Whether or not we want to admit it, the best training we get about how to be a spouse comes from our parents. Maybe you have awesome parents. Maybe they’re jerks. They may be celebrating their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary. Or they may have divorced when you were 2 years old. Many of you were raised by more than two parents. Or maybe you’re adopted.
No matter your situation, their fingerprints are on you. Their DNA, and the DNA of their relationship, are a part of you. If you decide to walk down the aisle with someone, they will have an impact on your marriage. Given that reality, it seems to me that you’d want to have a little bit of control over what kind of impact they have. Whenever I meet with couples looking for premarital counseling, I emphasize how important it is to direct attention to the impact of their family of origin. And, whenever they can, I encourage them to have these three conversations before the big day.
What did they get right?
Find out how your parents made it work. Even if their marriage wasn’t successful, they have navigated challenges and achieved milestones as individuals. What do they attribute the “good times” to? What enabled them to feel close, safe, empowered? Where did they experience the most love and respect from one another? You’re looking for success stories—and the best of those usually come in response to failure. But keep in mind, this isn’t actually a conversation about failure, it's designed to help unearth your (often unconscious) coping strategies when it comes to defending your relationship from stress. And any time you can assign attribution to the desired result, you’re on the path to health.
What do they know now that they wish they knew then?
This is close but not the same as “What would they do differently if they could do it over?” Rather than focusing on regret, the goal of this conversation is to bring knowledge forward. Most of what I know about how to help pre-married couples comes from what I know about couples who are struggling three, seven, eleven, twenty-three years down the road. Find out what lessons your parents have learned along the way and bring that learning forward. Maybe it’s about how to handle money, or sex, or Thanksgiving, but it could just as easily be about what to ignore, what friendship means, or what really matters. This is a time machine conversation meant to give you a cheat sheet for your own relationship as you pursue the path to a happy marriage.
How will they help you leave?
No matter what your opinion of the Bible, there’s an essential piece of marriage wisdom that cannot be ignored. In the book of Genesis, right after Adam and Eve realize they’re the only two people on earth, their first instructions are to “leave mother and father." Remember, these two people didn’t even have a mother and father, and it’s still their first step in chasing a healthy marriage.
You must enter your marriage as a functional adult. You cannot remain a child or the relationship won’t last. Part of your parents’ responsibility is to help you claim your adulthood. Ask them how they will do that. (Not if, but how.) Will your mother enable you to choose where you will spend the holidays, guilt free? When you get a flat tire and call your dad, will he remind you that he is no longer the man in your life? Will they be clear about their willingness to support you financially (or not)? There simply is no pathway towards a healthy future with them if they are not willing to let you go discover the meaning of your marriage independent of them.
I’ll repeat those last two words: Your Marriage. These conversations are to help you gain perspective on your parents’ relationship in order to benefit your journey. Not to give your parents more power or permission to make it about them. Again, they’re going to have an impact on you no matter what; and they may not even know the degree of that impact will be. The best way to manage that impact is to get as smart about it as possible and the best way to do that is to ask.
Make time for these conversations. Make them part of your marriage commitment and your wedding planning. Have them with your partner’s parents as well as your own. In a perfect world, you’d have them with everyone at once. How cool to have the mutual sharing of a creative, compassionate, courageous conversation on behalf of your relationship? It can only help set you up for success as you make your own way toward a healthy marriage.