Don’t Forget to Plan Your Marriage (While You’re Busy Planning Your Wedding)

I visited my local Starbucks the other day to enjoy some coffee and free Wi-Fi. I was engaged in relatively mindless grading, so I let my ears wander to the conversations around me. One in particular caught my attention, as it pertained to the seemingly endless numbers of my former students getting married. There was a large group at the table across from me — a young engaged couple, parents, wedding planners (yes, plural) and a priest. The plans they were making were as detailed and complex as those made for a presidential inauguration.

We hear so much about wedding planning. There are entire industries built around helping the couple carry out their “perfect day.” It’s easy to get carried away in the romance and the idea that a single ceremony represents the entirety of a relationship. It’s easy to confuse the ability to control the details of a day with the potential for controlling an entire life. It may be easy, but like the eyes of the audience at a magic show, it is attention focused in the wrong direction. Wedding days should be special; it is a time to celebrate your bond and make a public declaration of your relationship. However, don’t be so busy planning your wedding that you neglect to plan your marriage. Here are a few things to keep in mind for your Big Day, and the days (and years) after you say “I do.”


Weddings begin with compromise. Perhaps she wants to elope and he wants a large, family-filled church ceremony. Hopefully, a middle ground is agreed upon where each partner feels listened to and has his or her critical needs met. Compromise only beginswith the wedding day. As two lives become entwined, differing views and priorities are inevitable. Make sure you know how to navigate these differences in a balanced way.


Have you ever been to a wedding where you couldn’t tell if it was a day for the bride or the bride’s mom? Just as your wedding is your day and should be created in your image, your marriage is yours and yours alone. By all means, listen to the advice of those around you but remember that you make the ultimate decision of what your relationship will look like.



Will children be welcomed at the ceremony or even given a featured role or instead will the invitations politely implore the attendees to leave their offspring at home? I’m always amazed to discover the number of couples that don’t discuss the desired role of children in their lives after marriage. Some, who see children as a natural progression from marriage, simply assume that their future spouse feels the same. Others have the discussion but fail to consider the repercussions if one partner later changes their mind or biology conspires against them. These are important – if difficult – conversations to have.



Apart from those betrothed couples that met at church, there will almost certainly be some differences in childhood or adult religious beliefs and practices. Since marriage vows have historically been performed within a religious framework, the wedding provides a wonderful opportunity to discuss the role and significance that religion will take for the couple. This conversation needs to extend beyond the wedding day. It’s even more important that the couple agrees on where every Sunday morning will be spent than on who will lead the service on the day the marriage begins.


Most people are very deliberate about the friends they invite to be a part of their wedding. They want to surround themselves with others who will be supportive, realistic, and share in their joy. Be just as deliberate in choosing the friends that surround your marriage. We are influenced by those we spend our time with; choose wisely.


Much time and money is put into creating the décor and ambiance of a wedding day. Just because the day is over and the budget is back to reality does not mean that you have to forgo beauty. Find ways to incorporate items that make you smile into your daily life. Any table is brightened by even the simplest centerpiece.


The focus of a wedding is on the words spoken between the spouses-to-be — the promises and declarations to love, honor, and cherish. Even after the walk down the aisle, words, whether spoken or written, are still an important part of a marriage. Never assume that your spouse knows how you feel and never underestimate the power of a positive word or two. The best part? When you say how much you love or appreciate your partner, it fuels those positive feelings in you as well.


Many wedding traditions have a deliberate balance between the time spent as a couple and the time spent apart. Even when you married, it is important to spend time away from your partner, either alone or with other friends or family. Make sure you have discussed your needs and expectations for your balance of time; it’s important to reach an agreement between the two of you so that no one feels smothered and no one feels abandoned.


Some of the meaning in a wedding comes from tradition — elements handed down through generations that create a sense of unity and belonging. Just because the ceremony has ended does not mean that there is not room for traditions in your marriage. Look to your families of origin for rituals that you can implement in your new union or seek to create your own traditions. These conventions will serve to strengthen the bond between you and your spouse and give you a foundation upon which to build lasting memories.


It is the rare couple who marries without a budget. Just because the presents are unwrapped and put away and you have begun to get used to married life does not mean that the budget goes out the window. Make sure you and your new spouse continue to talk about money. Agree on common financial goals. Separate needs from wants. Don’t let nickels and dimes create a wall between you and your betrothed.


A wedding is a public vow, whether it be made in a private ceremony or in front of thousands, it is still declaring your commitment to the world. After the wedding, life settles down and it’s easy to confine your marriage to your private life. Or, even worse, expose your frustrations with your spouse but keep mum about the joys. Even after the wedding, make a habit of speaking positively about your spouse and your marriage. Sharing this commitment publicly helps to keep it alive.


