Choosing a partner is one of most important decisions any of us will ever make. It determines the harmony – or lack of it – that we will experience in every area of our lives.

Unfortunately, the statistics (based on predominantly heterosexual marriages) do not paint a pretty picture: 90% of Americans get married, but half of these relationships end in divorce. 75% of people who divorce will eventually remarry, but only 35% of those marriages avoid ending in divorce #2.

If you hope to be married someday, I’d like to give you some practical tools you can use to talk with your future wife/husband to know if you’re ready for marriage now, or if it would better to do some work on your relationship before you hire that wedding planner and book your venue. Let’s start with the big three:

Family of origin stuff: Freud said that the family we grew up in, no mater how great or awful, is what we know (subconsciously) as “home”. Find out what your “home” is and all the baggage that you still carry from it. Talk with your partner about how her/his parents handled conflict, showed affection and shared responsibilities. What were their family values about money, sexuality and religion?

Conflict: The number one predictor of divorce is habitual avoidance of conflict. If you and your partner are considering marriage, but already disagree about issues related to money, work, sex, chores or children, please discuss this tendency toward denial with your partner. Believe me, as a couples counselor with about twenty years’ of experience, it doesn’t get better without learning how to constructively handle (the inevitable) conflict.

Repair: Every couple has “irreconcilable differences”, so don’t freak out. Instead, look for ways to accept/respect your partner and their differences. I worked with one couple considering marriage. They were so judgmental of each other: neither of them was willing to accept the other’s “flaws” and “screw-ups”. One man kept an ongoing list of all the things his future husband did “wrong”. And he wondered why his partner was so nervous all the time!

Sometimes, couples tell me, “There are just some subjects that we can’t discuss calmly: we always get into fights”. I like helping couples in this situation: usually, they’re more focused on being “right” than on actually talking with their mate about their anger/hurt/disappointment. 

For example, if you and I were a couple who had an argument last night and we’re talking about it today, suppose that I say to you, “You’re wrong, that’s not what happened. Your memory is terrible.” And then you say, “No, I’m right. You’re the one who always gets it wrong.” This is obviously a communication pattern that doesn’t work for either of us.

Instead of wanting to “win” an argument, go deeper. Sure, you can argue like two opposing lawyers, each trying to manipulate the other to admit to guilt/mistakes. But, there is ALWAYS a calm and respectful way to talk about any subject. Here’s how you could handle the above situation a lot more constructively:

Person A: “I hear what you’re saying, but I remember it differently.”

Person B: “Hmmm, I guess we don’t remember it the same way.”

Person A: “So, now where do we go from here?”

Person B: “Well, since neither of us can prove what happened, can we let it go or is there still something we need to talk about?”

This kind of communication is NEUTRAL and non-accusatory. It’s also more honest and is likely to have a much better outcome.

The best way to maximize your wedded bliss is to explore the strengths and challenges of your relationship BEFORE you and your special person take the plunge into marriage. There are tons of free and inexpensive resources out there, use them to educate yourself about how healthy relationships work: consider books, classes, counseling and other resources to get the skills you’ll both need.

A great marriage is a verb, not a noun. It takes time, energy and work, and is always changing. Are you and your partner ready for marriage? In this column, I’ve given you both some practical tools to get a good, constructive discussion going. Don’t put it off, start talking about the hard stuff NOW: it’s a great investment in your future happiness.