I was confronted today by a checklist posted by a friend - 10 questions that “should be asked before your wedding day.” I found the questions absurd, as someone with 29 years of marriage under my belt, and suggested she pass these before long-married couples, and count the ones who say, “yeah, that’s what we did!” The friend then challenged me to respond in a blog, revealing what I see as the ‘keys’ to a good marriage. I understand the culture engendered by the Checklist Manifesto, where every task can be decomposed into simple lists to ensure quality. Like all management fads, it has its place, and becomes farcical when applied beyond its utility. Marriage is not a 50-50 proposition, it’s a 100-0 reality, unevenly distributed over time. If that idea is an unfriendly one, reconsider the whole marriage idea.
This blog challenge gave me pause, as those 29 years represent time spent with two different spouses (8 years and then 21 years and counting). Who am I to challenge these ideas? I have no keys to a good marriage, because they don’t exist. The notion that we can approach this as a business plan is silly. As a father, I counseled my daughters to consider four questions with their respective intendeds. (I managed to help Daughter the Younger reconsider a potentially disastrous engagement using this technique - but really can't kid myself into believing anyone took me seriously otherwise.)
So rather than a checklist, I asked that they consider four big questions, and see if their intended had similar answers. This was a simply exercise in compatibility, certainly not a recipe for a successful marriage.
Ok, those four questions - again only getting at compatibility for a person with whom you're thinking of sharing a bathroom for the next 60 years. Insufficient, but a start:
1) What is perfect entertainment?
2) What is perfect relaxation?
3) What is perfect sex?
4) What is sacred?
There are no keys, there are only conditions. We can't plan, we can only influence and adapt - based on a core bond that is nurtured and prized. All else is negotiable. (E.g., you can agree to a child 'strategy,' but if one of you becomes disabled and unable to accommodate, is that a ticket to your 'exit strategy?')
Nevertheless, the blog challenge remains on my laptop. I summoned the Bride, and we answered these as a couple. I took the liberty of challenging the question - some may consider our answers as non-responsive. As with every other observation of our marriage, thanks so much for your observation: but it’s working for us.
What is our “mission statement” as a couple?
We did not have a social mission or a business plan when we decided we no longer wanted to live apart. As a couple, we considered our vows as the “mission statement.” But let’s recover the language - the vows were our initial promises to one another.
To what extent are you willing to go to have a family, medically?
We had a family, already. I brought a son into the marriage, she brought two teenaged girls who lived with us. Family planning is a core decision to make together, no question. But one never knows how far you are willing to go ‘medically’ to do anything. No amount of planning prepares the father who confronts an unconscious wife, whose life depends on endangering their unborn child. Deeper issues abound here, the checklist fails utterly. This is a reasonable question, which resolves the bare minimum in terms of planning. Deeper convictions will be called upon when the unexpected confronts us.
What will we do if we find out our child has severe disabilities?
Child or fetus? What’s the real question here? Do we have a view of life as disposable, casting aside the inconvenient gifts? When does life begin? Under what circumstances do we institutionalize our crippled child? The language here is a bit too bland for me, let’s use real nouns and compelling language to chip away at the emotions that will rule that day.
Who should I have on speed dial for the days when I just can’t figure you out?
Each other. Unless you are pondering a polyamorous relationship, why would you invite another to help you understand your life partner, your helpmeet? The friend I vent to about my Bride is not someone I want on her speed-dial.
Can you name two couples that you admire and would hope to emulate?
No, because the whole notion of best practices is a discredited one in business, and even more of a failure in relationships. You never know the reality of relationships you observe; your goal should be to become the model to emulate, carve your own path. You can’t know what it truly takes for relationships you admire to work, it’s a fool’s errand to pretend otherwise.
How do we stay sexually engaged with each other?
Have a lot of sex. Also, expand your definition of sex. Touch throughout the day. Compliment one another constantly. Flirt ceaselessly. The Bride and I have had satisfying bouts of foreplay that last for weeks, while never losing any clothing. Sex is a communications channel, for those who insist on business language. Find out what turns your partner on, and devote yourself to that end.
Will we share our credit reports with each other?
We will share our credit reports with our creditors. We will merge our futures, and therefore discussing how we think of money goes much deeper than our past. Discuss purchases, talk about the value of material wealth, the emotional response to debt, and hold hands while you pay the bills.
Should we have an exit strategy for the marriage, and if so, what would it be?
While you’re at it, write up an exit strategy for your relationship with your children. Exit strategies are relevant when considering land wars in Asia. While a marriage can seem more stressful and destructive than war, it is supposed to be a cleaving of souls. If confronted with this checklist, I would seek an exit strategy for the engagement.
If married previously, why did it end and what did you learn from that relationship?
Definitely discuss why the marriage ended, and be certain to share how your ex-spouse would answer this question. That perspective will be much more constructive than the well-rehearsed narrative that helped you exit the previous commitment.
What are our conflict management styles, and are they compatible?
Why do conflict management styles need to be compatible? Is there a 2x2 matrix that indicates which styles are compatible, and a personality test we can take to determine our style? And where do we go to forget the fact that we evolve throughout our lives. Here’s my answer:
Don’t hit each other. And don’t use sex as a weapon.
For the rest, seek pre-marital counseling, where the facilitator will help you explore deeper questions that will reveal the style of your partner. If you’re determined to make it work, you will 1) adapt yourself and 2) help that person grow - ever mindful of the balance between these two activities.
The calendar tells me this is a Valentine’s Day blog. I’m thankful to the friend who convinced me to pen this. In April, I will officiate at my 10th wedding (for those keeping score, I’m 8 and 1). (One of those weddings was not recognized by the state of Virginia, but it counts in the hearts of all who matter.) The decision to merge identities, while embracing the paradox of individual identity as whole, is not one that lends itself to a checklist. It is not a business partnership, it is an emotional ocean into which we plunge from great heights. Our only plan should be to cling to one another, to form a raft from our shared memories, and to nurture friendships and children as our legacy - enjoying each wave that washes over us. It’s about the journey, and if you’ve found someone who wants to share yours, then celebrate. Every day.