In my years as a psychologist and advice columnist, I’ve seen a lot of individuals in unhappy marriages. In some of these cases, there are particular crises that have led to the strains: the loss of a loved one, difficulties with child-rearing, unexpected health problems or financial setbacks. But in other cases, the early warnings of potential friction were there all along, in the form of personality conflicts or day-to-day incompatibility.
If you are thinking of committing for life– or even just living together– it may be very helpful to contemplate some of the issues that can frequently drive a wedge in long-term relationships. Often, in the throes of passionate romantic love, it is hard to envision that the daily, unromantic grind (“Why do you always use up the last of the coffee without letting me know?”) can be enough to threaten that love. But, take it from a therapist who is privy to people’s relationship misery: it most certainly can.
Below are some issues that you may not have thought about, but that you must, before committing to someone. None of these should be seen as deal-breakers. After all, love itself (and even commitment) can provide motivation to work through virtually anything. But the more that you can anticipate friction beforehand, the more proactively you can work to resolve it and have a plan for how to keep it from wrecking your relationship. Don’t put on blinders when it comes to compatibility. Even the deepest of love can’t prevent certain conflicts over decades of living together: it’s how you anticipate about those conflicts and how you’re willing to work on them that will determine whether your marriage can go the distance.
1) What differences do I love now but may be grating in five years? The irony of passionate romantic love is that sometimes the qualities that are most different from us are the very things that can draw us most intensely to a partner. Maybe his spontaneity is exciting since you tend to live by an itinerary. Maybe her willingness to ditch responsibilities for a mental health day is refreshing when you’ve typically worked even when you have the flu. From different spending styles to different social lives to vastly different sleep schedules, careers, or hobbies, the idea of someone being opposite from us is sometimes particularly attractive in its novelty and exoticism. And indeed, it’s a good thing when we can be exposed to a perspective far different than our own. But eventually, our own habits may remain what we’re most comfortable with– and if our partner’s style continues to be quite different, what used to be enticing may turn downright annoying.
2) How do we individually and collectively handle stress? What’s your partner like when they’re stuck in traffic? When they’ve had a bad performance review? When they haven’t had enough sleep, when their parent has a health scare, when they get an exorbitant parking ticket, or when they have to call customer service for a defective product? Often the rosy period of early romance has everyone restraining themselves to be on their best behavior. This makes the early romance sweeter, of course, but it denies us a glimpse into who they are when they’re under pressure. And decades of marriage and life, in general, can bring plenty of pressure. Even more important is how the two of you handle stress together– do you retreat and isolate, or connect to resolve things as a team?
3) What is my partner’s relationship to drugs, alcohol, and gambling? Sure, problems with substance abuse and gambling can crop up unexpectedly in a marriage, as we sometimes see when new casinos come to town. But all too often, the signs of potential problems with alcoholism or addiction were there along, but were willfully not talked about or even acknowledged– perhaps out of fear or denial. Or maybe what seems reasonable for a young childless couple in terms of partying and drinking no longer seems reasonable with two toddlers underfoot, and yet one partner can’t seem to change their lifestyle. Take a hard look at your partner’s– and your own– relationship with substances. As much as you might want to ignore potential problems, it is invariably true that the earlier they are addressed, the better chance there is that they can be dealt with successfully.
4) How are we as roommates? “We are living like roommates, rather than lovers” is often used as an example of how a relationship has lost its spark, and indeed, it’s not a good thing when your partner feels no different than the person you bunked with at summer camp. But, I would argue that getting along as roommates– though not sufficient for a marriage– is still vital and necessary. How well do you compromise about what the temperature should be? How do your sleep schedules work out? How do you resolve issues about cleanliness, decorating styles, chores, guests, pets, and food preparation? Who takes responsibility for the bills or finding a plumber when your toilet has leaked all over the place?
5) What are our thoughts about kids, and how certain are they? Virtually everyone would acknowledge that opinions about whether or not to have kids should be openly discussed and clarified before getting married. But you may be surprised how often this becomes an issue anyway, because of one important and often overlooked phenomenon: people change. It’s important not just to discuss your preferences but to assess how much wiggle room you each have. If each of you vaguely imagines having two children, that might sound like you’re perfectly compatible on that score. But what if after one child, one of you absolutely wants to stop? What happens if infertility is an issue– how hard will you continue to try, and how do you feel about adoption? What happens if one person still has the itch for more children after the second one? What happens if one person unexpectedly wants to be a stay-at-home parent? Or not? It’s important to dig deeper.
