Will My Marriage Work?
I would argue that marriage has never been so terrifying a decision. Why? Because it's now emotionally-weighted in a way it's never been before.
Historically, marriage was largely seen as a practical if affectionate mating - for children, financial stability and practical support. Now, we believe it will deliver the perfect emotional security, acceptance, fulfilment and love that we once thought God - when we believed in Him - would deliver. So our expectations of marriage are huge, our demands of it immense, Where our great-grandparents saw marrying as a Good Thing to Do, our generation can see it as the Answer to Everything.
It's because of this that I think actively preparing for marriage is essential. It may sound old-fashioned, quaint, over-pragmatic, but to take a long, hard look at what lies ahead is sensible, a sign of commitment rather than doubt. You'd be mad to attempt a marathon without assessing your fitness levels and scoping the route - and marriage is a team-format marathon that will ideally last for decades.
How to prepare? Here are ten questions I often ask clients who are considering a long-term partnership commitment. Answer them for yourself, then get your partner to do so; if that's not possible, answer them as if you were your partner. Don't panic if your responses reveal uncertainty or disagreement; there's no certainty here, only an honest attempt at evaluation and prediction, and an alert to issues that may need thought and work.
Am I ready?
Marrying marks a new life stage, a shift from the internal focus of singledom to the reaching out of a committed relationship. You'll need to disengage at least somewhat from family, career, hobbies - and past relationships - so as to give considerable space, time and energy to your partner and to your relationship. Are you ready to make that shift?
Am I marrying for the right reasons?
We all know that wanting a good party isn't sufficient reason to hold a wedding ceremony. What may not be so clear is that being madly in love isn't sufficient either. Passion - both sexual and emotional - is biologically programmed to fade over time. You need to be sure that, even absent the strong feeling, there are good reasons to be hitching your wagon to this particular star.
Have I chosen the right partner?
Of course serious reservations are a deal breaker - though checking them out with someone who knows and cares for both of you will provide a reality check. Passing wobbles, especially in the stressful run-up to a wedding, are normal. What may help clarify things is to examine not your spouse-to-be, but your relationship. Imagine the normal, daily, minute-to-minute interaction that will be your future life; if envisioning that fills you with quiet enthusiasm, the news is good.
Are my expectations of my partner realistic?
It was philosopher Goethe who said that "Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing". The truth is this; your partner is an imperfect human being who in the years ahead will often be selfish and nasty, unsympathetic and unsupportive. You need to be prepared to handle that, to accept that there will be times you hate (and are hated by) the person you also love.
Do we have aligned goals and values?
We're not talking here about what to eat for dinner or where to go on holiday; those are negotiable, though it helps if you can negotiate them with good humour. Where you need to agree - and have discussed that agreement - is over the big things. Having children? Religious faith? What's acceptable sexually? What constitutes fidelity?
Can we handle the tasks of marriage?
The reward of romance is being together. The reward of marriage is more about doing things together: building a home, raising children, working as a team. That's not to downplay the sheer joy of each other's company - but that joy will be based on what you've achieved. If you know you can work well together as a team, that's a hugely good sign.
How do we face problems?
Researcher John Gottman suggests it's not the number of issues (or even, of arguments) a couple faces that determines success, but how such difficulties are handled. Are you happy with the way you face disagreements, crises, practical problems and emotional challenges? Even if life with your future spouse has had its tricky moments, if you've emerged from them stronger, you're on the right track.
Will I always love my partner perfectly?
The answer to this question is certainly 'no'. Just as your partner will have moments of pure selfishness and spite, so will you. However - recent studies suggest - if you can respond emotionally to your partner when they need you, and help them respond to you emotionally when you need them, that will be enough.
Am I prepared for change?
Nothing, not even love, remains the same. It's not only that the two of you will change as time passes. It's that even from the start, being married will make you - and others around you - view the relationship differently. Regard your marriage as an excitingly shifting adventure - rather than insisting it stay set in stone - and you'll be fine.
Can I handle the Crucible?
Psychotherapist David Schnarch calls the work of being married a 'Crucible', where you need to balance out accepting your partner and staying true to yourself. The alternative is that one of you dominates and thrives, the other submits and withers. It's a tricky balance, and - as the 'Crucible' term suggests - often a painful one. But it is also hugely worthwhile. Commitment is a way for us all to grow to our full potential.
If you and your partner feel you would like some support or just someone to talk to, you can find couples therapists listed on the welldoing.org therapist directory.