Questions couples should ask (or wish they had) before marrying

John gave me this set of questions early on in our sessions together. It was a reprint from a 2006 NY Times article of the same title.

J and I did not sit down and discuss many of these topics in depth, though we probably thought we knew what each other believed. I definitely fall in the "wish we had" category. I am now a believer in, if not some pre-marital counseling, at least openly discussing these issues ahead of time. It is foolish to make assumptions and try to fill in the blanks on your own. When life pressures mount, and the storm clouds roll in, you better have discussed #1 - #14 if you will have any confidence in the answer to #15 .

1) Have we discussed whether or not to have children, and if the answer is yes, who is going to be the primary care giver?

2) Do we have a clear idea of each other’s financial obligations and goals, and do our ideas about spending and saving mesh?

3) Have we discussed our expectations for how the household will be maintained, and are we in agreement on who will manage the chores?

4) Have we fully disclosed our health histories, both physical and mental?

5) Is my partner affectionate to the degree that I expect?

6) Can we comfortably and openly discuss our sexual needs, preferences and fears?

7) Will there be a television in the bedroom?

8) Do we truly listen to each other and fairly consider one another’s ideas and complaints?

9) Have we reached a clear understanding of each other’s spiritual beliefs and needs, and have we discussed when and how our children will be exposed to religious/moral education?

10) Do we like and respect each other’s friends?

11) Do we value and respect each other’s parents, and is either of us concerned about whether the parents will interfere with the relationship?

12) What does my family do that annoys you?

13) Are there some things that you and I are NOT prepared to give up in the marriage?

14) If one of us were to be offered a career opportunity in a location far from the other’s family, are we prepared to move?

15) Does each of us feel fully confident in the other’s commitment to the marriage and believe that the bond can survive whatever challenges we may face?

Divorce = Failure

I've been having a hard time getting past this.

We failed not only each other, but ourselves. I am still unaware of anything that couldn't have been fixed, and that makes it all the more frustrating/sad/lame that we weren't able to save the marriage. Couples before us have weathered far more and come out the other side, yet somehow we were too weak or uncaring to manage it ourselves.

And we failed other people in our lives as well. I have tried to not take that burden on, because it is overwhelming, but it is there all the same. Our decision was not made in a vacuum and we have let down the friends and family that stood with us on our wedding day, and stood behind us on all the days since. We had to focus on our own health and well being of course, but there is a certain amount of selfishness in the decision to part.

At some point, we are just another statistic, one of the 50% that don't stay married. With those sorts of odds, that of a coin flip, maybe I shouldn't feel so bad about the failure. But I do. It wasn't mere chance or destiny that we should fail. I don't think we were starstruck by love and missed some glaring incompatibility. I still think we were a good match, and we just pissed away a great chance at happiness. The odds weren't stacked against us. I think we actually had a better shot than most at happiness. The failure is on us.

And that failure will be a part of me always. The sting of it will lessen as time goes by, and as I recover and mature. But it will always be on my resume.

I have been working on my resume lately. I haven't been able to make it reflect who I really am, what I am capable of. I am not a job hopper - until this year the last three positions I held lasted 3, 7 and 11 years. But I haven't stayed in one industry, and the last one I was in (real estate/lending) is hardly growing. I need to convince an employer that my skills will translate to a position in a new industry. But in this job market with so many people seeking work, there are people who have a work history that matches the job description to a 'T'. I have confidence that I can learn and even excel at many things, but I need to convince someone to look past the one sheet synopsis.

And my personal resume isn't looking any better. 42, divorced, unemployed, and living with my parents. Not the best dating profile (not that I am ready to date). But like my professional resume, that brief description hardly describes me. There is so much rich text behind the cover for those who bother to look past it. I have a wonderful family, and spending the last few months with my parents has been a blessing. At 42 I feel healthier than I did at 32 (or even 22). And I will work again.

Though I am feeling a little knocked down this year, I still feel good about who I am at my core. The failure of our marriage made me feel worse about myself than I ever had before. In trying to save the marriage, and working through the aftermath, I have rediscovered my blessings and reconnected with life. I still feel shame about my failings, but I am learning to work on them, instead of simply beating myself up about them.

I feel like now I could be the husband and partner I should have been. Hardly perfect, but the version I was always capable of. I don't get a second chance with J, but I intend to continue to use this failure as a learning experience. The divorce will remain in my history, but like a bankruptcy on a credit report, after a certain amount of time the impact on my evaluation will lessen.

Quote of the day

Psychology is good at getting you from -8 to zero,
but not getting you from zero to +8.

~ Josh Clark from the Stuff You Should Know podcast

Three stages of counseling

I went to see my personal counselor last week. It had been two months since we had seen each other, and we had lots to catch up on in the hour allotted. As poor as our marriage counselor was, the opposite has been true of "John".

As I mentioned previously, our marriage counselor required that we see separate personal counselors in addition to our joint sessions with her. She felt (correctly) that we needed to work on our own issues with a personal counselor if we were to be successful in marriage counseling. She is the one who recommended John, and I couldn't be happier with the choice.

I began meeting with John last January. Our first session was largely a meet-and-greet session where I gave him the Cliffs Notes version of what was going on and how we got here. Things were very raw and I had lots of information, thoughts, feelings and emotions that I was only beginning to try to process. Our marriage counseling lasted roughly four months, and my first round with John was about the same.

In the first stage, we spent a lot of time discussing what had come up in the previous marriage counseling session. John was my only confidant during this period, and he was of great help. Things were coming hard and fast in those first few months, and I was a mental and emotional mess. It helped tremendously to have someone who not only cared for my well being, but who was also not involved in the relationship like friends and family would be. For my part I could be more open, and he could ask difficult questions that people I knew might not be able to.

