By Nelson Vinod Moses
Getting married is the biggest decision that we shall make in our lives. It will affect all aspects of our lives, including: how healthy we will be, how much money we make, our happiness, peace of mind, how successful we become, and how long we live (a bad marriage will kill you faster). For some of us, a live-in relationship allows us to find out more about the other person, but for most others, this is not an option. There is no trial period to ascertain whether the marriage will be successful or not.
Most couples are too busy focusing on all the happy and positive things in a relationship rather than having a chat about differences simmering within. While it is imperative to explore chemistry, connectedness and commonality, it is also advisable to turn the spotlight on difficult and uncomfortable (think sex, money and so on) topics, which are seldom discussed.
So how then can we take the plunge without knowing for sure whether it’s going to work. After all divorce — especially in big cities — is a reality that needs to be acknowledged. There are lot of topics that are taboo, thought of as unimportant, or too sensitive to be discussed. But the foundation to a stable marriage starts with honesty, openness and the willingness to work through differences.
Here are some topics and questions that every couple considering marriage should openly talk about.
1) Are you absolutely sure?
How about asking yourself and your significant other whether you really want to get married. Don’t do it because you have spent a few years dating, all your friends are married, your parents are clamoring for grandkids, your younger sister or brother is next in line, you are getting old, or you promised each other you will get married after a certain number of years of dating. Don’t wait for the last minute to make this decision: after you’ve told your friends, the cards have been printed, the reception paid for, the honeymoon location decided and family members have flown in from all over the world. Have an honest, open conversation, and allow the other person to say no, don’t hold them to commitments made in the past. It is fine to say no now, than to regret it for the rest of your lives, or put yourselves through the turmoil that accompanies every divorce proceeding.
2) Let’s talk about sex, shall we?
The S word is taboo. Nobody wants to talk about sex. But all things considered, it is maybe the main reason that two individuals get married, the rest of an individual’s needs may perhaps be fulfilled outside of marriage. Sex or the lack of it can play a big role in marital satisfaction and long-term sustainability of a marriage. Most couples may engage in premarital sex, but questions around sexual preferences, orientation, frequency, kinks, use of toys, watching porn are not discussed. Women in India are especially not open to expressing their sexual needs. While this may be fine during courtship, women might be more demanding of their sexual needs after marriage. A conservative partner might misinterpret this as being aggressive rather than a normal need. Other issues that can be discussed are impotence, frigidity, lack of sex drive, excessive sexual drive, and STDs.
3) Money, money, money:
Money and finances rarely get discussed before marriage. Research suggests that conflicts over money, outnumber those over lack of communication, and is more important than even sex. Partners may go as far as knowing how much money each partner makes, but net worth (total assets minus total debt), which is a more important metric, is not something that comes up in a conversation. It is not only important to know net worth, but also understand how each partner views money, and their spending patterns. Is one partner more money minded, and therefore values ambition, over work-life balance? A single bank account or two separate ones? Will the household budget be split or paid for by one partner? Does one of the partners spend recklessly while the other is frugal? How much does one spend on holidays, on each other’s families, and on friends? These questions should be answered beforehand, so that it leads to understanding, and maybe acceptance. This helps avert surprises later on.
4) How to spend time?
In the early stages of a relationship, most couples spend most of their time with each other, as they rightfully should. But marriage is a long-term commitment. It is imperative to understand how each partner likes to spend time. Does one partner like to stay at home and the other prefers to go out? Are you allowed to do things on your own and spend time with friends? What about time with family, with friends, or members from the opposite sex? How often does each partner like to take vacations? If one partner expects the other to spend all or most of their time with them, then it may become a cause for future conflicts.
5) Expressing oneself emotionally:
Research suggests that expressing feelings and emotions, and being able to communicate what’s going on underneath, is maybe the most important predictor of the success of a marriage, as it leads to emotional compatibility. Understanding each other’s communication styles is one of the keys to a successful marriage. If one person is highly expressive, and the other person is emotionally reserved, it leaves room for misunderstanding that could lead to conflict. It is best to understand each other’s emotional needs and learn to fulfil them accordingly.
6) Supporting each other’s careers and dreams:
Last year, Harvard Business Review published an article titled, “If You Can’t Find a Spouse Who Supports Your Career, Stay Single.” It spoke, and warned, about how the wife has to always give up her career to support the husband and the family. While this is true for the wife, it is also true for the husband, sometimes the wife is not supportive of the husband’s career or dream. Maybe it is the husband’s dream to quit and launch his own startup or own a bookshop. The wife might object fearing lack of economic security from such a move. While it is almost impossible to predict what move you might make in your career, it is vital to ask the question about support for each other’s ambitions and goals, and what are definite no-nos. Discussing things rationally and making decisions keeping in mind what’s at stake will be the right move.