6) How much do we talk about our relationship to others? Few people outline ground rules about how much “private business” should be spread to other friends and family when they are first dating. And this is a good thing, as keeping strong emotional intimacy with friends and family can provide a safety valve for those that are in a controlling relationshi (not to mention provide endless entertainment with stories of dating that are good, bad, or ugly.) But once married, lots of people’s expectations change. Will you consider it a betrayal if your wife spills everything about your sexual intimacy problems to her best friend? Are you okay with a husband who asks his mother for marital advice? There is no right answer about how much to share with friends and family, but the more you are on the same page, the better off– and less blindsided– you will be.
7) How do we handle conflict, and how could we be better about it? Decades of marriage and family research have shown one indisputable truth: conflicts will arise, and it is how you handle those conflicts that is every bit as important as the conflicts themselves. Have you gotten in the habit of a certain type of arguing? Does one of you stonewall the other? Is one of you always the first to apologize? Does one person express their feelings and the other holds them in until resentment builds? Is one of you prone to yelling and getting it all out in the moment while the other person wants space to cool down before talking things through? In general, the healthiest marriages have respectful and honest communication without game-playing, passive-aggressiveness, personal attacks, or power trips. Examine your styles of handling conflicts and see if there is room for improvement.
8) How are we with each other’s families? Any marital therapist will tell you: “the in-laws” are often the biggest can of worms within a marriage. You need not experience rapturous admiration for your spouse’s family (though if you do, how lucky you are!) but you do need to make sure that your relationship with them feels comfortable in terms of your partner. What if your partner has a very conflicted relationship with her parents but you find them hilarious and harmless? What if your husband wants to still spend two week’s annual vacation with his brothers’ families and you can’t stand their politics? What role will your in-laws have in your potential children’s lives? What happens as your spouse’s parents age and need care? What happens if they need to borrow money– or instead they give you an amount that changes your dynamic? How close and open with them will you and your partner be about the goings-on in your partner’s day to day lives? Often, the planning of the wedding itself is the first arena where inter-family squabbles develop. Don’t brush it off, but take it as an opportunity for practice.
9) Is there something that I am expecting to change? I cannot tell you how often I have worked with someone whose marriage is falling apart and they say “Well, she’s always been kind of selfish, but I thought it would get better after having kids” or “He’s never been a responsible person with money, but I figured once we owned a home he would grow up.” Be honest with yourself. Are you assuming that your partner will magically become a different person– even in terms of something relatively small– just with the passage of time, the new status of “spouse,” or the addition of children/pets/a mortgage/a “real” job? Think again. Maybe they will, but the motivation has to come from them, not you. And if you choose to marry someone, you must choose to take them as they are, end of story– without fooling yourself that there are conditions that will eventually be met.
10) How compatible are we in our money styles, and how will we handle finances once married? I have written and spoken about money issues in relationships– and the conflicts they can cause– so much because they seem to be among the very top ways that a marriage can be strained. From different spending styles to how big a house to buy, from different attitudes about debt and “retail therapy” to hidden accounts, childhood baggage, and differing expectations about how much should be lent to friends and family and even how much to tip the refrigerator delivery guy, money conflicts can be killer to deal with. Money is often tied up with all kinds of emotional importance, and it can carry the weight of its association with everything from freedom to security to autonomy to power and status. The more you talk about it, and the more honest you are with yourselves and each other about what you bring to the table in terms of your money attitudes and how they will be resolved, the better foundation you build in your marria.
11) Who needs more free and alone time, and is that okay? It’s not traditionally thought of as one of the hot buttons of marriage, and yet I see it causing conflict all the time. From big ways– he is used to four or five hours of golf on weekends, or she wants to continue to occasionally go on weekend getaways alone– to small ones (she needs ten minutes of pre-coffee silence in the morning, or he likes to work out by himself, not with her.) There is a wide variance in how much time people need to themselves or with their friends. So, how well do your styles fit together? Big differences can be accommodated if there is respect and understanding and communication. But if it’s never talked about, then two years into the marriage when he is still on his weekly guys’ night out and she is frustrated to be home alone with Netflix, because she always assumed he’d eventually give those up once he got married, that could spell resentment that could become serious.
12) How should household chores be divided? Bickering over household chores once married has become a cliche, but it couldn’t be more real for many couples. Unfortunately, even couples who have a comfortable division of responsibility pre-marriage can often be thrown into resentful conflicts once circumstances change: the addition of a baby, a change in a partner’s job or commute, or a bigger house with new types of maintenance needed. I also see that in many heterosexual marriages, gender stereotypes when it comes to divvying up housework may gradually seep in after the wedding, even if they weren’t there when the couple first lived together. There will be conflicts over chores; count on it. But how will you continue to work on it? How well do you communicate about them? Will you be able to have an evolving dialogue that takes into account both people’s preferences and annoyances in terms of divvying up responsibilities? And if one person falls into the role of the “default” parent (the person who always is on top of the birthday cards and dentist appointments), are they okay with being that person?
