Hi anon, am I sure about this? Well anon, here's what I should consider.
December 19, 2011 4:25 PM   Subscribe

What questions should I ask myself before getting engaged?

My SO and have broached the subject of getting married and spending the rest of our lives together. Yay! So excited! But we’re both cautious, thoughtful people and have both said that we’re going to need a few months to think about it and talk it out with each other before we get serious about an engagement.

There are some great posts on the green about what couple should talk about so they’re on the same page before getting engaged, and I’ll be using those to start some conversations. But this question is more introspective: what do I need to ask myself to make sure this is what I want, and I’m not just getting caught up in the excitement?

I’m excited, but I want to be sure I’ve thought this through and I’m not just getting swept up in the idea of marriage. Rather than ask internet strangers to evaluate my relationship, I’d like ideas for what questions I should be asking myself and what I should be thinking about to make sure I’m going into this with my eyes open. What are those questions I should ask myself?

I don’t think there will be a silver-bullet question that 100% guarantees happiness or anything. I just want to think through this big decision a bit since it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the idea and fail to really consider the reality. So I think it will be helpful to get a variety of responses and consider many of them.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
StickyCarpet made this wonderful comment about the five legs of the table that may give you a great starting point. And I hope it's not premature to with you both much happiness.
posted by vers at 4:31 PM on December 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

(wish -- I don't have a lisp!)
posted by vers at 4:34 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't mean to be cynical, BUT...

Think of the aspects of your SO that most irritate you. Seriously, the stuff that just makes you want to bang your head against a wall, or break down and cry with frustration. Assume that they will be that way until they die, and there is nothing you can do to change the behavior. How does that make you feel? Panicked? Supportive? Trapped? Affectionately eye-rolling? Like you're on a team together? Do you find yourself assuming you'll be able to get them to stop? Is this a behavior you'd be okay with them carrying on in front of your children, assuming you want them?

It's not pleasant to think about, but this kind of stuff only gets more important with time. Stuff about Mr. Narrative that I used to be able to gloss over is harder for me to ignore now, four years into our marriage. We're always working on things together, but I have to assume that some things just won't change, and I married him because I decided I could deal with his particular assortment of difficulties. (And I assume that he thinks the same about me.)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 4:41 PM on December 19, 2011 [34 favorites]

Amongst the characteristics of the five table legs is, "Do I want this person as a parent to my child(ren)?"

And think long and hard about this. Really visualize how this person might be, will they be kind, abusive, generous or selfish, do they have the emotional maturity right now to be a GREAT partner and parent if you unexpectedly found yourselves pregnant? Think about if you want this person involved in your life forever, through children,even if the marriage doesn't work out?

Yeah, so, I lived with my ex for many years, and right after we got married I realized I absolutely didn't want to have children with him. We got divorced within a year.

I think I knew all along, but it was too abstract while we were unmarried. But man, did I know for sure once we were married that having kids with him was the last step in our relationship, and absolutely one step too far.

You don't really sound like you are concerned. But for the happiness of your future children, it is good to ask yourself the kids question, even if you don't plan on having any right away. If someone isn't good enough to procreate with, you shouldn't commit to a lifetime with them.

Congratulations and good luck to you!
posted by jbenben at 4:53 PM on December 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'd go over the big ticket items by yourself, and write down your answers. Then ask her to do the same, and then compare.

Like, do I want children? Is it contingent on circumstance (financial, fertility, etc), or a definite? How many? Would I want to be a stay-at-home parent? Would I want my significant other to be a stay-at-home parent? Would I want children to be raised in a certain religion/ideology?

Do I care about my partner's religion/lack thereof? Vice versa?

Would I want my parents to be able to move in with me in their old age? Significant others' parents? Siblings down on their luck? What level of caretaking of important people in my life do I want to be able to provide? Do I enjoy being around the people that are important to my significant other?

Do I want a combined bank account? How much money do I think I need to save for retirement? How do I plan to achieve that? What percentage of my income each month should be put into savings? What are good reasons to take money out of savings? What are the top five categories I spend into each year?

What do I enjoy doing in my free time? Does my partner enjoy the same things? Does that matter to me?

What are my life goals? Where do I see myself in five years? Ten? Twenty? How many countries do I plan to visit? Do I want to live anywhere else? Do I want to end up in a city, or a rural town?

Are our sexual desires compatible long-term?

