Strengthening Your Marriage Before the Wedding

Build a foundation for success before you wed.

Written by: Deborah Anderson PhD

Some of you may be too young to remember, but there used to be a game show called The Newlywed Game. Couples who were married a short period of time were asked to answer questions about their respective spouses on a number of topics, from the intimate to the frivolous. The couple with the most correct answers won cash and various prizes. It was a fun way to gauge how well newlyweds really knew each other. How well would you do if you were a contestant on this show?

Drs. John and Julie Gottman, psychologists and noted relationship researchers, coined the term “psychological love map” to describe how well partners know what is going on in the other person’s psyche (e.g., likes, dislikes, needs, wants, goals, dreams, etc.). A good psychological love map was found to be one of the key ingredients for creating a healthy, happy, and long-term relationship.

Developing a good love map of your spouse-to-be comes from a combination of great communication and time spent together plus authenticity. First dates are usually where love maps start to develop as you’re asking your “twenty questions.” With repeated interaction and more questions, you start to develop a richer and more detailed picture, or map, of the other person. But the real depth only comes once it feels safe to be your authentic self and when you can share the more intimate details of who you are and what you want – those vulnerable details that you are scared to reveal to just anyone. Isn’t it such an amazing feeling when you can just be your authentic self? It’s usually terrifying but so freeing at the same time.

In theory, being vulnerable and authentic with your partner sounds easy enough, but many people find it challenging. I’ve worked with couples who have spent years together without really sharing how they feel about certain things. That fear -- along with other negative built-up emotions like anger and resentment -- creates an emotional gap that prevents them from truly bonding. If you’ve had a history of relationships that were not safe and nurturing, it is often difficult to have healthy relationships with other people, even someone you’re in love with. If you find that you or your spouse-to-be are sabotaging intimacy by being guarded, please consider seeking some assistance from a licensed mental health professional. Working on this earlier rather than later will make a big difference down the road.

Even when there are no big roadblocks to intimacy, I have still found that many couples do not fully do their “relationship homework” – asking questions, sometimes the tough ones – before they get married. Sometimes it’s because they fear what the answers might be, and sometimes it’s because they don’t even know the important questions to ask. If you’re fearful that you may not like the answer you get, you are allowing fear to rule your relationship and are moving in the wrong direction.

In reality, a relationship is made up of two unique people with overlapping and disparate perspectives and needs. Successful relationships exist when each person is an “I” as well as a “we” – you are not always going to get what you need from your partner and that needs to be okay between the two of you.

The real damage to a relationship comes not from disagreements but from not being able to be your authentic self with your partner. It is a huge burden to walk around being somebody that you’re not. It is also really hard to disappoint and upset someone you love, but that needs to be okay too. Even the healthiest couples disappoint each other at times.

If you’re curious about whether your love map is detailed enough, there are some fun resources to help with your relationship homework. Two of my favorites are The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say ‘I Do’ by Susan Piver (2000, Penguin Putnam Inc.) and All About Us by Philipp Keel (2000, Broadway Books). The first book leads you through a series of questions in various topic areas such as home, money, spiritual life, sex, work, health and food, children, etc. The latter asks questions in areas such as favorites, neuroses, uncomfortable moments, turn-ons and offs, and so forth.

As I tell my clients all the time, “Data doesn’t lie.” Doing your homework will help you assess if you’re on track to building your love map or if you need to do some more work. Whether you’re pleasantly surprised by the answers you get or disappointed, it is all for the greater good. You’ll be able to marry your partner with eyes wide open. That doesn’t mean that there will not be some surprises after you are married because you cannot answer every potential question or scenario out there, but at least you will have a great foundation upon which to build your marriage. Any forks in the love map will be traversed with greater ease. And who knows, if they ever bring back The Newlywed Game, you could walk away with some nice cash and prizes too.

Opening photograph by Elizabeth Messina