According to a study done by the University of Denver's Center for Marital and Family Studies, nearly one-third of all couples under go some kind of premarital counseling. Premarital counseling helps identify where your partner stands on a variety of topics and can help pinpoint "issues". Learning to communicate - and we mean really talk - is a skill that is best gained now, when you're engaged.
About 80% of religious institutions require newlyweds to participate in counseling sessions before they will let you march down their aisles. If you don't fall into this category, a professional marriage and family therapist or a class on marriage-building skills can help you and your partner talk through common issues.
What is there to talk about? Oh religion, children, the in-laws - to name just a few topics. Below we've listed some of the main areas that counseling could cover, as well as a few sample questions that skim the surface of each category. You decide how (through formal counseling or on your own) you want to tackle these sticky subjects with your fiancé.
Religion needs to be discussed, even if you are both the same religion and more importantly if your religious beliefs vary. Some areas to talk about include:
- How do you worship (what do you believe)?
- When do you worship: weekly, monthly, just on holidays, never?
- How does religion affect your celebration of holidays?
- If there are children, how will they be raised?
- Will your religion affect how you live your day-to-day life?
This is a topic that is impossible to be flexible on. If one person wants children and the other doesn't, wow, how can this be resolved? Having children will change your life. You don't have to decide now, just make sure you're both on the same path.
- Do you both want children? Not sure?
- If so, when and how many?
- What if you weren't able to conceive?
- Would you consider adoption?
- Would one of you stay home with the kids, rather than working?
Money is consistently the number one topic that couples fight about, starting as newlyweds forward. Identify issues now, so there will be fewer surprises later.
- How did your parents handle money?
- Will you have joint finances?
- How will you keep track of your budgeting and spending?
- What about goals for saving and retirement?
- How much is ok to spend without consulting your spouse?
If you've known your fiancé for awhile or if you've lived together, many of these habits may already be obvious.
- What are your sleeping habits?
- Do you insist upon a clean living space? Are the socks left by the door going to bother you?
- Do you like music or the TV on for background noise?
- Who will be responsible for chores? Cleaning? Grocery shopping? Wash?
- Any quirks? Do you have to check the car door twice to make sure it is locked?
Ahhhh family, can't live with them, can't live without them. Identify potential problem areas either with in-laws or other relatives.
- Will your parents or in-laws want to be unusually involved?
- Who will you spend holidays with? What about birthdays?
- Do one of you have an extra close relationship with a parent that could cause problems?
This is a broad category. Basically, can you say that you both want the same type of life?
- If one or both of you are very career focused, will this focus be a problem?
- Do you dream of traveling extensively?
- Do you want to live in the town you grew up in for the rest of your life?
- Do you want to live frugally, so you can retire early?
Even if you've been living together, the first year of marriage is an adjustment. Now there is a sense of forever. Certain assumptions and expectations come into play (such as your understanding of the role of a husband or wife). Day to day details need to be decided and ironed out.
There seem to be common themes and problems that couples encounter in their first year. The First Year of Marriage, a book by Miriam Arond and Dr. Samuel Pauker, dives into these secrets and myths. We've outlined some of the main problems below.
Problems with money
Unfortunately this continues to be an area of contention for many couples past the first year. New couples need to set up a budget, saving goals, spending limitations and a system for managing finances. How will money be separated, if at all? Is one of you a spender and the other a saver? Work things out now and avoid years of headaches.
Emotional problems with family
Families seem to get more complex as time goes one. There are step-moms, step-dads, half-brothers and sister…. well you get the idea. Arond and Pauker found that the biggest emotional challenge for the first year was managing family relationships. This includes the in-laws, family rivalries and children from previous marriages.
Problems with friends
Where do your friends fit in the first year? Spending too much time with them or maybe they're being neglected in the dizziness of marriage? Strike a balance.
Expectations with sex
Arond and Pauker found that newlywed's expectations were often too high in terms of the frequency and excitement expected of sex in the first year. Couples were most satisfied if one or both took charge of making sex and alone time a priority.
Too involved with work
Work demands or a heavy emphasis on career advancement takes valuable time and can deprive a couple of needed intimate moments. Focusing on a career is normally a choice, however, make sure you are aware of its consequences.
Problems with housework delegation
Who is responsible for laundry, cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning, etc.? Does one person consistently do more of the work? Do you have expectations for what type of work a man or woman does based on your parents? It would be nice if we could all get a maid and gardener, but until then, iron out how your household will handle chores.
Undoubtedly, your first year will be memorable and positive. Know that these issues are out there, that you may have to tackle some of them and that you are not alone in the problems you encounter. Marriage takes work, but hopefully you can keep adding champagne and roses.
Expectations. We have them in all areas of our lives. Our jobs, our future. But what are your expectations of marriage? Many women expect marriage will bring them the happiness they've longed for and solve all the problems in the relationship. They expect a storybook wedding and honeymoon will be the beginning of a whole new, perfect life. When weeks after the honeymoon prove otherwise, they are surprised, disappointed and disillusioned.
How did we come to expect marriage would be perfect?
Television has painted an unrealistic picture of marriage from the very beginning. Romance novels rarely portray the real work involved in making relationships work. Yet still we measure ourselves and others by standards set in fantasy worlds.
But perhaps it was Cinderella who deceived us all. She convinced us that there are knights in shining armor. That men swoop in and have the ability to rescue us. Bring us glass slippers. Take us to magical places. Eventually make us their princesses. And in the end, according to the fairytale, make us live happily ever after.
It sounds wonderful, doesn't it? The story has had timeless appeal because it feeds our often unconscious desire to be taken care of. There's just one element wrong with the Cinderella story -- it isn't real. And believing it, may set you up for problems.
