Marriage is complicated because people are complicated. There’s the truth. Each of us brings into marriage a boatload of usually unarticulated thoughts about what it means to be married based on what we’ve seen, heard or experienced or, alternatively, formulated in contrast to our parents’ example and those unconscious thoughts will influence our behaviour and reactions.
Research, though, offers up some answers to the complexity. Psychologytoday.com, based on research on both marriage and divorce, offers some recommendations for the talks everyone should have before they tie the knot.
Talk about money
Of course, money is the one thing no one wants to talk about because it’s so crass, unromantic and maybe even shallow. Most of us are brought up, moreover, in families that tell us that finances are personal and never to be shared. That said, research shows that disagreement over finances is the number one cause of divorce, trumping infidelity. Money is both real and symbolic at once and that may actually not figure into your purview when you’re engaged to someone and each of you is making money with a separate checking account. You might have noticed that your prospective partner has a different attitude toward money than you do but that only becomes a joint issue after you’re married. Talking about money includes a discussion of who’ll make the money and how decisions regarding spending are made, exploring attitudes toward debt and saving, and what you’d do if your situation changed.
Talk about how you argue
It’s not whether you argue but how you argue that matters, and there’s a whole body of research that confirms just that. Being conscious and aware of the patterns in your arguments is terrifically important, as experts such as John Gottman make clear. You need to pay attention if one of the really toxic patterns is present such as Demand/Withdraw. This pattern describes the scenario in which one person makes a demand and the other person withdraws, both literally and emotionally.
For example, if one person makes most or all of the money and considers that entitles him or her to make all the decisions, the person making the demand for change is likely to be the person with less power. Similarly, the person who desires change, whether that’s in structure of the relationship, the allocation of responsibilities or anything else, will likely find him or herself in the demand situation.
The problem with the pattern is that it has escalation built into it. As person A making the demand becomes more and more frustrated by person B’s withdrawal, it’s likely that the he or she will amp up the volume; that, in turn, only makes person B even more inclined to withdraw and perhaps become aggressive or mocking.
If your arguments fall into these patterns or are starting to, do not count on your saying vows on a green lawn to fix things. You have to fix them together, consciously.
Talk about how you understand personality
Every marriage will go through periods of stress and, yes, periods when one person’s needs or goals change or one person wants to grow in ways that the other doesn’t. Or it may simply be that one partner isn’t happy with the status quo of the relationship and wants things to change.
The work of Carol Dweck and others revealed that your beliefs about personality—whether you believe it’s fixed and immutable or malleable and subject to change are key to navigating these periods of stress. This isn’t really counterintuitive at all: The more you believe that personality, behaviour, and character are malleable, the better you’ll be at negotiating times that require change. You’ll be willing to learn and try, exert effort, address failure, and increase understanding.
Talk about your models of partnership
Marriage is a partnership but that partnership can take many different forms, depending on the emotional needs of the people in it. The important thing is to articulate and define how you and your soon-to-be spouse see it: Will it be drawn along traditional lines, with one partner focused on finances and the other on running the day-to-day household needs even if you’re both working, or are you looking for a more egalitarian relationship? How will you balance your or your partner’s need for autonomy while maintaining a mutual intimacy? Being clear about your own needs—your desires for intimacy, for autonomy, for support—must precede the talk.
Talk about raising children
No, not just about what adorable kids the two of you might make together someday but a real discussion about raising them. Alas, because we think about marriage in terms of romance, we often don’t really focus on what kind of a mother or father the partner we’ve chosen for ourselves—the one who thrills us—might make. Are you likely to replicate how you were raised in terms of discipline, expectation and treatment, or are you in full rebellion?