Making a commitment to marry or live together is a big step, understandably fraught with its share of angst about what may come. Here is a list of questions to ask yourself and to ask each other as a couple, a starting point for a conversation to identify your strengths and see where potential problems might lie.
You can also use this as a way of assessing the current state of the relationship, an exercise to do on your own or ideally do as a couple.
#1. Do you argue?
- If you do, are you able to keep the arguments from getting out of hand?
- Are you able to circle back and calmly discuss the problem and reach a solution?
There’s a lot in this one. Arguing is somewhat in the eyes of the beholder — for some couples it may be defined as a 4-sentence exchange with some snapping and huffing, while others may only include decibel levels above 60, or the use of curse words. What’s important here is the ability for one or both you to put on the brakes when you feel the conversation is no longer a conversation and entering emotionally dangerous territory.
Keeping arguments from getting out of hand is about self-regulation and self-awareness. What is difficult when you are upset is avoiding the tunnel-vision that makes you want to make your point and fight to the death to do so. It’s okay to get upset, but it’s important to realize when the conversation is going nowhere and turning into a power struggle. If you can, and can stop so that it doesn’t escalate further, you’ve master an essential relationship skill.
The other side of the argument coin are those couples who go out of their way to avoid confrontations altogether. Both partners walk on eggshells, feel unsafe to express how they feel. Differences get swept under the rug and they use distance to avoid conflict. By pushing strong emotions to the side, deep intimacy and connection becomes difficult, and problems are never solved and instead only accumulate. Over time the relationship is likely to become more and more disengaged and superficial.
Circling back is the second half of any argument and where it is easy for couples to get stuck. Circling back means coming back and solving the problem if it all falls apart in a heated argument or was too quickly swept away. What is all-too-easy to do is start and stop with an apology — sorry about last night — but not go back and dig into the actual source of the argument. Why? Because you’re afraid it will start another argument.
The counter-intuitive move is to step up and talk about the problem to put it to rest.
#2. How do you make decisions?
Obviously, this is often related to #1 about arguments — the process of managing problems. But decisions are also about sorting out as a couple what types of issues need, in fact, to be decided. This gets into boundaries and turf: I don’t really care about interior decoration so I don’t care what couch you pick out. Or, I respect your ability to manage money, so I’m comfortable with you handling the finances. Or no, my home environment is important to me and I need to have a say about the couch; or I’m easily anxious about money, so we need to sit down together and work out a clear budget.
It is about content — what types of things do we need as a couple to decide together and are we in agreement about what they are — and the process — whether we can have sane, productive conversations. This is also often about understanding the way you each process information and make decisions — that Tom, for example, likes to do a lot of research on big issues and needs time to sort through it; he’s not a guy to who can be pushed to think on his feet.
But decision-making also brings with it underlying issues about power: Can each partner express their thoughts, or does one person tend to be in charge? Is the process of making decision balanced and open, or fraught with anxiety and walking-on-eggshells?
#3. Do you know what your partner is most sensitive to?
This is about knowing about each person’s emotional wounds, trigger points. Kara knows that Tom is sensitive to criticism, so while she doesn’t bite her tongue and hold back on things that bother her, she is deliberately sensitive to the way she presents her concerns so to not trigger Tom’s wounds.
Likewise, Tom knows that Kara is sensitive to be neglected or dismissed. He realizes this is not about him about her, her childhood and wiring, and so when she texts him, he deliberately makes an effort to respond quickly because he knows that it is important to her. And he doesn’t feel resentful about doing this because he doesn’t feel like he is caving into a demand, but is simply being considerate of her feelings.
Knowing what your partner is sensitive to and agreeing to doing your best to avoid stepping in each’s emotional potholes goes a long way in building a trusting relationship. What you don’t want to do is dismiss the other’s sensitivities or argue over whose reality is right. Everyone has at least one emotional wound, and as a couple you need to talk about and discover these quickly and react empathically.
The problem is once again you don’t — because communication overall is so limited and damaged that you can’t have these conversations — or because you each haven’t been able to figure these out and let each other know what you need.
#4. Do you talk about the future? Are you both on the same page about big visions and goals?
A 2-part question. Being on the same page is about having a similar view of what is important in life — kids and family, jobs and career; money — what is it that makes for a good life. And it really is about vision — how do you envision your ideal day, your ideal life? What are your goals, what is your sense of purpose? Are you able to be proactive and individually and as a couple able to look ahead and sort out what is important to both of you?
But embedded in these conversations is once again safety. Even though your goals and vision are likely to change over time, can you express your dreams and hopes without fear of criticism? Can you say what it is that is important to you, and are you in agreement?
#5. Are you compatible as a couple regarding individual vs. couple time?
This is about expectations, needs and visions about how you both spend your time. Do I expect us to sit on the couch and watch TV shows together at night, or is it okay that you watch TV while I do things with the kids or finish up things from work? Is it okay that you hang with your friends on Saturday or coach soccer, or that I practice my oboe an hour each night without you feeling jealous or deprived?
Again, communication is an issue here, but also agreement about what you each envision and need regarding time alone and as a couple.
#6. Are you compatible about needs for affection and sex?
While this too will change over time, are you both in the same range as a front-end issue? This about libido, but also about what you each need to feel connected. If one feels always sexually deprived or the other always pressured, it quickly leads to power struggling. Again, the key is communication, the ability to state what each needs without this dissolving into a power struggle or resentment.
#7. Are you compatible about work?
Because work is such a big part of each individual’s life, it is important that you be on the same page or are able to be supportive. If Kara wants to throw herself into her job and is willing to work 12 hours a day at times, or Tom wants to pull money out of the joint savings to start his own business, is that okay? On the other hand, if Kara sees a job as just a job, is not interested in busting to move up the corporate ladder and would rather take less pay for less stress and more time off, is that okay?
Obviously, this is not just about work itself but its impact on time, family life, money…priorities.
#8. Are you in agreement about the role of extended family?
This is about the blending of family cultures and expectations…and about problem-solving. Sure your mom can come for dinner but not every week; we need to alternate Christmas between our families; you can loan your brother money, but there is a cap to it that we both agree upon.
#9. Do you get along with your in-laws?
Expectations about level of involvement is one thing, actually seeing them all those Sundays or holidays and having to drink heavily before, during, and after is another. If getting along is difficult, why? Maybe your potential mother-in-law gives a bit too much advice, or your sister-in-law is a bit of a drama queen and has been known to suck the oxygen out of the room?
Once again, can you express your feelings to your partner, can he or you provide some constructive feedback to the mother-in-law or sister without everyone’s feelings getting hurt.
#10. Is your partner your best friend? Do you feel emotionally safe with him? Do you feel that she always has your back, that you can always go to him for help?
These are probably the most important questions. The theme running through all these questions are about having compatibility around key issues — the content — but more about how you go about negotiating them — your process. If you both are able to feel safe and feel that your partner is in your corner, you’ll find a way of working all the other issues — the content — out. But if not, why not? This is the big boulder in the middle of the road. This is where some outside professional help, even briefly, can provide a safe place to talk about these issues, to have someone ask the questions that are too difficult to ask yourselves.
But this is also where you need to have courage — to sort out how you really feel, to define your own priorities and visions, to say what you most need.