Getting married during challenging times — say, during a global economic downturn — can put stresses on your budding relationship that most couples aren’t forced to endure for years. Yet, according to researchers, there may be an upside to testing your bond early on. For all couples, though, preparing for the inevitable stress and difficulty that life can bring — and understanding what to expect when those times come — is key to a long and happy relationship. As the depth of research on successful marriages grows, family therapists are increasingly emphasizing the importance of marriage education, or, more simply put, knowing what you’re getting yourself into. Diane Sollee, a marriage counselor and founder of SmartMarriages.com, says it comes down to three basic things:
1. “Make clear the benefits of marriage,” she says. There are heaps of studies now that show the benefits of marriage, Sollee says, and remembering those advantages can help people to stick it out when they do encounter trying times. Everything from getting promoted at work to raising healthy, well-balanced children has been shown to correlate positively with stable marriages, Sollee says. Understanding those benefits from the beginning could prove helpful when confronting challenges later on.
2. Talk about your expectations. “We don’t give couples a road map, we just send them off and throw bird seed on them,” Sollee says. Yet, the first years of marriage can be the hardest to find our way through, as we go about building a new world together. Knowing what each other expects that world to look like is important. Do you want to have kids, and if so, how many? How do you want to divvy up household responsibilities? How do you want to map out your financial future? At the beginning these may seem like hypothetical questions, but they rapidly become very real, she points out. And there are certain things that might have been OK while you were dating that just won’t fly once you’re married. Perhaps you didn’t care too much that your boyfriend smoked the occasional cigarette, for example, but have always believed “that the father of your child will not smoke!” Early married life is filled with these constant exchanges and trials, Sollee says. “We should rename it the clash of civilizations phase, not the honeymoon phase,” Sollee says.
3. Outline best practices. Once you come to terms with the idea that conflict is inescapable, it’s important to know how to deal with it in a way that won’t poison your relationship — by not turning disagreements into bouts of character assassination, or by being intentional about conveying your affection for your spouse, for example. Sollee said that sometimes the best way to develop these skills is in a classroom setting, where there is a sense of camaraderie with other soon-to-be married couples. “It works better when there are 30 couples — and men all laugh at the same time, women all laugh at the same time,” Sollee says. As for those couples who think formal marriage education would itself be a test of the relationship — or an exercise in eye-rolling at the very least — reading a book such as John Gottman‘s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, and going over the concepts and exercises can prime you with the skills you need in a more private setting. —By Tiffany Sharples