How do I know we’re not a good fit before we get married? It’s the million-dollar question. If we could all figure this question out with complete certainty, we would eliminate divorce, and save ourselves a lot of heartache, sorrow, time, stress, and questioning.
Of course, there are ways to discern if you are a good fit with your partner or not before you get married. But before we ask those questions, we have to be willing to do the hard thing if we realize that this is in fact not a good fit.
Sometimes, couples desperately try to make things work, with one partner—often the female—putting up with a lot because losing the relationship is perhaps too great a fear. For other couples, it might be that they aren’t necessarily compatible but are pushing through nonetheless. In such situations, even if they feel viscerally that this is not a good fit or something isn’t quite right—or maybe they just have some doubts in the back of their mind—one or both partners are unwilling to do the hard thing and end the relationship.
Why we stay
My dad always said, “Date someone you’d marry.” While this may sound a little preemptive to say to a high schooler who is not in the market for marriage, he had a point. When you date someone, you may fall in love with them, even if you don’t agree on core values (or you or your partner haven’t established your core values yet). Additionally, the longer you’re together, the more history you have together. The thought of starting over when you’ve been with someone for so long can be incredibly daunting! When you genuinely love the person and/or you have so much history together, it can be hard to break-up, even if you sense you should end it or it’s not a good fit.
Another part of this is we often confuse loving someone with being a good fit for marriage. You can fall in love with a lot of people but not every one of those people is going to be a good fit for marriage for you. Simply put, just because you love someone, doesn’t mean you should marry them—but in our romanticized culture of Hollywood movies and love stories, this isn’t the dominant message.
Underneath it all, we often stay in relationships because of fear of the unknown. We might be afraid of losing the relationship, wondering if we will find something “better,” and if so, many of us women wonder if that will all happen on our preferred timeline (i.e. getting married in our twenties or thirties and with enough time to potentially grow a family). Unfortunately but realistically, there is a lot packed into our decision to stay in a relationship that might not be a great fit, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not.
Goodness of fit for marriage
If any of the above situations sound like your relationship and you’re not sure if you should stay in the relationship or not, there are patterns of interaction and reflection questions you can ask yourself to discern if you and your partner are a good fit before you get married. Once you are aware of inertia within relationships, you can begin to ask yourself the hard questions and actually accept the brutally honest answers—even if you don’t like them.
As mentioned earlier, you can fall in love with a lot of people, but a big factor in the marriage equation is if you share core values and beliefs. This may include religious or spiritual beliefs and practices, strongly held political beliefs, your views on money, career or family focus, and—a huge one—if you want children and how many you are open to. At some point prior to an engagement, make sure you discuss topics of faith, morals, politics, children, family outlook, and any other core values you have with your partner. (Of course, knowing your own core values presupposes this.)
You may not share every one of your core values and beliefs, but at the very least, you must be aware of and truly accept each other’s. Having different core beliefs isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but it is something that you have to address. Differences in core values may be harder to reconcile than differences in habits such as one partner not liking doing the dishes—to which a compromise might include that partner cooking and the other partner doing the dishes. There is no compromise, for instance, when one partner wants children and the other doesn’t.
Many people wave-off their partner’s big differences before marriage assuming that he will change once married. Thinking you can change your partner or they will “come around” to sharing your belief once married sets you up to be disappointed and sets your partner up to fail. Rather, you need to believe your partner when he tells you who he is and what he cares (or doesn’t care) about. It may feel uncomfortable to end a relationship in the short-term because of one of these irreconcilable differences, but it potentially saves you the pain of divorce or lifelong gridlock down the road.
A big question you should ask yourself is if you honestly enjoy being around the other person. Is this person truly your friend—your companion—or just a person you love? There is a big difference. A friend is someone you easily converse with, whom you share interests or hobbies with, whom you enjoy being around or doing activities with, whom you laugh with, and have a shared sense of humor.
Renowned couples therapist and researcher Dr. John Gottman—who famously can predict divorce in couples with 90 percent accuracy—lists “nurturing fondness and admiration” as one of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Fondness and admiration, he says, are the friendship part of a marriage. Basically, it means that the spouses like each other and enjoy spending time together, even through all the years of marriage and life’s ups and downs. Life is long and the excitement of the engagement and wedding will wear off, and you want to make sure you have a life-companion you enjoy being with when the honeymoon phase fades.
