When Ellen McCarthy Rosenthal was reporting on weddings for The Washington Post, she came across one particularly interesting couple. The bride-to-be was a social worker and before she and her partner moved in together, they crafted a list of 200 questions at her suggestion that ranged dramatically, from “What is your expectation of how much time we’re going to spend with your family?” to “How do you feel about dishes being left in the sink?”
“It was incredibly granular and detailed,” says Rosenthal, author of The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook. “She really wanted to know what they each expected because she figured that would help mitigate conflict. It was so smart, but the rest of us just go fumbling into it.”
Fumbling is one way to put it. While the divorce rate in America has been declining, there are plenty of issues that can trip up a happy union — including money, sex, religion and child rearing. And still, many couples have trouble addressing difficult questions before they walk down the aisle.
“My first wedding was in Vegas with an Elvis impersonator where we didn’t talk about anything first,” says Amiira Ruotola, who co-authored the forthcoming book How to Keep Your Marriage From Sucking with her husband, Greg Behrendt. “We really thought love would conquer everything and didn’t realize that there are big conversations that love just doesn’t take care of.”
A big part of getting to know whether your partner is a good fit is interrogating your own preferences and goals. “We so often feel that it’s about who this other person is but who are you?” says Daphne de Marneffe, a clinical psychologist and the author of recently released The Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together. “You have to be honest about this. It’s okay to be a person with needs and to tell someone what works for you. People often think that if they don’t raise these questions they’ll just go away, and that’s not true.”
Rosenthal says that the happiest, most successful couples she met all had one thing in common: reasonable expectations. “They went into this with their eyes wide open, understood their differences and knew marriage would be hard,” she says. “It’s the people who expect it to be perfect who are disappointed.”
So to ensure that you’re entering into a conscious, compatible and healthy partnership, here are five questions from experts that you should ask yourself before getting married:
1.) Is this relationship fair?
When planning a marriage, you might be inclined to discuss how you’re going to split finances, but what about the balance of emotional labor? If one person is always giving more, compromising and focusing on fulfilling the other partner’s needs, a reassessment is in order, says de Marneffe. “An unbalanced thing can come back and bite you. Spending all of your energy keeping one person happy becomes way too much of a burden once there are kids and mortgages and ill parents.”
- How did my parents instill certain expectations?
While every couple is unique, it’s important to examine how your parents and other relatives contributed to your expectations about family life. Ruotola says that she and Behrendt quickly learned that they had very different frames of reference: In her family, the kids always came first. In Behrendt’s family, his parents’ marriage was primary and the kids were expected to be more independent. “You don’t just intuitively know what family means to another person, and you can’t expect them to know what it means to you,” she says.
- Do I want children?
Some differences are harder to negotiate then others. If one partner does want children and the other doesn’t, it’s going to be tough to find a compromise. “If you want children, do not continue to be in a relationship where the other party is not sure they [do],” Barbara Grossman and Dr. Michael Grossman, co-authors of The Marriage Map, recently advised over email. “We recommend that you politely and lovingly tell your partner that should they change their mind they can let you know, but in the meantime you’re going to be dating other people.”
- What are my goals in life and are they compatible with my partner’s goals?
Be sure that you’re clear on what you want — both now and 10 years down the road. Rob Scuka, executive director of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement, says that it’s important to interrogate your big life goals and ensure that they are sufficiently in sync with your partner’s big life goals. “If one person wants something radically different, you’re going argue about it,” he says. Instead of making implicit assumptions, make sure you get clarity before you get married.
- What am I going to do to prepare for my marriage?
Rosenthal met a lot of couples who were very prepared for their wedding day, but few who were actively thinking about how to build a successful marriage. “We think that love and relationships should be intuitive, but that’s baloney,” she says. “We need to acquire the tools to be good at relationships.” Rosenthal encourages couples to make a plan, whether that’s reading books together about healthy relationships, getting counseling to iron out the issues that have already emerged or going to a marriage education workshop.