Marriage has one of the highest failure rates of anything we try, and the cost and impact (especially on children) of disentangling can be devastating. The problem is not a legal system that makes divorce easy—it isn’t easy—or that we’re just not wired to be monogamous. We can learn to make conscious choices that override our wiring. And the problem is not that modern life has trumped what some call “traditional values.”
The problem is that most people who get married have no idea—none—what they’re getting into, what they should look for—or look to exclude—in a potential mate, or how to approach the process of choosing a person they’d like to spend the rest of their life with. Sorry romantics, but love alone is not enough. Nor is a steadfast commitment to staying together when love is absent or one-sided—that’s just a recipe for a lifetime of misery.
Ultimately, marriage is about relating, and the key to forging a successful, lasting bond is knowing, before you tie the knot, how you and your partner relate when you’re not in courtship mode, and that means getting a handle on how you handle challenges together. If you’ve gone through some rough spots while dating and come out stronger, that’s a good indication your marriage will survive. But no one likes to be tested, and how do you check someone’s challenge response without intentionally introducing trouble?
Listed below are five things I believe every couple should do before getting married. While checking them off your prenuptial to-do list is no guarantee your marriage will make it, avoiding any of them sets the stage for failure.
If you never disagree with your partner, you’ll never learn how to handle disagreement. Stuffing it in and sucking it up only creates resentment, and resentment often leads to the passive-aggressive expression of anger. If you feel strongly about something, say so, and deal with the consequences.
How you introduce disagreement and how your partner responds to it are probably the most important factors in whether your marriage will develop a healthy and constructive dynamic. If you’re afraid to disagree—because you’re conflict-avoidant or you fear abandonment—you’re not ready for marriage, and you need to work on yourself. How couples handle conflict is make or break, and you need to know whether the two of you are capable of resolving arguments or only leaving each other more frustrated.
Don’t fight over petty things, but pick something you care about and stand your ground. A little unpleasantness early on will prevent a lot of unpleasantness later.
2. Travel together to an unfamiliar place.
Marriage if it’s anything is an adventure, and you need to know how the two of you handle a journey to new and unfamiliar surroundings and the discoveries that follow. If you go somewhere one of you has already been, the dynamic becomes one of guide and tourist, which is not a partnership of equals.
It also helps to plan—and ideally pay for—the trip together. A surprise vacation planned and paid for by your partner isn’t exactly a mutual endeavor. The more unplanned time you allow for on the trip, the better. You’ll learn how you plan a day together in the morning and what happens when those plans go awry. And if you get stuck in the airport or lost in a foreign city, you’re testing out your communal survival skills.
3. Have sex.
Trust me, the last place you want to find out you’re incompatible on your wedding night is in the bedroom. If your faith precludes you from having premarital sex, so be it, and pray that you and your partner are a good physical fit.
Beyond having sex and finding out if the magic happens, you’ll want to talk about sex—your likes, your dislikes, your taboos and your fantasies. Frequency of sex can be a bone of contention in marriages, so you’ll want to make sure your partner is into it as frequently—or as infrequently—as you are.
In a healthy marriage, sex is both a generator of intimacy and an act in which intimacy gets expressed. If sex with your partner feels pleasurable but mechanical and doesn’t create a feeling of closeness, you may end up seeking that closeness elsewhere, which is problematic for a marriage. And if intimate emotional moments don’t progress to physical connection, frustration surely lies ahead.
4. Spend time with each other’s families.
When you’re married, your partner’s family becomes your family, and respectful interaction will make your marriage much, much happier.
The demands of families, their attitudes towards spouses, and the amount of time and interaction with them can all be major sources of conflict for married couples. You don’t have to like your in-laws or call them mom or dad, but you do have to respect the fact that they created and raised your spouse.
Seeing how your partner interacts with his or her family and observing whether there’s a healthy dynamic can clue you in to what this person will be like in your marriage. If your partner doesn’t have a healthy relationship with his or her family, there may be valid reasons, and these are worth discussing. In addition, waiting until right before—or after—the wedding to present your future mate to your family forces everyone into an uncomfortable position.
Finally, if there is conflict between your family and your partner, you’ll want to step in sensibly, set your boundaries as as couple, and nip it in the bud. This will set the tone for future interaction during the marriage.
5. Live together.
Unless you plan to inhabit separate homes, your husband or wife will also be your roommate—potentially for life. Think back to the roommates of your past.
Looking forward, compatibility in terms of household habits, behaviors, and tastes is a critical determining factor in successful marriages. There is a degree to which opposites attract, but slobs and neatniks, hoarders and minimalists, carpet-lovers and wood-floor-enthusiasts may find it difficult to cohabit without conflict. You also want to know what it’s like to wake up with your partner in the morning and go to sleep with him or her at night.
If all your dating experience is on visits to each other’s spaces where one of you is entertaining the other, you’re missing the full flavor—both the bitter and the sweet—of the live-in married experience. So give living together a test-drive.
Some marriages make it without the couples having done any of these things in advance. But if you want a better shot at the long shot of a marriage that lasts a lifetime, taking these actions before the big day will help you avoid becoming just another statistic and make it to the happily ever after.