We talked about the things I knew that were wrong, as well as the issues and information that were revelations to me. In trying to explain what was said and how I felt, it not only lifted some of the weight I was carrying, but it also helped me to understand things a little better. Just the act of baring my soul to him was helpful, but he did not just sit back and ask "and how does that make you feel". He had insights and tools to help me not only understand what I was feeling, but how to go about making things better.

He also helped me to better communicate with J. In the past I had walled up my feelings, but now it was difficult to keep them in check. There was so much I wanted to say, but I was having difficulty in explaining it so she could understand. No matter how hard I tried, it seemed to come out wrong. John helped me to get closer to the root of what I wanted to say, helping me tame the tempest of emotion behind the words. J and I never did come to a meeting of the minds, and I don't think I will ever understand what she was feeling, but I feel I was able to be open to her like I never had been before.

In between putting out the fires that were brought up in our joint sessions, we worked on my own stuff as well. We discussed and attacked the issues that I had, that caused me to be depressed and put a strain on our marriage. Many of the issues were baggage I had been carrying around for years, but didn't have the tools to fix on my own.

Our counseling stopped in April for a couple of reasons. The practical reason was my new job made it difficult to schedule any sessions during the week. Also, J and I were in a state of limbo. We had stopped seeing our marriage counselor, and J did not think further counseling was helpful at this point. At that point I felt like I needed some resolution on the marriage before I could go any farther in my own counseling.

When John and I met again in September, divorce was now the reality. It was a whole new round of emotion now that the marriage was ending. It wasn't only my present that had changed, but also the future I had believed in. We still discussed the relationship, but without the focus of repair. It was about getting at the underlying issues, and what I'd like to do differently next time. I had a hard time dealing with the fact that I would not be able to correct my mistakes with J - with J. Still am really.

We met for a couple of months until my delivery job in November interrupted things again. In the intervening two months, I'd moved out, the house had been sold, and I felt like I have turned a bit of a corner on my way to recovery. Our one session last week was packed with catching up on all that had gone on, but felt the focus has changing already. I am looking forward to digging into more things, rather than putting out so many emotional fires.

Somewhat unintentionally, my counseling has been broken up into three distinct phases. The first one was about breaking down walls, identifying personal issues, and working on relationship skills in order to save the marriage. The second was some more emotional triage, searching for understanding, and starting to come to terms with failure and the future. The third stage is just beginning, and I am anxious to dive in. I am a bit stronger these days, but still have plenty to work on. I expect more difficult questions and hope for more revelation and progress.

In between these three stages, I shared more with friends and grew in a different way, outside the classroom. Counseling has been very helpful - I don't know where I would have been without it. I plan to continue with it on some level, but thankfully these days it isn't the only place I am finding answers.


What should be done with them? What do they all mean after the marriage is over?

On the day J told me she wasn't coming home, we were sitting on the back patio at our house. When she left, I sat staring at the backyard for about ten minutes before gathering myself and heading inside. As I walked through the dining room, I paused at the organizer where we put the mail and charged our phones. And I took off my wedding ring.

When I set it down, I imagined a thud worthy of The Lord of the Rings - the sound produced by something far heavier than it appears. The ring sat there for a couple of weeks until I saw J again at the house. I hadn't been wearing mine, but it still tore me up when she walked in without hers.

Her ring that I spent weeks picking out, and she had worn for years, had lost its meaning. It is now just a piece of jewelry and the emotional shine has dimmed or gone out. Mine that refused to keep its shine and gathered nicks and dents from work now sits in a box somewhere.

Normally before I would turn out the lights, I would spin the ring on my finger as a mental trigger that it was time to turn off the brain and welcome sleep. I found myself in the following days absently grabbing my finger and finding it not there. We won't be wearing them, but what do we do with them? Will the rings be stashed in a box, or are they destined to be melted down to produce something new.

And the wedding dress that was so carefully preserved after bringing out her beauty that September day. Does it remain in a box tucked away in storage, or is it even kept? I have watched Project Runway in the past (there, I admitted it). There was an episode last year where divorced women had the designers make new dresses from the material of their wedding gowns. The time the women had been divorced ranged from 14 years to as little as three months. I am sure it was cathartic for most of them to see the dress transformed into something new, but each experience had to be very different, depending on the marriage and time passed. What did the dress mean after 14 years vs 3 months?

And I wonder what happened to the locket I gave her that last Christmas. With pictures of each of us and an inscription of love, it went over like a lead balloon. It can't have much sentimental value for her and I'm sure it has never been worn. It probably has more guilt feelings attached to it than anything else, so it may have been quietly tossed.

As I walked through the house in the days after it ended, I looked over the things we had. What belonged to whom, would there be battles over some things? A lot of it was just stuff. I was fine until I got to the photos.

In typical conflict avoidance, we have postponed going through the photos. They sit in J's storage for now. It will be easier to tackle it when emotions aren't as raw, but it still won't be easy. In my darker moments, I thought "Why would she even want them. She didn't want to be with me, what could the photos possibly mean to her." But I know that isn't fair.

Feelings have already begun to change. These things that represented so much had a painful power to them initially, but that is beginning to diminish. Feelings will continue to change as time passes, but for now most of the things are safely tucked out of sight as we try to begin anew. There they remain until we are strong and mature enough to see them in a new light.

But in the end, what will we keep? Will they stay in some box like letters from high school, or will they be purged from the system to wipe the slate clean? What will remain to be dug out later as evidence that "we" existed? And what will they mean when we come across them? Once talismans with strong emotions attached, will they become artifacts seen wistfully through hazy memory?