Preparing for marriage is looking beyond the immediate ceremony and the party that happens at the wedding. When you are preparing for marriage, you are preparing for a life time.
Most couples talk about their future together, but often it does not go much beyond where shall we live and work, and sometimes plans for children. Living together first is fairly common these days and that can help weed out the who does what around the house, what kind of tooth paste do we use, do you put the tooth paste away afterwards, do you put the toilet seat down or leave it up, what kind of food do we eat, and other basic issues--all important, but not all encompassing.
Forming a marriage is really like forming a small community which has to work out who makes which decisions, how do we discuss disagreements, who do we let into our community space, how do we do tasks. All of these things are not just affected by the couple but they include family history, role models in each other's past, childhood and adulthood experiences, and even childhood dreams of the future.
Each person has strengths and differences, which, if recognized, can be used to the relationship's advantage. One may be organized and task oriented, the other may be more free flowing. One may a more concrete thinker, the other more willing to go outside the box. One may be more able to express verbally, the other may tend to be quiet about what they think or want. It is helpful to know these things going into the commitment so when stresses come up, reactions can be understood. I am not saying that each person is either one way or the other--it is a continuum, where one leans more toward one way of acting and the other leans differently. Sometimes these attributes are very close to the same. This kind of knowledge can help in understanding each other.
Just recently I was talking with a couple who have been married about 6 years. They had just had an early term miscarriage. While they both grieved the loss of that hope and excitement, they reacted very differently. The wife/mother is a trained mechanical engineer and thinks with an engineering brain. The husband/father is a family practice doctor. The wife, as this was happening, wanted to figure out what the cause was, what was wrong, what steps can we take so it won't happen again, how can we make it work right, how to stop it from happening next time. Her husband was very accepting that these things happen and we don't always know why. They both had to talk it out and move on. The balance in how each of them thought, and the knowledge before hand that this is how each would possibly react helped them do that.
Often, there are topics which the couple don't actually talk about before marriage that could be helpful to know before making that commitment--not that it would change the commitment, but they will be more prepared to work out problems together. Preparing for marriage can provide a couple with the tools to work through problems in a way that honors each other's experience and personalities.
In a pre-marriage preparation with a counselor or minister, often the first step in what is known as a Pre-marriage Inventory. This is done online by each and asks questions that will help decipher characteristics in a persons choices. These two inventories are compared by computer tallies and show the areas where the couple agrees, where each of their strengths lie, and areas where they can grow in strength in their relationship. With that information, the facilitator can guide the couple. Often times there are worksheets that each will do at home and, like magic, the couple begins to talk about things they never thought of before. Most of the work happens during these times. The facilitator can also provide the couple with communication skills that allow them to address differences. These skills become tools for the future.
There are many topics that are looked at, some may not be differences but affirmations of how the other thinks. Some topics included are money, social needs, leisure, needs, how one deals with stress, what things are especially stressful, children and parenting, spirituality, sexual and affection needs, what was modeled to each as they were growing up and what things they might like to do different. Most importantly, the skills of communication are addressed. The willingness to talk about what one is thinking and feeling and the willingness to listen to the other can make or break a relationship. And, knowing when to take a time out of a conversation become invaluable when there are differences that need to be resolved and not just reacted to.
But, probably the biggest help in making this all work is knowing that there is help out there. Often it is good to get a neutral listener to help sort through issues that are hot topics. There is no shame in asking for help. There are many great facilitators and couples therapists that can make a difference in how a couple sees each other's needs.
In starting out together, there is no clear map of what might come up. If something comes up that is tearing you apart, there is hope.