'I do' to 'boo-hoo': Why so many newlyweds suffer from post-wedding blues

The psychology behind post-nuptial blues, and how to avoid them.

The psychology behind post-nuptial blues, and how to avoid them

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Rom-coms from William Shakespeare to Meg Ryan tend to end with a wedding. Getting there can be a bit of a roller-coaster, but the implied dénouement is "happily ever after". So many are surprised when they get hit with a case of the post-wedding blues in the months following the big day. And this is not always just a late case of cold feet. Many newlyweds report symptoms even when their relationships are otherwise going well. So why is the "honeymoon" period so often such a let-down?

Getting married is a big deal. But big deals are almost never as big of deals as people think they are. Psychologists call this "impact bias", meaning that human beings tend to overestimate the effect that future significant events will have on our happiness, and underestimate how quickly we adapt to new conditions. This is great news for those with bad things ahead. Looking forward, major injuries, break-ups, or other negative events can seem like life-destroying catastrophes. Yet the human mind is resilient, and usually adapts to the new situation with time. One of its weaknesses is that it consistently underestimates this resilience.

The same holds true, unfortunately, for positive events: we think that they will make us happier than they actually will. It is a well known but weird fact that winning the lottery can often be a disaster for happiness. Ditto getting married. The problem is not so much that life gets worse (though it might), it's that it doesn't get better, and that can be disappointing. One subject in a recent study explains: "You just think, it's just this fairytale, and the wedding is the climax, and then you come home and you have to go to work the next day. And nothing is different. Nothing is different at work, nothing's different with your friends, nothing's, nothing's different." What's more, our tendency to overestimate the importance of positive events increases the closer it is in time. The wedding seems more and more significant as it approaches, making the return to normalcy all the more dramatic.

Wedding planning can be a giant hassle, and finally finishing it all can be a huge relief. Yet even getting this enormous task off of our plate might contribute to post-nuptial doldrums. A sense of self-efficacy and is a major determinant of a positive outlook. Human beings, virtually from birth, desire to exercise control over the world around them. Few life events provide such a scope for gratifying this urge as the modern wedding. The couple at the centre of the storm summon their group of chosen guests to the location they ordain to participate in a ceremony of their planning. They decide what people will eat and the napkins with which they will wipe their mouths, they choose the music they will hear, and who will have the privilege of toasting their happiness. They are conductors of their own nuptial orchestra. When the wedding is over, the vendors stop calling, and the spotlight moves on, feelings of self-efficacy can dip. There is often a great hole in newlyweds' lives where wedding planning used to sit, and this can, oddly enough, feel like a loss.

Although common, post-nuptial depression does not hit all newly married couples. Stafford and Scott interviewed 28 newly married women and found some stark contrasts between "blue brides" who reported depressive symptoms after their weddings and "happy brides". These differences can hold the key to avoiding post-nuptial depression. While this study only interviewed women, it is possible that their findings can be applied more widely.

The first big difference is that "blue brides" tended to focus on themselves rather than relationships. These are the brides who see the wedding as their own special day, a huge production in which they are the star. In other words, 'bridezillas' are more likely to be unhappy after making vows.

Happier brides tend to see the wedding in terms of relationships. Most obviously, this means their relationship with their spouse. As one interviewee put it, "No, it's not my day. It's our day. You have to make sure that it's not your day. It's your day as, as a couple, and I think brides tend to forget that." However, happy brides also focus more on the experiences of their guests rather than their own gratification.

The second big difference between blue brides and happy brides was that those who suffered postnuptial depression tended to frame their wedding as an end. Happier brides tended to see their wedding as a new beginning, or as a milestone rather than an end.

Our vulnerability to post-wedding depression, therefore, is determined by how we see the wedding itself. Clichés like "the most important day of her life" and seeing the wedding as a climactic concluding event are especially damaging. The happiest brides don't see the wedding ring as a trophy, but as a buy-in to the more important game of marriage. For them, the wedding celebration itself is essentially for their guests, not for the couple. Keeping this perspective is no guarantee of marital bliss, but it can help start things off on the right foot.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.