Unless your Facebook feed is very different from mine, you must have noticed that wedding and engagement season is in full swing. Looking at the posts—beaming brides in white gowns, couples hand in hand, proud parents, and cheering guests—I wonder how many of these people will stay together for the long haul and whether they’ve talked about what needs to be talked about, at least according to scientific research.
Ironically, before romantic love became the basis for marriage—a game-changer that historian Stephanie Coontz dates to the 1700s—marriage was based on talk because it was a contractual binding of individuals, property, and families. (And marriage is still a contract, as anyone who has ever gone through a divorce knows.)
Our focus on romantic love as the basis for marriage has a definite downside, though it makes for a pretty picture at the beginning. What’s not to like about the guy who hired a skywriter to propose or nestled an engagement ring atop a teeny cupcake? Who doesn’t love stories of friends who hung out for years and then, out of the blue, realized love was in the air? Many of the conversations we need to have with our future life partner are avoided precisely because they're so unromantic. These talks involve subjects that can reveal chinks in the relationship, which romantic love enables us to look away from. Even though the failure rate of marriage—40% or so—is well-known, we're all sure it doesn’t apply to us because our love is real and solid.
Yet marriage is complicated because we are complicated. Each of us brings into marriage a boatload of unarticulated thoughts about what it means to be married based on what we’ve seen, heard, experienced, or formulated in contrast to our parents’ example—and those unconscious thoughts influence our behavior and reactions. Marriage has its own set of myths, including the one that says that whatever is wrong with your relationship will be fixed by the commitment marriage represents.
Research sheds some light on the complexity of marriage. For example, people tout living together first as a good trial run to see how marriage might go. I readily admit that I too believed in this even though that was not the case in my own starter marriage. It turns out that living together is a lousy idea because, as the work of Scott Stanley and others has shown, people then tend to “slide” into marriage as a logical next step instead of consciously deliberating about it. It will surprise no one that these marriages are more likely to be stressed, don't develop the kind of cooperative problem-solving that a long-term marriage requires, and have a higher rate of failure.
Here are my recommendations for 6 talks every couple should have before they tie the knot, based on my research on marriage and divorce. (I also figure I have some personal authority because I've been married more than once.)
This is one thing no one wants to talk about because it seems so crass, unromantic, and maybe even shallow. Most of us are brought up being told that one's finances are personal and never shared. That said, research shows that disagreement over finances is the Number One cause of divorce, even trumping infidelity. Money is both real and symbolic, and that may not figure into your purview when you’re engaged to someone and each of you has a separate checking account. You may have noticed that your partner has a different attitude toward money than you do. He might be more cautious or spendthrift than you are, or she might seem a bit careless and more in debt than you think is healthy, but that only becomes a joint issue after you’re married. Talking about money includes a discussion of who will make money and how decisions regarding spending will be made, exploring attitudes toward debt and saving, and what you’d do if your situation changes—if one of you loses her or his job or decides to retool and go back to school, or if someone stays home with a child. It's important that you are capable of agreeing on financial goals, too.
Researcher Jeffrey Dew and his colleagues discovered that talking about money is important because arguments about money aren’t always just about money; they may reflect how each partner feels about power, commitment, respect, and fairness in the relationship. Dew's research suggests that sometimes arguing about money is easier than tackling the deep-seated conflicts and disappointments that are at the heart of a failing marriage.
2. How you argue.
It’s not whether you argue, but how you argue that matters, and a whole body of research confirms this. Being conscious and aware of the patterns in your arguments is terrifically important, as experts such as John Gottman have made clear. You need to pay attention if one of the really toxic patterns is present, such as Demand/Withdraw. This pattern, also known as DM/W, describes a scenario in which one person makes a demand and the other person withdraws, both literally and emotionally. Typically, it’s the woman in the demand position but not always—and it can also be a function of an imbalance of power in the relationship. For example, if one person makes most or all of the money and thinks that entitles him or her to make all of the decisions, the person making the demand for change is likely to be the person with less power. Similarly, the person who desires change—whether in the structure of the relationship, the allocation of responsibilities, or anything else—will find him or herself in the demand situation.
The problem with this pattern is that escalation is built into it. As person A, who makes the demand, becomes more and more frustrated by person B’s withdrawal, it’s likely that the he or she will amp up the volume. That, in turn, only makes person B even more inclined to withdraw and perhaps become aggressive or mocking—and then both parties feel aggrieved.
Gottman also delineates what he calls the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse,” the behaviors bound to bring your marriage down. You and your partner should know about these, be vigilant should they appear, and be prepared to fix them: Criticism, or attacking someone on the basis of their personality or character, rather than a specific behavior; contempt, or consciously intending to abuse or insult your partner; defensiveness, which can include refusal to take responsibility, withdrawal, or talking over the person or repeating yourself; and stonewalling, which is a component of demand/withdraw.
