premarital

Nine Questions to Ask Your Fiancé Before You Get Married

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 There are plenty of questions to ask yourselves when you’re engaged and preparing for a wedding.  When do we want to get married?  Who do we want to invite?  What type of cake do we want to eat?  But sometimes, in the hoopla of planning the big event, you miss the opportunities you have to prepare for what comes after the wedding.

Premarital counseling is often a prerequisite to have a religious officiant for your wedding.  Sometimes couples will attend premarital counseling with a therapist, but that practice is becoming more rare.  Yet once married couples come to my door for therapy, problems have been developing since the start of the relationship.

Why is premarital counseling necessary?  We seem to have a great relationship.

Preventative medicine is becoming a cost-saving trend in medicine.  If you can prevent problems from developing in the first place, you’re more likely to avoid the later costs of fixing it.  Similarly, in marriage, if you have a few intentional conversations before you get married, you’re more likely to avoid pitfalls of relational tension later.

Working your way out of entrenched problems in your relationship is much more difficult than addressing them head-on before they have a chance to start.  Premarital work gives you more awareness of the warning signs of a problem in your relationship.  Having practiced the skills of open communication gives you more confidence to have tough conversations early on in your marriage.

Here are some questions to consider asking as you prepare for marriage.

1. What was your parents’ marriage like?

We learn most about marriage from our families-of-origin.  Whether you have a positive relationship with your parents and trust them as role models or you are trying to be as different as you can from them, their modeling is often the most significant influence you’ll have in your marriage.

Your mother may have always taken care of the housework.  Your father might have been the person who drove the kids to all their activities.  But your fiancé’s father may have traveled during the week and their mother may have hired a cleaning service to take care of the house work.  Having discussions about the way things were in your family and how you’d like to emulate or differ from those standards can circumvent unspoken expectations you carry into the relationship.

2. How will we handle finances?

What is your spending style in comparison to your partner?  Is one of you a saver?  Is the other a spender?  What level of transparency do you want to have about finances?  Will one of you handle the budgeting and bill-paying, or will it be a joint effort?  Will you have a joint account and/or two separate accounts?

Money is one of the most common areas of disagreement and argument for couples.  Learn how you handle money through participating in a money management course, such as Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.  Start having conversations about money and spending before you’re married so you know how to talk about this sticky issue.

3. Do you want to have kids?  How many?  When?

Expectations about having children can differ widely.  Discussing your plans for children can facilitate discussions around career and dreams for the future.  For example, if you’re focused on finishing your PhD or making partner in your firm before having kids, that can be discussed.  If one of you wants to stay at home with the children, that is helpful to identify.  You may want to consider the financial cost of childcare needs.  Acknowledging the financial aspect paves the way for that important conversation to happen later.

4. What are your expectations around sexual intimacy?

Oftentimes couples assume that sex should feel easy and natural within marriage, but the truth is farther from this assumption.  What creates quality sexual intimacy within a marriage is the freedom to have open conversations about it.

These conversations can be as simple as discussing logistics such as how often you’ll be intimate, when you expect to be intimate, or even the (sometimes awkward!) conversation of what you like and don’t like sexually.  You might want to discuss how you’ll handle initiating sex and saying “no” if you’re not interested.  Consent is still important in marriage, and often unspoken expectations influence whether you feel comfortable refusing.

Also, think about how you’ve been influenced by culture, church, family, career, or other areas of your life with certain messages about sex or what it means to be a man or a woman.  Uncovering these narratives for yourself can have implications of which you’re not aware.

5. How will we handle changes in our relationship?

Are you the same person you were ten years ago?  Fifteen?  Twenty?  Or have you changed in significant ways?  The type of music you enjoyed when you were younger, for example, may be vastly different from what you like now.  Personality can change over time, so it’s important to know that the person you’re standing next to on your wedding day may change significantly over the course of your marriage.  Sometimes just recognizing this fact together can prepare you, and you can discuss how you’ll handle those changes as they come.

6. What traditions for connection do we want to establish?

John Gottman, in discussing the aspects that make up healthy marriages, outlines the importance of creating shared meaning through establishing rituals of connection.  These can be everyday points of connection, like returning home from work or having dinner together.  They can also be larger traditions, such as what you do for holidays or how you celebrate birthdays.  Discuss how your family handled major holidays and what you’ll want, especially if you’ll be splitting time between two families.  Identify the aspects of your family’s moments of everyday connection you’d like to continue.

Regardless of what your family-of-origin does for holidays, I suggest that you identify some new holiday traditions you’d like to establish in your new family with your partner. Having these special traditions you develop together help to keep connection going through more stressful or trying times.

7. What will we do when we’re attracted to other people?

One of the biggest setups for finding yourself entangled in an extramarital affair is believing that it will never happen to you.  Esther Perel, a clinician and researcher on marital issues, discusses affairs in her TED talk.  She points out that problems arise when one spouse is too ashamed of the attraction they feel to discuss it with their spouse.  They instead turn to the person to whom they’re attracted and tell them in an attempt to resolve it.  But instead, this makes the attraction more intense, as the other party may reciprocate and they share a secret.

Affair-proofing your marriage involves talking about the moments when you’re feeling attracted to someone else and asking for accountability from your spouse.  If you walk into marriage expecting this to happen to one or the both of you, it will come as less of a surprise.  Fostering a safe environment by being honest with one another is the most crucial part of keeping your marriage intact. 

8. How do we want to argue?  What are the rules for fighting fair?

Arguments are another inevitability in marriage.  Even if you didn’t fight often before you were married, there are many more opportunities for arguments to arise when you’re living your lives together.  In fact, if you aren’t arguing at all, I might be concerned about how you might be avoiding or ignoring issues that come up.

