Postnuptial depression: from white to blue

It was the best day of your life. But if you're still waiting for the 'happy ever after' bit, you may have postnuptial depression

Maxine Frith
Tuesday 29 August 2006 00:00 BST

For Hayley Brown, the post-wedding blues hit soon after the honeymoon with her husband Wesley. "It was really weird," she says. "We had spent 18 months saving and planning and making sure everything was perfect, and then, in a single day, it's all over. I kind of thought - what now? There didn't seem to be anything to talk about or look forward to, and then I just felt really, really down - it was horrible."

She is not alone. According to relationship experts, one new spouse in 10 will experience postnuptial depression to a greater or lesser degree.

Of course, if you're Britney Spears (now on her second marriage), the post-wedding hangover has barely taken hold before you realise your dreadful mistake and start annulment proceedings. And the actor Renée Zellweger lasted just four months with country and western star Kenny Chesney before having the marriage annulled on the somewhat bewildering grounds of " fraud".

But sometimes it is not just the sense of anticlimax once the party is over, or the realisation that a whirlwind romance is destined for an even quicker divorce once you actually get to know your husband or wife. The average wedding now costs more than £20,000, and 20 per cent of couples are starting married life in serious debt because of the amount they spent on their big day. Nuptials are now beginning to rival Indian ceremonies for their length and opulence.

Postnuptial blues do not just have mental manifestations; their symptoms may be physical too. Once the adrenalin that has kept brides and grooms going through the stressful last week before the wedding day has worn off, exhaustion, colds and other viruses may take its place.

Brown, now a mother of two from Ashford, Kent, says other stresses hit the just-married as well. "Like a lot of brides, I went on a diet about nine months before I got married and lost a lot of weight because I wanted to look good on the day," she says. "But then afterwards you just wonder what it was all for, and it can be tempting to start comfort-eating, then you get depressed because you have put on weight. Everything just gets to you."

Also, research published last week found that a woman's libido drops steeply after marriage. Experts believe that levels of phenylethylamine, the so-called "love chemical", fall in women but not in men once they are in a secure relationship. This may add to the problems of couples in their first year of married life.

Postnuptial depression may also set in because many couples have not thought about their lives beyond saying "I do". According to Dr Jane Greer, a marriage and family therapist in New York, there is no such thing as a "honeymoon period" in a marriage and a couple's relationship will need work straight away.

Writing on the newlyweds' website The Nest, she says: "It is imperative to plan time for just the two of you, to continue to invest in your marriage. Whether it's a scheduled Wednesday dinner date or Sunday in bed with the crossword puzzle, agree to set aside a few hours to be a 'we'." She also advises couples to have time apart and to continue with their old hobbies rather than becoming too tied to each other.

Other problems can occur because women - and men - sometimes raise their expectations of their partner's abilities as soon as they are married, according to Greer. She says: "Don't feel disappointed if your husband can't fix things around the house or cook a gourmet dinner. A wedding band does not make him Superhusband, just as it doesn't make you Superwife."

Hayley Brown, 31, can attest to this. "We had lived together before we got married, but I suppose that in some ways I did expect more of Wesley afterwards," she says. "I had a kind of attitude of, 'What are you doing for me, husband?' and I did probably nag him more than before.

"You get married for more than a piece of paper and things that had just slightly irritated me before, things he did around the house, really began to irritate me afterwards. I expected more commitment and it was really difficult for about a year before we settled into the marriage. I think we had to learn a bit more give and take than we had before. The problem is that everyone expects you to be totally in love when you first get married, so it's difficult to acknowledge that you have problems with each other."

For some, postnuptial depression can be more severe. Last October, hairdresser Angela Christie pleaded guilty to drink-driving after she ploughed her Land Rover Discovery into a caravan at 100mph.

Christie, 29, from Stirling, Scotland, claimed in her defence that she had been suffering post-wedding blues. Perth Sheriff Court was told that until her marriage she'd led a full life, but after the wedding her husband's long hours had caused her to spiral into depression and alcoholism.

While this reaction is at the extreme, many of the 300,000 or more couples who will get married this year may still experience some problems. The Nest website has other suggestions for combating the immediate symptoms of postnuptial depression. Contributors to its message boards advocate creating a scrapbook of the wedding day, organising a reunion with the bridesmaids, or asking one's mother over for dinner for a full review of "every single moment".

The site has one other, slightly more radical piece of advice - the suggestion that a blubbing bride might try to lighten her mood by getting her new husband to be photographed wearing her wedding dress.

However, in an admittedly somewhat small survey of one new husband (mine), this idea went down about as well as a piece of stale wedding cake. " How the hell am I supposed to fit into that laced-up corset and a fishtail skirt?" he asked plaintively.

How to beat the blues

Organise a "treasure chest" of mementos from the big day, such as place cards, the seating plan and scraps of confetti. It may be unhealthy to focus so much on the event in the long-term, but looking over objects will help you get over the sense of anticlimax.

Organise a reunion dinner with the bridesmaids and friends from the hen night so you can go over photographs - and spend time apart from your new spouse.

Don't expect everything to change; your husband (or wife) will still have the same irritating habits they had before you said "I do" and a ring will not necessarily make them easier to live with.

n The website The Nest recommends that you book another holiday as soon as you return from honeymoon so you have something to look forward to.

Take up a new hobby. Planning the wedding will have occupied your every waking moment for the past few months, so replace debates over flowers with yoga to calm post-wedding anxiety.

You may both be hit by a sense that you have lost your independence, so make sure you do some things separately.

Tips for a successful marriage

It may not be romantic, but the secret to starting off on the right marital foot may be to lower your expectations. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that those who believed their partner would be unfailingly loving at the start of marriage were often less satisfied a few years in.

Couples need to work at a marriage from the very beginning, according to relationship counsellors.

Some organisations now offer marriage preparation courses and post-wedding pep talks in a bid to ensure that couples have the best chance of making it up to and beyond the seven-year itch.

Despite a rising divorce rate, the British have not lost their love affair with marriage. According to the Office for National Statistics, 311,180 weddings took place in 2004, the third successive year when nuptials have increased.

In the same year, 167,116 divorces were granted. The average age at divorce was 42.7 for men and 40.2 for women. And the average length of marriage by the time it ended in divorce was 11.5 years, up from 11.3 years in 2003.

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