Certainly, there are some expectations that are and should be a part of any relationship. A healthy marriage is one where there is mutual:
- Ability to compromise and be flexible.
- Support for each other's goals.
A relationship that involves physical, emotional or mental abuse will not improve with marriage.
In researching the topic of expectations, I found that experts agree on a few common myths that can strain a relationship:
- Believing that you and your spouse always need to agree. You and your partner are different - genetically, physiologically, psychologically and historically. You're not always going to see things the same, and that's okay. It's far more enjoyable when you're with someone who enriches your life, not simply reflects it.
- Believing that the ecstatic emotion that you felt when you first met is real love - and then judging your relationship by that early sizzle, unfairly labeling a genuine quality marriage as substandard. This is real life. A great romance can be as simple as sharing the newspaper in the morning, and making love a couple of times a week. Great relationship and great romance? It's all in the yardstick that you use to measure.
- Believing that a peaceful relationship is a good one. Many people worry that arguing is a sign of trouble. But it's neither good nor bad - what counts is the way you express your disagreement and how you deal with the argument once it has run its course. If you pursue a take-no-prisoners approach, obviously arguments are going to be destructive. Instead of avoiding fights, just avoid making them too personal.
- Believing that there is a right and wrong way to make your relationship great. What's important is that you find ways of being together that work for you. Finding a standard in a book or article, or conforming to what your parents think you ought to do, should not be the measure you use to define your relationship.
Take time prior to your wedding day to talk. One of the biggest causes of conflict in a marriage is that the husband and wife go into it with totally different expectations, but don't know that they're different because they never discuss them. You find out he expects you to cook dinner every night when you get home from work while he reads the paper, and you expect him to help with the housework. You're both shocked when this doesn't happen. Before you say "I do," make sure you discuss the following items with your intended:
- Household responsibilities
- Children. Do you want them? And how many?
Know and share up front what your needs are: whether they be physical, spiritual, social, etc. Discuss your expectations and see if they conflict. Remember that marriage, like most great creations, are works in progress. The formula for success, according to expert Phillip C. McGraw, PhD, is a relationship based on a solid underlying friendship that meets the needs of the two people involved. Communication is key.
A Few Perspectives.
Here's what a few women had to say about marriage:
Carrie, age: 44, married 17 years.
I had issues with abuse from my childhood, and seeing my father marry and divorce several times scared me from marrying at an early age. When I did marry at 29, I expected those unresolved issues would disappear and I wouldn't have to deal with them. That wasn't the case. I learned quickly that the past doesn't disappear the minute you say I do. It took a lot of work to heal. Now, I credit our success to the commitment my husband and I have for each other, and our strong faith in God. When we don't know how to resolve problems in our marriage, we pray for guidance.
Cindy, age 34, married: 13 years
I had a vision that included a wonderful husband, my own home, and children. I have a wonderful husband and we own our home. Although I thought I would have more children, I have one beautiful daughter who is a dream come true! Also, because my husband is self-employed and works out of the home, as well as being a fabulous "Mr. Mom," I have learned that marriage is about flexibility, compromise, working as a team, and keeping love alive. I am fulfilled and happy with the choices that my husband and I have made and love married life. I truly feel blessed.
Marilyn, age 47, married: 23 years.
When I married at 20, I fully expected to change my soon-to-be husband and make him successful. I learned you can't change people, and that marriage ended in divorce. When I married at 24, I had shifted my perception. I loved the man I was going to marry, and intended to let him be who he was. It's been wonderful. He's my best friend and our life is comfortable and happy."
Annie, age 44, married: 17 years.
I believed marriage would be like a movie, and that the ultimate commitment would magically bring us closer, make life easier, and erase most relationship-type issues and problems. Seventeen years later, romance doesn't just happen anymore, it has to be planned -- time has to be made. We used to gaze into one another's eyes, now we have two kids that take our attention. We have little to hide from one another, and less that we don't know about the other. Still, we love, know and accept one another good and bad. We're best friends. When the world is upside down, I can depend on him to be there. He supports my dreams. Our love is a deeper one, akin to a close companionship than a fantasy romance, and I think time has changed the type of love we share.
Rhonda, age 31, married: 2 years.
I had known my husband for 6 years prior to getting married. Originally, we both were unsure of ever getting married and/or having a family, so I feel our expectations were high going into it - although probably normal for any first marriage. I believed marriage would take our relationship to the next level, everything would be in the open and we would both have a part in the decisions that framed our future. I feel fortunate that our marriage has been all that I hoped and expected. We have been able to openly communicate with each other which has allowed us to help each other's expectations in the marriage.
Tracy, age 36, Status: Divorced.
I did not go into my marriage with high expectations. I knew that my boyfriend would treat me the same, both emotionally and physically, after he became my husband. In that, I was right. I also found that marriage was better than I'd hoped. In the end, however, I learned that sometimes problems aren't always a two-way street. People are people and carry their own baggage. But would I marry again? Absolutely.
Carrie, age 33, married: 13 years.
I grew up seeing my mother and other family members divorce. When I married, my expectation was that it would be difficult. True to my belief, marriage has been a lot of hard work. I've always been independent, and being married I have had to learn to compromise. Despite it all, I've discovered how rewarding marriage can be. It's been worth all the work. I can honestly say I wouldn't trade it for anything. The pros outweigh any cons.
Of all the women I interviewed for this article, there is one resounding consensus: They all love married life. And although marriage does take compromise and team work, there's no place these women would rather be. It's a wonderful place. Remember your willingness as a couple to communicate is one of the greatest gifts you can give your relationship.