Photo by Lauren Wood
By Tony Caldwell
Every individual is unique. And every relationship is unique. There are, of course, common themes that emerge as difficult in any marriage. The areas of sex, money, and childrearing are some of the most obvious points of contention in a given marriage. These areas definitely need to be explored. But, since you can find 1,000s of lists that focus almost exclusively on these areas within a few clicks, I’d like to focus elsewhere. Marriage is a deepening so, in this limited space, let’s go deeper.
It is important to note the myriad other factors that contribute to mutual marital satisfaction. In my experience, each partner choosing the other at the right time for for the right reasons paired with the ability of each partner to flourish within the relationship throughout the lifespan, are the most common markers of mutual satisfaction. In other words, having a partner on the journey that you keep choosing, along with the experience of being chosen back, is the key. If I had to recommend a recipe for marital happiness, it would be this: Successful, appropriate attachment between equals along with a relational environment that not only allows, but fosters, the development of each partner along the lifespan. In marriage, two wholes make a whole. As the mystic Kahlil Gibran states “Let the winds of the heavens dance between you…”
There is much value in addressing major areas of potential discord or dissatisfaction before they arise. Making a sober, wide-eyed decision is extremely important. And, of course, any unmanaged addictions, violence, infidelity, or other unsafe behaviors are a deal breaker. An unsafe partner makes for an unsafe marriage.
In addition, there are many questions that each party needs to ask themselves before, during, and after asking questions of the other. The best investment either party can make in their marriage is the investment in continually taking their own inventory and doing their own work.
I recommend that couples seek several sessions of premarital counseling in order to explore the following questions and more before entering such a defining and life-altering arrangement. There are literally 100s of questions that couples could benefit from exploring before making a lifelong commitment to one another. Trying to trim the list down to just a handful is difficult.
This is is by no means an exhaustive list. But here are 10 questions for getting that deeper conversation started:
What are your dreams for yourself, for me, and for our marriage? This is a glimpse of your future spouse’s aspirations. These are things that either serve the marriage or don’t. And they are aspirations that you will either encourage or hinder. Are you on the same page? How do his/her aspirations differ from your own? Discussing this before marriage can save you both feelings of being trapped later on down the road.
What do you expect from me as a spouse? Getting a clear picture of what your future mate has in mind is extremely important. This is the invisible standard by which you will be measured. Know what you are getting into.
What do you expect of me as a father/mother? Parenting is a really big deal. Mothers generally express wanting their spouse to be equally invested in, and responsive to, their children. Fathers, more so that mothers, express limitations and deficits in this area. The average socialization of boys makes it so that many of us as men are found to be wanting in this area. But it’s never too late to learn and grow. Many mothers also express that they lose their identity to partnership and parenting to a greater degree than their male partner. This discrepancy can negatively affect marital satisfaction.
What makes you feel loved? Knowing how to love a person in a way that feels like love to them is paramount. How does the other person experience love: emotionally, physically, relationally, practically? Your partner’s experience is the subject. Be literate in that subject. Listen to these answers, write them on your heart, and act accordingly. Especially when you don’t want to. Marriage is a progressive movement outward, from selfishness towards selflessness and mutuality. Though it feels otherwise initially, this mutual outward focus actually deepens both partner as individuals. When both partners are taking care of themselves and maintaining a simultaneous outward focus, the result is a healthy marriage. How do you both define intimacy outside of the realm of sexuality? What does any incompatibility in this area trigger in each of you? How will you each take care of yourselves and each other when things get rough in these areas? How can you both vow to do no harm?
How can I reach you when you are hurt/shut down/angry? Believe it or not, fighting can be good. The unhealthiest couples are the ones that “never fight.” Someone is not showing up. That energy is going somewhere, most likely into fueling depression, resentment, resignation, indifference, numbness: all the ingredients of a dead marriage. Or one or both partners may not be passionate enough about the marriage to fight, therefore they may not be appropriately invested. Either way, what Dr. M. Scott Peck referred to as “the mood of unlove” can take root and choke out the connectivity between partners. Finding a partner to be unworkable and unresponsive causes sometimes irreparable damage. This relational neglect also impairs the ability of the neglected partner to attach to the neglectful one. Many men are very passive and avoidant when it comes to conflict.The most hurt and angry married women that I have worked with to date were the victims not of their partner’s abuse, but their neglect: the chronic passivity and avoidance on the part of their husband. Showing up is critical. Fighting styles are important. Arguments can be destructive or constructive. There is a difference between “fighting going on in the marriage” and “fighting within the marriage.” It’s the difference between fighting the marriage and fighting for the marriage. At the end of the day, fights should be constructive, creative, and bonding. If one or both partners is getting triggered, becoming physically or verbally unsafe, and reacting in ways out of proportion to the situation, then a safety plan and professional help is needed. Knowledge of fighting styles can also lead to not just asking “Is this someone I want to be married to?” but also “Is this someone that I would want to get a divorce from?” If you can’t trust a future partner’s personality to be ethical in the event of the unfortunate dissolution of your marriage, you probably can’t trust them to be ethical within the marriage itself. Punitive, malicious, manipulative traits are not born during conflict, they are already present as a a potentiality. The smear campaigns, hatred, and ill intent that is present in divorce proceedings and custody battles is not in proportion to the love that was lost. It is a reflection of the flaws in the personalities that were one married to one another. Considering that half of marriages end in divorce, this is worth thinking, and talking, about.
