Does knowing one’s partner’s values, goals and aspirations increase the odds a couple will live happily ever after? That’s what reporters often want to know when interviewing me about the questions people should ask before making a permanent commitment to each other.
As someone who for several decades has specialized in working with couples teetering on the brink of separation/divorce, I must admit I have a few opinions about this. First of all, I’m convinced that far too many couples “tie the knot” when they are still in the infatuation stage of their relationship, a time when hormones run amok and lust looms large.
What actually does make lasting relationships?
Partners don’t do their homework up front, they fail to really get to know how their partners feel about the inevitable life-altering decisions. They fail to see the warning signs when they do not get consistent behaviour following the promises their partners make. It amazes me how much faith people have that healthy, happy relationships just happen. Happy lasting relationships don’t just happen – they are made over time.
So, on one hand, I’m glad people are giving some thought to interviewing their prospective mates about their life’s goals, ambitions and aspirations. It may go a long way to weed out blatant mismatches. (The cynical side of me wonders whether incompatible responses to important questions would bring commitment plans to a screeching halt or simply gets swept under the carpet to be dealt with via a post-nuptial agreement.)
Nonetheless, approaching committed relationships consciously and intentionally is always a good thing. However, I’m equally convinced that knowing your prospective mate’s thoughts about a variety of relationship issues does not provide future “love insurance”. Here’s why.
Develop skills to be flexible to adapt to changing circumstances
The late John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans.” No matter how much a couple agrees on, negotiates clear boundaries, about whether they want children and if so, how many: how they’ll handle finances and household chores: how they’ll decide on religious issues or matters of sexuality: and so on and so on, the truth is, how people feel often changes over time.
For example, I recently worked with a young Mormon couple who totally agreed prior to marriage that they would be an active part of the LDS church. The wife had converted because she was committed to the idea from the outset. However, as time passed, there was much about the religion with which she didn’t feel comfortable. She wasn’t learning to say “No, I’ve had enough” in a respectful way.
Because she had agreed to convert, she felt guilty about her discomfort and failed to share it with her husband. Over time, her feelings of resentment grew and when she felt she could no longer stand the pressure, she filed for divorce. People change over time regardless of how crystal clear you might be at the start about the shared goals and direction for your relationship. Life often has a funny way of throwing you curves. Then what?
Create clear relationship contracts
What you need to do is create overt contracts in your relationship. Make these contracts very clear and keep reviewing them annually. Keep the parts that still work for you and update the ones which are no longer applicable. Doing this every year ensures that you openly discuss the changes that are having within you and between you.
I have worked with many couples over the years who have agreed in advance that they want children. They even agreed on the number of children they desired as well as the date they wanted to become pregnant. However, eventually some of these couples learned the sad news that they hadn’t even considered – they were unable to conceive.
Months and years of frustration, hurt, disappointment and mutual blaming frequently took a toll on their relationships. Tragically, many ended up divorced. They had talked about having kids; they simply had failed to talk about what happens if nature doesn’t cooperate.
Similarly, I work with couples every day who are very passionate during the early stages of their relationship. They even discuss the importance of maintaining passion and physical affection in their relationship over time. But alas, kids happen. Busy jobs happen. Resentment happens. Bickering takes the place of watching movies together in the evening. Sex stops happening.
All of a sudden, the plans to keep sex juicy now seem like nothing more than a faded memory. And they’re both too tired to do anything about it. Who knew?
Is it luck or skills?
So, is ending up in a good relationship based on nothing more than a roll of the dice? Does it pay to know anything about your mate-to-be at all? Good question.
Here’s the good news. A good relationship isn’t based on the roll of the dice at all. In fact, there is a science behind what makes a romantic relationship last says Dr. Susan Johnston. We now know a great deal about what it takes to make relationships last and help people grow old together happily. Sure, if you want a committed relationship, you should ask the big questions up front and steer clear of people whose basic values and goals clash with yours. That’s Relationship 101.
But don’t let those little check marks next to your compatible responses give you a false sense of security. Go the extra mile.
Here’s what you really need to know
Here’s what you really need to know about your partner given the uncertainty of life’s meandering path. Regardless of your level of compatibility, conflict in relationship is inevitable. One of the most important things you need to know is whether your partner can stand the heat.
Will s/he be willing to give help and get help when the going gets tough? Is s/he willing to take a relationship/marriage education class to learn the necessary skills to get and keep your relationship/marriage on track or back on track? Would s/he be willing to go to a qualified relationship counsellor or speak to your pastor, rabbi or a mentor with a healthy long-term relationship?
And if you’re going to talk, talk about the taboo, x-rated subjects. Discuss infidelity, infertility, aging parents, job stresses and layoffs, unexpected illnesses or deaths.
Talk about the hard stuff
Does your partner know that research by the Gottman Institute shows that 69% of what couples argue about is unresolvable? Does s/he know the predictable transitional stages that ALL relationships go through regardless of how much couples love each other? Does your mate know that while marriage and committed relationship is still one of the greatest institutions on earth, it’s not for the faint of heart? In fact, it’s damn hard work. It takes constant tending, just like a garden.
And since it only takes one person to end a relationship, you might want to ask your partner, “Under what circumstances would you feel that our relationship would be over?” I know this question isn’t pretty or romantic, far from it, but since most separations/divorces are unilateral decisions, it might help to know what might prompt you or your spouse to call it quits. It could be a deal breaker.
Commitment to working through stuff is key
So, here’s the bottom line from Michele Weiner-Davis. Don’t place too much weight on those compatibility quizzes. Be more impressed with your partner’s level of commitment.
With the right attitude and focus only on your relationship, even the quirkiest of personality differences or opposing life goals can be worked through. Know your prospective partner’s willingness to stay the course even when love isn’t easy.
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