Quick, a pop quiz: What’s your significant other’s approach to financial savings and philosophy on debt? It doesn’t matter; love conquers all, right? Not so fast. It’s easy to say that your love will transcend the more mundane aspects of your relationship such as budgeting, spending holidays with the in-laws, and differing political opinions. But this fairy-tale approach to a relationship can backfire—fast.
Leading relationship researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., says that dynamics around work stress, in-laws, money, sex, housework, and a new baby are the most typical areas of conflict in marriage. But many couples tend to avoid discussing these topics before marriage. In fact, in my time spent counseling engaged couples who were preparing for marriage, I found that the majority of them had not discussed most (if not all) of these issues.
Dr. Robert Scuka, the Executive Director of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement in Bethesda, Maryland, told Verily that avoiding hot-button issues or areas of difference can potentially set a couple up for future conflict.
William McKenna, a couples therapist and doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, agrees with Scuka. “By not having these discussions,” McKenna warns, “the couple sets up unreasonable expectations upon both their spouse and the marriage. This ultimately leads to bitterness and contempt.”
I asked Scuka and McKenna what some common issues are that they believe are essential to discuss prior to marriage and this is what they said. Remember, there's no time like the present!
Not discussing basic financial concerns such as budgeting, loans, savings was one of the top areas that couples neglected to discuss in my work with couples.
Don’t be afraid to bring up finances with your significant other. Clarify whether you are combining your income, whether you will set aside "fun money" for each partner to spend as they wish, and what your approach to debt and savings will be. Not discussing these issues early on can lead to long term stress in your relationship.
It’s important to clarify boundaries in your relationship. For example, McKenna says that also discussing what level of secrecy you are comfortable with in your relationship is beneficial. For example, he says that asking questions like, “Do you believe in keeping a lock on your computer or phone?" or "Do you believe in allowing your spouse to have open access if they desire?” clarifies expectations and prevents misunderstandings down the road.
Don't forget to discuss what type of relationship you will have with your in-laws and friends, because this is a big part of setting boundaries too. For example, will you alternate where you spend each holiday or take some other approach? Again, it’s important to clarify expectations ahead of time to avoid unintended confusion and resentment down the road.
03. Work–Life Balance
McKenna says discussing your views on work/life balance is really important. It's important to understand what your and your partner's individual needs are for self-care and down time and what kind of attention you need from one another.
For example, do you expect your significant other to be home by 5 each evening? Are you open to moving to another city for the sake of the other’s job? Who will be responsible for what chores? Remember that your expectations about work/life balance could be very different from your significant other’s and it's important to be prepared to find compromise in this area.
So much of good communication is getting to know each other’s personalities, likes, and dislikes. Gottman calls knowing your significant other’s world a love map, and this includes knowing their preferences (favorite foods, movies, music), dreams, important experiences. Gottman believes that a detailed love map can be a relationship saver and help you successfully manage tough times in your relationship.
Dr. Scuka says it is important to also discuss each other’s communication and problem solving styles. If you get into an argument, will you work to find a compromise right away or will you each need time to cool off before you can calmly discuss?
05. New Baby
Expectations regarding parenting roles and children is also essential to discuss, says Dr. Scuka. For example, will one of you be a stay at home parent, how many children would you like to have, and what will your parenting style be? Discussing these before you have children can help you manage the stress of caring for a newborn.
In his book 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman cites his study of newlyweds that found 67 percent of couples reported a significant drop in marital satisfaction after becoming first time parents. The other 33 percent did not report a decrease and about half of that 33 percent actually reported an improvement in marital satisfaction. He writes, “What separated these two groups? You guessed it: The couples whose marriages thrived after the birth had detailed love maps from the get-go...These love maps protected their marriages in the wake of this dramatic upheaval...But if you don’t start off with a deep knowledge of each other, it’s easy for your marriage to lose its way when your lives shift so suddenly and dramatically.”
Don't rely too heavily on the magic of the honeymoon phase to carry you through marriage! Set aside some time with your significant other to discuss your hopes, dreams, and yes, your finances and start building a strong foundation for the long-term success of your relationship. Ask couples whose relationship you admire for their wisdom and consult professions as well (financial advisors, therapists, etc.). Having these conversations will go a long way in helping your relationship start off on the right track.
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