Rules of engagement

Sometimes I think I have potential as a marriage counselor if and when I hang up my law license.  Sixteen years of practicing family law and, if you’re paying attention, you begin to learn why marriages work and why they go bad.  Typically they go bad not because one spouse or the other changed for the worse after the marriage but because they were on their best behavior prior to the marriage and weren’t on such great behavior thereafter.  Often one spouse didn’t see obvious warning signs prior to marrying.  It’s not really clear that living together before marrying remedies this potential ignorance.  This leads to my theory that there are three things one should see one’s intended through before tying the knot.

See your intended through one illness (and have your intended see you through one illness) Age brings increasing infirmity.  Most of us start out healthy and end up dead.  Middle age is a bitch and I presume that old age is only going to get worse.  Sticking with one’s spouse through “better or worse, sickness and health and ‘til death do you part” suggests seeing one’s spouse through a lot of illness.  It’s a good idea to learn how your intended handles illness before he or she becomes your spouse.  Some folks graciously accept assistance when ill and others become withdrawn or grouchy.  Some folks will complain more from a toothache than other folks will from a belly full of buckshot.   Some folks are empathetic to a spouse’s ills and others are less so.  If seeing one’s intended through the flu or a winter cold leaves you feeling ragged and angry, I would suggest that seeing them though a serious illness will have you wishing for a divorce.  If your intended has trouble comforting you (or if you have trouble accepting your intended’s comfort) when you have a mild illness, I suspect he or she will be cold comfort when you suffer a stroke or cancer.

See your intended through one major crisis Few of us show the same poise and courage during crisis that we show when things are going well.  Learning how one’s intended handles a crisis is indicative of the type of support you should expect when a crisis hits the marriage.  When your intended loses a job, has a major health problem, or suffers the death of a loved one, how does he or she react?   Most of us will not be our best but will muddle through with some combination of anger, denial and time.  A few will stop functioning, freak-out or go into attack mode.  Marry them and expect each crisis to be increasingly destructive.  Even fewer will handle the crisis graciously and use it as an opportunity for growth or productive change.  If your intended is one of these rare individuals, marry him or her and consider yourself blessed: you will always have an ally in a crisis.

Take a one week road trip with your intended Poor hygiene, extreme fastidiousness and obsessive-compulsive behaviors have ruined many a marriage.  All are extremely hard to hide during a week-long road trip.  If you and your intended can find an acceptable balance on issues like where to eat, where to sleep, how rigid or flexible to stick to the itinerary, and where and when to detour from said itinerary, you and your intended will probably be able to finesse the many small disagreements that arise whenever two adults share a life.  If, however, you find your betrothed boring or annoying after the week, don’t marry. If your betrothed is inflexible, high maintenance and treats every setback as a major disaster, you’d best prefer a life of utmost stability and minimal spontaneity and enjoy sharing your bedroom with an angry stressed-out person.

I suspect, though I could never prove, that these three tests are better methods of evaluating a potential mate than the advice from any self-help guru I have read.  Having a mate who provides and accepts comfort during life’s troubles, who keeps calm in a crisis, and who shares your general temperament can provide bountiful joy.  And having a mate who can’t leads to a miserable marriage or divorce.


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