13) How stuck are we in each of our jobs, and what would happen if we got fired– or wanted to leave? Layoffs, promotions, pay cuts, job transfers, firings, burnout, corporate mergers– they can all change a person’s employment status in the blink of an eye. Is there one partner whose job is “dominant”– by salary, by prestige, by passion, or by amount of hours worked? What would happen if that person no longer had that job, voluntarily or involuntarily? Are there expectations about who will make more money, who will or will not stay home with children, who will eventually get promoted or go to graduate school or change careers? Of course, nothing can be spelled out completely clearly in advance. But the more you can acknowledge what your expectations are, what you hope for, and how you would handle a change in plans, the better you will be able to roll with the punches if the need should arise to do so.
14) How okay am I with my partner’s closeness to others, and when might I think of it as an emotional affair? Styles of flirtation, emotional intimacy levels with coworkers, modes of communication with friends, amount of work travel or tendency to go to lunch or happy hours with people– they all vary widely among individuals. A wallflower with no close male friends besides her husband can most certainly still be happily married to a charmer who flirts with the waitress or has lunch with his female coworkers– but only if both parties have eyes wide open about their own and their partner’s behavior. Is it alright if your husband is texting his coworker emojis while you’re side by side in bed? Would you be hurt if your partner had lunch with an ex without telling you? Every couple must define for themselves what they are or are not comfortable with. And the more you pretend that it will all magically work out even when there are differences, the more you set yourself up for feeling betrayed.
15) What’s our relationship to religion? With rates of formal religious service attendance continuing to decline across the U.S., it’s clear that a lot of couples fall into the category of not considering themselves particularly religious. That may seem roughly compatible for day-to-day life, but often things change, and nuances are important. How will you celebrate holidays? Will you expect to start going to places of worship once you have children? Does your religious expression change when your extended family is around, or in times of crisis? What happens if one of you simply starts becoming more or less religious than they were before? Again, communication and anticipation is key.
16) What’s our expectation about where to live geographically? People move around a lot in young adulthood; some data suggests more than ever before. But often, the settling down that comes with marriage can reveal long-hidden assumptions about where someone thought they would “end up.” Maybe what one partner views as a temporary adventure for a specific job is something the other partner thinks of as a newly adopted and permanent hometown. Maybe he always assumed that once he had children, they would move back to the opposite coast to be near his parents. Or she feels the need to be closer to her old friends once she finishes graduate school. Of course, it’s totally fine if neither of you want to draw up a plan of where you’ll be, as long as you’re both okay with that– after all, life demands flexibility. But when one person has a solidified vision and the other wants to be stay open or changes their mind, that can spell disaster.
17) How important is upkeep of physical appearance? It’s yet another cliche of marriage that comes from a place of truth: your spouse will not be primping for a day of errands with you in the same way they primped for your fourth date. Part of the comfort of marriage is knowing that your spouse’s love for you is not subject to the same “yay versus nay” judgment of early romantic chemistry, and that when you have a stomach bug, your spouse will be focused on helping you through it rather than being grossed out. Nonetheless, I see a lot of couples for whom there can be strain over time when it comes to changes in physical appearance. This taps into everything from hygiene to weight and physical fitness, from clothing choices to grooming and hairstyle and facial hair changes. In an ideal world, by the time you get married you will already have seen each other more in day-to-day comfort than in some idealized, gussied-up version that is impossible to sustain. But what if things change further once the lifetime commitment is made? And how should you talk about each other’s bodies, and how much sway should a spouse’s opinion matter in your hairstyle and clothes? It can be a fraught topic, but the more you can bring it out in the open if you find it affecting your relationship, the better off you will be.
18) How are things in the bedroom? Yes, some couples may choose to wait until marriage before becoming sexually intimate, but even in those cases it is important to have communication and mutual understanding about what role sex will be expected to play in a marriage. For the majority of couples, sexual patterns have long had a chance to become ingrained by the time they say “I do.” What happens if sex drives change, whether because of the novelty wearing off or because one partner is facing physical or health changes? What are each partner’s attitudes about pornography? How adventurous are you? Does one partner have a significantly higher sex drive than the other? Who usually initiates, and is that okay? Does one partner withhold sex as form of power? How much will be spoken about past sexual partners and histories? Often, sex early in a relationship is so good as to even mask other problems. But when sex becomes a problem in and of itself, it’s important to communicate about it– and sadly, because it can be a difficult topic, sometimes that doesn’t happen until long after the early warning signs of trouble were there, making it much harder to resolve.
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Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a keynote speaker, licensed clinical psychologist, and author who serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. Join the conversation on Facebook or write to her advice column Baggage Check.
Photo Credit: Kumon (Flickr Creative Commons)