How Do You Know Who To Marry?

A letter to my daughter

“Mom, could you write down some questions that we should be asking?” our daughter asked recently. She and her boyfriend are having more conversations about the future. Knowing my passion for healthy relationships, she trusted me with that question.

This is a version of the letter I wrote in response.

Dear H,
You asked me to write down some things that couples should ask each other before they get engaged. I have been slipping these thoughts to you since you were a little girl. We would read fairy tales that ended with, “And they lived happily ever after.” I would turn to you and say, “You know that’s not the real ending. They worked very hard at their relationship.” (Insert eye roll). I know you couldn’t understand at the time, but I didn’t want you to believe the fairy tale that relationships magically thrive.

What marriage looks like to a 4 year old

One day after I picked you up from preschool, you asked the funniest question.
“Mommy, how do you know who you’re going to marry? Are you just walking down the street one day, and meet someone and say, “Hey, I think I’ll marry you?”
I almost drove the car off the road, you caught me so off guard.
“No, sweetie, that’s not at all how it happens. You marry your best friend.”
Then I followed up, “Why do you ask?”
“Well, Patrick (I can’t remember the boy’s name now) said he wants to marry me.”
And that’s how marriage happens in the mind of a 4 year old.

First, the foundation

You have also heard me say over the years that the choice of a life partner can make life wonderful, or hell on earth. I have prayed for each of you since you were little, and for the person you would each marry…(details excluded).

I started to make a long list of questions, most of which dad and I didn’t even know to ask. But first, the foundation, then I’ll follow up with some specific areas to consider.

It still comes back to friendship as the foundation for a longterm relationship. That is what lasts when you’re up to your eyeballs in work and kids and the stresses of life. And you can’t remember the last time the two of you had 10″ alone. Or you’re so mad at him you can’t see how you’re going to get past this hard time. And then you know that you don’t want to do life without him, and you find a way to take the next step. To forgive, or ask forgiveness. To soften. Become a better person, because iron sharpens iron. And it’s hard sometimes when the forge of life seems unrelenting. You need to know that you will be there for each other, that he will always have your back.

Marriage carries with it expectations that every couple needs to sort out. When l reflect on all the things a couple needs to consider before making the committment to marriage, I can boil them down to two categories.

Character

The first category encompasses character. Trust, loyalty, kindness, gentleness, unselfishness–these are essential characteristics of a great friend/life partner. Some behaviors/characteristics are possible deal breakers. Addictions, uncontrolled anger/rage, and controlling behaviors are reasons to”slow down and give this some time”. People can change, become sober, learn why they fly off the handle–but it takes some time. If someone has a history of addiction, can they commit to recovery? Do they have some time of sobriety before getting more serious in a relationship?

A relationship is only as healthy as the two people in it. While no one is perfect, these are some biggies that you cannot overlook. If a person has a pattern of destructive behavior (to self or others), and is not willing to get help, then you must know that the future is going to look pretty much like today. No amount of love can change someone if they are not willing to take responsibility for themselves.

Expectations

The second category has more to do with expectations and compatability. There are many topics to talk through and get expectations out on the table to see if you are compatible. There will be differences of opinion, for instance, in how two people handle money. So you begin a conversation and you learn which differences are negotiable. For instance, maybe one of you likes to travel, the other is more of a homebody. Is this something that you can negotiate, validating individual needs with a workable solution?

One deal breaker

There is at least one deal breaker here that has nothing to do with character. Whether a person wants to have children is not a character issue. But if one wants children and the other doesn’t–there isn’t a way to negotiate around that. Someone will be resentful, and the relationship will suffer. One of the saddest couples I saw years ago was facing this very issue, and they just couldn’t move forward.

Listed below are some questions that will cover some of these expectations. However, these are conversation starters. What’s most important is to focus on communication skills.

For a relationship to be healthy, both people need to know themselves and be able to stand with their own two feet. Only then can they stand alongside someone and become their partner. Learning healthy communication and conflict resolution tools is essential to a healthy relationship. These tools allow you to deepen your relationship by talking through issues. No one feels 100% sure when they decide to marry–but the process of dating is a time to learn these skills, and listen to your gut. If your gut says something’s not right, LISTEN TO THAT. The other person may be a great person with good character and plans, but they may not be right for YOU (and vice versa).

Areas to explore/discuss:

Money & work:

  • What are the career goals each of you have?
  • Do you have career plans, or still trying to find meaningful work?
  • How much money is enough?
  • Do you want to own a home?
  • Are either of you in debt? Plans to pay off?
  • How do you handle money? Spend only what you have, or buy what you want and create debt?
  • What are your thoughts about giving money/time/resources to others? Do you give money if your bills are not covered?
  • What is the work ethic of each? Is one highly driven, while the other is content to stay at a certain level? No right or wrong here, but good to be clear about expectations.
  • What if the woman is in a career that is higher paying than the man–how would you each feel about that?

Children

  • Do you want them?
  • How many?
  • What are your beliefs about parenting/discipline/childcare?
  • Should one parent be the primary caregiver when children come? Who would that be? Or what options for childcare would you consider?

Spiritual

  • What are your beliefs? Do you practice them on your own, or because you feel obligated?
  • What are your beliefs about gender roles: at home, work (should women work?), church?

Family of origin

  • How connected are each of you to your families? What does it look like to leave/cleave?
  • Holidays–where will you spend them? (Starting point, patterns will change over time)
  • Knowing each other’s family stories helps understand potential challenges. For instance, if one grew up with an alcoholic parent, or emotionally distant parent–how did that influence the person they are now? (I personally think it’s a good idea for every couple to have a few sessions with a counselor who can help identify family patterns.)

So…there you are…I think that covers the major things.

And remember that EVEN when two people love each other and are compatible, they still work very hard at their relationship.

Love you bunches,
Mom

Question: What else would you add? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Oh, how I love this, Kathy! One step further along the relationship, I decided to write my engaged daughter a letter about being a bride-to-be and life as a newlywed… needless to say I had WAY TOO MUCH to put in a letter. I chunked it into chapters and my sweet publisher ended up publishing it —the week before the wedding 🙂 I’ve been married almost 29 years and concur with everything you say here. It is hard work, but it’s SO worth it! Thanks for sharing. Stopping by from HopeWriters.

    • Kathy Rushing

      Hi, Laura–thanks so much for stopping by. I would love to read what you wrote…what is the book called?

  • Jooyoung Lee-Voeller

    Very helpful, Kathy. Someday, I’ll be sharing this with my J… before I know it. 🙂

    • Oh, they grow up too quickly! Thank you, Jooyoung!