7) Secrets tumbling out of the closet:
Do you have a secret from your past that your partner doesn’t know about? Maybe you’ve been arrested, been caught for fraud, cheated on your exams, been married before, bore a love child, been fired from a job for impropriety, sexually harassed somebody, are secretly gay or bisexual, or you are prone to raging fits of anger. These are all important things that your partner should know about. Remember that confiding these secrets can be scary, but needs to be done, as it lets your partner know that you are willing to trust them. Honesty is the foundation in building trust.
8) Bringing up the past:
Discussions about ex partners, spouses and past lovers are seldom pleasant. Both partners should be open to sharing and one partner shouldn’t pressurize the other into talking about it. While it may start off as fairly harmless sharing, it may quickly escalate into wanting to know all the details, and accusing the other about being promiscuous. Unfair comparisons might ensue, leading to conflict, and put pressure on the relationship. While it is important to be open and honest, sometimes it is important to bury the past in the past, or bring it up once and forget forever after.
9) Religion and politics:
Religious views, even among those from the same religion may vary a great deal, and sentiments might be harmed if there’s no mutual respect. Questions around how religious each partner is, whether both partners are fine with religious symbols at home, how religious festivals will be celebrated and in whose family will they be celebrated are best sorted out before marriage. If the two partners are from different religions, it is important to talk about whether it is fine to celebrate festivals, which religion the kids will follow and whether they will have names that are religion neutral or have a combination of the two religions. Views around politics are as serious as religion, and the best policy is to be aware of each other’s political affiliations, and agree to disagree if political leanings are different.
10) Meet the parents:
In India you don’t just marry each other, you marry into a family, so it is advisable to find out how the two families get along, and how the two of you get along with each other’s families. Please ask each other what you think and feel about your respective set of parents. Speak openly if there’s dislike or discomfort and find workarounds. Limit the time spent only to important events and festivals. It pays to make that extra effort, so do it. A study in the US found that when a man was close to his in-laws divorce rates reduced by 20 percent. In India, the relationship with the in-laws definitely plays a significant role in how happy marriages will be.
11) Making babies and birth-control methods:
These two questions should never be taken for granted. Maybe the male partner hates condoms and the female partner hates oral contraceptives. What are the alternatives and is there a way to make a compromise? Do both partners want babies, if yes, when, how many and does it have to be through natural means. If natural means fail, is IVF the only option, or is adoption fine by both partners?
12) Loyalty for life?
Marriage as it presently stands, is legally binding for life, and both partners swear to be together for life. Being married comes with the expectation of staying monogamous. Discussing whether having sex outside marriage is forbidden, scope for an open marriage, having threesomes or becoming a swinger couple is critical. It is also possible that one of the partners might lose their libido, become impotent or lose interest in sex. Will that mean the end of the marriage? The magic may wane, the love doesn’t necessarily have to.
13) Learning how to handle conflict:
Experts say that how you deal with conflict is an important indicator of how long a relationship will last. Bottling it all or letting it all fly out in a violent rage are both not advisable. Living together for a lifetime is going to come with its share of showdowns. Learning each other’s conflict management styles can go a long way to maintain harmony and peace, so does learning how to confront each other without animosity. Having a difference in opinion shouldn’t be mixed up with not being supportive. Being adults also means we’re each entitled to an opinion and respecting the opinion of the other.
14) Physical and mental health issues:
Unless it is a serious and immediate condition, health is a topic that’s mostly avoided by a majority of partners. Maybe physical health is discussed to a certain extent, but most mental health conditions (even when they are known), is not something that is openly spoken about. Partners with something like borderline personality disorder, may have difficulties with relationships, and their condition might cause friction to an otherwise beautiful relationship. What makes matters worse is that the suffering partner may not know how to respond and how to take care of their partners. If you have an underlying mental health condition, learn how to speak to your partner about it, this will be more beneficial than hiding it.
About the author
Nelson Vinod Moses is a Bangalore-based, award-winning mental health journalist, and Founder of Suicide Prevention India Foundation. His writing has been featured in Fortune, Quartz, The Times of India, HuffingtonPost, and many other publications. He is on a quest to bring mental health conversations out in the open, improving mental health literacy, and talking about the importance of mental health self-care.