How can I serve you? You may be thinking, “Oh, brother. Where are you going with this one?” But mutual deference is a way of being that could stand to be considered as the new norm in contemporary marriages. We can look around and see the effects of not doing so. The old ways of patriarchal leadership require a stronger presence than most men seem to realistically be able to muster up, often resulting more in a “pulling of rank” than real leadership. The “new school, every man and woman for his/herself” way of relating is highly individualistic and self-serving. Neither of these seem to be working very well for marital satisfaction in the 21st century. The function of marriage has changed over time from an arrangement of necessity, to one of idealized projections, to one of mutual unfoldment. It is possible for individuals within a union to individualize, and individuate, without the downfalls of egotism, selfishness, and and an I-Me-Mine orientation. In fact, it is required.
How can I help you grow? Humans continue developing throughout the lifespan. When this process of lifelong unfoldment is stalled, neurosis abounds. Neurosis is the dysfunction that results from a mismatch between one’s inner life and outer life. Marriage will be the container in which this neurosis will most likely arise for each partner. This is the stuff that affairs, midlife crises, and other relational disasters are often made of. Part of the commitment in marriage is a commitment to being ethical. To being a safe haven for the other person. To safeguard the other’s heart, thereby preserving and honoring our own psycho-spiritual integrity, health, wholeness, and well-being. That requires growth in us and creates the conditions necessary for the growth of our partner.
Who are you? It is interesting to see how little couples really know about one another. Even couples that are bored, stagnant, and feel as if they know everything about one another are missing the fact that we can never really know everything about the other. When we limit our focus to who our partner is to us, we lose sight of who they are independent of us. This type of objectification causes stagnation and the resulting relational depression. Yes, relationships, not just individual people, can become depressed. When we cease to be curious about our partner, something dies. That something is the vibrancy of the marriage.
Who do you think that I am? The psychoanalyst Irwin Yalom, in his book “Love’s Executioner” states: “Meaningfulness is a by-product of engagement and commitment.” The truth is, we are literally as close to insanity as most of us will ever be during the infatuation and honeymoon stages of relationship. We literally distort reality and believe in the illusions created by our minds and emotions. The honeymoon phase is a time rife with many positive projections that we place upon one another. And the great letdown comes when these projections are replaced with the reality of who the other, in actuality, is. It’s a hard fall. It is common for one or bother partners to experience disappointment, disillusionment, and regret at this point. As unromantic as it sounds, go ahead and be love’s executioner. Dispel the illusions so that mutual love can be formed between realities, not between distortions of reality. Part of our job as a spouse, and as a parent, is to disappoint, fail, and unfortunately, to sometimes injure, those we love. These failures, when they happen in the context of loving, committed relationship, are opportunities for growth for all involved. Being aware of these truths can help us bring a higher level of consciousness and intentionality to our relationships.
What can you tell me about your inner world? What is going on inside your future spouse? What habits, hurts, and hangups do they have? What are the ghosts that haunt them? What are their relational wounds? What are their insecurities? What are their self-identified weaknesses, obsessions (body image, past hurts, fear of abandonment, etc.) and how are they going to care for these areas of their life so that they do not contaminate the relationship? What are his/her spiritual/religious/philosophical views and convictions? How are they compatible/incompatible with your own?
At the end of the day, marriage is a sacred union. And as that union deepens, the definition of love will supercede mere romance and will be more aptly defined with words like concern, compassion, and dedication. The altar at which you make vows also becomes the altar on which you sacrifice parts of yourself. You are choosing your best friend, confidant/e, and partner in battle. You are choosing the person to be with you on not only your best days, but also on your worst days and your last days. Commitment to being the primary person responsible for honoring the other is a sacred trust not to be entered into lightly. Maybe the most succinct way to put this is: You are not just marrying one another. You are both marrying the marriage. That marriage is a rock tumbler. It will smooth both of your rough edges. That marriage is a crucible. You will both be transformed. Are you both willing and able to commit to being partners in that lifelong process of transformation and mutual unfoldment?
Tony Caldwell, LCSW has been a practitioner in the mental health field since 2000 and has been in private practice since 2009. He obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Mississippi and his graduate degree from the University of Tennessee. Tony’s postgraduate training is in psychoanalytic theory and practice. He is a member of the Memphis-Atlanta Jungian Seminar and the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts. Tony is a faculty member of the Department of Social Work at the University of Mississippi and Director of College and Young Adult Ministry at Oxford-University United Methodist Church. As a public speaker and workshop leader, he has presented at many area conferences, churches, and events. Tony is also a human rights activist and has enjoyed partnering with Mississippi ReCop, the Kellogg Foundation, The Sarah Isom Center, and Southern Poverty Law Center among others. Tony enjoys family time, traveling, reading, songwriting and performing with various musical outfits. He loves writing about theology, psychology, and social justice. You can find some of his writings at www.tonycaldwell.net and information regarding his counseling services at www.caldwellcounseling.net.