Full disclosure: I have been married—to the same guy—for twenty-eight years, four months, and twelve days. In our five years of dating, which began in college and then spilled into graduate school, I honestly don’t recall explicitly discussing the questions I’m about to propose. To be fair, my memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be. Also, my memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be…but at least I still have a sense of humor, right?
What I do know, for sure, as both a marriage researcher and educator, and someone who has successfully navigated almost three decades of a very happy marriage—one that has included all the ups, downs, and mediums, conflicts, near misses, nights slept in separate bedrooms, the having babies phase which somehow careened into the glorious empty nest phase, and now the moving to a new city/quitting my job/leaning into new realities phase—is this: Before getting married, you’ll want to have many conversations (over many months, maybe years) about these five questions in particular, as well as the topics that will naturally emerge as you do.
Why? Because according to Pew Research Center, 88% of U.S. Americans cite “love” as their top reason for marrying someone. Which is fine, except that love is a verb—and it requires constant reworking, rethinking, and recreating if you want it to last. I’m not here to throw a wet blanket on your notion of love. It’s a lovely, delightful, blissful biochemical feeling—in the early years of marriage. But it will change. It will evolve. It will morph into something that’s actually much more complex. More beautiful, yes. But also more negotiated. More practiced. It will still be love, yes, but in a new form. And at the core of the verb-sense of loving each for the long haul is the co-creating of a partnership in which you both can flourish. In which you both can and are willing to support and love each other while becoming the best versions of yourself. That’s the goal of modern marriage.
According to Pew Research Center, 88% of U.S. Americans cite “love” as their top reason for marrying someone. Which is fine, except that love is a verb—and it requires constant reworking, rethinking, and recreating if you want it to last.
That becoming is going to require you not only to talk about all the things but also to learn how to talk and disagree and negotiate healthy boundary-setting. Oh, and figure out how to spend your money. And clean toilets. And fight. And repair. And then argue again. Because when you’re in it for the long haul, everything needs to be on the table. To get you started, here are five key questions to discuss well before you wed.
1. Is there anything you or I are not willing to give up once we’re married?
This is not a trick question, promise. It actually gets at something essential in every healthy relationship: a thing called boundaries. In the wise words of the ever-wise researcher and life guru Brené Brown, “Nothing is sustainable without boundaries.” And that includes marriage. In fact, Dr. Brown found in her thirteen years of research that the most compassionate people are also the most “boundaried people.”
In marriage, being compassionate with each other, including respecting what each of you needs to thrive, is key to co-creating a sustainable marriage mini-culture. And boundaries come in all shapes and sizes: big, medium, and micro—anything that you define as okay or not okay, as must-have or must-not-have. Those are boundaries.
Boundaries come in all shapes and sizes: big, medium, and micro—anything that you define as okay or not okay, as must-have or must-not-have. Those are boundaries.
For instance, my husband has been a freak about fishing for walleye since he could hold a rod and reel in his chubby little toddler hand. We have photos to prove it. Over the years I’ve had to respect his intense and deep-seated need—at least a few times a year—to retreat to the north woods of Minnesota with his dad and nephew. It sounds simple, right? Go fish, go enjoy yourself honey! But in those early years of marriage when we were raising kids and careers, even three days alone felt like 2.9 days too many. It never felt like the best time to have him gone fishing. Yet I became much more compassionate as I reflected on this core reality: that his need for being on open water jigging for the elusive walleye was not that different than my need for an hour or two in my sewing room, transforming vintage fabrics into a skirt or pillow. Or my need for ten hours of sleep at least once every week. Or a Saturday afternoon yoga class.
At the core of every healthy twosome is, at minimum, two healthy individuals.
Discuss what you and your future spouse believe are the walleye or sewing machine or power sleep in your marriage. And then keep talking about it, knowing it might change as you naturally change and your marriage evolves. Oh, did I mention marriage evolves over time? Talk about that too.
2. Can you handle me doing things without you?
You should be able to get a decent handle on this with a partner as you move through your dating years, but it’s important to also discuss explicitly. Because the question gets at an essential truth in every healthy relationship: the simultaneous need for both autonomy and connection.
In fact, it’s a long-standing myth that autonomy—having some spaces in your togetherness—is the death knell of a healthy marriage. In fact, if your partner in any way suggests you should not have some privacy or spend time doing self-care; if they don’t support you going away for a weekend with friends; or if they have a problem with you doing the things you need to stay healthy and whole: major warning sign. Bright red flag. Partners who insist on being in constant connection are not partners who are going to allow you—and thus your marriage—to thrive. Now, before you’re married, is the best time to see and assess this.
As you discuss this question with your partner, be sure you’re also talking about what marriage rules you might have on privacy across many areas of your relationship—all the way from your finances to what topics about your relationship are fine to discuss with best friends or extended family.
On the finance topic, for instance, my husband and I long ago established a basic rule around spending: If it’s less than $100, no need to discuss. Over $101, we should chat. Yes, sometimes we violate that rule…which is just a sliding door moment for some more chatting about our rules, and about our ultimate goal: helping our family thrive.
