When meeting with married couples in therapy, I am so often struck that they are arguing about a topic that they never discussed before marriage. Each partner is now surprised that the other person sees it differently. When I explore this with them, what I often hear is that it never occurred to them to discuss these ‘far-in-the-future’ events beforehand.
Topics like …
Do we have the same values about health and fitness?
Will we celebrate all birthdays and holidays with extended family?
How will we share housework? Childcare?
What will our standard of ‘tidiness’ be?
What amount of our incomes will we save vs. spend?
What constitute an affair?
How much debt is OK?
These are but a small sample of the topics that couples often think they know their partner’s feelings about, but unless they have actually discussed them and come to some agreements or compromises, these topics can arise years later and create a surprising amount of conflict.
Peter and Jessica (not an real couple, but a composite made-up example)
Peter and Jessica had been married for 6 years. The early years of their relationship had been fun and satisfying as they settled into their apartment, pursued their respective careers, and acquired furnishings and savings. They were enjoying the somewhat carefree life of a two income, upwardly mobile young couple. Life was good.
Most of their friends had been single when Peter and Jessica married; now many of them were getting married as well. Peter still had a few single buddies who liked to go out several times a week after work for some beers and pool. They often asked Peter to join them.
At first, Jessica was supportive of Peter seeing his single friends, but soon the couple of beers turned to an entire evening of drinking and on more than one occasion, Peter came home intoxicated. After one such evening, he slept in on Saturday morning until noon. Jessica was disappointed that he was too tired to come to the birthday party her sister was giving for her two year old son. Usually Peter would attend these family functions with Jessica. He enjoyed seeing her family, although lately there seemed to be a lot of family functions, and Peter would have preferred to see them less often. Jessica often committed them to these get-togethers without asking him first.
How could this couple have come to an agreement about their involvement with extended family? What understanding do they have with regard to making commitments for each other? What were the parameters they placed on their use of alcohol? What was their shared sense of ‘problem drinking’?
Nancy and Todd (another ‘composite couple)
This couple had been together 8 years; they had four children (two each from previous marriages) and a busy blended family. When it came to making plans for the summer vacation, Nancy learned that Todd wanted to use his time off for some construction on their garage. He was hoping to build a home-office for his new side-business in sales. Nancy was hoping to book a cruise for she and Todd while their children were each staying with their non-custodial parents for a few weeks. She really wanted some time for their couple relationship and was feeling hurt that Todd wanted to work on the garage project instead. How could this couple have negotiated a balance between separate time and together time? Did they ever talk about how they’d like to spend vacation time? Do they have an agreement about taking vacations together and separately?
Carlos and Katie (composite couple)
Katie’s new job required her to travel on business for 3-5 days each month. On these trips there were dinners with clients and social functions she was expected to attend. When Carlos would call her each evening, he found she was more frequently not in her room at 9:30 pm, their agreed upon time to catch up with each other. Sometimes when they finally did reach each other, she was too tired to talk much and Carlos felt somewhat resentful that she was not sticking to their agreement to talk each evening. When she mentioned Samuel, the client she was hoping to interest in their new product, Carlos found himself feeling jealous and irritated. Katie insisted he was just a client and Carlos had no reason to feel jealous. Should this couple have discussed appropriate vs. inappropriate time alone with business associates? . Does this couple have a shared view of what constitutes an affair?
In each case above, these couples could have reduced the potential for conflict by thoroughly discussing the values these scenarios represented at the beginning of their commitment to the relationship. While couples cannot foresee every possible future conflict that may arise, when they have discussed many topics beforehand and arrived at how they would handle differences, they are much better able to revisit these topics productively later.
At THE COUPLE CENTER, we typically introduce a list of topics covering a range of possible scenarios couples may encounter in their future together. These discussions often bring to light potential trouble spots that can be explored and agreements made. Of course, we cannot anticipate all future conflicts, but leading couples through this exercise, helps them develop skills for raising, addressing and problem solving issues they will encounter later. These skills are extremely helpful not only in their relationship, but in their workplaces, and eventually as co-parents.
We wish every couple prepared themselves for a lasting relationship! Ask us about our pre-marital approach. And what to do if you’re already married and have never discussed many of these topics.
Barbara Swenson, Ph.D.
The Couple Center
Call for more info: 510 – 277-3111