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Saturday 23 August 2014

The first year of marriage is by far the toughest

Published 23/01/2013 | 06:00

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Twelve months after saying her vows, writer Farrah Storr made another – to switch off and spend time with the man she wed

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About four years ago, when marriage was but a blurry, distant concept, a colleague turned to me at a Christmas party and said: "Being married is like walking through life with your hands tied behind your back." That was it. No build-up. No explanation. Just that line, dropped like a rock and delivered with all the venom with which I assumed her own marriage was filled.

I didn't give it or her much thought after that. Until late last year, as my own marriage approached its first birthday.

The previous 12 months had been, well, let's say unexpected. I had hardly seen my new husband. When I did, we rarely spoke. I had thought that a ring on my finger and a shiny new surname would bring strength, security and closeness. I thought the hard stuff was over. I was wrong.

The post-wedding blues are well documented. Experts believe that around one-in-10 women suffer the inevitable "flatness" that follows the bridal tsunami. In fact, so well documented is it that Working Title – the brains behind romcoms including Notting Hill and Love Actually – have chosen it as the subject for their latest film, I Give It A Year.

The film is a lot of fun. After all, newlywed life is fertile ground for jokes about lazy sex and whose turn it is to take the rubbish out. I expect it will be a roaring success. Not just because it's got a few good jokes about penises, but because it touches upon a very real but rarely acknowledged truth: that the first 12 months of married life are the most challenging of your relationship.

The statistics back this up, with a study by Divorce Online showing that the first two years of marriage carry the highest risk of divorce. I have witnessed it first hand, with three colleagues calling time on their marriages within a year.

I first met my husband, Will, in 2003. We were set up on a misjudged date by a well-meaning sibling for the sole reason that Will and I were both single and miserable. That was where our similarities began and ended.

He was a frustrated writer who'd dropped out of university and had fingernails bitten to bloodied stubs. I had just returned from a gap year in Paris saddled with the pretension and elevated self-importance that a trip like that gives someone under 21. And yet, though romance evaded us that evening, an unusually intense friendship began.

Two years later, to no one's surprise but our own, we fell in love. When we eventually said our vows, almost 10 years to the day after we first met, I was more confident than most. Our marriage would work because it was based on friendship. Sure, maybe when we hit the plateau of our middle years we'd have to tend to a few marital snags. But the first few years? They would be a doddle. Six weeks into our marriage I was offered my dream job – editing a women's magazine. I was thrilled and threw myself into it with the same maniacal obsession with which I had set about our wedding planning 12 months earlier.

I left for work before Will woke and returned home as he was going to sleep. Our longest conversation was as we both brushed our teeth before bed. He rarely moaned. Husbands were supposed to be "supportive", he said. He would wait for me, at least until things calmed down. He cooked dinner every night. I ate it alone at 11 o'clock. At weekends he'd watched DVDs by himself while I worked in the office next door. I made friends at parties and through work that he had never met or heard of. My life galloped along at a frantic pace. His stayed the same. It didn't help that Will worked from home, writing his new book. The four walls of our home became his morning, noon and night. The problem was that I was never within them.

We took on a cleaner to make up for the fact I was never home. On the phone she sounded like Rusty Lee. I hired her. When I opened the door she looked like Audrey Tautou. I became paranoid. When she was at the house I'd ring Will constantly. "Do you think she's pretty?" I'd ask accusingly. He told me I was being ridiculous. Before long his patience turned to anger.

He wasn't alone in his concern. My boss, a man renowned for his Herculean work ethic, sent me an email one evening. It said simply: "Go home. Order a pizza and a DVD. Spend some time with your husband!"

On the train home I realised my mistake. I had thought getting married was the achievement, the end point, the full-time signed contract after years of uncertainty. Once you had that certificate you had made it. The pressure was off. You were free to go on and pursue the rest of your life. But I had been wrong.

Marriage is the hard part – and those first 12 months are crucial in determining what the rest of it will be like. (This is scientific fact. A study by the University of Texas found that how a couple behave in the first two years of marriage is a key indicator as to whether they're heading for divorce.)

Without realising it, I had sidelined my husband for my ambition. I kidded myself that I was doing it for us. But what if there was no "us" left to enjoy our success? As we toasted our first anniversary – our first restaurant meal together in almost a year – we made a vow: that our marriage had to be our daily priority. I cut down my hours at work. I planned quality time every weekend, just the two of us.

We even moved out of London to a small, remote village where we could ensure our weekends were a world away from the chaos of London. Fourteen months in and we're stronger and closer than ever.

Yes, marriage is like walking through life with your hands tied behind your back. The difference is they are tied to someone else's.

Farrah Storr is editor of Women's Health magazine. I Give It A Year is released on February 8

Irish Independent

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