7 Crucial Topics to Discuss Before Getting Hitched
By Jeremy S. Boden, PhD, CFLE
Marriage is one of the most popular institutions in the world and up to 90 percent of Americans marry at least once in their life. Marriage can create a life-long partnership that brings joys that are impossible to experience in other capacities. Nevertheless, when it comes to marriage or a highly committed relationship, I believe partners should go into those unions with their “eyes wide open.” As a therapist, researcher, and educator, I have heard too many stories from clients, research participants, and students who have found out things about their partner that they wish they had known before they got married. In other words, ignorance is not bliss. While surprises are often fun in relationships, unexpected revelations can be harmful to relationships and are better disclosed before you say, “I do.” In fact, it is my professional opinion that there should be absolutely no secrets going into marriage—complete transparency about past experiences.
While it is almost impossible to anticipate and discuss every single detail in one’s life or relationship, there are certain areas that are particularly important to discuss.
Here are 7 crucial things to discuss before you marry:
Past or Current Mental Illness
Everyone experiences struggle from time to time and we all have things to work on. However, if you are bringing a significant mental illness into your relationship, your partner needs to know. While all marriages have their individual difficult spots, having someone with a significant unmanaged mental illness can quickly derail a relationship. At the same time, individuals with a mental illness can absolutely have a loving and secure relationship if they own their struggle and take intentional and consistent steps to manage it (e.g., medication, therapy, group work, etc.).
Childhood, Adolescent, or Adult Trauma
Most trauma has very a sad and heart-wrenching story behind it. I’ve had clients who have experienced trauma in their life that would bring most people to their knees. At the same time, many trauma survivors have stories of triumph, resiliency, and individual strength that deserve reverence. With that said, individuals who have experienced trauma whether it be sexual, emotional, or psychological, sometimes struggle to initiate, maintain, and thrive in committed relationships. If you or your partner have experienced trauma of any kind, it is very important to discuss this before you marry. Specifically, a general description of the traumatic experience(s), how they have coped with the experience(s), and how this might affect their future relationship.
Sexual intimacy is one of the most vulnerable experiences we as humans engage in. We are literally naked and exposed and sex can be highly influenced by emotions. If you have engaged in sexual behaviors with another partner other than your current partner, they have the right to know. If anything, for medical reasons such as STIs. In addition, I’ve had clients come to my office who found out after wedding that their partner was significantly more sexually active than they had originally led on. This created a deep sense of betrayal for the other spouse that had to be worked through. That is not an enjoyable way to begin your new life together. All of the couples who I’ve worked with in this situation have said, “I wish we would have discussed this more before marriage.”
Past or Current Addictions
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Even most recovering addicts admit, addictions are usually framed as the struggle to manage or cope with unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, stress, anger, loneliness, sadness, or shame. Most addicts admit that their addiction is usually something they have to manage and be vigilant around for the rest of their life. Whatever the addiction, whether it be food, drugs, alcohol, video games, gambling, or pornography, it is important to address well before getting married. If they are currently dealing with an addiction, I strongly suggest you seek individual and couples therapy and achieve at least six months to a year of sobriety before you marry. Believing that marriage will “cure” a currently addicted individual is irresponsible and wishful thinking. As I say to my students, “Buckle up! Because you are in for a rocky ride!” If anything, the stresses that marriage often brings can significantly heighten an addiction or push them into relapse if it has not been intentionally managed. Further, if they have managed their addiction and been “sober” for many months or years, it’s still important to explore it further and specifically ask what they did to overcome and manage their addiction. Most deep addictions require intense individual therapy or group therapy. Merely “white-knuckling” it rarely has sustaining results.
Past Relationship Dynamics
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Exploring your partners past relationships and the strengths and areas of challenges is an important part of the getting-to-know-you phase. If you are dating someone who has had five committed relationships over the last year, that should be an area of concern. What happens in their relationships that they easily begin and quickly dissolve? You should explore why they broke up and what the main issues were. In addition, if your partner heaps ample amount of blame on their former partner for the struggles with little acceptance of their role in the problems, that should give you pause.
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Research consistently shows that finances and debt brought into marriage is one of the hot-button struggles of newlywed couples. Poor management of finances and excessive debt can quickly exacerbate stress in already difficult adjustment to marriage that most couples experience. It is important to disclose all financial debt, income, and assets before you marry.
Is there anything else in your past that you think would be important for me to know?
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These questions and topics aren’t exhaustive but they cover some of the most important areas. It’s vital to go into marriage with the expectation that we are an intimate team that are going to experience life’s ups and downs together. You should enter that team completely aware of your partners past experiences and future expectations. This will build trust and create safety going into the best relationship you will ever have.
For a more extensive list of specific topics and questions to discuss before marriage, please visit www.whatdoyouexpectmarriage.com.