Does knowing one’s fiancée’s values, goals and aspirations increase the odds a couple will live happily ever after?” That’s what reporters often want to know when interviewing me about the questions people should ask before tying the knot.
As someone who for several decades has specialized in working with couples teetering on the brink of divorce, I must admit I have a few opinions about this. First of all, I’m convinced that far too many couples tie the knot when they are still in the infatuation stage of their relationship, a time when hormones run amok and lust looms large. They don’t do their homework up front; they fail to really get to know how their partners feel about the inevitable life-altering decisions. It amazes me how much faith people have that healthy, happy marriages just happen. They don’t.
So, on one hand, I’m glad people are giving some thought to interviewing their prospective mates about their life’s goals, ambitions and aspirations. It may go a long way to weed out blatant mismatches. (Although the cynical side of me wonders whether incompatible responses to important questions would bring wedding plans to a screeching halt or simply become debris that gets swept under the carpet to be dealt with post nup.) Nonetheless, approaching marriage consciously and intentionally is always a good thing.
However, I’m equally convinced that knowing your prospective mate’s thoughts about a variety of relationship issues does not provide future “love insurance”. Here’s why. The late John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans.” No matter how much a couple agrees on whether they want children and if so, how many, how they’ll handle finances and household chores, how they’ll decide on religious issues or matters of sexuality, and so on and so on, the truth is, how people feel often changes over time. For example, I recently worked with a young Mormon couple who totally agreed prior to marriage that they would be an active part of the LDS church. The wife had converted because she was committed to the idea from the outset. However, as time passed, there was much about the religion with which she didn’t feel comfortable. Because she had agreed to convert, she felt guilty about her discomfort and failed to share it with her husband. Over time, her feelings of resentment grew and when she felt she could no longer stand the pressure, she filed for divorce.
Plus, regardless of how crystal clear you might be about your goals and direction for your marriage, life often has a funny way of throwing you curves. Then what? I have worked with many couples over the years who have agreed in advance that they want children. They even agreed on the number of children they desired as well as the date they wanted to become pregnant. However, eventually these couples learned sad news they hadn’t even considered- they were unable to conceive. Months and years of frustration, hurt, disappointment and mutual blaming frequently took a toll on their marriages. Tragically, many ended up divorced. They talked about having kids; they simply failed to talk about what happens if nature doesn’t cooperate.
Similarly, I work with couples day in and day out who are very passionate during the early stages of their marriage. They even discuss the importance of maintaining passion and physical affection in their relationship over time. But alas, kids happen. Busy jobs happen. Resentment happens. Bickering takes the place of watching movies together in the evening. Sex stops happening. All of a sudden, the plans to keep sex juicy now seem like nothing more than a faded memory. And they’re both too tired to do anything about it. Who knew?
So, is marriage nothing more than a crapshoot? Does it pay to know anything about your mate-to-be at all? Good question. Here’s the good news. Marriage isn’t a crap shoot at all. In fact, we now know a great deal about what it takes to make marriages last and help people grow old together happily. Sure, you should ask the big questions up front and steer clear of people whose basic values and goals clash with yours. That’s Relationship 101. But don’t let those little check marks next to your compatible responses give you a false sense of security. Go the extra mile. Here’s what you really need to know about your partner given the uncertainty of life’s meandering path.
Regardless of your level of compatibility, conflict in marriage is inevitable. One of the most important things you need to know is whether your partner can stand the heat. Will s/he be willing to get help when the going gets tough? Is s/he willing to take a marriage education class to learn the necessary skills to get and keep your marriage on track or back on track? Would s/he be willing to go to a qualified marriage counselor or speak to your pastor or rabbi? And if you’re going to talk, talk about the taboo, x-rated subjects. Discuss infidelity, infertility, aging parents, job layoffs, unexpected illnesses or deaths. Talk about the hard stuff. Does your partner know that over two thirds of what couples argue about in marriage is unresolvable? Does s/he know the predictable transitional stages that ALL marriages go through regardless of how much couples love each other? Does your mate know that while marriage is still one of the greatest institutions on earth, it’s not for the faint of heart? In fact, it’s damn hard work. And since it only takes one person to end a marriage, you might want to ask your partner, “Under what circumstances would you feel that our marriage would be over?” I know this question isn’t pretty or romantic, far from it, but since most divorces are unilateral decisions, it might help to know what might prompt your spouse to call it quits. It could be a deal breaker.
So, here’s the bottom line from the Divorce Buster. Don’t place too much weight on those compatibility quizzes. Be more impressed with your partner’s level of commitment. With the right attitude and adequate set of relationship skills, even the quirkiest of personality differences or opposing life goals can be worked through. Know your prospective partner’s willingness to stay the course even when love isn’t easy.