Relationships, boundaries and knowing the person before you say “I do”

Relationships nowadays are tricky. Marriage is even trickier. I’m only six months in but I can assure you that culture doesn’t have a clue and that most of my preconceived expectations about marriage (insert cheesy nonsense from Jerry McGuire etc) were wrong. Marriage is far greater than I had expected but very, very different.

A young guy emailed me recently who just began a new relationship and asked for some practical advice on making the dating season as fruitful as possible. First of all I’m flattered that he would think highly enough of me to ask. (Either that or he’s so desperate he was just grabbing at strings and the lot fell to me.)

I could write a book on all of the things I learned that helped (and some that hindered) our growth during our dating and engagement seasons but there are a few that stand out as invaluable in as much as they allow you to see who the person is and how they will handle life.

Sure the romance is great and all of that but marriage is by far more about simply doing life together, in all of its ups, downs trials and tribulations and in my opinion, a successful dating and engagement period is one that lets you see just how the other person handles life.

For that reason, at or near the top of my list is that both people should live on their own, out of the easy reach and influence of their parents, for a period of time before getting married. Chances are, if you’re in college, living at home and surprisingly, even if you’re already living on your own, it is highly likely that mom and dad are still supporting you in some way shape or form.

It might be covering your cell phone bill or including you on their health insurance policy, but the age of independence continues to be stretched out farther and farther and fewer and fewer young people today have any clue about how real life works, or how much it costs.

I chatted with a woman recently (mid thirties) who openly confessed that when she went to college she was literally expecting a laundry fairy to come out of nowhere and take care of that. And that only scratches the surface.

Ladies, if he’s still living under mom and dads roof, chances are very good (most definitely 100%) that it’s mom who’s keeping that house clean and organized and not your boyfriend/husband to be. When a guy lives on his own, you get a pretty accurate picture of exactly what you’re stepping into if you marry him. Maybe you’re the type that likes to pick up his dirty underwear off the bedroom floor or perhaps you don’t mind tackling mountains of dishes that seem to find their way into the sink and remain unwashed until the cupboard is empty. But strangely enough, when momma isn’t around to pick up after him, his true colors will inevitably come out. And it doesn’t take living with him to figure that out.

Fellas, if your picture perfect woman is one who keeps things neat and tidy and always has a warm meal on the table when you walk through the door, you would do good to see how she operates on her own, out and away from her mom and dad. (On second thought, if that is your particular expectation about marriage, there’s probably a more important conversation we should have about expectations.)

There are a number of reasons I would encourage two individuals to live on their own (not together but out away from the immediate influence of family) before getting married but near the top is that it allows each to see how the other person manages money. As I said before, when one or both people are living at home it’s far too easy for mom and dad to just keep picking up the slack and covering all the expenses of their son or daughter. After all, they’ve been doing it ever since the child was born.

The simple truth is that life is expensive. What’s more, many of life’s biggest expenses seem to come out of nowhere. A new timing belt for the car, one of you loses a job or “Surprise! We’re pregnant!” Not to mention all the little necessities that add up so quickly, and in most cases, have been covered for the majority of your life by your parents. Things like car payments, health insurance, cell phone bills, renters/homeowners insurance. The list goes on and on.

Life costs money and it’s only when both people are able to get out and away from the influence of mom and dad that you start to get a picture of the reality of doing life together. Even then it can be difficult. His mom and dad want to loan you money to help you get into a house or even just start out on the right foot. The car broke down and her dad was quick to offer to cover the repairs. After all, she’s still his little girl.

That might seem overkill but one of the many great pieces of advice that I received pre wedding was, if at all possible, don’t accept money or extravagant gifts from any of the in-laws. It can be a real temptation and might seem like a good idea but all too often those “no strings attached” arrangements come with a few provisions and many parents are quick to remind you of that.

In the example above, it’s no fault of hers that for the entirety of her life, in moments of difficulty her first reaction is to call mom or dad. That’s fine and certainly expected but as you build your independence, together, there is a necessary and healthy separation that needs to occur. For some it takes longer than others and that’s probably why in-laws are billed as one of the top three stressors of marriages.

One of the million and one things I love about my wife is that she understood the importance of this and was willing to uproot herself and move three hours away from her family so that we could build our own little life together. What that looked like was an apartment that she lived in and we were both helping to furnish with belongings that would one day become “ours.” I rented a room from a co-worker but spent the majority of my time at the apartment just doing life together. We grocery shopped together, we ran errands together and she had ample opportunity to teach me that the sink was not a gathering place for dishes. (In some areas she’s still training me.)

What happened is that we developed a very accurate picture of what life would be like for us post wedding and amazingly, there were really no big surprises.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say “Man I thought I knew my wife,” or “I never had any idea that he spent this much time playing video games.”

Those instances can all be avoided if you simply take the time to be open, communicate and do life together. Preferably a fair distance away from each of your families, at least for a time, so you can focus on building your life together.

Believe me, no amount of distance will completely inhibit your parents from offering advice or suggestions on how you should live your life. Those influences will always be there and in truth they can be very good. But healthy boundaries are absolutely necessary in creating an environment that will help both of you to thrive in marriage and I’ve found it best when those boundaries begin to form long before the wedding day.

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