Pop the question. Next stop, stress

SARAH BERRY
Last updated 11:54 01/11/2012
Teenage romance
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE: Lighthearted love and smoochy times apparently don't go hand in hand with getting engaged.

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New research shows that the honeymoon period is often over before it begins. Of more than 50,000 people surveyed, more than 40 per cent of engaged couples said they had experienced stress in the past year.

The betrothed topped the stress list, beating married couples (19.7 per cent) and even divorcees (29.2 per cent).

"Although those who are engaged or planning to marry also report the highest incidence of stress, there is clearly a pay-off, in that married people show the second lowest occurrence of stress [behind widowers at 15.8 per cent, but ahead of singles at 23.9 per cent]," said Michele Levine, CEO, Roy Morgan Research, the company that conducted the survey.

Guy Vicars, president of the Australian Association of Relationship Counsellors, is not surprised by the findings.

"There's so much social pressure [if you are engaged]," he says.

"It's the culmination of a dream for most people. They want to get it right... and once they've declared they're going to get married and made the very public acknowledgement of that intention... there's pressure and build up.

"It's a significant rite of passage."

Pam Lewis, Director of Clinical Services for Relationships Australia NSW, agrees. "It's a transition phase", she said.

"There's always stress that comes with change... there's also often a spike [in stress levels] when people are expecting their first child."

Plus, she says planning the wedding may be the first time a couple seriously addresses each other's expectations.

They are negotiating budgets, talking money and sharing their vision for the big day and life after it. "Their [approaches and attitudes] may be different," Lewis says.

Where they will live and managing each other's family are other topics that may not have been properly tackled previously. Planning the wedding "is often the first test of marriage... it puts their hands on the hot stove [because it is] so loaded for people and they're trying to fulfil life-long wishes," Vicars says.

"And he might go 'I want my mother living with us in the granny flat downstairs' and she'll go 'whoa.' Previously, [many people] have been drifting around the edges of these issues."

Most of the married couples surveyed have children and are in their 30s or 40s.

This means they have often "relaxed into each other and ironed out some of their differences," Vicars says of their comparative lack of stress. "So they're getting the good stuff out of the relationship."

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But, Lewis points out that such surveys don't give a sense of whether the stress is good or bad. "Stress with a happy experience is easier to bear," she says of engaged couples.

Either way, heightened levels of stress in the lead up to an occasion that is meant to be filled with joy indicate that we don't talk about the reality enough, Vicars says.

"So many things are unspoken," says Vicars."It's not this Hollywood image of marriage."

Unlike that airbrushed Hollywood image, stress and problems don't make for a bad relationship or mean that either partner isn't in love, he says.

Nor does stress before nuptials predicate long-term trouble. Necessarily. It depends, he says, not on experiencing it, but on how you deal with it.

"You just may not have the skills yet [to deal effectively with those challenges," Vicars says.

The capacity to communicate, listen and learn makes all the difference. And he says that those skills can absolutely be learnt with the right help.

Lewis encourages people to be light-hearted about it all. "There are heightened emotions... it should be an enjoyable experience. If it's getting to the point where it's not enjoyable, take a step back and remember why you're doing it."

- Sydney Morning Herald

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