It’s not that people are unaware of the issues that add stress to their relationships — perhaps they’ve even fought about them already. But the optimism and momentum of an engagement often nudge couples to believe that challenges will work out on their own. It may seem that married life will somehow automatically make your partner better with money, more likely to clean up after themselves or less addicted to their phone.
But ceremonies and legal statuses don’t tend to change our inherent personalities.
In fact, if your incompatibilities arise from problems with gender roles — such as inequality in the division of household labor within a heterosexual relationship — then there’s evidence that these problems tend to grow even bigger after tying the knot, as cultural notions of “wife” and “husband” make traditional gender roles seep in further.
So, don’t put blinders on. There are nearly universal areas of strain within married life, and it’s important to know how you’ll weather them. Having differences within these areas is expected; it may even be part of your spark together. But refusing to communicate about the realities of those differences is where things go wrong. Matching up perfectly isn’t nearly as meaningful as building a road map to handle the differences that are there. Be proactive, respectful and realistic — and don’t just assume that love conquers all.
Here are the most common areas of strife that I’ve seen tear marriages apart, and the questions you should discuss before, not after, you say “I do”:
Work and money
How devoted are you each to your careers, and what are your professional goals? Whose work life might need to be prioritized at times, and how? Are you open to geographical moves? Are you looking to make changes in your career, position or education? Will the burden of being the main source of income or health insurance fall to one of you, be shared or alternate over time? How might this change if and when you have kids? How do your spending habits match up? If there’s debt, who is primarily responsible for it? What are your expectations around joint accounts vs. your own money? If there are inheritances or job losses someday, how would those be handled?
How do you handle stress and conflict? Are there underlying histories with drugs, alcohol, anxiety, depression or other mental health issues? What is “acceptable” stress relief, and how much time and money feels okay to spend on individual self-care? Does your sexual intimacy feel satisfying to both of you, or is there an imbalance in desires or needs? What would happen if one person’s sex drive declined significantly? What are your expectations of physical health and exercise, and what happens when your bodies change? How involved should you each be in each other’s medical care? What are your views on doctors, therapists, marital counselors, alternative medicine, and when you would choose to seek them out?
What are the expectations of having children or not, and when? How important is it to each of you? What will happen if pregnancy doesn’t occur easily, and what are your thoughts on infertility treatments and adoption? How do you feel about each other’s families and the role they’ll play in your lives? Would you ever move closer to your parents, and might they live with you someday? How will their caregiving be handled as they get older — financially and logistically? How will big holidays be spent? Will vacations involve extended families? How much will you go to your families of origin for advice, and what will you do with that advice?
How will you divide the workload of household chores? If you’re living together already, how does the division of labor feel to each person? How might that change, and how often will you check in and make adjustments? Who feels more responsible for the “mental load” or the hidden work of running a home, and is that acceptable? What are your sleep and eating habits — and how well do they match? Who needs more time alone, more quiet, more air conditioning or more neatness?
Communication and social interaction
What are your communication styles, and do you argue “well” (with respect and patience, without resorting to personal attacks or silent treatments)? What about your need for physical affection? What are your expectations of what is shared with others — friends, co-workers, neighbors — about your personal lives and marriage? How do you bring up things that are on your mind when they’re hard to talk about? How do you prioritize friends, and how do you feel about each other’s? When would an emotionally close relationship with someone else start to feel like a betrayal or an emotional affair? What is your style of socializing, and how much time apart do you spend with your own friends or interests? How much planning should be done for weekends, evenings and free time — and who takes the lead on that?
Did any of these conversations reveal dealbreakers? No couple will line up 100 percent. But whether a given difference becomes a serious incompatibility depends on how big an issue is in your day-to-day life, and how willing you each are to bend. The more tempted you are to brush an incompatibility under the rug, whether because of awkwardness or how complicated or emotionally loaded it feels, the more you should pay attention to it. It’s not going away on its own. Being willing to talk and listen honestly about challenges — no matter how much of a buzzkill it is, or how hard it is to squeeze in when you’re overloaded with interviewing a bunch of florists or DJs — gives your marriage the best shot at survival.