There probably aren't many people who haven't heard the words "marriages take a lot of work." This is a good thing to be aware of prior to making a marital commitment. Knowing that that's the way it is, minimizes the likelihood of feeling surprised or broad-sided when the inevitable breakdowns occur. But what is also a good thing to be aware of is what the work is that successful marriages require. And the best time to become aware of that is (you guessed it) before, not after you tie the knot. Unfortunately many couples wait until after they get married to become curious about the nature of the work that's involved in making committed partnerships work. And many others don't get curious or motivated enough to look into the question at all. Many couples make the decision in the thrall of infatuation and in that stage of the game, it usually seems inconceivable that anything could ever possibly interrupt the intensity of the overwhelming love that both partners feel towards each other. So why bother?
Well, the answer to the "why bother?" question is simple. One reason is that feelings can and frequently do change, which doesn't mean that when they do that you've made a mistake, but rather that the belief that you could never possibly feel any differently towards each other, could at some point prove to be false. Those who understand this tend to be more motivated to do some preparatory work in advance of the inevitable breakdowns that are all but inevitable in most marriages; "breakdowns" not in the sense of "break-ups", but in the sense of interruptions of disruptions that challenge the integrity of the relationship and require interventions in order to re-stabilize things.
Great relationships don't just happen; they are created, or rather, "co-created." This process involves the cultivation of personal strengths, traits, and skills, as well as a system of good support. It may not take a village to grow a marriage, but it does take some outside help along the way. Few if any of us enter into committed partnerships fully developed and adequately skilled in the art of conscious relatedness. Most of the work and the learning is done on the job. The good news is that you don't have to have had a great track record in the relationship department or in your personal family experience in order to develop the skills and character traits that enhance the likelihood of success in relationships. Most of us already possess adequate raw material, and through experience and effort, our inner resources expand and deepen.
In addition to the development of essential traits and skills, the third leg of the marriage triangle is the commitment itself. While this is the work of a lifetime, fortunately you don't have to be fully accomplished in order to enter the game. "Ready" doesn't mean that you're fully confident and that you have no fears or concerns. If it did, no one would ever even begin the process. It means that you're going into things with your eyes open and aware that for most of us, there's a fair amount of learning that's going to take place, and that learning, while valuable can at times, but not always, be uncomfortable. That's because when we learn something new it's sometimes because we've had to be wrong about the belief that that something new has replaced.
As for the "work" that marriage involves, that has to do with growing up and becoming an emotionally intelligent, integrated human being. The qualities that such a person possesses include compassion, patience, honesty, courage, commitment, responsibility, creativity, generosity and integrity, to name a few. These are the building blocks that are the foundation of the skills that relationships require. Examples of relationship skills have to do with communication (listening and speaking), co-operativeness (this is not about compliance, but about sharing responsibilities respectfully), self-care, and conflict management. Mastery of these and other skills usually doesn't come prior to marriage, but with a clear intention and a commitment to learn and become more fully developed, they are cultivated in the course of marriage. Appreciating this makes it easier for each partner to be more forgiving of themselves and each other during times that are difficult or challenging.
While it may not be possible to anticipate all potential concerns, there are some questions that are relevant to nearly all marriages that are essential to the establishment of alignment and agreement regarding foundational matters. These issues don't need to all be fully resolved prior to the marriage, but unless they are at least brought up and put on the table, it is likely that at a future point they will become a source of distress and disturbance to both partners. Examples of these issues are:
- Children: Is there an agreement about having children? When? How many? Who will take care of them? How long will mom or dad stay home? If there are problems with fertility, is adoption an option? If we have a change of heart about any of these questions, how do we negotiate our prior agreements?