The Beatles sang, "All you need is love." Your friends might tell you, "Good communication is all you really need." Your parents advise you, "The key is to marry someone with the same values." Everyone has advice these days for people considering marriage, whether it's a first marriage or remarriage. The problem is, none of this advice is totally correct, nor is it totally incorrect.
So, what premarital factors best predict the future success of your marriage? What kinds of couples should not get married? How do you know you are ready to marry? If you are in a serious relationship, should you pursue marriage, break up, or just keep things the same?
Predicting a Satisfying Marriage
Social scientists and clinicians have found two dozen or so specific factors that predict future marital satisfaction. These factors can be viewed as forming a triangle-a model known as the marriage triangle. The three major factors in the triangle are:
- Individual traits: These include an individual's personality traits and emotional health, as well as values, attitudes, and beliefs. Examples of such traits are: flexibility and self-esteem (positive factors), depression and impulsiveness (negative factors), interpersonal skills (e.g., assertiveness), and realistic beliefs about marriage.
- Couple traits: These include couple communication and conflict resolution skills, degree of acquaintance (how long and how well the couple has known each other), similarity of values and goals (positive factors), and living together as a trial marriage (negative factor).
- Personal and relationship contexts: These include family background characteristics such as previous marriages, existing children, the quality of an individual's parents' marriage, family relationship quality, age at marriage, and parents' and friends' approval of the relationship.
Assessing Yourself and Your Relationship
Knowing and understanding the premarital factors discussed above is the first step. The second step is assessing these factors in yourself and your relationship. This can be accomplished most effectively and easily by completing a comprehensive premarital assessment questionnaire (PAQ) and interpreting the results with your partner. Three high-quality PAQs that provide couples with useful feedback on their strengths and weaknesses in each of the areas above include:
- Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study (FOCCUS)
- Relationship Evaluation (RELATE)
- Premarital Preparation and Relationship Enhancement (PREPARE)
Each of these questionnaires can be completed in about an hour and provide you and your partner with a detailed written report about individual traits, couple traits, and contexts of your relationship. Strengths and weaknesses in each area are also highlighted. RELATE can be completed online and provides a self-interpretive report, enabling you to analyze and interpret the results. FOCCUS and PREPARE are used with the assistance of a premarital counselor or clergy person trained in using these instruments. The cost of taking these PAQs is relatively inexpensive ($10 - $30 per couple). All contain questions for people considering remarriage, as well. The accuracy of the results depends on the honesty and insight of the partners when they answered the questions.
These PAQs aim to encourage awareness and couple discussion of strengths and weaknesses, readiness for marriage, and goals that should be met before marrying. Couples find these discussions to be very interesting, informative, and useful. It is important to note that these PAQs are not intended to be like a crystal ball that predicts marital happiness. Rather, the results are used as a way to focus discussions between partners on developing strengths and overcoming weaknesses before they marry. This is important to do because weaknesses that exist before marriage and are unknown or ignored usually develop into bigger problems after marriage. And, since couples in the premarital stage of their relationship are usually younger, happier, and more emotionally engaged and more highly committed to their relationship than at any other time in their relationship history, it makes sense to have these discussions before marriage.
Going from Assessment to Improvement
Going from assessment (using a PAQ) to personal and couple improvement involves 3 key steps:
- Noting the areas of concern found in the PAQ results, such as poor couple communication skills or too short an acquaintance, and celebrating strengths like emotional health and healthy family backgrounds.
- Deciding what is causing the identified problems-for example, poor listening skills or a hesitancy to express feelings, or rushing into marriage too quickly due to pressure or fear.
- Finding and using the resources to help improve the situation-that is, turning weaknesses into strengths. This may include reading self-help books, listening to audio or video tapes, attending a communication skills training group, or premarital counseling. Suggested resources for these options are listed at the end of this brochure. Knowing there are many good resources for enriching marriage after the wedding gives couples more confidence as they enter into marriage.
A PAQ may also be helpful in discovering that further assessment or counseling is needed. For example, if an individual's PAQ results show that she or he is depressed, anxious, or has low self-esteem, a more thorough mental health assessment may be recommended, possibly including therapy. The person's improvement in mood and self-esteem will naturally increase the chances of being happily married.
Most premarital counseling includes using a written questionnaire like one of the PAQs described earlier. Premarital counseling usually involves spending 5 - 7 sessions with a family therapist interpreting test results, setting goals for improvement, and discussing other important topics related to marriage such as finances, roles in marriage, and having children. Premarital counseling also helps the couple improve their communication skills. Most couples rate premarital counseling as very helpful, and it also establishes in their relationship a positive attitude about seeking help if marriage problems arise in the future.
Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) are uniquely trained and qualified to help couples with premarital assessment and counseling. An experienced MFT understands the diverse dynamics of couples and their relationships, and is prepared to assist couples with any issues that may arise.