3. Did your family use the silent treatment, calmly discuss disagreements, or slam doors when conflict arose?
Oh, yes. You know we need to talk about conflict styles. Meaning, you and your partner need to have the meta-conversation about how you have intense conversations.
The research on this topic could not be more clear. It’s not a matter of how much conflict you have that predicts the trajectory and final story of your marriage, but how you act and express yourselves during those conflicts. And much of those actions and expressions—unless otherwise and intentionally worked on—will fall to default mode, those learned in your respective families of origin.
It’s not a matter of how much conflict you have that predicts the trajectory and final story of your marriage, but how you act and express yourselves during those conflicts. And much of those actions and expressions, unless otherwise and intentionally worked on, will fall to default mode—those learned in your respective families of origin.
The good news: Healthy conflict styles are highly learnable! And a great place to begin that learning is in having conversations about your conflict conversations, specifically: how you want them to go, how you feel about conflict, what you need from each other, what conflict feels like in each of your bodies as it’s happening (Hot? Flooded? Raging? Pleasurable?). Pro-tip: Try talking about conflict needs and wishes when you’re not in a conflict. Hard to do? For sure. Essential? Yes. You’ll be less flooded with emotion and more open to approaching the conversation with a soft heart and curious stance.
Finally, let me whet your appetite—and maybe motivate you—for learning highly effective conflict approaches by sharing one of the most important conflict skills every couple should learn. And practice. According to the best relationship science in the world, The Gottman Relationship Institute at the University of Washington: The first three minutes of conflict is actually a key predictor of whether you and your spouse will get divorced over the next six years. True. Story. The key in those three minutes? Start conversations softly and gently. Avoid harsh, critical tones when you have something to say about which you’re irritated.
Sounds simple and obvious, right? But when you’re flooded with anger it’s really hard to soften your stance. I’m speaking from experience here. Yet those first three minutes of conflict will set the tone not only for the conversation you’re about to have but also for your marriage. And that’s worth talking about, as well as practicing, again and again, year after year…hopefully into your own 30 or 40+ year marriage.
4. What’s the most you’d be willing to spend on a lamp or a pair of shoes?
Many of us grew up in families where the topic of finances was as taboo as grandma’s sex life. (Grandma does what?!) But it’s 2020, and we not only need to have open and ongoing discussions about our approaches to finances, but we also need to discuss our emotions about money.
You and your partner should be talking about everything from spending and saving to how each of you defines the terms “cautiousness” and “recklessness” when it comes to spending. What does “splurge” look like to you? To your spouse?
The research on this topic is quite clear: Talking openly, early, and often about what money means to each of you will set you up for being able to positively navigate the many phases of your marriage—especially when you hit the big financial ones (kids, homes, college). Oh my goodness: my adrenaline started pumping just typing those words. What does it do to your adrenal system when you think about financing a college education? When you think about your spouse ordering the latest and hottest pair of high-tops? About your partner suggesting you stretch the mortgage and just bump out the kitchen: “It will add value!” Those might be great questions for beginning necessary conversations about a topic that cannot be taboo.
5. If we want and are able to have children, are you willing to change diapers at 3 a.m. and miss an important meeting if our kid is sick?
Here’s the deal, backed up by decades of research: In heterosexual marriages, women are still doing the large majority of the housework and childcare. Sorry folks, just reporting the research.
And yet in the happiest of all marriages, partners share equally, respecting each other’s time, talents, and needs.
Meaning, they are able to understand that being willing to take the lead on diaper rash isn’t as much about caring for our cute baby’s butt (yes, baby has a cutest cute butt…awwww) as it is about the nonverbal acknowledgment that we’re both in this together. It’s more about the fact that sharing in the work of co-creating a home and family is the ultimate verb of love, the ultimate willingness to be actively in the good and the bad. And, yes, even the poopy.
Here’s another fact worth discussing: Most couples go into marriage wanting to feel equally valued, to share equally in mundane tasks and eventual childcare. But many heterosexual couples in particular discover, over time, that some of the more traditional gender roles in child-raising and household chores sneak in. And when they do, it usually causes some intense conflict.
Talk openly about how you each see yourselves as a future parent, if you’re thinking about kids. And even if you aren’t planning on being parents, having a discussion about what kinds of household chores you are willing (or not willing) to do is important.
Why not begin the discussion now? Talk openly about how you each see yourselves as a future parent, if you’re thinking about kids. And even if you aren’t planning on being parents, having a discussion about what kinds of household chores you are willing (or not willing) to do is important. You know, that table with the crumbs that drive you, but not your partner, wild…speaking hypothetically, of course.
Okay, so as you talk about all of the things as you’re accelerating on the onramp to marriage, remember this fact: Marriage, it’s a life-long conversation. It’s also, according to a sign I once spotted hanging in the window of a Prague giftshop: “an endless sleepover with your favorite weirdo.” Pick your weirdo wisely. And then agree to keep talking with that awesome weirdo about everything, softly.