Seeing my high school cousin and his girlfriend arguing often, my aunt once said, “Once you’re married, you have to make things work with your spouse; before marriage, you don’t. If you’re always fighting before marriage, it’s not the right relationship.” Her point was, once you’re married there will be times you have to work at your marriage. But before marriage, you don’t have to do that—you don’t have to make it work. If you’re already having a lot of conflicts and putting in a lot of work to keep the relationship afloat before marriage, it’s not going to magically get easier when you get married.
That’s not to say that you can’t argue or have conflict before you’re married. But movies and love stories can over-romanticize conflict in a relationship. Take Noa’s infamous quote to Allie in The Notebook, referring to their constant conflict, “It's not gonna be easy. It's gonna be really hard. We're gonna have to work at this every day, but I want to do that because I want you. I want all of you, forever, you and me, every day.” Marriage does take daily effort and intentionality, even without constant conflict. There’s no need to force a highly conflictual relationship into marriage.
It is important to see what your partner is like when he is upset, how he handles conflict, and together practice conflict resolution—it’s certainly a useful life skill regardless of whom you’re married to. At the same time, constant conflict before marriage does not set you as a couple up well for an enjoyable marriage.
But even more important than the amount of conflict is how you fight. Dr. John Gottman identified the four negative communication patterns that predict divorce with 90 percent accuracy what he calls “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. If you recognize these patterns in your relationship, it’s a red flag, according to Gottman. You’ll want to address these damaging communication patterns (ideally through therapy) and/or you may recognize this relationship is not fit for marriage.
If it’s not a fit
After serious reflection and possibly discussion with your partner or other trusted loved ones, if you realize you and your partner aren't meant to go the distance, make a plan to end the relationship. The longer you’ve been with your partner, the more serious you are, or the more you have intertwined your lives, the harder the breakup will be. But dragging it on when you know that it’s not going to work for marriage is not fair to either of you. If you’re having a hard time ending things (which makes sense!) you can tell a trusted loved one about your plan and have her hold you accountable for following through.
Prepare yourself for how difficult this might feel. Increase your self-care and build up your support system around this time. Remind yourself that doubts or problems about marriage will likely only be magnified during the marriage, so if you have them now, it’s better to cut ties before you have more on the line. Expect to feel sad—just because you know it’s not the right relationship for marriage doesn’t mean you won’t grieve this relationship. Grieving the relationship is fully expected and normal.
As you grieve, you naturally will think of all the positive experiences and memories with your partner. This doesn’t necessarily mean you made a mistake. If you are confident in your decision that you and your partner are not fit for marriage before you broke up, be wary of how sadness, fear, and loneliness can alter your sound decision-making skills. The best way to fall out of love is to pretend you aren’t in love—namely, delete your ex’s contact from your phone (at least for the time being), and unfollow him on social media, avoid seeing him if possible. The more ties you keep to your ex, the harder it will be for both of you to move on—and you deserve the chance to do that.
If it is a fit
On the other hand, if you have determined that you and your partner are indeed a good fit for marriage, your work isn’t necessarily done either. Even if you determined you are compatible for marriage, you may recognize that you have been putting up with a lot from your partner (possibly out of fear of losing the relationship, as mentioned). In this case, boundaries and clearly stated needs would certainly be healthy habits to add in the process of moving forward in your relationship.
Again, difficulties you experience prior to marriage will only be multiplied once you’re married, when you spend more time together and share more of your life. If you struggle with boundaries and speaking your needs now, these problems will worsen in marriage. I’ve written before about how setting boundaries and direct communication require being okay with the other person not seeing you as unequivocally “nice” or “good.” As Dr. Brené Brown explains it, “We are not comfortable setting boundaries because we care more about what people will think....”
Your spouse—or someone who will one day be your spouse—of all people deserves to know and experience the real you. This is not to say you shouldn’t always try to be the best version of yourself, especially with the people whom you love the most. Rather, being the best version of yourself should include authenticity—not an inauthentic image of what you want someone else to think of you.
Your one-day-spouse deserves the authenticity, trust, and vulnerability required in speaking your needs and desires, as well as voicing your own personal boundaries. If you and your partner seem fit for marriage but have struggled with boundaries, learning them now—before you get married—is an investment in your marriage that will pay dividends.
Whether you discern your relationship is fit or not for marriage, putting up with a barrage of boundary violations or constantly jumping through hoops to save the relationship is usually founded on the same thing—fear. The fear of losing a relationship—and all the hopes and dreams attached to it—is real. But you are so much more than your relationship status, a ring on your finger, or how many children you have. Whether you end up in love or marriage at all, the same truth remains—you are a unique, valuable, and irreplaceable human being, and you don’t need to be in a relationship to validate that.