Managing money, sex, kids, time, work, and play—and what you post on social media.
In Part 1 of this series, I outlined the lessons I learned about commitment after participating in 1,000 divorces. In Part 2, we uncovered some existential truths about marriage that will help give perspective (and counter the unrealistic romantic ideals the culture typically feeds us). This week we’re turning to the practical skills of a life partnership—which, unfortunately, no one ever sits us down and teaches us. The lucky few of us whose parents modeled healthy boundaries, communication, compromise, and remained vitally connected as a couple are … well, very lucky. For the rest of us, here’s a primer.
- Marriage is often about managing details.
Quizzing older couples on marriage, you hear this quite a lot. Marriage is far more about managing details than living in passion. Sure, the exciting and romantic bits are part of marriage too, but the small administrative details take up far more time than you would ever imagine. The truth is that marriage is made up of day-to-day tasks like getting the phone bill paid, remembering to buy toilet paper (a huge one in my relationship), and picking up the kids from soccer practice.
These are also, oddly, the aspects of marriage that seem to contribute the most to general happiness. We all know how stressful it can be when we’re procrastinating our to-do list. That only gets amplified in a marriage. Handling the list, and doing it as a team, creates a sense of unity and flow that works its way into all the other areas of your life. Managing the details lets you play together with a clear conscience.
So this suggests two considerations when thinking about marriage. First, choose a partner with whom you can work well, if at all possible. But don’t rely only on that. Second, and more importantly, enhance and develop the skills you’ll need for effective task management. These are not skills we’re born with; we all need to learn the fundamentals, and it’s much more challenging with a partner than it is alone. So do the work. Which brings me to my next point:
- Don’t forget to play. (And don’t forget to work.)
People seem to be in two camps on this general point, and both camps are on the edge of a cliff. Some people say, “Duh, we play all the time, no problem.” The other camp says, “Oh grow up. I’ve got work to do for my family.”
To both camps I say don’t be so naive. Marriage takes hard work and sacrifice, and marriage requires fun and play. You need both in nearly equal measures to make it work. And just because you’re solidly in one camp doesn’t mean you can’t suddenly find yourself in another.
A complaint that I heard all the time as a divorce lawyer was, “He changed once we got married. We used to have so much fun, and now all he does is work.” And I heard the inverse complaint as well: “Now he won’t work.”
Something about actually getting married seems to activate a set of very deep beliefs about our roles and behavior. Being engaged doesn’t quite have the same effect; it usually takes the actual moment of marriage to do it. Suddenly we’re acting in ways that we ourselves didn’t even expect. And this manifests around work fairly often.
Find a balance between work and play, and discuss that balance early and often. Things will change, and that’s okay. Just communicate the changes and manage the result.
- Talk about money. Talk about kids. Talk about sex.
At the root of our relationships are three topics that everyone seems embarrassed or reluctant to talk about: sex, money, and kids. These are by far the three most critical and emotion-triggering issues in any marriage. In the divorce world, you can bet that one, if not all three of these issues will be implicated in just about every breakup. When I first noticed this pattern, I began to ask my clients what had happened. What I usually heard was that they had never discussed any of these topics in advance of marriage, and then got blindsided by their partner’s desires—like wanting or not wanting kids, for instance. Astounding to me, but also totally predictable. We don’t like uncomfortable conversations; and these topics are the most uncomfortable of all.
Sex, for example, is just hard to talk about. It’s sensitive, and sharing about our sexual needs is vulnerable. We’re already at risk of being hurt by someone we love by the very nature of romantic partnership. Why add the fear of sexual rejection into that mix? Also, our culture just isn’t set up for effective sharing about our sexuality. Any deviation from vanilla is seen as perversion, shameful. But the truth is, sexual self expression and satisfaction are critical to marriage success. The research shows this over and over. Couples who are sexually unsatisfied get divorced. The first and most important step towards sexual satisfaction is communication. You can’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it. So ask for it. If you can’t be honest about what you want in your relationship, it’s probably the wrong relationship.
But perhaps you think that you’re lucky somehow. That you two are sexually satisfied without having to talk about it. Maybe. But maybe not. I can only tell you that of the couples in my office who told me about the sexual breakdowns, most of them simply didn’t recognize there was an issue until it was too late. Everything is always easy and fun at first. It takes no skill to ride on a wave of dopamine and serotonin for the first several years of marriage. But the honeymoon phase will pass eventually. And if you haven’t created a foundation of openness and communication around the important issues, the challenging and inevitable conversations can prove terminal.
The same rule applies to money and kids. If you haven’t had the difficult conversations about financial responsibility, you haven’t prepared for marriage. What do you expect of your partner financially? Be honest. How about savings? Do you have any? Credit card debt? Do you intend to buy a house, start a business, or pay off your student loans? What are your spending habits? All of these questions deeply implicate your choices as a couple, and will impact what you can and cannot do together. Don’t fool yourself; these issues are at the heart of your marriage.
As to kids, well, rather than elaborating any more on the same point, I will say this: You would be amazed at how many couples never even discuss whether they want kids before marriage. And trust me, that conversation is a doozy three years in.
- Remember that everything you say (and post on social media) has long-term implications.
Those snapchat photos are still out there. You know that deep down, and so does everyone else. The courts haven’t found a way to access them yet, but they will, and every single post on Facebook is already fair game in the eyes of the law. Social media posts are now routinely used as evidence in spousal support and child custody hearings all over the country. What you post online has implications in court.
But what about the rest of your life? Maybe you’ll never end up in court. Does it really matter what you say online? Yes, of course it does.
We cannot turn back the clock; our identities are increasingly represented by our digital avatars, and those avatars are permanent. They are part of who you are. People relate to the entirety of who you appear to be, and that includes your digital profiles.
Just as you consider very carefully what you say about your relationship at a dinner party, so too should you consider what you say about it online. People search you more than you know, and your posts—unlike your drunken toast at the dinner party—are permanent. What you post today, will continue to have implications years from now. Which is a nice segway to my next point:
- You create reality when you talk about your partner to your friends. And they support whichever reality you choose.
Your friends love you, and they want to know what to believe about your relationship. Is your partner a saint or a demon? That’s a stark way of putting it, but this is essentially what our friends want to know. We tell them what’s true for us, and they support that truth. When we tell our friends and communities about our partners, they believe us, and act accordingly. If they believe your partner is bad for you, they help you to get out of the relationship. If we create the idea that our partners are good for us, then our communities support the sanctity of the relationship, and help us to stay coupled. So create the reality you want to live into.
This raises a challenge, however. When the inevitable difficult times do arise (and they will), how do we share intimately and authentically with our friends without setting up an unhealthy dynamic?
There are two good answers to this. The first is to use your therapist to work through your relationship challenges, and not your friends. Remember, it is the job of a therapist to remain focused on what you need to grow; to use your projections and transference as therapeutic tools, rather than taking them as evidence about their own preconceptions. Friends do not know how to do this. They are simply too close to help in this way.
The other solution is to be transparent with friends about what you’re really doing. It’s okay to tell your friends that you’re having one of those inevitable hard times, and that you’re committed to your relationship regardless. That you love your partner, and that you’re working through a tough spot at the moment. That kind of transparency sends a signal of strength and maturity, but does not muddle your vulnerability.
Be careful what you say to your communities, and how you say it. Your words have more power than you can see in the moment.
Erik Newton is the founder of Together.