We all like to think that our relationship is different, we are perfect for each other, and our love has what it takes to stand the test of time. This may be true, but according to Dr. John Gottman, marriage researcher and author of Why Marriages Succeed and Fail, all marriages—even the happiest—face six common areas of conflict. The good news is you don't have to wait until marriage to begin to deal with these areas of conflict—you can pre-empt them while dating or engaged to ensure smoother (if not downright clam) sailing later on.
01. Work stress.
When married couples get home after a long day of work, oftentimes conflict arises when you unwind in different ways. Maybe you like to sit and talk about your day or tackle projects, and he likes to sit in quiet and check his emails or workout. What then?
This is an easy one to work on while you are dating or engaged! You can avoid this kind of conflict in marriage by taking the following steps:
- Discuss how you both like to unwind now. Typically, we don't even think about how we prefer to handle the first moments after we arrive home—we just do it. Think about it and take notice next time you clock out and then report back to your S.O.
- Build relaxation time into date night. When you are dating you typically have a moment to unwind before going out with your beau on a week night, which is a good thing. Occasionally, though, work decompress time and together time might overlap. Tell him to bring his gym shoes if you know he likes to go for a run right when he gets home, and let him know that you are looking forward to decompressing over a glass of wine and conversation when he gets back!
We all know the jokes about the meddling in-laws, but Dr. Gottman explains that in most marriages the in-laws are a very real conflict point. Conflict most often arrises when couples feel divided by the in-laws, when the mother- or father-in-law makes decisions or voices opinions that threaten a couple's sense of "we-ness" or solidarity.
There are several important things you can do as a pre-married couple to tighten your defenses against the in-law conflict.
- Cultivate "we-ness." You may not be married, but as a dating couple your sense of solidarity is important. Think about the stories you’re telling about the relationship. Is “I” more present than “we?" Having more "we" than "I" in a relationship is an important defense against the opinions and pressures of the parents.
- Side with your partner. When outside opinions pit you against one another, it's important for you to stand up for your S.O and defend your sense of solidarity, even if in the end you agree that there is some wisdom in the advice of others. When parents try to dictate how you spend the holidays or voice their opinion about how long you have been dating, stand together and let them know that this is something you decide as a couple.
You might think that the trouble of finances is something you can't face until you have merged bank accounts, but that could not be further than the truth. Talking about money, as much as most of us dread it, is an important way to minimize conflict around money matter in marriage. As an unmarried couple it's important for you to ask one another the following questions and keep an ongoing dialog about personal finance.
- What is your relationship with money? This is an opportunity to find out about one another's history with money and how it has shaped how they handle it today. Maybe money was tight when you were growing up; did you have any traumatic experiences with money? Did he grow up with lots of money? How does he think that impacts the way he deals with it in his personal finances?
- What are your financial strengths and weaknesses? Do you love budgeting and have an easy time keeping to your assigned expenditures? Does he enjoy very little stress about money and check in on his accounts only once a year? Talk about how these financial personalities may be a strength and how it might not serve you as well.
- What are your financial dreams? Money can hold different values for different people, and the way we spend our money can often represent our dreams and goals for the future. While it's okay to have differences in how you value money in the short term, it is important you have shared longterm financial dreams.
When to have it, how to have it, why to have it can all be sources of major conflict in marriage, but you can get a head start on a happy, healthy sexual relationship in marriage by talking about some of these intimate topics before marriage.
- Talk about sex before marriage. It's important to think carefully about whether or not you want to have sex before marriage, even if you have already been having sex in your current relationship or have had sex in relationships in the past. Recent research by psychologists Galena K. Rhoades and Scott M. Stanley in their 2014 study tracked 418 married couples over a five-year period and found that having sex before marriage doesn't help your chances of a happy marriage—if anything, it hurts it. "For women, having had fewer sexual partners before marriage was also related to higher marital quality," the research states.
- Talk about sexual history. As explained by psychologists Rhoades and Stanley in their 2014 study, as well as Dr. Kevin Leman, author of Sheet Music, a guide to sexual intimacy for engaged and married couples, past sexual history can negatively influence sexual intimacy in marriage. That is not to say your marriage is doomed to failure if you have baggage from past relationships. According to Leman in his book and Rhoades and Stanley in their study, couples counseling or therapy as well as transparency about past relationships can help couples heal the wounds from past sexual experiences and have a happy, healthy marriage.
It may surprise you that chores are one of the big six sources of conflict according to Dr. Gottman, but it shouldn't! Remember how frustrating it was when your mom asked you to make your bed growing up? Or when you roommate in college consistently dropped all her clothes on the floor? Living with the love of your life presents the same problems.
Good news is, you can get ahead of the problem way before you tie the knot and move in together. The most important thing, and really the only thing you can do right now, is talk about it.
- Talk about you favorite/least favorite chores. Fair division of labor in marriage is less about everything being 50/50 and more about household work being divided in a way that makes sense for everyone's schedule and skill set. If you know your guy loves making the kitchen sparkle and you are a vacuuming fanatic, you have the keys to success when planning division of labor after your wedding day. Or if you both loathe cleaning the bathroom, it can become a point of commiseration and solidarity in checking it off the list—or a good reason to agree to hire someone else to do it!
06. New Baby
This one is pretty tricky to plan for as a dating or engaged couple, but Dr. Gottman has found that in the first year that a new baby arrives, 67% of new mothers feel a significant dip in their marital satisfaction. Dr. Gottman explains that this is due to a number of factors including lack of sleep, financial stress, feeling overwhelmed, and lack of time to oneself. So how do you prepare for this now?
- Talk about it. Being aware of some of the stressors your marriage can face now will mean that you and your future spouse won't be blindsided by the unexpected. No need to read baby books, but talk about the importance of prioritizing intimacy, quality time, and solidarity when babies demand so much attention.
If marriage is on your mind, there's no reason to wait for a ring to start preparing your relationships for the years to come!
Photo Credit: Brittni Willie