Maybe you have heard the quote from Benjamin Franklin, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.” The best time to prepare for a good marriage is clearly before you are married. But, human nature tends to minimize the weaknesses in a person when falling in love, and over-emphasize the strengths. So, when people enter into marriage and come out of the dreamy-eyed stage, they often are blindsided with problems that they could have seen coming if they had heeded Mr. Franklin’s advice.
A beautiful thing about love is that is causes us to see the best in a person. We believe in them and want to help them grow into their fullest potential. However, the opposite of that, ignoring or suppressing concerns about someone’s weaknesses, is unsustainable over a lifetime commitment. At some point, the difficult parts have to be dealt with.
From years of doing marriage counseling and being married myself, I have seen that going into marriage with your eyes wide open means accepting that any problem in your partner’s character or your relationship will continue into marriage. In fact, unless it is corrected, expect these issues to become more predominant than they were before marriage. Given that no one can change anyone else, it’s a pretty big gamble to marry knowing a partner has serious issues and hoping they will somehow change only because of the other good things in them or due to a commitment made at the alter.
I get that this may be a hard teaching to swallow when you are in love and the oxytocin is flowing, but it is easier to end things before the wedding then after. And, if you are able to learn to navigate challenging topics before marriage, you will likely be able to communicate well about other difficult topics that most definitely will arise in your future together. So, with eyes wide open, I implore you to take a look at important areas when selecting someone to commit to for a lifetime.
Let’s start with the obvious – safety. Someone with a criminal background, a history of domestic violence, or abuse may not necessarily repeat those behaviors. However, consider these questions:
- Has my partner shown a season of change where his or her behavior has been safe?
- Is my partner accountable to anyone other than me to maintain these changes?
- Is my partner able to talk about what happened in the past and put safeguards in place to prevent future episodes?
Any incident of physical or sexual violence when dating is a sign you are not with a safe person. The same goes for infidelity. If your partner cheats on you while you are dating, does it make sense to believe they suddenly have a faithful character just because they said, “I do?”
I realize you may be feeling offended, thinking, “I would never put up with someone abusing me.” But, it is also important to consider emotional safety. Some questions to ask yourself are:
- How am I treated when my partner is angry?
- Is my character assassinated?
- Does my partner take revenge or work toward forgiveness?
- Do I trust my partner to honor my feelings, or will they be used against me or ignored?
Intimacy requires sharing vulnerable parts of yourself. If your feelings are not respected before marriage, do not expect true intimacy after the wedding.
Be aware of substance use like drugs or alcohol that may change the way a person navigates relationships. Using a substance with negative outcomes, such as a DUI or missed work, is a sign of substance abuse. Abuse issues do not end just because someone is loved. The person using must choose to change and can only make that decision for him or herself.
Other areas to consider include values around saving, spending, and giving, whether to have children, spiritual beliefs, and expectations about extended family relationships. It is also key to consider who will do various household responsibilities, such as mowing, errands, cooking and housework. All of these topics can be neglected before marriage because they are not central to typical experiences dating couples share. But, once there is a wedding, with the possible exception of children, they immediately become important.
Dating is fun and focuses on the immediate feelings of attraction and romance. However, do not neglect exploring the issues that sustain a marriage for a lifetime. In a healthy relationship, each person learns to honor and dialogue about their differences. If you cannot do that before marriage, proceed with caution.
Pre-marital counseling, covering the above topics as they pertain to your relationship, can help couples learn skills to navigate differences and ward off may problems down the road. And don’t forget, when necessary, ending a relationship before marriage is less painful in the long run than being married to someone who is not best for you.