Most of the relationship difficulties that couples encounter after saying “I do” are the result of moving forward into commitment with assumptions and expectations that were never explored and discussed beforehand. Simply put, people assume they want the same things and have the same life vision. Then they just expect that life together will be a certain way based on their unchecked assumptions. Too often they are in for a disappointing surprise and wake-up call down the road.
When couples come in for premarital counseling, they always ask me, “how can we be sure?” They fear they may be overlooking something or ignoring a difficult truth. I tell them honestly that there are no guarantees, but that by asking the hard questions and exploring the answers together, they will greatly increase their odds of success.
The NY Times is running a piece by Eleanor Stanford titled; “13 Questions to Ask Before getting Married.” Needless to say, it is in a #1 spot for most viewed. It touches on the role “romantic-comedy expectations” play in why we don’t look more realistically and practically at this most important life decision. Then the ignored premarital issues become real-life problems that have to be faced after saying I do. The questions they recommend are meant to open a couple up to frank discussions and reveal secrets that could come back to haunt them later on. Here’s the list they offer in brief:
1. Did your family throw plates, calmly discuss issues or silently shut down when disagreements arose?
This one speaks to how a partner will handle disagreements and deal with conflict.
2. Will we have children, and if we do, will you change diapers?
This is a sure deal breaker if someone wants kids and their partner doesn’t. Also how involved both will be can become a major issue down the road.
3. Will our experiences with our exes help or hinder us?
This one has to do with the danger of having had several serious (but not healthy) relationships and what we learned from them that we may have to unlearn. It’s also about how folks compare new loves with exes—which can be a no-winner. Lastly, jealousy and resentment over a partner’s ex can lead to relationship problems down the road if these feelings are not completely vetted before tying the knot.
4. How important is religion? How will we celebrate religious holidays, if at all?
This one can definitely become more of an issue with marriage, extended family, and especially, kids. People think thy are fine with something until the in-laws expect that the kids will be raised in their faith, and the spouse gives in to this based on feelings they might have really known they had. Total honesty and a plan is needed here.
5. Is my debt your debt? Would you be willing to bail me out?
Finances are the #1 issue that couples get in conflict over. Talk it through, decide how finances will be handled, fee up to debts you may have, talk about spending and how to handle large purchases—and discuss your feelings about where you want to live and if you want to rent or own.
6. What’s the most you would be willing to spend on a car, a couch, shoes?
This is a piece of the one before, and it speaks specifically to values, importance of responsibility, future planning, and financial security. It’s important.
7. Can you deal with my doing things without you?
Too often folks enter marriage with an expectation that their lifestyle will be a certain way. Part of this issue is how much individual time spent apart will be comfortable for the couple. Partners often have very different views on this one and though they may already be in conflict about it before marriage, too often one or both individuals think it will resolve itself once they are married. Won’t happen.
8. Do we like each other’s parents?
Too many people think their relationship with potential in-laws won’t really matter much after marriage—but in fact, it often plays a larger role. Holidays, family traditions, and grandchildren can all lead to a lot of conflict with in-laws you aren’t real keen on to begin with. You don’t just marry the person, you also marry their family to a large extent. You need to be honest and discuss how you two together will deal with future in-laws.
9. How important is sex to you?
Sex can get too much attention, but it is a mistake to not give it enough. Sex changes after marriage and children and couples need to keep their lines of communication open and strong in regards to this topic. Unfortunately for too many it feels uncomfortable and taboo, so they choose to ignore it, then are surprised when they have an unhappy or wandering spouse.
10. How far should we take flirting with other people? Is watching pornography O.K.?
If he/she is flirting in a way that makes you uncomfortable before marriage, tying the knot won’t change that. In fact, it often gets worse. Like sex itself, this is a topic couples tend to tiptoe around. Yet it needs to be talked about openly and frankly in order for intimacy to grow and remain strong.
11. Do you know all the ways I say “I love you”?
This one is about the 5 Love languages, a great book that you should read if you have not yet done so. People show love in different ways and understanding how your partner does will enhance communication and help you avoid misunderstandings, disappointment, resentment, and conflict.
12. What do you admire about me, and what are your pet peeves?
This discussion is intimacy at its best. Being who you are warts and all in front of each other only brings you closer. If not discussed, resentment and annoyance can flourish.
13. How do you see us 10 years from now?
This one is all about sharing a vision of the future, what it will look like, and what you both want and need. It also offers clues about someone being open to the idea that the marriage might not work out. If the other partner is in it no matter what, they need to know this.
If you are dating and talking about marriage—use these questions as a guide before the engagement ring and putting down a deposit. If you are newly married and hitting a few bumps, these questions can help you avoid more serious conflict and/or alienation down the road. If you are in a longer term marriage and struggling with issues that you have no idea where to begin addressing, these can help you as well. They will point to some specifics and offer you a place to focus and begin working together on resolution. It’s never too late while you are still together and both invested in making things better.