Valentine's Day is coming up, and if there's someone even remotely special in your life, you're likely in for a meal or a Netflix binge or some kind of conversation-inducing activity together within that blessed week. For long-term couples, Valentine's Day may actually be both better and, in a sense, worse than it is for those who are rocking it alone or merely casually dating. On the one hand, at least you're not lonely or horny. But on the other hand, you might be finding that the season provides a stressful, unavoidable opportunity to discuss the relationship. I've been in a number of longish relationships, including one that sadly ended in divorce. Now that I'm pushing 30 and am absurdly happily remarried, please learn from my hard-earned experience and take these from me — seven questions all long-term couples should discuss on Valentine's Day.
I give you permission to broach any of these topics in jest, while intoxicated, and/or slightly before or after Valentine's Day, to avoid maximal possible awkwardness (or ruining that super fancy dinner out). But, sooner or later and one way or another, it truly must be done. Better to trade a little happiness now for a ton of happiness later, am I right?
1. What are we?
Commitment-free sex, chronically loose plans, refusal to escalate emotionally... “this is how we date now," or not. Just because other people are (or seem) happy with the fast food of relationships doesn't mean you can't keep looking for a home-cooked meal. And just think, if you're looking for something more than that, romantically speaking, then it's likely that someone else out there "wants more" too. I had tried my hand at "this is how we date now," but when I met my husband, I knew that's not what I wanted, and we married one year to the day after we became "official." It can happen!
I'm not saying that quick marriage is necessarily everyone's goal, but real relationships have many benefits. You may have had something essentially casual going on that has happened to last a long time, or maybe you're just someone's comfortable and reliable playmate — today's the day to make a change. First, decide whether you even want to be serious with this person. If you do, say it in a non-creepy way. Ask them what they think about the situation, then listen. And stop wasting your time with them if your expectations do not align. You don't need to ask people whether they want to get married literally on the first date, but don't keep pouring your life into someone wrong for you, either. If you have to kiss 10 frogs to find your prince, you're better off spending six months with each rather than a few years.
2. What does living together mean to you?
People sometimes think that cohabitation is like a trial marriage that can reduce the chances of divorce for couples who decide to go through with it. Unfortunately, studies largely haven't proven this, and have in fact shown the opposite — premarital cohabitation may raise divorce risk, and possibly lower marital satisfaction.
Your life can't wait for the dust to settle on this academic debate. If there's danger in cohabitation, it's that couples aren't on the same page about whether it's just for convenience or a stepping stone to marriage and/or children. Then, they may end up marrying also out of convenience, which ends poorly. And just 40 percent of co-habitators ever marry each other, so it's not all but guaranteed. If you're serious enough to be discussing living in the same place, you're serious enough to be discussing what it means.
3. What are your career goals?
Even if it's expressed in various ways, ambition itself is a relatively fixed personality trait. It's fine to love someone who doesn't have any, but realize up front what that means for the relationship. Maybe you like not stressing about achievement. Maybe you can only admire a striver. Just figure this out before you end up married to someone whose attitude towards work profoundly disappoints you.
4. How do you spend your money?
You should pretty much be able to tell about this aspect of your partner already, but it never hurts to ask. Also they might have financial plans for the future — or financial baggage from the past — that you don't know about.
Couples argue tons about money, so it's better to avoid as many of these disagreements as possible in advance by sharing financial values. My husband and I spend generously on our Manhattan rent, and on both groceries and restaurant meals. But neither of us cares a bit about clothing or "home decor." I knew this from the first time he took me on a dinner date, and the first time he took me to his place. Those were not values I was going to change in him, but I didn't want to anyways.
5. Do you want children?
Despite overblown reports that Millennials don't want kids, Americans' attitudes towards children have not changed much since about 1990, at least. Only about five percent of American adults don't want kids. If you are amongst the overwhelming majority of people who want kids, and you meet someone who doesn't (especially someone around age 30 or older), believe them. There are plenty of other fish in the sea for you. Check also that your partner is on the same page regarding living near grandparents, involving them in childrearing, and so on. There's no "typical family" anymore, so you can't assume these things.
6. How's your family?
It's not just your partner's attitude towards family in the future that matters, you also need to be concerned about their family in the past. "Children of divorce" are less likely to marry, and more likely to divorce than people whose parents stayed married. Although we can't go back in time and get our parents back together, we can work to understand what lessons about committed relationships our parents did (or didn't) teach us, and how we might replicate their mistakes — or overcompensate for them — in our own adult lives.
7. Are you happy?
Ha ha, I bet you thought I was going to repeat the old "you can't love someone else until you love yourself" cliche. Not a chance, I actually believe that as long as you're fundamentally psychologically healthy, loving someone first can make you a better person, and can raise your self-esteem naturally in a perfectly acceptable manner.
Never mind that romanticism, though. As a cynic, I'd like you to please ask your partner whether they're a happy person, because it will tell you about what your life with them might be like over the long haul. Some psychologists have come to believe that we naturally have a "happiness set point," and that our happiness level is largely genetic and inherited from our parents.
Some people just aren't that happy, and they can't change that very much. I know because I'm one of them. Your partner might be an unhappy person too. You need to figure out whether they've made their peace with that fact, or whether they'll expect you to work wonders on their mood, all the time, in a totally unrealistic manner. Today, as an older wiser partner, I know to accept the happiness that my husband has to offer me, and not to blame him for my moodiness. Don't get stuck with someone who can't appreciate you.
Image: Kalim/Fotolia; Giphy (7)