orthodox Church with her after we got married. But it was really frustrating for me, because I couldn't understand the rituals, and a lot of the services were being conducted in Greek. And worse than this, whenever I asked Tina to explain something, she wasn't really able to offer me a complete enough explanation."

"That's true," Tina states. "I love my church. It's the only church I've found that makes me feel comfortable. I went to Harold's church a few times, but things were too unfamiliar. Anyhow, as I was saying, when Harold started asking me questions about the Orthodox Church, I realized how much I didn't know. So we started picking up books, and even going to some of Fr. Peter's Wednesday night adult education classes, and this proved to be an enriching experience for us both." Harold looks at Tina with a smile and declares. "I think that maybe it's been more of an enriching experience for you than for me. But I will say one thing, when Tina fasts, or displays icons in our home, or when I'm at my in-laws and they crack Easter eggs or cut the New Years bread - I'm not lost."

This part of the conversation appears to be coming to an end. Both spouses are quiet until Tina makes the following additional observation. "Even though we've spent most of our time describing the difficulties that Harold experienced trying to adjust to my background, I think that he would agree that our marriage is not similar to my parent's marriage. We tend to work hard at trying to combine the best of both of our backgrounds." Nodding in agreement, Harold states, "I think that's a fair statement. I think we're far more like each other then we are different. And the few differences seem to have enriched our lives. And I think that our future kids will also benefit from our different backgrounds."

Some Observations from this Interview  

  • Couples like Tina and Harold who participated in the Interfaith Research Project (IRP) repeatedly stated that they were faced with varying degrees of challenges during the first few years of marriage. The Non-Orthodox partner tended to experience different degrees of culture shock when introduced to their partner's Greek Orthodox background. But in most cases, the insecurity and unfamiliarity with their partner's Greek Orthodox cultural and religious idiosyncrasies tended to resolve with time.
  • Couples like Tina and Harold, who were satisfied with their marriages, also frequently perceived their differences in positive terms and maintained that their different backgrounds enriched their personal and marital lives. Conversely, couples who continued to experience difficulties related to their religious and cultural differences, and perceived them as drawbacks, were more likely to experience marital and family conflict.
  • While it may not be apparent from this interview, drawing healthy boundaries between themselves and their parents was an especially important and sometimes difficult task for newly married couples. Keeping out unwanted extended family intrusions was important to couples' efforts to mold and shape a life together.
And finally, most of these couples indicated that their faith in God was indispensable in their efforts to strike a balance between personal, couple, and extended family needs. When couples prayed together, they believed that the stresses and strains of developing a life together were minimized.