After the vows

When Contessa and John Desser exchanged wedding vows before 300 guests in Destiny Christian Center in Centralia, Wash., 16 months ago, they approached marriage with a thoroughly modern blend of romanticism and realism.

"We knew that every day isn't going to be a dozen roses," Contessa says, explaining that both of them grew up in divorced homes. They even attended premarital counseling sessions to prepare for their life together. "We were planning our marriage," John notes, "not just our wedding."

So when they celebrated their first anniversary at an 18th-century inn in Virginia last fall, they found themselves reflecting on the early months of their marriage with considerable satisfaction.

"It was a great first year," says John, a lobbyist. "There were some difficult times, but the way we chose to deal with them will make every year hereafter even better."

After the wedding gown is put away, the thank-you notes are written, and the romantic whirl of the wedding gives way to the routine demands of everyday life, an age-old task begins: blending two lives and two sets of hopes and dreams.

For every generation, the first year involves basic adjustments: learning to share space and time, and learning to think in terms of "we" instead of "I." But for 21st-century newlyweds, four major social changes are altering the marital landscape when the strains of Lohengrin fade away:

• Many couples have lived together before saying "I do."

• A majority have two careers.

• Many are marrying later than their parents did.

• And a greater number, like the Dessers, come from divorced homes, making them simultaneously more wary of marriage and more determined to make their union succeed.

For couples who live together, the first year of cohabitation often resembles the first year of marriage, but without the honeymoon aura that can ease post-wedding transitions. Just ask Heather and Josh Cole, who lived together for three years before marrying last March.

"The first year was pretty rough," Heather says. "We had to figure out who's going to cook and who's going to clean." After they resolved some of those questions, they began talking about getting married.

Josh, recreation director for the town of Walpole, Mass., describes that period as "a constant report card: Who did more apartment cleaning? Whose family got the most attention on holidays? Who is more invested in the relationship?" They attribute some of that early friction to the impermanence of an unmarried relationship.

"There was nothing there except that we had signed a lease together," says Laura, who handles media relations at Bentley College near Boston. "There wasn't security."

Then they said "I do" before 90 guests at First Baptist Church in Salem, Mass., in a ceremony conducted by a minister who is a friend of Josh's family.

"I'm surprised how much things changed with the wedding," Josh says, relaxing with Heather in the dining room of the 1901 house they bought four months ago. "Now we're on the same team. We're closer than I thought we would be."

But being on the same team doesn't mean always sharing the same opinion. "We still disagree - 'You didn't do the laundry this week' - but it's not the end of the universe," Heather says. They also discuss how to spend their free time - a commodity often in short supply for working couples - and how to decorate their house.

For two-paycheck newlyweds, especially those who marry after a long period of independence, making the transition from "my" money to "our" money also comes as a challenge.

"The biggest adjustment was going to a joint bank account," says Julie Hambright of Williamston, Mich., who married her high school sweetheart, Matthew, last April in a wedding for 200 guests at Michigan State University, their alma mater. During six years of dating, including a period of living together, they each paid for their own things. Now, she says, "We're finally starting to get used to sharing."

Matthew agrees. "It's weird to consolidate finances," he says.

Although two-income couples often earn far more than newlyweds did a generation ago, demands on their paychecks are typically greater, too. College loans, cars, computers, and soaring housing prices can strain bank accounts. And that doesn't take into account the cost of having a family someday.

The Dessers, for their part, want to avoid becoming dependent on two incomes. "I would like to be a stay-at-home mom," says Contessa, who works for an insurance agency. That means forgoing some purchases now - a lesson she learned early, growing up in a single-parent home.

For some couples, the Hambrights among them, dual careers mean different shifts - a ships-passing-in-the-night arrangement that traditional breadwinner-homemaker couples in the past didn't face. Julie works days as a financial analyst at a hospital. Matthew logs 10-hour night shifts as a police officer. On weekdays, togetherness gets squeezed into three hours at dinnertime, between 5 and 8 p.m.

"I tend to get frustrated sometimes with his schedule," Julie says. "I get home from work and he has to leave."

An era marked by mobility and frequent job changes also requires marriage partners to be more flexible. Christina and Colin Holmes's wedding 15 months ago coincided with career changes for both, necessitating a move from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

"That's been a major realignment," says Colin, the marketing manager for a large computer company. "Now we're planning a family, and we expect things to change radically yet again."

Working in their favor, they say, is their maturity. Christina, who handles public relations for San Francisco State University, was a bridesmaid 17 times before it was her turn to be a bride. They were married in a ceremony for 220 guests at Mission de Alcala in San Diego. She and Colin met through a video dating service three years ago, when both were in their early 30s.

"In the beginning, my friends thought I must be desperate," Christina says, referring to the dating service. "I looked at it as taking control of my personal life." Colin wryly calls the service "a very mechanical way of arriving at a chemical relationship."

They dated for two years but did not live together. "I really wanted a first year of marriage," she says.

Because they waited awhile to get married, Christina feels a sense of easiness about their relationship. "I don't get ruffled by small things, if the toothpaste is in the wrong place or the toilet seat is up," she says. "We're both considerate of each other."

Colin agrees about the advantages of later marriage, with one caveat: "Probably the only regret would be from the aspect of having children. We would like to have had children when we were younger."

Whatever the challenges of the first year, these couples express a fierce determination to make their marriages succeed.

Both of the Hambrights come from divorced homes. "I didn't grow up watching a marriage," says Julie, whose parents divorced when she was 4 but remained friendly. "I had seen a lot of marriages on TV,but I didn't have a lot of expectations. Now both of us say, 'Are we doing this right?' "

As one way of learning to "do this right," Matthew tries to emulate his sister's marriage. He watches the way they deal with issues and problems.

"I wanted to make sure that when I got married, it was for real and forever," he says. "If we ever have kids, divorce would be something I would never want to put somebody else through."

As one antidote to divorce, John sees a need for many in his generation to become more "other-centered" and less self-centered. "If you want the relationship to work, you have to be willing to serve the other person," he says.

To keep their own relationship strong, he and Contessa attend counseling sessions to discuss family issues that predate their marriage. "It's not just for us, but for our future children and their children," Contessa says.

Inevitably, newlyweds of every generation, however blissfully paired, face the little getting-to-know-you discoveries that bridal magazines, selling happily-ever-after fantasies, never mention. Some involve differences in tempo and taste: The bride may be a morning person and the groom a night person. Or she's a spender and he's a saver. Or she likes traditional and he favors modern.

Working out the reality of what it means for two people to live together, day in and day out, Contessa notes, includes dealing with the mundane - "That's not the way the toilet paper roll goes" - and the serious: "Did you think through what would happen if you did this or that?"

Whatever day-to-day demands these newlyweds face, all express a touching optimism. As each couple, in turn, celebrates the first-year mark, perhaps paging through wedding albums and eating the top layer of their wedding cake, they join uncounted millions before them who have forged similar unions - sometimes relatively easily, other times with great difficulty.

In the second year, there will be other challenges and rewards - babies for some, perhaps, or new jobs and new homes. But for now, it is enough to reflect on the beginning stage.

Marriage, Heather says happily, has been "a lot easier and a lot more comfortable than I imagined."

Christina expresses similar contentment. "I think of all those years in my 20s," she says. "You're always searching. I had many boyfriends, but they were all the wrong ones. Now, when I look at our marriage, it just exceeds anything I could ever have hoped for. We both have busy careers; we work hard. The only time we see each other is in the evening and on weekends. But our quality of time is wonderful. Overall, marriage is 100 times better than I ever expected."

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