By Holly Carbo and Mandi Chapman
The months of planning leading to the perfect wedding can become so all-encompassing, that it consumes a couples’ conversations. “Is that on your list or mine?” “Do we really have to invite Uncle Gerald?” “Why is your mom being so difficult?”
It’s easy to get distracted from what the engagement period is really for: to continue to learn about your future spouse in a more intimate way; to continue to grow your relationship with each other in love and understanding; to continue to build a foundation for a lasting marriage. Don’t be satisfied with chatting about surface conversations. Many of the deeper conversations can be difficult and awkward, or they can be eye-opening and fun. Approach serious conversations with joy, knowing that you are becoming closer to the person with whom you will spend the rest of your life.
We have taught our program, “Strong Foundations: A Marriage Preparation Program for Catholic Couples” for several years. Through our own marriages and through our years of research, we have learned that when couples want to build a strong foundation for marriage, they address the following topics before their wedding:
- Faith and spirituality. If you are seeking a sacramental marriage in the Church, share with each other why this is important to you. Take time to learn when you believe and how you live out your beliefs. By taking time to share your expectations for living your faith within your marriage, you can deepen your relationship.
Most people have heard the adage, “A family who prays together, stays together.” (-Fr. Patrick Peyton). Consider praying together, if you aren’t already doing so. If you need a simple way to begin, try blessing your meals or saying an Our Father before a road trip. Simple starts can lead to an amazing spiritual connection.
- Conflict management. Every couple disagrees at some point. What kind of “fighter” are you? Do you shut down? Lash out? Run away? Say things you regret later? Stay uber rational and cool?
We have worked with couples to react to conflict in every way imaginable. Ultimately, you can learn to recognize your own triggers and those of your fiancé. You can also learn how you and your future spouse react to conflict. This knowledge can help you disagree in a way that is less hurtful and more constructive.
- Careers. We spend more time at work than with our spouses. Try to stay connected to each other’s work. Be open about what happens at your job. Do you love your job? Does your career cause conflict in your marriage? Does your career fit your long-term needs and wants for your marriage? Will one of you stay home if and when children come along? Is there a chance of relocation for your job? When you keep each other involved in the story of your day, you stay connected. Don’t get us wrong, there are some jobs that bore us to tears. However, boredom is irrelevant. It is the act of listening and being available that builds your relationship.
- Finaces. Finances are often cited as the cause of most divorces. However, it isn’t the finances, but the lack of discussion about finances that is the culprit in most divorces. Get on the same page with your finances. Share your accounts whenever possible, or, at the very least, share your account passwords. It is too easy to hide things when finances are not transparent in a marriage.
Do you have debt you are bringing into the marriage? Do you have savings? Do you have issues with over-spending? Do you have an inheritance? What does your budget look like? At what dollar amount would you need to consult your spouse before making a purchase?
At one of our marriage prep workshops, one couple stated they would have to consult their spouse for any purchase over $50. Another couple stated they would need to consult their spouse for any purchase over $1,000. These couples had different incomes and life-styles, so they picked a number that worked for them. Neither amount is right or wrong… they are perfect because they are agreed upon.
- Intimacy / Cohabitation. When we discuss intimacy with couples in our workshops, we ask them to write on a card, “How many times per week do you plan to have sex?” Then we ask them to show each other their cards. Inevitably, there’s a lot of laughter in response to this question. But the question is a valid one… and it speaks to the expectations that are often unspoken in marriage.
When it comes to cohabitation, many couples don’t realize that living together before marriage is a problem until their first meeting with a priest. We are called through our Christian faith to live chastely until marriage. That means no sex. When couples live together, they are blatantly ignoring the standards to which Christ is calling them.
We offer this challenge in our workshops: What prevents you from living apart from now until your wedding? Statistics show that those who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce. Give your relationship a chance to grow through abstinence and purposeful interaction.
- Family or origin. Who raised you? That’s your family of origin. The people who raised you affect your interactions with your spouse. Notice, we didn’t say you will have a marriage exactly like your family of origin. They will affect your marriage, not pre-determine it.
Sometimes the marriages modeled before you were amazing, and you hope that your marriage is equally as strong as those you have witnessed. Often, though, couples are from backgrounds of divorce, addiction, infidelity, apostasy, apathy, etc.. You may not want to emulate any part of the marriages you have experienced.
Be smart about what you marriage should look like. Implement the best parts of the marriages you have seen; seek a mentor couple; discuss your family’s not-so-hot interactions in marriage and chat about how you can avoid the same in your marriage. Whatever you do, talk about it. Be real with what you were exposed to in your family of origin’s marital interactions and seek unity on how to implement or exclude those interactions from your own marriage.
- Children. Children are the greatest blessing and greatest challenge of marriage. Parenting is difficult, even when both parents are on the same page. If you disagree greatly about parenting styles, it is even more challenging.
All couples are called to procreate, if they are able. A marriage isn’t valid if one or both of you decide you don’t want to have kids. This is a chat that needs to happen when you meet with your priest.
Your conversations about children can’t just be about your favorite baby names and the color you want your future nursery. Talk about the potential challenges inherit in childbearing and child-rearing. How will you handle it if one of you in infertile? If you have an unplanned pregnancy in your marriage? If you have a child with special needs? How will you handle blending your families if you have children from a previous relationship?
- Commitment. We have a friend who once said of her marriage, “Somedays we live on love, most days we live on commitment.” She is in a happy marriage, so what does she mean? Even in the happiest marriages, things pop up that require couples to dig deep and work together to get through their troubled times. While “love” may run deep, sometimes “like” feels like a shallow puddle.
What will hold you to your vows when everything in you wants to throw up your hands in resignation? What will push you to seek help when things get difficult? Your commitment to God, to your vows, to your spouse, to your family.
As you approach the altar, remember to tackle sensitive topics as often as task lists. Remember, you aren’t seeking complete agreement on every little topic; what you are seeking is agreement on the biggest topics and a working compromise on the smaller issues.
Be vigilant: No one plans to end up at the divorce attorney’s office. No couple says, “I hope this will be a fun first marriage!” Couples approach the altar with “forever” in mind, yet 50% of marriages end in divorce. This statistic doesn’t have to be you.
Create your forever today. Be open, honest, and brave when chatting about the controversial topics of marriage. Build your relationship on the strong foundation of Christ and common values. Be real… so that your marriage is as amazing as your wedding.
Marriage. It’s worth chatting about.
Holly Carbo and Mandi Chapman are both Nationally Certified Counselors, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, and Licensed Professional Counselors. Holly is married to Michael and has four children, Briggs, Emily, Ben, and LG. Mandi is married to Kevin and has three children, Lily, Oliver, and Simon.