I'd also be brutally honest to myself about any possible "red flags" - drinking too much, physical abuse/withholding of affection, significant other's past relationships/friendships all ending badly, etc. - even if I'm okay with them, and tally up if we've ever broken up before or had major arguments, for what reason(s), and see if those reason(s) were resolved and HOW they were resolved - relatively amicably, screaming matches, avoidance?
posted by vegartanipla at 5:02 PM on December 19, 2011 [14 favorites]

How well do you communicate?
Have you had to make hard decisions together yet?
Have you had experience compromising as a couple? Did that go well?
Do you fight or argue? Do you do those things fairly and respectfully?
If you were brought to a hospital unconscious, would you trust this person to make life and death decisions on your behalf?

Those are some things to think about.

It's impossible to know with certainty if a marriage will work in advance, but I've seen a few marriages that I knew would fail in advance, usually because the couple couldn't really communicate, or didn't make decisions in a way that was fair to each of them. Or they considered fighting as a given in their relationship without questioning why this was their preferred method of settling a dispute.
posted by mosk at 5:09 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Money. Sex. Children. Religion. Geographic location. Friend boundaries. Privacy. Domestic cleanliness. Division of labor. Debt, and who has what because it's about to legally be shared.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:19 PM on December 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

You can NOT reason your way to this decision. Given enough analysis, any engagement based on love is illogical. Because reason and analysis are not emotional.

This is a leap of faith. You have to believe, and then commit yourself to making it work.
posted by Flood at 6:13 PM on December 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'll echo most of the thoughts above. I'll also suggest that, if you do get engaged, you should take a marriage preparation course (these are offered through some churches, if you're getting married in a religious ceremony, and also various community counselling organizations). My fiancee and I recently did this and, although most of it was stuff we already knew, it was nice to be reminded of what it takes to have a successful marriage (and of why we're doing this in the first place).

Most likely, the course will force you to ask the questions people are suggesting here, and possible a few others that you haven't thought of, and to seriously think them through with your SO. It'll also help you notice any red flags well before you're actually married (and either work to eliminate them or end the relationship).
posted by asnider at 6:39 PM on December 19, 2011

Do you want this person by your side when your parents get ill and die?
Do you want this person by your side when you get a major illness? Will s/he be there? Will you be there for him/her when s/he gets a major illness?
Do you want this person by your side if you want children but struggle with infertility?

Notice that only one of those questions had an "if" in it. The other two have "when"s.
posted by kestrel251 at 6:58 PM on December 19, 2011 [8 favorites]

Is his/her happiness essential to your own?

Do you delight in making this person as happy as possible? Or is it a chore?

Assuming the former, does this person deserve your love and commitment? And do they return it?

If you had a child that turned out to be exactly like them, how would you feel?
posted by ohsnapdragon at 7:23 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ask yourself about the divorce laws where you live. Sometimes they suck. Few people research these because few enter a marriage thinking they will get divorced.

Case example: if your partner has a 6 month long affair but you make way more money, will you be stuck paying spousal support to your ex when you get divorced (even if you don't have kids, even if you are the woman, even if you were only married a year and a half)? Where I live, the answer is sometimes yes.
posted by Acer_saccharum at 7:25 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

We sat down with a certified financial planner/lawyer. Having someone walk you through your finances is a huge help. Also, she helped us understand things like wills and durable power of attorney.

It was certainly not an upper of a conversation, but it helped us understand that marriage about legalities and obligations as much as it's about love and commitment.
posted by 26.2 at 7:58 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Before you judge your SO, judge yourself. Are you worthy of such a commitment? Are you up to the task of keeping your end of the bargain? Ask yourself: are you capable of making promises? Many people are not; this is not a trivial question. Are you capable of keeping promises? Whatever comes? However much you have to swallow your pride, or suffer through an eternal silence regarding what pains you most? I have in mind that forgetfulness that Nietzsche mentions in the second essay of the Genealogy of Morals, as well as the steadfast ability to conform your behavior to standards regardless of your feelings, your desires, or even your passions. Do you have such control over yourself? Can you make yourself keep your promises when you least want to? Can you act out love even as you hate? Again, many (most?) people are not so disciplined. I suspect many people could not even answer such questions honestly to themselves, in their most introspective moments. But that's where I would start.
posted by dilettanti at 7:59 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

