Moving from casual dating to a serious relationship to the final stage — getting married — is a gradual process for most people. Unlike the whirlwind marriages we read about in romance novels, for most couples it’s not a decision made quickly or lightly. Nor should it be — if one is serious about making a marriage last.
But dating someone — even being engaged to them — is a lot different than marriage itself. Suddenly you’re not just sharing your lives together in the most intimate manner possible, you’re also sharing a lot of other things you may not have counted on.
So before you tie the knot, you may find it helpful to ask these five questions.
1. What’s your family like?
History constantly repeats itself — especially in families. While unhealthy family patterns can be broken, it takes commitment and effort in order to do so.
So your partner’s family will give you an insight into how your partner is likely to deal with a whole host of issues in marriage, from how he handles stress to how she interacts with children. While we’re not doomed to repeat negative family patterns, being aware of what to expect ahead of time will allow you to enter into the marriage eyes wide open. 1
2. Children — Do you want them and if so, how many, and how should they be raised?
Most people probably talk about children long before they get married — indeed, it’s often a filter some men and women use to determine if the relationship has long-term potential. People who don’t want children (or more children if it’s not their first marriage) generally aren’t going to have much of a future with people who do.
Not only do you need to talk about having children, but you need to consider all the secondary issues related to kids. What if you have trouble conceiving, are you both agreed on in-vitro or other fertilization methods? What kind of religion, if any, will you raise the kids under? What are your thoughts about discipline? About spending time daily quality time with the child? About changing diapers? Is the expectation that one partner will be the one primarily responsible for raising the children?
As you can see, the list is endless. The important thing aren’t these specific questions (although they may be a start). The important thing is to have the conversation and get a lay of the land to ensure you’re both on a similar, if not the same, page.
3. What is your approach to finances and money?
Before marriage, two individuals co-habitating may never even talk much about money. But suddenly when the marriage makes things official, money becomes a hot issue, because it was rarely directly discussed ahead of time.
Different people have different approaches to money. Some people are savers and misers, while others are carefree and don’t give it as much thought. How money was handled when you were growing up often has a big impact on how you deal with it as an adult (see #1 above). If your financial and spending styles are not on the same page, now’s the time to discuss how you will get them on the same page because a big part of marriage is the fact that it’s a legal contract that binds the two of you together financially.
It shouldn’t take until you’ve walked down the aisle to have this talk. If one of you has a great deal of debt — whether it’s credit cards, student loans, whatever — you need to share that with your partner. Is the expectation that one partner will be managing the couple’s finances moving forward?
4. What is your approach to sex?
Sex is often a taboo topic (much like money), both inside and outside of a marriage. But talking about your sexual needs is important to ensure both of you are sexually compatible. After all, most people enjoy sex early on in a relationship — when everything is novel and you’re both exploring each other’s sexual interests.
But what about the long-term — what are the expectations for sex long after that initial passion has worn off? It’s not just about frequency (twice a week? twice a month?), but also sexual and romantic styles both in and outside of the bedroom. Do you switch off being the initiator, or is the expectation one person will always do the initiating? How can you let the other person down tactfully without hurting their feelings if they want sex and you don’t? Now’s the time to figure these things out.
5. How do you resolve a disagreement? How do you argue?
How a couple argues can tell you as much about the health of a relationship as anything else. If the arguing seems bad before you get married, it’s only to get worse after you’re married. You may attribute the arguing to outside factors — like the stress of planning a wedding, moving, the other person’s family, or changing jobs. But guess what? You’re both going to experience similar stress throughout your lives, because stress is a constant in modern living.
Do arguments get real personal, real fast? Does one person always seem to veer off-topic and bring up other, unrelated things that derail the arguments, or turn them back onto you? Do your arguments just become a blame game? Or does one person always need to be right about everything you argue about?
You can improve the way you communicate and argue with your partner, but you need to make a concerted effort in order to do so. All relationships have disagreements — it’s how you resolve them that matters. (Hint: it’s all about compromise and forgiveness.)
And last, a bonus question…
6. What is your outlook on life?
Many of us think we know our partner’s outlook on life by the simple fact of being around them all the time, hearing them talk about various topics and seeing what inspires them.
But without a direct discussion, sometimes one’s beliefs about another’s outlook can be clouded by our feelings for them. Optimists and pessimists can live happily ever after together, but for compatibility’s sake, it’s often easier to stick with those who share your philosophical approach to life. Does the person see areas of improvement they’d like to work on in their lives? Or do they see themselves as the “this is who I am, take it or leave it” kind of person?
Just as in where you can’t force someone to go to therapy because you think it would benefit them, the same is true in marriage — you can’t go into a marriage expecting to change the other person. That’s why these questions are important before you get married.
Sit down and discuss these topics before you get married, in a relaxed, comfortable, and private setting. Turn it into a sort of game, if you’d like, and keep the tone of the discussion light but focused on getting to each other’s truthful answers.
If you find yourself incompatible with your partner on two or more of these questions, it’s a sign. Either you’ll both have to work harder than you probably imagined to find common ground in the marriage. Or you may be better off taking a step back and reconsidering your options. In either case, you’ll be far better prepared for your future than if you hadn’t asked.
1. A followup question to this one could take the form of, “Do you want to be just like them, or do you think we could things a little bit differently (or even better)?”