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Questions to ask (or not) before you marry

Dr. Gail Saltz says a strong couple won’t have trouble discussing important issues, but it’s short-sighted to think any answers lie in a list of questions.
/ Source: TODAY

"Questions Couples Should ask (Or Wish They Had) Before Marrying": That’s the title of a piece that’s been on the New York Times’ most-emailed list for nearly a month.

The piece is basically a list of 15 questions, which have been criticized as seeming like job-interview questions.

Here’s what I would like to add: You know those TV shows where people do crazy oddball stunts, with the warning not to try this at home? Apply that same warning to this list. Don’t take the questions at face value.

Many are great questions that cover all-important subjects — but in a relationship heading toward marriage, you should be communicating about these things anyway. It’s not as though you need a laundry list with answers to be ticked off.

If every answer is not exactly “right,” what does that mean? Dumping your sweetheart and moving on? That’s ridiculous.

If people thought they could find someone to answer these questions exactly as they “should,” no one would ever get married.

In any relationship, you will never get a perfect person with every last little quality you want. And you don’t need to. You do need to decide what matters to you and what doesn’t — and to choose someone who is open to compromise and negotiation. You must both tolerate or accept characteristics that aren’t how you want them.

If you’re buying a house, do you want a wood-burning fireplace, a backyard pool or a three-car garage? Maybe you really care about these things, or don’t care at all. The same premise applies when it comes to choosing a mate.

I don’t mean to sound unromantic. Of course, it is important to love your partner deeply. But feelings of lust wax and wane; it’s commitment and communication that will get you through the hardest of times.

Therefore, the last question is the single most important one: “Does each of us feel fully confident in the other’s commitment to the marriage and believe that the bond can survive whatever challenges we may face?” You can’t discuss every possible contingency, but you can have a strong commitment that you will stay together, whatever it takes.

Another important question is “Have we discussed whether or not to have children?” If one partner really wants children and one really doesn’t, the relationship is in serious danger. You cannot have half a baby. You must be in accord about having children.

“Have we fully disclosed our health histories, both physical and mental?” is also a good question. People tend to avoid this. I don’t suggest the kind of grilling a doctor would do, but you should be able to talk about such things, especially mental illness, which unfortunately still carries a stigma.

Some questions are just silly. “Do we value and respect each other’s parents?” Sure, life is easier if you do, but you are not marrying your parents. It only matters that you two are in agreement. Maybe you both agree your parents are difficult and petty people.

The second half of the question is more important, about whether parents will interfere with the relationship. Problems arise when one of you is overinvolved with your parents, and the other dislikes them.

Other questions are misguided, like “Will there be a television in the bedroom.” While I feel for the many couples who argue over this, the television is just a smokescreen. The question is really about sex. The concern is whether you have been using anything — work, computers, sports — to avoid sex or each other. If it’s not a problem, then you won’t fight over whether the television is on or off.

Most of these questions fall into broad categories — sex, money, communication, trust and commitment. It is whether you can negotiate your differences in these areas that counts — not the precise answers to these narrowly focused questions.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: A strong couple won’t have trouble discussing important issues about compatibility and handling inevitable differences. But it’s short-sighted to think any answers lie in a list of questions.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie,” by Dr. Gail Saltz. She is also the author of "Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts," which helps parents deal with preschoolers' questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .