Between talking to acquaintances, catching up with former clients, and looking back over the last twelve years of my marriage, some important pre-engagement questions have surfaced in my mind. Everywhere I look, honorable people with the best of intentions are struggling with various aspects of their marriages. Some of these folks were completely unaware of upcoming relationship potholes when they were en-route to the altar; whereas, others were aware of issues but did not expect them to be as prominent as they became in their marriages.
Almost every premarital program talks about money, sex, and religion, but based on what I have seen and experienced, there are so many more topics couples need to broach before engagement – and some of them should be considered in the quiet of your bedroom – alone – prior to discussing them with your special someone.
So, before you pop the question, accept a proposal, or (if possible) before you even consider engagement, take some time to self-reflect with the following questions as honestly as possible:
- Am I truly willing to follow this person to new adventures? As I type this, my childhood best friend is flying high above the clouds toward a new adventure. She packed up (rather quickly and furiously, I might add) her belongings and set off to conquer her dream job thousands of miles away. She will rock it; I know she will. God has been grooming her for this new career since she was eight-years-old. Additionally, less than a week ago, a college friend of mine packed her car and drove through several states to start a new chapter in her life. Everywhere I look, someone is jumping on board a new quest. Pondering these life changes reminds me that life as we know it rarely stays the same – especially for the current (Millenials) and last (Gen X) generations. We are more likely than the prior generations to leave our hometowns, meet life partners from other places, and change careers. Before tying the knot, you and your significant other need to seriously question if you are willing to make sacrifices (e.g., moving away from family, taking pay cuts, adopting, etc.) for each other if his or her dreams require it. Keep in mind, there are some dreams he or she has not yet discovered (are you good to sacrifice for those too?).
- Will I commit to loving his or her family as my own? Will they be welcome in our home? Will I respect his or her need to stay in close touch with brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, grandparents, and even childhood friends? In-laws can be one of the biggest blessings in life, or one of the grandest struggles. God blessed my mom with the sweetest mother-in-law on the planet who refused to get involved in her children’s marriages. God blessed me with a kind and generous father-in-law and, six months after our wedding, he married my mother-in-law who loves to bake and get pedicures! However, not everyone has a pleasant in-law experience. Some mothers are reluctant to let go of their baby boys and some fathers are determined to keep the status of the man in my baby girl’s life. Not to mention, there is often insecurity when families blend. What if my in-laws don’t like me? What if my new daughter-in-law does not want to spend much time with us? What if our son-in-law turns our daughter against us? These concerns can cause otherwise well-meaning people to put their guards up – thereby giving off an inhospitable vibe. Such misunderstandings lead to hurt feelings and hurt relationships. Do what you can now to get to know your potential in-laws and to build a bond with them. Resist the urge to dissect everything they say for hidden negative messages. Show them as much respect as you can and seek to win them over. If after all your efforts they refuse to accept you, be real with yourself and determine if you can commit to loving these people as family once you are married.
- Does this person have extremely high expectations? We all have them. Some have millions and some have a few. My father-in-law repeatedly reminds us that he has extremely low expectations of everyone (as a result, he seems to be a happy guy who is not easily disappointed). Sometimes, I wish my expectations were that low; but, I have a long way to go to get there! Eric did not inherit his dad’s innate nature for low expectations. In fact, I think his dad passed his expectation portion to Eric. In addition to having high expectations of others (mostly that they do what they say they are going to do), he has even higher expectations of himself. If he expected a lot out of me but did not expect much out of himself, we would have some significant “discussions.” ~smile~ At times, his expectations overwhelm me and because of our different ways of tackling tasks, I fight the urge to feel not good enough. Eric never tells me I am not good enough, but I bestow that title on myself when I repeatedly failed to rise to his expectations (and my own). Not to put all the fun in Eric’s backseat, I have struggled with my own set of expectations. Why does he not treat me like the men in my favorite movies? Why is he not as sweet as my daddy? I asked him to do that chore a week ago! Whenever expectations turn into unspoken rules, there will always be problems. Your future spouse will come to you pre-packaged with expectations. It is important to unpack what they are to the best of your ability and to determine if he or she desires more than you can realistically deliver.
- Do we work well together? When we engage in a task together, do we work as a team or do we typically end up fighting? Does he listen to my suggestions? Does she push me away and say, “Fine, I will do it myself?!” Based on what I have seen so far, will we make a good parental team? Do I hold back my opinion when we are working together because I do not want to upset the apple cart? If you have not worked on tasks together, be sure to do so before getting engaged. So much of marriage is teamwork. Sex is fun, but a couple works much more together than plays around in the bedroom. Until you know you can work together, and work together well, be wary of making any long-term commitments.
- Am I okay with how this person treats me? If you are unhappy with how your significant other treats you, bring your concerns into the light. Go with your gut. Confide what is happening in someone you trust. If he or she is verbally, physically, or emotionally unkind, let someone neutral to your relationship (i.e., not family or his or her friends) in on your concerns. Please do not proceed towards marriage hoping he or she will change or grow kinder. Someone who mistreats a boyfriend or girlfriend is not going to respect a husband or wife. Most of the time, the treatment gets worse. Oh, it is likely all in my head. My expectations are probably too high. No, you need to address it. A lifetime is a long time to live with someone who bruises your heart.
