“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.”
~ Mignon McLaughlin
Your partner. Yourself. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised at how little people really know about one another or themselves before tying the knot.
Of course we do have some knowledge of our partners, and of ourselves, but I’m talking about relational knowledge.
Relational knowledge is knowledge of the dynamics that run beneath the surface.
Relational knowledge determines how we define ourselves and how we ultimately function in intimate relationships.
It’s about our personality styles, defense mechanisms, the rules and roles we grew up with and the interactive styles that we observed.
All of this history and experience will inform our expectations and behaviors in our adult intimate relationships.
Marriage or any committed, intimate relationship is like a dance.
Commitment begins the couple’s dance. Our desires, values, aspirations, and expectations are the steps that define the dance.
The more we know about our self and our partner, the easier it is to choreograph and keep in step with one another.
While differences can add spice to a relationship, serous core deviations can produce missteps that lead to disappointments and ultimately a lot of stepped on toes!
Relationships are like slow dancing.
Because partners are locked in an embrace, each partner is affected by the other partner’s moves. Knowing and anticipating the steps facilitates a smoother dance.
There are two big missteps that get people in trouble. One is making assumptions; the other is projecting positive attributes. It’s human nature to make both of these mistakes.
We assume that how we know how our partners think and feel mostly based on how we, ourselves, think and feel. We project positive attributes because we are in love and inclined to view our beloved in the most flattering possible light.
To avoid problems, we need to replace assumptions and projections with knowledge.
Knowledge is gained through honest, open communication and taking enough time to really get to know somebody well.
Having sex too early in a relationship often short-circuits the knowledge building process. Becoming lovers before you are friends can interfere with building a strong, healthy relationship foundation.
Let’s look more closely at assumptions. Since we all grew up in a family, there is a strong tendency to see our own family as the norm.
Our family is our template and we have expectations based on that template. Even when we know there was some dysfunction, we grow accustomed to our own brand of dysfunction.
We are comfortable with the customs, structures, and the interactive styles that we grew up with.
Unless you marry your sibling (not recommended!), your partner also grew up in a family with customs, structures and interactive styles that will feel “normal” to him or her.
Furthermore, in today’s world of blending cultures, we make assumptions based on the norms of our respective cultures, so inter-cultural couples may face an additional layer of differences to negotiate.
Assuming sameness is a mistake.
Most couples need to learn to negotiate a lot of differences, and that takes flexibility, and open and honest communication.
Now, what do I mean by “projecting positive attributes”?
This is the tendency to view the partner through rose-colored glasses. When we fall in love, we are programmed by nature to maximize the positive and minimize the negatives in our love objects.
That’s because the survival of our species depends on reproducing. Falling in love sets off a chemical reaction in the body designed specifically for sexual arousal, bonding and reproduction.
Anybody who’s fallen in love remembers the accompanying euphoria.
Those who’ve married know that while love can last, euphoria doesn’t. After a year or so, the euphoria wears off and reality sets in.
Hopefully you are now convinced about the necessity of taking sufficient time to get to know one another. You understand the value of open and honest communication.
The beginning of any authentic conversation with a partner begins with your ability to know and be honest with yourself.
Here are some important topics to address with yourself.
The way you answer these questions will be the basis of those important conversations you need to have with your partner.
1. What was my parent’s relationship like?
Did they fight? Did they fight constructively or negatively? How do I feel about fighting?
Although some couples never fight, it’s not because they never get angry. Everyone gets angry. But what you do with it depends a lot on how comfortable you are with anger and with fighting. That will depend a lot on what you saw growing up.
2. What are my values?
Am I conservative, liberal? Is it important to me that my partner shares my political or religious views? How comfortable am I with differences in those areas?
3. How do I feel about money?
How well do I handle money? How important is money to my well-being? Can I handle discrepancies in our earning capabilities? Am I a conservative or a liberal spender?
What if my partner brings debt into the relationship? Do I expect that we will share our money or do I want to keep our incomes and expenses separate? How will I feel if one of us wants to stay home with children?
4. How important is it to me that my partner shares my recreational activities?
Am I a traveler or a homebody? Do I expect my partner to accompany me when I socialize, recreate or travel?
5. How do I feel about children?
Do I want them? When? How many? How about pets? Do I like them? Am I allergic to them? Do my dogs sleep on the bed?
6. What is my vision of the future?
Am I willing to move if one of us gets a great job opportunity? Do I need to be close to my family or am I comfortable with the idea of change?
7. How do I feel about his/her family?
Am I a person who values close family ties and can I tolerate my partner’s ties with his/her family?
8. Is this a second marriage for either?
Are there already children? How do I feel about being a step-parent or how do I feel about my partner parenting my children? How well will I tolerate the presence of an ex-spouse in my life?
9. What is my sexual history?
How much do I expect to know about my partner’s sexual history? Am I a jealous person? What does this say about me and my feelings about trust?
Do we get anxious or insecure about outside friendships? What are our fears and expectations about fidelity? How will we manage any anxieties? What will our boundaries look like?
10. Do I like a lot of together time or do I need a lot of personal space?
People really vary with regard to closeness and togetherness. One way is not better or worse than another, but differences can be difficult to accept and manage.
I can’t say enough about pre-marital counseling. Pre-marital counseling doesn’t mean you have problems, rather it’s a great forum to explore yourselves personally and relationally and learn about your strengths and weaknesses before you get married.
Choosing a life partner is probably the most important step you will ever take.
A proactive, thoughtful approach to this life-changing event is smart and can keep you from joining the ranks of those who didn’t ask the questions.
Sally LeBoy, MFT – www.sallyleboymft.com
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