Dealing with first year blues

Madam Kanniakumari Kula- sekaralagoo and her husband dated 11 years before tying the knot in 2002.

Still, after marriage, they realised each of them had habits that annoyed the other.

Madam Kulasekaralagoo, 41, a part-time teacher at an enrichment centre, recalls: "After his shower, he would just leave the wet towel

on the bed or forget to put his dirty clothes into the laundry basket. I found it very annoying."

She also did not like that he squeezed toothpaste from the middle of the tube instead of from the end.

On the other hand, her husband, purchasing manager Shivakumar Deshinamorthy, found her desire to keep things clean and orderly "excessive".

As they were both working full-time then, she expected him to do the household chores once he returned from work, but he preferred to chill first. "I would shout at him and tell him I was not going to do any more things for him," she says with a laugh.

The couple, who share a joint bank account, also disagreed over the final look of their first HDB flat as well as the brand of their first car.

Looking back, they agreed that the first two years were the most challenging years of their marriage. Says Madam Kulasekaralagoo: "Those were the years when we realised that living together came with a lot of other things we weren't exposed to when we were dating.

"But at the end of the day, we realise that the little things we argued over were not important. We also learnt that compromise was key in a marriage."

Mr Deshinamorthy, 42, now puts things back in their places and helps out with household chores, while Madam Kulasekaralagoo says she has learnt to be less critical of his ways and whether the toothpaste tube is squeezed the right way.

Experts say the first three to five years are among the most vulnerable in a couple's marriage - which was something Taiwan-based singer Van Ness Wu and his Singaporean wife Arissa Cheo found out recently. The couple, who married in November 2013, had an exchange of angry words over Instagram, leading to speculation that their fairy-tale marriage was on the rocks.

Ms Claire Nazar, a council member from Families for Life, a non-profit organisation that promotes resilient families, says the early years entail a steep learning curve as couples navigate a series of "firsts" together as a married unit.

These include owning a matrimonial home, managing in-law relations, being first-time parents and some stressful "firsts", including having to take care of elderly parents, or handling a tragedy or loss in the family.

Underlying all these "firsts", she says, is the challenge of handling disappointments resulting from unmet expectations.

She adds: "Every person comes into marriage with his or her own movie script and the early years are when each person spends the most energy trying to change the other - often unsuccessfully - to fit that movie script."

If conflicts are poorly handled in the first five years, she says, spouses' negative judgments of each other can become entrenched in their minds. The resolve to stay married can give way to a sense of hopelessness and divorce can present itself as a plausible option.

The 2013 Statistics on Marriages and Divorces show that the largest group of civil divorces in Singapore tended to happen in marriages between five and nine years.

However, Ms Nazar says that divorcing at this stage shortcircuits the development of resilient, mature love in a marriage, which is the stage when couples learn to accept and appreciate each other, warts and all, with no illusions.

Marriage and relationship coach Rasimah Jar from Prowise Consultancy, which runs marriage preparation courses, says: "Most of the early stressful adjustments in marriage are normal. Couples need to know what are the important issues that need to be negotiated."

These issues can be addressed in a marriage preparation course.

Ms Elvira Tan, a marriage specialist at the pro-family charity Focus on the Family Singapore, says that such a course "helps couples be better prepared rather than be caught off-guard by situations after marriage and instinctively reacting on emotions alone which might cloud good judgment".

One couple who have benefited from such a course are sales manager Tan Seow Xuan, 30, and marketing executive Serene Ng, 31. They dated for nine years before they got married in June 2013.

About six months before the wedding, they attended pre-marital counselling at the non-profit Family Life Society on the recommendation of a newly married friend, who found it helpful.

During six sessions lasting 1½ hours each, they shared among other things, their goals in married life as well as their love languages, that is, what makes each other feel loved.

Says Mr Tan: "I realised that my wife and I have different love languages. For her, it's about spending quality time together. For me, it's about receiving gifts."

Although the course did not prevent conflicts from arising after they got married, he said it helped them resolve them faster. For instance, soon after they got married, Mr Tan became caught up in work and Ms Ng was unhappy that he was spending little time with her.

When he realised it, he quickly reworked his schedule so that he could spend more time with her.

He says: "If I hadn't gone through the counselling sessions, I might have thought that she should be more understanding instead of being angry. I was working after all, not out having fun."

But because of the counselling, he realised that spending quality time together was important to her.

For Ms Ng, having attended the course also allowed her to be more understanding of her husband's priority in life.

"During the sessions, we agreed that our goal after marriage was to establish our careers first. So even though I was unhappy that he wasn't spending enough time with me, I was not overly so because I understood why he had to spend time at work."

Freelance speech and drama teacher Germaine Kan, 37, and entrepreneur Lance Ng, 37, did not think it necessary to attend a marriage preparation course.

Says Mr Ng: "Both of us had our fair share of failed relationships before we got married. We knew compromise and give- and-take were very important in a good relationship and we went into our marriage with this understanding."

They knew each other for about eight years and dated for about a year before tying the knot in 2012. Ms Kan moved in to live with Mr Ng and his parents in their four-room HDB flat.

Life was peaceful till their son, first child Xephas, came along about a year later. One thorny issue was over his eating habits. For instance, when Xephas was one year old and started on solids, Mr Ng and his parents wanted him to finish all his food, while Ms Kan felt it was not necessary if he was already full or if he didn't really like it. It was how she was brought up by her parents.

Not wanting to create a scene, she says she kept quiet during these occasions, but she would argue with her husband behind closed doors.

Eventually they came to a compromise. Says Ms Kan: "We agreed that we wouldn't force our son to eat if he didn't want to, but we'd let him try a new food at least once."

She also decided to let her in-laws continue feeding her son the way they wanted, as they were his main caregivers.

Mr Ng said he never felt caught between his wife and his parents.

"I'm very blessed that they can get along and even if there is a litte disagreement, it's nothing that I cannot handle."

Tips for couples

Discuss details

Talk about the nuts and bolts of marriage, including the roles each is expected to play in the marriage and how to manage finances as a couple.

Talk about who will be responsible for paying the household bills or sending the car for maintenance.

Examine how certain beliefs from a person's upbringing may have shaped his or her expectation for the roles he or she plays in marriage.

Understand that different individuals can have different ideas and feelings towards how money should be spent.

Let go of little things

It is common for partners to want to control each other's behaviour, but try to put the issue into the context of the entire relationship and then pick the battles wisely. Before getting into an argument, pause and ask: "How important is this?"

Meet other newlyweds

Learn from each other how to manage challenges. Find comfort in one another's success. Confide in other couples whom you trust. They can advise you what is normal and what is not. They may be able to console you with stories of how it could be worse.

Keep dating

Prioritise quality time together. Go for marriage education and enrichment programmes, and couple retreats, and read marriage resource materials.

Sources: Madam Rasimah Jar, managing director of Prowise Consultancy, and Ms Elvira Tan, marriage specialist at Focus on the Family Singapore

This article was first published on Jan 11, 2015.
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