This may come as a surprise, but fighting is something that happy couples do—and can actually help build a strong marriage. My husband and I had some memorable clashes during our engagement period, which functioned kind of like throwing cargo off a ship to help it float more effectively and smoothly.
And don’t just take my word for it: I checked in with a couple of qualified professionals to learn more about how fighting can help marriages and what couples should fight about before they tie the knot. Clinical psychologist Carla Gabris, Ph.D., and Eleanor Yoo, a counselor with a masters in marriage and family therapy, discuss how you can fight fair about family, in-law boundaries, religion, chores, money and debt, and your love languages.
“The biggest reason marriages end in divorce is a breakdown in communication,” Yoo says. “Regardless of whether or not a couple can come to a complete agreement on all these topics is less important than the fact that they keep talking, negotiating, and wanting to come up with a solution together.”
“It is very important to start sentences with ‘I feel,’ not ‘you make me feel,'” Gabris says. “You want to avoid accusations, which ultimately put your partner on the defense.” She recommends perspective-taking and empathy on a regular basis. This means instead of pushing your point of view, you should practice putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and be intentionally compassionate.
Now that you know the rules, go get those gloves on.
1. Do you want to make a person (or five)?
“Most couples discuss whether or not they want children, and how many (although they usually change that number after having them),” Gabris says. But with so many couples marrying later in life than they once did, it may also be worth delving into what happens if kids don’t happen. “Will you pursue fertility treatments, adoption, or choose to be childless?”
Gabris says that it’s important to also discuss how to spend money on children. “Does one of you believe ‘the best things in life are free’, while the other believes ‘you get what you pay for?’ If so, you may have some problems here.” Talk about things like sending your children to public school versus private school, enrichment activities, and summer camp.
2. Establishing boundaries with your in-laws
“Spend time with each other’s families,” Yoo says. “What are your prospective spouse’s boundaries currently like with their parents and siblings, and can you live with that?”
Which family gets to spend which holiday together? I’m Jewish, and my husband is Catholic, so we’ve got the holidays on lock: His family gets Christmas break, and my family gets Thanksgiving break. What about the smaller holidays, like Mother’s Day? Will you give your families a key to your home and an open invitation to drop in?
It’s not just physical boundaries, either. How much access will you give your families to personal and emotional information? My mom and I tend to talk about everything. Does your partner feel strongly either way that some things are meant to be private, like financial struggle or marital conflict? Marriage is a great opportunity to create traditions and set precedents for your new family unit.
3. Handling religion
Religiously blended families are more frequently becoming the norm. But that doesn’t mean your individual families aren’t going to pressure you to raise your kids a certain way, and you probably have your own personal belief system and moral code to contend with too.
“Discuss your religious views with each other,” Yoo says. “If they differ, how do they differ? Do you expect your partner to change their religious views? What if you have children—what religious beliefs, if any, will you want to share with them? And even if you are the same religion, how do you want to practice this religion as a couple/family, if at all?”
Will your kid be baptized, circumcised, confirmed? What about religious education? On major holidays, my husband and I have switched off bringing our kids to services, but we always attend family traditions together. For example, I took the boys to Yom Kippur services this year without my husband, but he is always present for Passover Seder.
We’ve talked about flying to Jerusalem together as a family one day to visit the birthplaces of both of our religions. Think of your relationship as its own unique government body, and the two of you are solely responsible for its principles.
4. Distributing the dirty work
“Designate, designate, designate—or else you run the risk of finger-pointing,” Gabris says. As a married person, I will attest to this. My husband does all the sweeping and vacuuming, and I handle all the laundry. I make the kids’ breakfast each morning, while he brushes their teeth every night. We figured this out simply by agreeing to do the chore we hated least.
While it may not seem sexy or romantic to make rules around everything, creating some structure around chores actually allows for more spontaneity in the rest of your life, which is a component of a happy marriage. Imagine never having to talk about the dishes again? Hot.
5. Mo’ money ≠ mo’ problems
“It’s important to be open with your partner about your debts,” Yoo says. “It’s also important to talk about and discuss your views on money and spending. Will finances be shared, separate? Who will manage finances? What if income levels are disparate?”
When my husband and I began dating, I was earning three times more than he was. Now, he brings home almost quadruple what I do, and I handle the majority of childcare for our three children. Nothing is permanent!
“Debt is tricky,” Gabris says. “Both parties need to agree if they are responsible for one another’s debt, and if so, what kind (education versus credit card debt, for example). Without these conversations and agreements, one partner may feel hurt that the other is not helping with debt, while the other partner might feel unreasonably accountable for a debt they did not accumulate.
Be respectful: If one partner has accumulated more debt, it is very important that the other partner does not hold this against them. Debt can be climbed out of, but disparaging remarks, such as ‘You’re horrible at handling money,’ may do serious damage in the long run.”
6. Learning each other’s love languages
“Love languages, or differences in them, will start to emerge in your dating relationship,” Yoo says. “But they become more apparent once the ‘honeymoon’ period is over. It’s best to be honest about your love languages prior to getting engaged. It’s also good to practice giving love to your partner in their preferred love language.”
To understand your partner’s love languages, Gabris suggests you study them “as if they were data.” Do they do extra chores to express love? Do they give gifts? Are they super warm and affectionate?
“Expect that your partner will follow through in expressing their love through the language they know best,” Gabris says. “Do not expect your partner to change. They have a way of expressing love that has become part of their personality, and you should honor this.”
7. Staying serious about sex
“Somewhat related to love languages is the topic of sex,” Yoo says. “What are their expectations for and from their partner when it comes to their sexual/intimate relationship?” Other good questions to ask: How many times per week do each of you want to have sex? Is one of you more interested in having sex in the morning, while the other one wants it at night?
It’s important to recognize that marriage is a journey with ups and downs, and compromise and communication are extra important here to avoid feelings of guilt, hurt and shame. Life throws a lot at married people, and often one of the first things to suffer is our sex lives.
Consider something you may have never considered when you were single: scheduling it in! It sounds unromantic, but it can give you a time to look forward to, and a sex schedule means you’re ensuring that you don’t go through a dry spell. Also, the more you do it, the more you want it. I mean, that’s basically science.
8. Me time versus us time
“You should also consider discussing the level of autonomy each of you wants in the relationship,” Yoo says. “Prior to marriage, couples tend to spend more time together so it’s not something that comes up often as a point of conflict, but it’s definitely something to discuss—how much autonomy and independence does each partner expect after marriage.”
You were attracted to one another in the first place because of each of your own uniquely specific interests. Part of not losing yourself in your marriage is to stay invested in your hobbies and interests while making time for one another. So stay in that book club/axe-throwing league/group fitness class. Maintaining your own identity is sexy.
Remember that you fell in love, and that is monumental. “If the raw material is there in the relationship—trust, respect for your partner, compatibility, and devotion—most hurdles can be overcome and in overcoming them, the relationship can be strengthened,” Gabris says.
“Laughter and levity make every relationship happier. And remember to do something physically exhilarating together—this actually stimulates dopamine in the brain, and dopamine makes us feel alive, refreshed, and new.”