COLUMBIA — “Attractive and useful, just like my husband,” Helen Porter says with a smile as she places silverware and plates on a sleek white tray. Jeff Porter laughs quietly. The newlywed couple shares more than mutual affection. They share a meal, and in that meal, they strengthen their relationship.
The Porters' meal provides "togetherness time," something key to a marriage in its early stages, said David Schramm, MU Extension specialist and assistant professor of human development and family studies. A recent study conducted by Schramm revealed balancing jobs with spending time together is the number one challenge among newlywed couples. His study found that rough patches in the first month of marriage are not the predictive factors of marital satisfaction. Instead, the real predictors are respect, appreciation, commitment, mutual affection and trust.
The Porters make the most of their “togetherness time” by doing a multitude of things together. Often, instead of buying home decor she likes in a magazine or at the store, Helen works with Jeff to design and recreate it.
“Helen says she wants something, and I build it,” Jeff says. Three shadow boxes, inspired by similar ones Helen had seen, hang on the wall of their kitchen to preserve memories, each containing coasters, corks or postcards.
While Helen, 34, is a junior high language arts teacher in the Columbia Public Schools, Jeff, 36, commutes to St. Louis, where he works as vice president of operations for InstaClinic. He downloads history podcasts to listen to on his drive. Because of the commute, Jeff and Helen can spend only about four evening meals together per week. However, they make the most of their time through atmosphere. They dine on the deck they built.
As the timer on the oven buzzes, Helen dons her red oven mitts. Out come the golden crescent rolls with their distinct aroma. She finishes loading the "attractive and useful" tray and carries it outside where Jeff is grilling.
Over dinner, they talk about their work days. They've been married just four months, and they still have childhood stories left to share. They talk about politics and what Jeff heard on that day’s podcast.
Helen: “We argue about academic things.”
Jeff: “We don’t argue, we debate.”
Helen: “Jeff was a debate coach, so I don’t have those mad debating skills.”
As they talk of future vacations or deciding on a new dishwasher, there is only one thing missing – the television. Instead, the mellow-rock instrumentation of Feist plays softly from the outdoor speakers Jeff installed, adding to the sound of crickets chirping, leaves rustling and cars passing. There is no TV to crowd out the togetherness time. Their focus is on one another.
“We didn’t live together before we married,” Helen says. “He moved into my house, and now it’s our house.” Jeff and Helen dated for seven years before marrying.
“When he moved in, he said, 'Here are my clothes. Do something with them,’” Helen says. “He doesn’t care, but I do. I don’t care if my tires get rotated, but Jeff does, so he does it.”
Jeff smiles and agrees. He samples a bit of chicken Helen offers.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do when it gets colder,” Helen says to Jeff. “I think this might be our last night out here.”
The evening is getting darker. Jeff lights bamboo torches that surround the deck, and they joke about staying outside well after dinner is over.
“I like married life,” Jeff says. “If I’d have known it was this good, I wouldn’t have waited so long.”
David Schramm, the assistant professor who did a study on challenges newlyweds face, found that if the following elements are present in a marriage, the partners are more likely to have a high level of satisfaction in it:
1. Respect for each other: It's hard to build respect and easy to lose it. Making insults, calling names and using hostile humor or sarcasm can chop down trust, and one nasty comment can cancel out 20 considerate gestures.
2. Commitment to your marriage: Couples can look at commitment in two ways. One way is to look at marriage as a priority — that making a relationship as good as possible is important to you. The other way is to see marriage as a promise you aren't willing to back out of with a goal of permanence, and little, if anything, can change that promise.
3. Showing appreciation: It's important to say thank you, whether it's a general thanks or one offered for something specific. Say "thanks" frequently, and don't wait to do it. Don't forget to offer a thank you when your significant other does "invisible work" — the everyday tasks like paying the bills and taking out the trash that can easily go unnoticed.
4. Mutual affection: Especially at the newlywed stage, affectionate, nonsexual gestures like holding hands or grabbing the door can keep a marriage strong. Know how your spouse expresses affection, how they receive it and how you offer it.
5. Trusting your spouse: Trust is central to a healthy marriage. Know how you can build it, and know what cuts it down.
6. Time spent together: In an early leg of Schramm's study, he found the average couple goes four weeks between dates with each other. Look for everyday ways to spend time with each other and connect.
7. Communication with your spouse: Four styles of communicating are inhibiting — criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. On the other hand, three techniques promoting communication are calming down, speaking non-defensively and validating by listening with eyes, mind and heart. A fourth tip is to over-learn these three techniques so that, even in times of stress and conflict, they're readily available.