Wedding season. It’s an exciting time, fraught with important decisions: Which dress to wear? Who to include in the wedding party ? Lilies or daisies? What to do about that drunk uncle? Where to put all the new crates and barrels?
Needless to say, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a wedding, but a wedding is very different from a marriage. And if couples get too deep into wedding season without focusing on the right questions, they may have a wonderful ceremony that (sadly) ends up being the highlight of the marriage.
During wedding season, I see a lot of couples for pre-marital counseling. They want to make sure that they have all their ducks in a row before they tie the knot. I always tell them this truth: Sometimes the most successful pre-marital counseling results in the couple breaking up.
In my experience, most couples who come in for help during the first three years of marriage should never have gotten married in the first place. That’s not always true, of course. Some couples are super mature and have a proactive approach to maintaining a healthy relationship. I actually encourage all of my pre-marital clients to commit to a full year of maintenance therapy in order to help mitigate the transition.
But the couples who are in trouble all have one thing in common: They don’t have thoughtful answers to simple questions. If you’re currently caught up in the wedding hype (or if you know someone who is), I encourage you to consider these three questions before the wedding.
01. Why do I want to spend my life with this person?
There’s a relatively common cliche about marrying your best friend. This is a wise premise that has been explored by everyone from John Gottman to Jason Mraz to Verily. But it’s not enough to believe that someone is your best friend. You need to know why they are your best friend. What do you know about how he became who he is today? How—like exactly how—do you know you can trust him? What qualities does he have that you want for your kids? What do you love about his family? What do you hate? Are you sure that your appreciation extends beyond his physical appearance (which will change) or his paycheck (which will change) or the fact that you both hate olives (which will change). What do you know about what is constant for your partner? More importantly what do you know about their hopes, fears, dreams, anxieties, etc.? You need to do the hard, intentional work of exploring those things. You need to know their whole story and why you want to become a part of it.
02. Why do I want to get married?
Marriage is a complex institution. It’s a social contract. And a political statement. And a business agreement. And a holy sacrament. On a purely relationship level, you already have some ideas about what a marriage is. You probably got those ideas from your parents. But do you have enough of your own ideas? It’s important for you to explore your specific and clear notions about what “marriage” means. The vows are a good place to start. After all, a wedding is (among other things) a public declaration, and it’s good to know what you’re declaring. Beyond the vows, you need to understand the totality of the economic, relational, spiritual, even sexual commitment you are making. Minimally, you need to know what you truly believe about marriage so that when you declare your intent at the wedding, it’ll actually mean something.
Once you’ve considered the first two questions, I hope you experience a sober realization: You do not yet have a complete rationale for going through with your wedding. The answer to these two questions should be insufficient. After all, you can spend your life with someone without being married. And you can get married without any intention of spending your life with someone. So the third question is the varsity version of the previous two.
03. Why do I want to be married to this person?
Can you recognize that this is a different question? It’s the collision of the first two which takes into account a consideration of both the person and the institution. You may think you’ve already asked and answered this question, but without thorough exploration of the first two, your answer is probably still insufficient.
John Gottman’s research suggests that the healthiest relationships are predicated on a strong marital friendship, an ability to manage conflict, and shared vision for the future. But you can’t build these skills without a strong awareness of your own story including your biases, your commitments, your blind spots, your anxieties, and your dreams. Thoughtfully asking and answering these questions can help you expose and articulate those things for yourself and your partner.
It may seem like I’m proposing these questions as a preventative measure. Indeed, I am. You need to protect yourself and your partner from making a hasty and foolish decision. Trust me, it is way easier to break up now than after the wedding. But these questions aren’t simply a task. They can also be a gift.
Consider carving out some time to give these questions the attention they deserve. Craft thoughtful, courageous, honest answers. Then carve out some more time to generously share your thoughts with your partner. It’s a great way to build trust and reinforce your commitment to one another and to the relationship. And, I promise, it’ll make your wedding way more meaningful.
If you want some help thinking this through, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be glad to weigh in. This 52 Questions Card Deck is a great tool for any couple looking to get to know each other better. I give it to most of my pre-married couples as a gift.