Preparing for Marriage
Dear Dr. Harley,
I am unmarried but would like to know how newly weds can adapt to their partner's presence and how they should deal with the monotony of day to day living when the initial romantic fireworks may be gone. I hope to be married some day and feel I need to understand the kind of work that would be required to keep my marriage strong and vibrant.
Another question I have relates to my emotionally abusive childhood. Do you really think it's possible for a damaged person like me to ever be a good wife? If so, how can I prepare myself?
You sound so pessimistic: "the monotony of day-to-day living when the initial romantic fireworks may be gone." The truth is that if spouses continue to meet each other's needs the way they do when they date (and fall in love), those fireworks just keep on firing. And when they are in love, meeting each other's needs is as effortless as it was when they were dating. The "monotony" arises when the demands of careers and children compete for a couple's attention. Some couples succumb to these competing interests. Instead of meeting each other's emotional needs, they meet the needs of little Sally, or the production manager. Or they decide to buy a new home or car which forces them to work more hours and spend less quality time with each other.
Good marriages are not hard work. In fact they seem to chug along quite nicely with very little thought. It's bad marriages that are hard work. Good marriages become bad marriages when mistakes are made that ruin the romantic love spouses once had for each other. These mistakes fall into two categories: (1) failing to meet each other's emotional needs or (2) making each other unhappy (love busters). I cover the mistakes of the first type in my book His Needs, Her Needs, and mistakes of the second type in Love Busters. Either type of mistake can destroy romantic love, and it's always much harder to be married to someone you no longer love. But if you meet those unmet needs, and stop hurting each other, even if it feels unnatural and awkward to you, love is eventually restored, and then being married is easy again.
Now for your second question: Is it possible for a damaged person to be a good wife?
My experience, having counseled hundreds who have experienced childhood abuse, has led me to the conclusion that childhood abuse does not damage a person. While it's a hotly debatable position, it's what I strongly believe.
So I begin my answer with the assumption that the experiences of your childhood are far less likely to affect your ability to meet your husband's needs (or have him meet yours) than you suspect. Any sensitivities you have developed as a result of abuse have not "ruined" you because they can be accommodated by your future husband. It's all part of learning how to be emotionally connected to someone else. My Policy of Joint Agreement is a terrific learning aid in helping couples adjust to all sorts of sensitivities.
You will probably marry the person that does a good job meeting your emotional needs. Every encounter you have with that person prior to marriage will prove his effectiveness, because he will make you feel good whenever you're with him. After you have had a few of those experiences, you will find yourself in love. Romantic love is proof that the person you're dating is meeting some of your important emotional needs.
While a single person can live a happy and productive life, I feel that there are certain emotional needs that are best met in marriage--a good marriage, that is. And if you find a man who can meet those needs, you will trade your single life for marriage in a flash.
But how should you become skilled in meeting the needs of the person you marry when you don't even know who it will be? In other words, how should you prepare for marriage?
I operated a dating service years ago. There were over 800 members, and they all complained about one thing: The people they dated were not prepared for a relationship. They were inconsiderate, self-centered, and boring. Couldn't I please find someone more suitable? Well, since they were all talking about each other, I decided to change the emphasis of the program from dating to preparing for dates--and eventually marriage.
The focus of the training was different for men and women. The men were trained on understanding and learning to meet needs that were typical of most women: Affection, Conversation, Honesty and Openness, Financial Support, and Family Commitment. We also helped them with problems of appearance, such as physical hygiene and appropriate dress.
The women in our service learned about the needs typical of most men: Recreational Companionship, Physical Appearance, Admiration, Domestic Support, and Sexual Fulfillment. We put a special emphasis on Recreational Companionship and Physical Appearance.
Bingo! They all started dating, mostly from outside the dating service.
Since you do not yet know the emotional needs of the person you will marry, you may as well use my list of male needs as your best guess. You will probably be correct for at least three of the needs, and for many men, all five. After you have identified someone that you may marry, he will be able to tell you what his five most important needs are.
My book, His Needs, Her Needs, describes each of these needs, and how you can become an expert at meeting each of them. Exercise regularly. Learn to talk to men. If you feel nervous, you need more experience. If men intimidate you, you don't know enough of them: get to know a few more.
Ask men to go out with you if you think they are likely to meet your emotional needs. I know it takes courage, and you may drive a few away with your aggressive approach. But for every man you drive away, there will be three who would never have gotten to know you any other way.
And be sure you don't marry someone who has failed to demonstrate an ability to meet your most important emotional needs. If he makes it on three needs but fails on two, those two needs could eventually be your undoing. You will look longingly at men who meet those two needs, and you may eventually have an affair with one of them.
Discussion of your past experiences with abuse may be something you want to save for someone who is a genuine candidate for marriage. But if you are afraid to share that personal information, try expressing it to people who don't make much of a difference to you. You'll find that you are not alone in the world of abused people. I'm of the opinion that those raised in dysfunctional families far outnumber those raised in "functional" ones.
Give it your best shot, and don't wait for someone to find you!