Even if you’ve dated your now-spouse for several years or even a full decade, and live together for a while before becoming engaged, being married changes things quite significantly. As Amy McManus, LMFT, relationship therapist and owner of Thrive Therapy, Inc., points it, the time before your first wedding anniversary is hugely important because it’s often the first time where the reality of the commitment seems a bit heavy. “After all those months of pre-wedding excitement, in the aftermath of the wedding and honeymoon, many couples feel a bit of ‘buyer’s remorse,’” she explains. “Instead of freaking out about the permanence of it all, you can use this first year to set up some of the systems for your marriage that will insure that any of the tougher times ahead will ultimately make you stronger as a couple, rather than drive you apart.”
Here, she and other relationship experts share things all couples should strive to do before they reach their first wedding anniversary to strengthen your relationship for the future.
Establish scheduled “couple time”.
When you live together and spend most of your time side by side, it’s easy to neglect the importance of carving out quality time spent together—a.k.a. something more substantial than chilling on the couch with your Netflix queue lined up. But, as Julienne Derichs, licensed clinical social worker in Chicago, points out, couples do well when they establish a practice of connecting in a close and positive way, which means slicing out time without distractions to focus just on each other. “If the couple doesn't have a practice for connection that is part of the daily routine the relationship tends to get pushed farther and farther down the priority list by the time first wedding anniversary rolls around.”
Practice difficult discussions.
These are the conversations no one wants to have, yet they’re incredibly beneficial for newlyweds. “Some couples only discuss difficult issues at top volume, emotionally flooded; and some couples do a combination where one partner yells and the other partner retreats and withdraws, each triggering the other to yell more or withdraw more,” explains McManus. “Common as they are, none of these is a healthy relationship dynamic.” If you aren’t good at discussing difficult topics as a couple, she suggests setting aside time every couple of weeks to practice. “First practice ‘listening only to understand,’ which involves one partner talking about an issue that concerns them and the other listening and asking questions so he or she can better understand,” she says. “Next time switch roles.” If you need extra help with this skill, she suggests seeking the help of a couples therapist.
Learn how to disagree.
It’s only natural that you and your partner will have disagreements—you’re two different people with some of the same beliefs but may different beliefs. While disagreements are a normal part of being in a relationship, it’s fundamental that a couple handles them in an appropriate way—especially before your first wedding anniversary. “You each need to learn how to hold on to your own sense of self and own values, while knowing that your partner disagrees—this involves both of you knowing, not only how to be uncomfortable yourselves, but also being able to sit with the discomfort of your partner without giving in, trying to change them or trying to ‘fix’ things,” says McManus. “Learning this skill in your couple can transform how you interact in the world.”
Keep on dating.
Just because the courtship is over and you’re now married is no excuse for you two to stop going on regular dates. “Couples who make time for each other to go out and socialize can avoid their lives together becoming too routine and boring,” says Derichs. “I see couples who aren't happy because their relationship has become ‘all business’ and very task-oriented.” Just as you likely did before you tied the knot, go out for dinner to favorite restaurants or cook a romantic dinner at home. “Remember, romance is not just about making love, it is about giving love and showing how important your spouse is to you,” adds Staci Lee Schnell, licensed marriage and family therapist. “Don't forget to flirt with your spouse and keep that romantic spark lit!”
Start traditions—big and small.
When you got married you created a family that consists of just you and your partner (unless you already have a little one or two running around!). So don’t wait to start creating some treasured family traditions, from how you celebrate birthdays and big holidays to little, everyday things such as watching a show together or going for a walk together after dinner. “Traditions help build your marriage as a priority,” adds Schnell.
McManus recommends finding a way other than social media to record your life together. “Maybe you have a notebook that you each write in from time to time, or maybe you have an online photo album that you curate together,” she says. “This will be so helpful in the future to look back on and realize the strength of your relationship and all the history you have shared.”
Celebrate some milestones.
You don’t have to wait the full 365 days since your wedding to celebrate your first wedding anniversary. Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., certified sex and couples therapist and the author of The New Monogamy, suggests even celebrating out your “month” anniversaries. “Share a fancy bottle of wine when you hit three months and something fancier when you get to your six month anniversary,” she says. “Celebrate by sharing the positive memories you have of your wedding and all the silly times too.”