When it comes to marriage, love doesn’t conquer all. Being on the same page with your significant other also is key to a successful relationship.
In fact, according to Michael Batshaw, LCSW, a relationship expert and author of the book 51 Things You Should Know Before Getting Engaged, he’s seen “a lot of couples get into trouble not being on the same page.”
As Denver psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, said, walking down the aisle involves walking down a life path together. “The biggest mistake couples make is to avoid [discussing] the areas of differences before they walk down the aisle.”
This is why talking about the kind of life you want to build with each other is so important, said Batshaw, also author of the forthcoming Things You Need to Know Before Getting Married: The Essential Guide to a Successful Marriage. In addition to love, couples do best when they have “an inherent compatibility in terms of shared life goals as well as daily living,” he added. But you don’t have to be compatible on all levels, he noted.
Having similar interests and hobbies isn’t necessary, agreed Terri Orbuch, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in couples and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great. But being similar in underlying values and beliefs is key to the happiness and stability of your marriage, according to her research study tracking the same couples for almost 24 years.
In addition, it’s important to see “how well do we understand and accept each other’s differences,” according to Robert Solley, Ph.D, a San Francisco clinical psychologist specializing in couples therapy. “In some ways, this is what most (if not all!) conflicts boil down to,” he added.
Disagreeing isn’t a recipe for disaster or splitsville, but it does demand dialogue. How you ask questions is a critical consideration, according to Heitler, who’s also author of the book The Power of Two and co-creator of an online program by the same name that helps couples build strong and successful relationships. “Instead of ‘do you,’ [ask] ‘are you?’ Good questions are open-ended. [It’s] how, and what, plus a sprinkling of when or who.”
For instance, instead of asking “do you want kids,” and assuming that a “maybe” will likely turn into a “yes” eventually, ask “how do you feel about having a family with a batch of kids?” Heitler said. This opens up a discussion with a deep layer of detail, so you aren’t making inaccurate assumptions.
Concerning what to ask, Heitler said to discuss anything that’s important to you, whether that’s religion, kids, finances, chores or your relationship with the in-laws.
Also, Heitler noted that “there are three big As that are worth paying real attention to if it looks like there’s potential”: Alcohol or any addiction; anger (not “an occasional outburst,” but excessive anger, such as someone who blows up, dominates to get their way, or is critical and controlling); and affairs (you can ask your partner about his or her parents’ history).
The clinical literature suggests that parental history of affairs increases the risk that your partner may cheat, Heitler said. (A family history of addiction also ups the risk for drug or alcohol problems.) Cheating is actually one of the least discussed topics before marriage, even though it’s one of the most important topics to talk over with your partner.
Orbuch added two more questions to consider: How do you and your partner fight? “Conflict is a healthy part of relationships; how you resolve it can be bonding and healthy or destructive and unhealthy,” she said. Orbuch’s study showed that not fighting fair is “a big predictor for unhappiness and instability down the road.” She also suggested asking, “Do you trust each other?” Trust is another key factor.
Dealing with the Differences
Everyone has differences, but it’s how you deal with those differences that’s important, Solley said. “There are many important reasons why this is so difficult, from the fact that we tend to use ourselves as the standard (therefore others’ ways of doing things can seem odd or wrong), to how we’re wired to detect and act on in-group vs. out-group, to minimization of differences in the ‘honeymoon’ period of dating, to how emotionally developed we are as individuals.”
So how can you discuss the differences without sparking a debate?
Look into the specifics of your differences, Heitler said. “When you break it down into specifics, it can turn out that there are lots of solutions.” For instance, one of the first couples Heitler ever worked with had religious concerns. He is Orthodox Jewish, and she’s Reform and didn’t want to be Orthodox. It was vital for her to live her life her way, she told Heitler.
Heitler helped the couple look at their specific underlying concerns to reach what she calls a “win-win” solution. One of his concerns was celebrating the Sabbath on Friday nights with his family and friends. She was happy to do this, because, as she explained in secular language, she enjoyed gourmet cooking and entertaining. She also loved the idea of doing some discussion and singing after dinner, which was important to him. But she asked that they sing some of the songs in English, which he thought would be interesting, and agreed. He wanted their kids to receive a religious education, but she wanted a strong secular education so they would be accepted to a good college. They were able to find a school with both excellent religious and secular education.
What this example illustrates is that once you dissect your differences, you can start focusing on the solutions to each partner’s underlying concerns. Or you might even find that you share similarities where you didn’t think you did. With this couple, it turned out that he became less stringent and she enjoyed the traditional customs, so both naturally came to the middle.
If you’re stuck on any issue, consider seeking outside help. For instance, if the issue is religion, talk to an interfaith counselor, Batshaw suggested. Having a “dialogue around difficult issues” is a good experience for your relationship and marriage. Plus, Batshaw said that many couples may be surprised to find that by having these conversations, a “totally new, spontaneous and integrative solution comes up [that you] never would’ve thought of.”
“Marriage is about committing to be life partners, so if you’re going to go down life hand in hand, it’s really important you have a shared vision of where you’re going and what the basic ground rules will be for how you get there,” Heitler concluded.
Photo by Ex-Smith, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.