The plan for today is to make an argument that fighting before marriage is a good thing. Does this sound counter-intuitive? Here are my arguments.
Some people see fighting as a sign of fundamental incompatibilities. They are right. The thing is that we are all incompatible on some levels, and it’s delusionary to think otherwise. The first phase of any romantic relationship, which I have referred to as the “cocaine-rush” phase (see my former blog entry from August 4, 2012: “Falling in Love is Like Smoking Crack Cocaine”), is a period of untested fantasies of being the “perfect match” for each other. Perfect match fantasies will be reliably tested during the second phase of a romantic relationship, which I identify and describe in my book as the “Testing” phase.
Pamela Paul, author of the well-researched book The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, suggests that “a typical marriage follows a certain course. The first year is the hardest, as the saying goes.”* In my role as a marital counselor, I often hear that the first two years of marriage are experienced in one of two extreme ways. That is, some couples experience consistent moments of sublime bonding that lead others to observe that they have “that newlywed glow,” while other couples acknowledge that the first two years were “a rough transition.”
I would hypothesize that a major reason for this distinction is that some couples marry too soon, while they are still in the cocaine-rush phase of their relationship. When couples marry during the cocaine-rush phase, they can predictably expect to go through the tunnel of stress and chaos that is the entry into the “Testing” phase at some point soon after they are married.
Other couples, who have had a longer, less impulsive, more thoughtful courtship, have already passed through the transition between the cocaine-rush phase and the testing phase. They have a much better idea of who they are marrying and are much less likely to experience major disillusionment after marriage. So, the presence of fighting before marriage often signals that a couple has probably transitioned (or is transitioning) into the “Testing” Phase of a relationship.
Compatibility of personality, beliefs, core values, and goals shows up with greater clarity during conflict. One hallmark of the cocaine-rush phase is that both partners selectively filter for evidence that each is the “perfect match” for the other. Lovers in the first stage of a relationship often highlight similarities and minimize differences. If differences do not come to light before a couple marries, the risk for post-marital disillusionment and dissolution is higher. If sources of incompatibility and disagreement can come up before marriage, then each partner will have an opportunity to decide whether particular differences are ones he or she can live with or whether there are deal-breaker differences.
Fighting before marriage also allows each partner to gain a rich source of information about the process of how you fight and whether you can learn to have conflict without weakening your bond. Only in the context of conflict will you be able to see whether each of you can do things like…
• Manage and de-escalate your own negative emotions
• Understand each other’s perspective even when you don’t agree
• Treat each other with basic respect in the heat of conflict
• Strengthen your bond through the process of post-conflict insight and repair
• Come to new understandings of yourselves and your relationship in a way that deepens intimacy
Essentially, conflict tests character. How you work through problems is in many cases even more important than the actual issue(s) you resolve. Successful couples show core respect, recognize the validity of each other’s thoughts and feelings, and make generous attributions for each other’s behavior.** So, specifically, ask yourself, on the far side of a conflict, do you both feel heard and respected? Does each of you feel like you had influence on the other person and on the decided outcome? Being mindful of how the process of conflict feels is critical to assessing the true potential of a developing love relationship. Depending on how it is handled, conflict can be a powerful catalyst for growth.
The context of conflict also allows you to evaluate whether a potential partner is fundamentally trustworthy. Conflict plays a central role in trust-building process in several different types of close relationships. For example, in therapy, a slight rupture followed by a repair of the treatment alliance often leads to a much stronger relationship. I think this is because ruptures and repairs give us critical sources of information about how much we can trust each other to stay connected, show respect, and stick it out when the going is rough.
In addition to assessing trustworthiness, there is the bigger question of whether you can trust yourselves as a couple to weather the storms that will come. Theorists and researchers refer to this as relationship self-efficacy. In other words, do you, as a couple, feel confident that you can work through conflict productively? This may seem obvious, but it's a very important point: You can’t know the answer to this question without having had some conflict. A major reason to wait out the cocaine-rush phase of the relationship is to date each other long enough so you can weather a few storms before you take the final plunge together.
In fact, I strongly recommend that couples in the pre-marital phase of their relationship proactively ask each other lots of hard questions to set off some hidden land mines before they consider marriage. Couples that set off some land mines up front benefit from some of the protection that comes from the tendency to idealize each other in the first stage of love. Motivation to overcome barriers and find common ground is typically at peak levels before two people are legally bound to each other. Probable areas of future conflict can be identified and respectful rules of engagement can be developed. Two people who go into their marriage knowing that they can stay connected despite conflict have a much better chance of staying married. So, fighting before marriage is indeed a very good thing.
* Paul, P. (2002). The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. New York: Villard Books, p. 100.
** Koren, P., Carlton, K., and Shaw, D. (1980). "Marital Conflict: Relations Among Behaviors, Outcomes, and Distress. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 48, 460-468.