- Are our levels of ambition and energy compatible? My childhood best friend and I love each other dearly, but our energy levels differ significantly. She is always up for something new, she has an impeccable work ethic, and if she needs to stay up all night to get something done, bring it on! Change does not come naturally to me, I have a well-developed play ethic, and if I need to stay up all night to finish something, I cry. We make great friends! But, great friends hug each other goodnight and go home. Husbands and wives are those delightful creatures who are always around, inviting us to partake in their habits and idiosyncrasies. If I was a boy, and my friend married me, I would drive her bananas. It is that simple. She is a high energy gal and she needs a moderate to high energy fella. Compatible energy levels are super important. If mismatched, one spouse will feel dragged all the time, and one spouse will feel frequently pulled. #nofun
- Do I believe (down to my core) the habits and annoyances this person brings into my life will not become unbearable to me over time? You may have all the feelings in the world for this individual right now; but, soon enough, those flutters are going to cease. Your love and commitment may deepen, but the limerence “drug” which makes couples feel like they are flying high in the sky when near each other wears off early in marriage (sometimes, before marriage). No, I do not like his smoking, especially since I am so allergic, but I believe love is stronger than habit. You may believe it now, but there is a strong possibility this man will never put the cigarettes down. So, before you agree to be his wife, you have to determine if you will remain faithful and committed to him whether or not he ever stops smoking. Do not romanticize it. Think it through as clearly as possible. He will smoke around your children. He will smoke in your vehicles. He will frequently leave social situations to smoke. Even if he smokes outside, he will smell of smoke almost all of the time. Cigarettes are expensive. Your medical bills may increase. He may not live as long as he would if he stopped. His habit may cost you some opportunities down the road. Am I suggesting that your smoking boyfriend is less valuable than men who do not light up? Of course not. His habits do not determine his worth; but, you have to soberly decide if this “small” issue will remain small over the next ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years.
- Based on the actions I see currently, do I expect to come in second to his or her hobbies? When Eric and I were dating and fully expecting to get married, I was concerned about how many late night hours he spent on his most beloved hobby. I naively stated, “You know once we are married, you are not going to be able to stay up late playing computer games, right?” Oh boy, was I amazed when our new marital status did nothing to change his gaming habits. Nothing. On the flip side, our marital status did nothing to change my television/movie habits. Somehow I thought getting married would shift something in our way of life, but it did not. Our habits remained. Single or married, we have to choose what we do with our time and energy. If you are unsatisfied with where you fall on your sweetheart’s priority list now, you will probably become more unsatisfied with your placement after marriage.
- Am I satisfied with his or her current level of physical affection towards me? And, could I be satisfied with even less? In the early days of our coaching, I sat across the table from one of our former clients who also happened to be one of my college advisees. We talked a bit about his collegiate progress, but then our discussion turned to his new marriage. He looked at me and said, “Remember when you said she would probably show me more affection once we were married?” Then, he simply shook his head no. Discouragement filled me as I realized I had set him up for disappointment. That sobering moment fused itself into my memory and taught me never to expect behaviors to change for the better in marriage. Sometimes spouses do grow and develop in pleasing ways, leaving behind bad habits and embracing new ways of life; but, when you stand beside your chosen one on your wedding day, you have no way of knowing if he or she will ever change to your liking. So, if he or she does not hug and kiss you as much as you desire, please do not expect the amount to increase once you are married. If you are satisfied with the level of non-sexual affection you receive, decide if you would still be happy if the amount waned over time (as it typically does). If you start at twenty hugs a day, it may slump down to five hugs a day. But, if it starts at two hugs a week, it may slump down to one hug a month. What amount of physical touch do you need and how much do you have to give?
- Can I handle the amount of emotional support this person needs? It is possible to have everything imaginable in common with someone and still not be able to fulfill his or her emotional needs. If your sweetheart has significant traumas and wounds which still need healing, your otherwise excellent compatibility is not enough and that is not your fault! If you are dating someone who has significant emotional problems, please, please, please do not fool yourself into believing love is all you need. Your sweetheart needs healing before he or she is ready for the demands of marriage and, later, parenthood. Backing away from such a relationship does not mean you are weak, cruel, or non-committal. You can love someone who is in great need of emotional healing, but that does not mean marrying him or her is the right course of action at this time. You need a life partner, not a project. And, he or she needs restoration before the commitment of marriage, not the stress of a commitment for which he or she is unprepared.
During my pre-engagement and engagement season, I was so unbelievably sure of my decision. So sure, in fact, that I was not willing to even consider the idea that maybe Eric and I were not the best match for each other. Thankfully, it worked out for us, but only after a lot of tears, determination, growth, prayer, and humility; and, because of these rough patches, I am much more aware of how real the seemingly small issues can become over time. In our dating days, I would have glanced over these questions and given us an A+, A, or A- on all of them – explaining away any concerns I had and filing them under, “… but I know this relationship is God’s will for our lives.”
Perhaps delving into these questions would have given me pause in my plans to marry Eric (or, perhaps not); but, at least I would have been more prepared for our future struggles. Sometimes God does lead us to wonderful places – relationships, jobs, friendships, churches – but we rarely get to stay there rent-free. No matter how amazing the blessing may be, there are always a few trials thrown into the mix. So, even though I firmly believed God was leading me to marry Eric, I needed to be open the possibility of my fallibility. And, to the probability that regardless of God’s presence in my marriage plans, I would face obstacles of all kinds.
Take some time to walk through these questions, (and other questions from previous posts, books, and Christian relationship blogs), so you do not have to wake up one day and ask, “Oh no, what have I done?!” Though you cannot be completely prepared for a life change as mammoth as marriage, you can still prepare. The more work you do to get ready on the single side – getting to know yourself, each other, and your unique relationship dynamics – the easier you will transition into married life.
Do you feel confident about moving forward in your relationship after answering the above questions?
ANASTECIA OKONKWO says