Three young married couples participated in our study. After reviewing their journals, videos, and initial interviews, we selected one couple (we'll call them Sam and Jen) for further analysis: a series of 4 one-hour interviews, every other evening for a week. This series of interviews—along with the initial information we received—provided the following set of observations.
By far the biggest challenge facing Sam and Jen was their work schedules. Jen had to wake up very early for her job at an elementary school, and Sam (a general contractor in the family business) usually worked into the evenings. This created a time period each day where Jen was at home by herself waiting for Sam, who often either didn't know when he would be home or didn't tell Jen. Added to this stress was the 90-minute commute each of them had every day, which further ate into their time together.
Both Sam and Jen independently expressed a wish for more time together, and provided specific examples of times when they wanted to do something and the other person was too engaged in some individual activity. It was clear that each of them was intentionally passing up chances to spend time together, while feeling deprived of it by the other one.
One of the reasons we selected this couple for further analysis was the presence of significant conflict in their relationship—particularly as it related to Sam's work schedule; however, during our four follow-up interviews we felt as if we were speaking with a different couple—they were very much at peace and getting along quite smoothly. We identified two key differences in their environment since we first began the study:
School's Out. While the journal and initial interview took place in April, the four interviews took place during the summer when Jen was not working. She became more understanding when Sam came home late from work, and with most of the other things that tended to frustrate her.
Home Improvement. During the journaling and the initial interview, Sam and Jen were redecorating their home to put it on the market. This activity consumed much of their time and discretionary income and resulted in frequent arguments. Once this task was complete, they grew more comfortable with each other.
It is natural to assume that some conflict between a husband and wife is intrinsic to their relationship; however, in this case the conflict was very much related to their current circumstances. Changes to the circumstances in their life produced remarkable qualitative changes to their relationship.
Sam and Jen (like the other couples in our study) had a support network of friends and extended family. Sam and Jen had close friendships with other married couples, a small group of newly-married couples at their church (which they helped lead), their own parents nearby, and Sam's godfather, with whom they were very close. They repeatedly mentioned this network during our discussion of the different areas of their life together, from recreation to dealing with marital challenges.
We were particularly interested in any mentoring relationships, and we spent some time discussing this in the interviews. Sam and Jen did in fact have a mentor couple—his godfather, to whom he would go with long-term, major issues per philosophies of life, setting and reaching family goals, etc. However, when it came to everyday, stage-of-life issues and problems, Sam indicated that instead of consulting his godfather, he tended to consult a friend who had been married the year before he had. This "peer mentor" relationship was very valuable to him in setting expectations about married life as well as how to deal with smaller challenges and issues.
Always Be Prepared
One interesting thing we noticed about all of our married couples, Sam and Jen in particular, was the amount of time and energy they spent talking about their futures together, making plans, setting goals and milestones, and generally making sure they were on the same page.
Sometimes this actually seemed to us to be counterproductive, because they would develop such comprehensive goals and expectations that the process actually seemed to add unnecessary stress to their lives. (For example, they heard a sermon one Sunday about setting up proper boundaries in their relationship, and so they went home and discussed a number of boundaries they felt they would need in specific hypothetical situations they had yet to encounter.)
We asked them specifically if they felt like they were generating unnecessary conflict by dealing with potential problems ahead of time when they didn't even know if they would ever actually have that problem, but they felt that it was a small price to pay for weeding out potential problems in advance.
They also spent time discussing and establishing their joint philosophies on marriage, parenting, careers, money, and other life-issues.
(We did not notice such overt philosophical discussions among any of the parents in our study—either because they already had those conversations and were past them, because they were so consumed with the practice of parenting that they didn’t have time to worry about the theory, because such discussions are unique to millennial households, or simply because the parents had more important things they wanted to discuss with us.)
It was clear throughout the study that long-term planning and organization was a big part of our married couples' lives, and Sam and Jen provided excellent examples of how this priority played out in practice.