"Stay the hell out of my office" seems an unlikely mantra for a 20-year veteran of the practice of family law. My job, after all, is to get you out of an often-giant mess as quickly and as painlessly as possible. The older I get, the clearer the statement "if I only knew then what I know now" becomes to me. When clients are in the midst of their heated battles, frustrated, angry and full of hatred for someone they once loved, I often think, why don't people listen to that little voice? I sometimes have to gently remind them they didn't ask me for my opinion "before that train left the station." It seems remarkable a majority of people who come through my office admit they knew the very thing about their partner that now drives them running out the door before they married their spouse and married them anyway. What were they thinking? Well, they thought either "it" would get better, or thought "it" would change.
People love things every day that are bad for them: ice cream, too much alcohol, shopping to excess. But loving someone you know is wrong for you and marrying them, or having a baby with them anyway, is a different matter altogether. Most of the time, there is a little voice inside us (and in some cases very loud voices from family and friends) that we choose to ignore. We can't look too closely, because if we do, we would NOT marry or procreate with this person. If our best friend were in this exact relationship, we would be full of advice, telling her/him to run, not walk, to the nearest exit. Not us though; we are "in love" and love conquers all, right? Not exactly. In the heat of passion, often misinterpreted as everlasting true love, it seems better to just tell that little voice to "shut up" and get married. Despite my own mistakes, and the many I have seen, I am a big believer in marriage for anyone who wants to make that commitment thoughtfully. Before it is too late, here are a few things I have observed over the last 20 years that you might consider before you say "I do" to help you stay the hell out of my office. If people listened more to that little voice, people like me might be significantly less busy. I suggest you give the following some thought before you wander blissfully down the aisle in your $15,000 wedding dress.
1. You have fundamental moral differences.
This is not an analysis about who is right or who is wrong in their beliefs. The concept is to recognize fundamental differences on issues of morality. Find somebody whose crap you can live with, but don't kid yourself into thinking issues of your soul don't matter. This is not about religious differences (which can be overcome) but an issue of values. What do you each value? Truth? God? Kindness to others? Hard work? Intellectual experiences, like reading or traveling? Money? Fidelity? Friendship? Children? What makes your life worth living? What do you want most out of life? Are these things fundamentally different from your true love?
When issues of core values, or what moves our soul, are fundamentally different, the foundation of who we are as individuals is often in stark contrast with each other. Common values and beliefs bind people together. When values are completely different, how we prioritize these issues can lead to fighting over money, family and countless other matters. You simply cannot deny your soul.
2. There is a lack of respect.
Is your true love respectful? Not just to you, but to others? Watch carefully how they interact with others. How do they treat the server when you go out to eat? How do they speak about other people, including friends, family, teachers and employers? Does this change when they are stressed? When they are drinking? Maya Angelou once said, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." If you see indications of a lack of respect to others or to you (always late, texting or checking emails while on a date, unless they are actually a doctor) take a long, hard look. Someday, the person you love will be treating you the very same way. Courtship behavior is most likely the best it is ever going to be. If that doesn't work for you, bail now. If you don't, you will end up in my office lamenting that you simply cannot believe he/she is such a jerk.
3. Your sexual expectations are widely different.
Most people are aware that the blinding passion of initial relationships is fleeting. Love is not blind, or shouldn't be, but passion can be. We can be sexually attracted to someone whom we do not love, but we should never marry someone with whom we have no sexual attraction, chemistry or desire for intimacy. Many of us are lucky enough to be in a relationship long enough understand that passion comes and goes, but also understand how loving someone makes them even more beautiful to you. Just like everything else in marriage, sex takes work. That may sound ridiculous to those young and in love. If sexual incompatibility exists prior to marriage, the passing of time and the increase of responsibilities will only exacerbate it. Finding time and making sex a priority is essential to a successful relationship. The importance of sex, intimacy and affection should not be overlooked. Sex is about so many other things. It makes people feel connected, desired and feel good about themselves. It reminds them they are loved.
If intimacy is a high priority on someone's list, but low on the other person's, the result is sexual incompatibility. It is important to have similar outlooks on the importance of a physical relationship and affection. Most of the time, if your views on sex and intimacy are greatly different before marriage, it will continue to be a struggle after. Some people go many years without sex and intimacy, but they eventually end up in my office. People need to feel loved.
4. There is no ability to talk about money.
It is essential to know before you get married what money represents to each of you, whether there is barely enough to cover the bills or money to burn. Is it how you show love? Is money what makes you feel loved? Does money make you feel safe? Our feelings about money are complex and based on a myriad of life experiences. If you grew up without it, money worries may be ever-present, and you may be incensed by someone's frivolous attitude and spending. If you grew up with it, you may have expectations no one can fulfill. If your expectations are of a lavish lifestyle and that is not a reality, can you be happy? For richer or poorer are not just words, but realities of life. The words "for richer" are generally not what leads to a dash for the door; however, "for poorer" is one of marriage's greatest challenges. Money isn't everything, that is true, but when you don't have enough, it can become everything.
Are you able to talk about money? Are you a team in good times and bad? Are you both going to work? Does one of you come to the marriage with money or debt, and how will both of you handle it? Is one party going to stay home, and does your spouse support your decision financially and emotionally? Can you talk effectively about financial priorities and goals? If you cannot effectively communicate regarding finances, a trip to my office is in your future, and I assure you it will involve quite a bit of financial discussions.
5. You believe this person will complete you.
Oh, it sounded so sweet when Tom Cruise looks at Renee Zellweger and utters the words, "You complete me" and they live happily ever after, roll credits. Thankfully, we are already complete; we were made that way. If there is a void, some gaping hole we believe another person is going to fill, you are going to be very disappointed; and what a huge amount of pressure to have to complete someone else. Someone very wise once told me, the only reason to get married is when you have absolutely no reason to get married other than you just love each other. Someone cannot complete you, but can make you even better as part of a team. Be whole, love yourself, be strong and don't ever expect someone else is necessary to complete you.
There are a million reasons big and small to take pause before you get married (or do anything else that will connect you to someone forever). Some are understood, like abuse -- physical or verbal -- which will make you end up in my office if you're lucky, or worse, if you're not. Listen to that little voice; more often than not, it is leading you in the right direction. The idea is to listen to your heart, but use your head. It takes a really brave person to leave a relationship or end an engagement, but if you are having doubts, slow down and get some professional insight before you commit. As painful as it will be, it certainly is easier than heading to divorce court. There are no guarantees in this life, but we can better the odds of a successful relationship by not ignoring some very obvious issues. Maybe we can put few more people like me out of business.