The One Skill Every Couple Needs to Learn Before Marriage

If you're taught just one thing before you get married, it needs to be this.
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If you're taught just one thing before you get married, it needs to be this.

A note from the author: This is part of my column for Verily called Tools for an Intentional Marriage. It’s a collection of best practices for moving through your marriage on purpose. I’ll share the best tips, tricks, and ideas that I’ve discovered over my years as a marriage therapist and also as a husband. I hope you’ll collect, use, and even enjoy these tools as you seek to build your own Intentional Marriage.

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and in it’s wake, billions of newly engaged couples will begin frantically planning their perfect summer weddings. But it’s not just the season of romance and engagement. For me, the post-Valentine’s season keeps me busy with a steady stream of requests for pre-marital counseling. Couples getting ready to start their lives as husband and wife want to know the special formula that will keep their love alive for a lifetime.

I think pre-marital counseling is a wise investment for any couple preparing for a life together. Working with a counselor before you marry provides you with many important best practices and, yes, formulas to help you start off married life with the necessary tools in your tool kit. That said, the real work of building an intentional marriage happens well after the wedding—during the slow and steady work that takes place in the everyday moments of your many years together.

Still, for the couples out there who are looking for that one key skill—one essential ritual—there is one important thing that you can do to get your relationship off to a strong start. It’s profoundly simple, yet I’ve found that it’s one of the most difficult things for people to do.

Learn to ask for what you want.

Easy, right? You would think. But there are a lot of reasons why we don’t ask for what we want, and they tend to prevent us from asking this all important question in the end. Here are three of the most common reasons we don’t ask for what we want.

01. We Assume

One reason we don’t ask for what we want is that we assume that our partner already knows what we want. Worse, we assume he should know what we want. This is a tragic trap with severe consequences. Assumption is your enemy, especially early in a relationship. Learning to ask for what you want eliminates confusion and the opportunity for false interpretation.

02. We Fear The Answer

A second reason we don’t ask for what we want is because we fear we won’t get it. It’s risky to put your desire out into the world, and especially out in front of your partner. What if they don’t give you what you want? Then what?

Asking for what you want is actually a very helpful trust-building experience. When you ask for something, in clear and concise terms, your partner gets to respond, in clear and concise terms. When the response is “no,” at least you know. Knowing is trust-building. Ideally, your partner will help you get what you want. But when he can’t, wouldn’t you rather know? If if he can’t or won’t, wouldn’t it be good to have the opportunity to ask again or in a different way?

03. We Don't Know How

The third reason we don’t ask for what we want is that we simply don’t know how. The most common mistake we make is to pose our request as a demand rather than as a desire. Demand is rigid. Self-centered. Unforgiving. Demand takes your partnership out of the equation. Desire is inclusive. Your partner likely desires the same kinds of things that you want. Especially if those desires are rooted in values, like equality, freedom, trust, joy, peace, and adventure. When your partner understands that your heart’s desire is the same as their own, they’ll be much more likely to help you get it.

When your partner asks you for what they want, pay attention. There are often two questions inside the question. The easiest question is the “text”. It’s the simple answer to the simple question. The more important question is harder to hear. It’s the “subtext”: the question behind the question. When your partner asks you if you want to go for a walk, the textual answer is “yes” or “no.” The subtextual answer is “I’d love to connect with you and get some exercise together” or “I can’t right now, I’m on a deadline, but can we connect a little bit later, maybe make dinner together?”

The important thing to remember is that none of these three reasons are good reasons. I promise you: learning how to ask for what you want will go a long way toward maintaining love and respect and intentionality over the life of your relationship. There is something powerful about the ability to ask with confidence and to answer with integrity. Couples who respect one another’s desire and trust one another's intention are in a great position to set themselves up for success over the long run.

Eliminating confusion and emphasizing clarity is a great gift to your relationship. Asking and answering are gifts to your partner...especially when they reveal desire and build trust. Learn to ask for what you want. Learn to be clear. Generous. Open. By developing this skill early in your relationship, you will avoid a ton of heartache and pain down the road. Remember, assumption is your enemy. Knowing is your friend.

I’m always interested in your stories and how you manage to make and honor your requests to one another. Shoot me an email at zach@zachbrittle.com or find me on Twitter (@kzbrittle) or Facebook

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners