Marriage is defined in a number of ways. It has different meanings depending on the basis on which it is entered. The Bible defines it as a covenant by two individuals and God. The law defines it as a contract. Cultural anthropologists have defined it as a "culturally sanctioned union between two or more people that establishes certain rights and obligations between the people, between them and their children, and between them and their in-laws."
Regardless of the definition that you buy into, "union", "covenant", and "contract" share one underlying meaning...Unity. Basically, that two people somehow agree that it is beneficial, in one way or the other, to become one. Finding the person you love and want to spend the rest of your life with is one thing but it's only after all the anesthisia-rial glamor of the "impression-stage", a wedding and honeymoon wears off, that the true meaning of "covenant" arises.
Contrary to popular belief, just being married doesn't guarantee happiness. Past the love, understanding, sexual compatibility, mutual respect, honesty and all the good stuff that makes a marriage yummy, there's the fine print, the harsh "must-have" conversations required to acquire the knowledge you both need to make the lifetime commitment work in the long-term. Though these conversations are not always easy to have, having them beforehand is an opportunity to ensure that you are uniting with someone you "can" communicate with.
As I get ready to take this big plungey step, and as is natural, every married person I know has felt the need to give me much-appreciated marital advice. In all the chunks of advice I get, "compromise" is the one word I hear over and over again. An art in itself, compromise requires mutual concession of preferences, wants and sometimes, opinion. Because it entails a bunch of sacrifice, there's a need to be informed of the fine print "terms and conditions" of the person you'll be sacrificing for and with.
Disclaimer: So, this post isn't given from experience. It is recently-acquired and implemented knowledge that I think too valuable to keep to myself :-)
1. Finances/Financial Burdens
Finances are one of the most common reasons for divorce. The financial commitment that comes with dating is chicken-feed, compared to the marrying of funds that comes with marriage.
For one, as a married couple, spending habits are put under a microscope. If one person is focused on spending and living in the moment while the other is focused on saving for the future, a joint future may be what is compromised. More so, it's important that you are transparent about the amount of debt you each have. This is an area where "assumption" does not work. A discussion on the plan of how it'd be taken care of could avoid disappointed expectations. I know someone who who assumed her fiance would pay he student loans, only to get married and be shocked to find out he didn't buy into that train of thought. To him, she racked up the debt on her own and should handle it.
If you're living in a credit-run country like the U.S., it is imperative that you are acquainted with each other's credit score. No matter how much you make, a bad credit score can ruin your ability to make any big moves like buying a house or a car. One of my friends often jokes that she demands a credit report and pay stub on the 3rd date because these days, with the number of people "faking it till they make it", the kind of car a man drives or louboutin shoes a girl wears has absolutely no indication of the amount of money they "really" make. There's a lot of truth to that...you'd be shocked at the number of people who drive Range Rovers or carry LV bags and can't pay their rent but I digress. Simply put, to avoid any surprises, know how much your partner has in their savings, how much debt they have, and the origins of both.
It is a true saying that a family who prays together stays together. While there are marriages that survive a difference in belief, it's challenges can be a mountain. There is a unique bonding that lies in a mutual level of belief. Religion shapes a person's outlook on expectations, conscience, attitude, and raising children. A difference in religion (or depth of commitment to faith) can mean a difference in agreement in general way of life and while it may seem petty in the beginning, with time, it will start to show in the little things. For example, some religions don't tolerate alcohol. If you are a big drinker, you'll find you spend your Friday nights out with your friends while your partner is home alone. The divide that spending too much time apart creates is enough to destroy a marriage.
A difference in fundamental beliefs can be especially destructive if not handled with precision when there are kids involved. This Columnist at Cracked couldn't have said it any better, "One of you is an atheist, and the other is a Baptist. The atheist is totally fine with the baptism because, eh, what can it hurt? It's just a little water, right? But a few years later, you find yourself in a volcanic blowout about whether to send the kid to a Christian school or a secular one. Later, the kid is learning about government, and the parents are telling him completely conflicting lessons, like dirty recruiters trying to sweet talk him into joining their team.....If you're not prepared for it, it will shove a splitting maul up your relationship's ass in a heartbeat. But more importantly, it'll confuse the living shit out of your children. If you talk about it at great length before you commit to marriage, you can at least set some basic terms for when those situations do pop up."
3. Long-term goals/Kids?
You should ask your partner where they see themselves in 5, 10, or 20 years. What are their long-term goals? Location to buy a house/live, career goals, travel, etc. Your future plans dreams have to be aligned in some way. For instance, if you want kids, you have to make sure that your partner sees them in their future, at all and/or how many. You don't want to get into a marriage only to find out you want 10 children and your partner doesn't want any. A couple of years ago, I attended a wedding of family friends who are now divorced. Apparently, husband wanted children and wife didn't because she didn't want to ruin her figure. If kids are part of your long-term life vision and your partner can't stand the thought of it, more times than not, it becomes a deal(marriage)breaker.
More so, as a woman, if you have big plans for your career, you have to marry a secure man who won't mind watching the kids while you put in extra time at work. As a man, if you have dreams to go into politics, you need to ensure your wife is strong enough to handle the pressure.
One of the toughest things about marriage is the fact that two people who were raised by two different sets of parents in possibly entirely different backgrounds become one. Marriage is not only a unity of persons, to great extent, it is a unity of beliefs. To avoid future problems, you need to know how traditional, cultural, conservative and/or liberal your partner is. Just like with religion, it may seem fickle in the beginning but will matter more in marriage. For example, in today's world, a good number of professional women don't feel comfortable changing their maiden name or being housewives. Some men don't think a married woman should keep any male friends, let alone take solo pictures with them.
A more intimate issue is that of "private" compatibility. If you have high physical needs, you need to know if your partner expects the same frequency and if not, if they are willing to compromise. These are discussions that need to be had ahead of time.
5. Stress Threshold/Mental Health
By your mid- twenties, unless you are living in the cloud, you would have found out that life is not a bed of roses. There will be challenges. Before you commit to sharing a bed with someone for the rest of your life and in essence, trusting them with your safety, you should know how they react to challenges and stress. There are overwhelming sad tales about husbands who kill their families because of the stress after losing a job, or even suspicions of infidelity and wives who kill their children due to the rigors of post-partum depression. While you can never fully know a person, because married people say they find out something new about their spouse everyday and people do change over time, you should at least pay attention to signs, no matter how subtle. When your partner gets bad news, how does s/he react? When a waiter is late with the food, do they make a scene?
6. Biggest Flaw
I strongly believe you can only truly love someone when their biggest flaw doesn't make you want to jump a bridge. No one is perfect. we each have flaws. But in order to survive being with the same person for the rest of your life, you have to be able to "manage" your emotions/reaction to their biggest flaw. This is beyond putting the seat down. For example, if you are a stickler for time and your wife is a late comer, you have to know you would rather take a different car and go ahead of her than continually yell down her throat.
7. Past Baggage
Information is power and ignorance exposes your partner, more than you realize. Everyone has baggage: health history, addiction, bad habits, run-ins-with the law, family issues, divorces, children or past relationships. It is important to know where your partner is coming from, to determine whether s/he is going, because marriage puts you side by side on the journey of life. Choosing not to talk about these things doesn't make them go away—they will return. No one wants to find out only after they have a gun pointed at them, that a new "family friend" had a past intense relationsionship with their husband and has jealousy issues. Maybe I've been watching too many crime shows, but this really does happen! Or if your partner has an addictive tendency, you don't want to encourage them to take more prescription medications for their leg injury only to find out they are barely a couple of years clean from rehab.
If you know why your husband/wife's past relationship didn't work, it will reveal more about him/her than you imagine. It provides an insight into their thought processes, behavior, tendencies, expectations, weaknesses and perspectives in relationships that will enable you maintain a stronger relationship with them. There is the recent cautionary tale of the girl who broadcasted her engagement all over Facebook, only to find out that her beloved fiance had engaged three other girls within the previous two years. All engagements ended when the girls realized that not only did he just want someone to help him with immigration, he had a wife and a daughter in Nigeria.
More importantly, some states require medical tests before endorsing a marital certificate for good reason. Past medical conditions will put your spouse in a better position to care for you in every situation. Health-transparency is especially necessary if you want to have children. For example, if both parties have the Sickle Cell trait (AS or SS), their chances of having children with the Sickle cell disease is overwhelming. Knowing beforehand helps you plan ahead with wisdom.
There you go. Because I'm still learning, let me know if there's another question I should be asking. :-)
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