Disagreements are an open door to intimacy when they involve fighting fair.  Setting ground rules for communication, which can be aided by a therapist, helps you to be able to maintain connection even when you disagree.  Learn how to communicate your emotions effectively and listen with empathy and compassion to your partner’s perspective.  Learn about why you or your partner are more sensitive to certain interactions due to triggers or how they remind you of your family of origin. Identify what you’re really desiring underneath the conflict and problem-solve for how to create that together.

9. How will you and I become a “we”?

One issue that often arises in marriages is leaving behind the loyalty felt toward your family-of-origin to focus on loyalty to the marriage.  This is necessarily painful, as change can require leaving behind some past traditions and activities that you love with your family in service of creating a new future with your spouse.  Identifying rituals of connection (see question 6) can help create this connection by establishing new traditions together.

If you’ve been single for a long time, you may have a different problem: leaving behind the independence of single life to connect with your spouse.  As a single person, you were able to come and go as you pleased and make decisions without thought for how they would affect others in your household.  In marriage, those behaviors are more difficult to maintain.  Learning how to let go of some independence is part of a healthy process in creating a “we.”

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Are you preparing for an upcoming marriage?  Have you had a hard time making space to answer some of these questions? Are you already married wish you’d had these conversations beforehand?  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling to couples in every stage of their relationship, with a goal of teaching tools to help create a healthy marriage.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to find out how to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.

One Simple Phrase to Change How You Prepare for Marriage

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Have you ever been to see the ocean?  Walked out into the salt water and felt the waves pushing against you? 

Growing up in Michigan, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to go to lakes nearby.  Because of that, I’ve only been to the ocean a few times.  I’m always struck by the size of the waves and the force of the current, so much so that I’ve avoided going in the water higher than my waist.

I can see how dangerous the ocean is when swimmers get caught in the undertow of the waves.  One second they’re swimming and having fun.  The next moment, the sea is sweeping them further and further out, and they’re struggling to swim back against the current.  

You might ask: what does this have to do with marriage?

Amidst all the wedding planning that comes with engagement, preparation for the marriage itself often isn’t as high of a priority.  Premarital counseling classes are commonly offered at churches, but often they are teaching general principles on managing the household and finances, or they’re a prerequisite for using a church venue.

Instead of preparation for the realities of marriage, there are plenty of messages distorted by our culture’s obsession with romance that lead to expectations of perfection from your partner and a “happily ever after” story.  We expect that our spouses will fulfill our every need, sex will be easy and fun, and we’ll never have serious arguments.  These faulty expectations set us up for disappointment.

How do you protect yourself against that possibility?  How do you prepare for this? By reminding yourself of this:

Marriage will be hard. 

I believe this one small phrase, if both partners walk into marriage believing it, can create a buffer against the difficulties that will come.  It doesn’t mean that it’ll reduce how often you fight or feel hurt.  Instead, the acceptance of this truth and the willingness to look it full in the face helps to prepare you for the inevitable arguments, loneliness, and disappointment you will face.

Let’s go back to the ocean for a moment.  Imagine yourself standing in the water and facing the horizon.  You’re able to see the waves coming.  When a massive one crests and falls over you, you’ll brace your body in preparation for the impact.  You might lose your footing for a moment, but you’ve already set up a foundation that won’t be hard to re-establish.

Now imagine that you have your back to the waves and you’re looking at the shoreline.  You have no idea the wave is coming: you’re completely blind to it.  How much harder do you think that wave will hit you?  It will knock you off your feet, pull you under, and take much more effort to stand up again.  The wave may be large and powerful enough to pull you back into the undertow, making it feel impossible to make it back to shore.

In his book The Meaning of Marriage*, Timothy Keller warns against the faulty view of marriage in our culture, saying we expect too much from marriage.  In the search for a spouse, we’re looking for the perfect person who fits all of our lengthy list of requirements and expectations.  One flaw immediately rules a potential mate out.

Once married, couples may see the purpose of marriage as satisfying our personal desires and needs, rather than seeking the best for the other person.  Often our distorted beliefs lead to expectations that our partner will make us complete.  We think marriage is the relationship that provides ultimate satisfaction.  And when we are disappointed by our spouses, we blame them instead of acknowledging that our own faulty expectations set ourselves and our partners up for failure.

At the same time, Keller says we expect too little from marriage.  But how can that be? 

Marriage has the potential to be the most significant, life-altering, and rewarding relationship you have.

I’m sure you know couples who have walked through the difficulties of marriage and come out bitter, resentful, and angry at their spouses for disappointing them.  But facing these difficulties with openness to change will impact you if you let them. 

You will have to learn new ways to see the world through your partner’s eyes.  You will have to work at the aspects of marriage that do not come easy to you.  Just as you are likely not the same person you were 10 years ago, Tim Keller acknowledges that your spouse will change over time, and you need to be ready to get to know these new aspects of who they are.

Being aware of both the difficulty of being married as well as the potential for growth prepares you well for the reality of marriage.  It allows you to look with a far-reaching view at the waves that are coming into shore and prepare for the impacts that will come.   They will still be painful, but being prepared and accepting the reality that your marriage will be hard will help you move through those difficulties and grow closer as a result.

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Is your marriage disappointing your expectations?  Do you feel like you’re caught in the undertow?  Are you arguing constantly, frequently let down by your partner’s actions, and feeling as though you don’t recognize the person they’ve become?  At Restored Hope, I help couples who feel like their marriage is hanging on a string to reconnect, manage the difficulties of married life, and fall in love with their partner all over again.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment and hear more about how I can help.

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