If your arguments fall into these patterns, or are beginning to, do not count on your vows to fix things. You and your partner have to consciously fix them together.
Because humans are hardwired to be more reactive to bad events and exchanges than good ones, Gottman’s ration of 5:1—it takes five good exchanges to outweigh a bad one—is echoed in other research. Tuck that number away for the future if you want your marriage to last.
3. How you understand personality.
This one is less obvious but it really packs a wallop. Every marriage will go through periods of stress and periods when one person’s needs or goals change, or one person wants to grow in ways that the other doesn’t. Or it may simply be that one partner isn’t happy with the status quo of the relationship and wants things to change. The work of Carol Dweck and others reveals that your beliefs about personality—whether you believe it’s fixed and immutable or malleable and subject to change—are key to navigating these periods of stress. This isn't counterintuitive at all: The more you believe that personality, behavior, and character are malleable, the better you’ll be able to negotiate times that require change. You’ll be willing to learn and try, exert effort, address failure, and increase understanding. People who believe that personality is fixed won’t make much effort or put much faith in change—and that can be a deal-breaker.
4. Your ideas about partnership.
Marriage is a partnership that can take many different forms depending on the emotional needs of the people in it. The important thing is to articulate and define how you and your soon-to-be spouse see your marriage: Will it be drawn along traditional lines, with one partner focused on finances and the other on running the household, even if you’re both working? Or are you looking for a more egalitarian relationship? How will you balance your or your partner’s need for autonomy while maintaining intimacy? Some people marry and make few shifts from their former single lives—they still socialize with their own friends and keep their money separate from their spouses—and are content to live on parallel tracks that sometimes connect. Other people want to function as a couple by melding interests, friends, and assets into a single, shared pool. Being clear about your own needs—your desires for intimacy, for autonomy, for support—must precede the talk.
Even though dependence on a spouse has gotten a bad rap—it’s become synonymous with the 1950s (male) wage earner with a wife in the kitchen—being circling but independent planets may not be the best answer either. There’s the dependency paradox to consider: Contrary to popular lore, knowing you can depend on someone actually makes you more independent, more willing to take risks, more resilient if initial efforts fail, and more interested in exploring opportunities, as shown in research by Brooke Feeney.
5. Your childhood experiences.
I’m not talking about your summers in Maine or your years playing Little League or even Spotty, the spaniel you owned as a kid. Chances are your partner has heard those stories or at least seen flattering pictures and videos. I’m talking about the more difficult stuff, especially if your childhood was less than perfect. People tend to shy away from these discussions for many reasons, but they are an important part of understanding why your partner is the way he or she is. If you’ve noticed that your readings of people’s reactions or emotional situations are different, the answer may lie in your different attachment styles, which are a function of childhood.
6. Raising children.
No, not just about what adorable kids the two of you might someday make together but a real discussion about raising them. Alas, because we think about marriage in terms of romance, we often don’t focus on what kind of a mother or father the partner we’ve chosen for ourselves—that person who thrills us—might make. But I don’t think I need to remind anyone that disagreements about raising kids are a leading cause of divorce. This talk should ideally follow your discussion about childhood. Are you likely to replicate how you were raised in terms of discipline, expectation, and treatment, or are you in full rebellion? Explore whether you think a hippy-dippy, laissez-faire approach is one you might favor, whether you’ll be the kind of parent who’s going to study up and decide what’s best for the child, or whether you want to try to co-parent as best as you can and throw traditional roles to the wind. If you have very different visions of how to raise a child, that's worth paying attention to.
There’s no way to “divorce-proof” a marriage, but an enhanced ability to communicate thoughts and feelings is as close as you can get. Have real talks about real issues before you ride off into the sunset to help put the two of you on the road you need to be on.
Copyright 2016 Peg Streep
Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History. New York: Viking, 2005.
Dew, Jeffrey P. and Robert Stewart, “A Financial Issue, A Relationship Issue, or Both? Examining the Predictors of Marital Financial Conflict,” Journal of FinancialTherapy (2012), vol. 3, issue 1, 43-61.
Stanley, Scott M., Galena Kline Rhoades, and Howard J. Markman, “Sliding Versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect,” Family Relations, 55 (October 2006), 499-509.
Schrodt, Paul, Paul L. Witt, and Jenna R. Shimkowski, "A Meta-Analytical Review of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern of Interaction and its Association with Individual, Relational, and Communicative Outcomes,” Communication Monographs, 81,1 (April 2014), 27-58.
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York; Fireside, 1994.
Dweck, Carol S., “Can Personality Be Changed? The Role of Beliefs in Personality and Change,” Current Directions in Psychology Science (2008), vol.17, no.6, 391-394.
Feeney, Brooke C. “The Dependency Paradox in Close Relationships: Accepting Dependence promotes Independence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2007), vol, 92, no, 22, 268-285.