A scattering of questions:
  • You say "excited". Are you excited about the wedding? If you're one of the people who have internalized the "wedding as a big important day", drop that shit before thinking anything else. The wedding is nothing. It is a starting gun for a marathon. It passes and then you ... start running and don't stop. So: consider all these questions assuming you elope and just wake up married one day after a bender in the desert.
  • Where are you at in terms of age and experience? It's good to have had a solid tour of your alternatives. Three or four other serious-enough relationships, so you can "see" compatibility issues and judge them in some perspective. And "all the sex partners you're ever going to want", assuming you're going with monogamy.
  • Where are you at in terms of living together? A lot of the minor (but important) practical issues shake out during the first couple years living together. Can you try that first? Have you already?
  • Where are you at in terms of the infatuation cycle with this person? Did you start with infatuation? If so, are you ok with knowing that it will likely wear off? Has it already? That might be good to wait for. Did it start without infatuation? If so, will you be able to live without it permanently?
  • Have you managed to maintain (or re-establish) your own identity / life in this relationship, independent of it? In other words, are you presently submerged in the relationship, in terms of always doing things as a couple, never spending significant time apart or pursuing independent hobbies, friends, etc.? If not, can you try that? Or at least talk through what you think you'll do when the need for this arises? It probably will.
  • Are there any deep, dark secrets you're hiding from this person? Stuff you're most ashamed of? You cannot hide forever; what will happen when they find out, over your lifetime together? Can you get that telling out of the way now? Can you ask them to do the same?
  • How are your communication and negotiation patterns? Do you escalate or de-escalate with each other? Do either of you feel like you're being ignored, overruled, taken for granted, or treated as a doormat? Are you both mature enough to be able to express your own needs, even when it doesn't please your partner? Do you often find yourself misinterpreting one another?
  • Have you had solid "yes, definitely" conversations on all the Major Deferred Structural Plan Issues that everyone else here has mentioned, say DarlingBri's list? "We will work it out" is only true in things where there's room to negotiate; some things you will not budge on.
Good luck! None of us can predict the future.
posted by ead at 10:56 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

The things I wish I had known before hand:

I was not choosing a husband but the father of my children (I chose poorly).
Even though he wasn't close to his parents or much like them in the beginning, all that changed. Whoever you marry will turn into his parents. If they are creepy, angry, terrible people then run, run fast.
Look at his family history. If everyone in his family has an illness, then he will too. You will turn into a nurse and not get to be a wife.

People say all kinds of crap but actions are the only truths. Look back over the friendships that he has had in his life. Do you like his friends? Does he keep good people in his life for long periods?
posted by myselfasme at 6:35 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Are you committed to staying with him even when things really suck and you've been fighting for three weeks or been feeling a little numb with each other for five months or if he's lost his job and is massively depressed for two years while he tries to figure out the next step?

Which is to say, I think that marriage is all about commitment rather than love. Love leads you to the point where you want to commit, but marriage is that line you cross where you go, "Not only do I love this person, I am going to take care of them when they are 85 and pooping their pants and we haven't had sex for 15 years."

These are the things I asked myself after I was divorced once and had started considering marrying again. I knew I wouldn't settle for less than this level of commitment.

Marriage doesn't have to mean this to you, of course, but if it doesn't, you should know what it means to you before you do it.
posted by hought20 at 7:09 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Take the Relationship Mastery course from here. It's one class per week (evenings) for 16 weeks, and 3 or 4 weekend sessions. It covers everything that people have listed above: communications styles, approaches to resolving conflict, parenting issues, etc.

My wife and I took it when we were expecting our first child. By the time we were done, we knew more about one another than we had learned in 7 years of marriage. The skills we learned in that class have helped us weather some very rocky times together. We never would have made it to our 20th anniversary earlier this year without what we learned in that class.

[not affiliated in any way, just a very satisfied customer]
posted by Irontom at 8:39 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

An important one is:

"Have I figured out who I am and what I want in life yet?"

If the answer is no, you may find that while you are happy with your partner now, you may grow apart as you find yourself and your life goals develop.
posted by j03 at 9:48 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would say that you're going to change a lot in your lifetime. And you should change and be able to change, as should he, throughout your lifetime together. And you should be okay with not having it all figured out and having enough room in your relationship to accommodate and weather changes.

All you should really ask yourself is whether you respect him and whether you trust him, and if you're willing to be there for him and put forth your best effort.

Also, you can't predict what will happen in life. Stuff happens. It's okay. Don't be afraid you're not "doing it right." Don't let all the anxiety creep in. It's not useful.

Marriage is a great thing. Don't go into it with fears of divorcing or anxiety. Go forth steadfast and know there will be ups and downs, ebbs and flows, and just give your spouse your best.

Just be happy and enjoy life together.
posted by anniecat at 10:25 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do you feel as if you get more out of this relationship than you put into it? Not in a financial, emotional or supportive way (because all those aspects, and many others, will wax and wane as you go along), but in the sense that you always feel as if you are one-up on life with this person by your side.

And are you friends? Do you actually like them as a person? If all else were different but you still knew them in some capacity, would you want to spend time with them, putting the world to rights or sitting in companionable silence?
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 11:02 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Listen to this episode of This American Life. I am not married but it helped me look at how I relate to people.
posted by maya at 9:12 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

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