The best weddings are fun. They have a sense of levity and humor. Any mishaps are laughed about and the challenges are kept in perspective. That’s pretty good advice for a marriage, as well. Not every day will be a party but you can strive to find humor and laughter in every situation. Find ways to bring excitement and fun into your marriage. The associated smiles are priceless.

I’m sure that the couple I overheard at Starbucks will have a lovely wedding (and I am SO glad that I’m not footing the bill!). I just hope they have planned as thoroughly to have a lovely marriage.


Why Marriage Can Be Better the Second Time Around

second marriage

I wrote this piece almost five years ago, just before I said “I do” for the second time. It has definitely been one of the better decisions I have ever made.



I am as familiar with the statistics as anyone — two-thirds of second marriages are expected to end in divorce. There are many factors often cited for this depressing outcome. The family unit is more diverse and less cohesive. The children tend to be older and more independent, thus staying together for the sake of the kids is less of an issue. The ghosts of spouses past can continue to haunt the new marriage. Perhaps one or both partners moved too quickly into a new relationship rather than allowing sufficient time to heal from the divorce or to address underlying issues. Or, maybe they spent so much time single that partnered life with its compromises and complexities is no longer a fit. And, of course, there is the fact that once you have been divorced and survived, it may be easier to tread that path again.

Regardless of the reasons, the numbers are clear. Second marriages are more likely to fail than first unions. But, when it comes to relationships, I don’t care about statistics. I care about individual marriages, including my own. And, rather than focus on the added challenges that can impact subsequent marriages, I choose to acknowledge the ways that a marriage can be better the second time around.


I took my first marriage and my first husband for granted. He was always there and I assumed he would always be there. It wasn’t that I treated him poorly or neglected the marriage, I just didn’t understand the fragility of it and that it could disappear so easily. Now I know that no marriage is divorce-proof and that there are no guarantees. I like living with the awareness that the marriage could end; it makes me value it every day almost like a person who has received a terminal diagnosis appreciates every day they have left. I hope I have many more days with my new husband but I also try to live each one as if it may be my last.

When you know that something could end, you are more likely to value it. And when you value something, you are more likely to appreciate it and nurture it. And when you appreciate and nurture something, it is more likely to live on.


The end of a marriage can be a time rich with lessons. Hard lessons, to be sure, but valuable ones. It’s not uncommon for the wounds and behavior patterns of childhood to follow one into marriage. It’s not unusual for someone to choose a spouse that reminds them of a parent or to fall into a relationship that mirrors one from the past. Divorce can be a huge wake-up call from those automatic choices and behaviors. It is a time to heal from old hurts rather than repeat them. For me, that meant facing my fears of abandonment and recognizing (and changing) my behaviors that could lead to being jettisoned again.

When both partners have humbled themselves to the lessons of the end of a marriage, the resulting wisdom and experience can benefit a new relationship.


My first husband and I became adults together. We were each other’s constant as we navigated the challenges of early adulthood. As other aspects of life changed around us, we each became more reliant upon the other. We attended most social events together, never took separate vacations and even tended to run errands as a pair.

It’s different now; my now-husband and I were completely independent before we ever met. We each had our own fully developed lives and friendships. My new marriage has areas where our lives overlap, yet it also has plenty of distinct regions. We are independent in some ways and interdependent in others.

A second marriage means that the partners are older and have had time to establish themselves as independent adults before entering into an alliance with another. The edges are less blurred and more carefully maintained and each partner is less likely to be swallowed by the marriage.


I knew my ex-husband from the time we were teenagers; I thought I knew everything there was to know about him. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I failed to notice that the man he became was no longer the man I knew. I saw what I expected to see.

With my new husband, I know there is still much to learn. Every week, I hear a new story or uncover some novel fact about his past. The sense of mystery is a reminder that getting to know someone is a never-ending process.

I don’t think I know what he is going to say.

So I listen.

I don’t have any expectations of what I will see.

So I look.

At first, this felt a bit scary to me. I wondered if I would ever feel like I knew him as well as I knew my ex. But then I realized, I only thought I knew my ex. The comfort in that was the wool over my eyes.

I like the dash of mystery. The reminder that he is himself, with all his own experiences and opinions, before he is my husband.


My first wedding felt like the inevitable conclusion to a good relationship. This marriage feels like a hard-won victory after years of facing struggle. The triumph of love over loss. Trust over betrayal. And peace over pain. Every step has been deliberate. Intentional. There’s no autopilot this time — I’m the one driving my life.


Anyone who has survived the death of a marriage is bilingual — speaking the languages of love and loss. And experiencing the depths of the pain only makes love that much sweeter. I vow to never forget the agony because it makes me grateful every day for what I have. Divorce has a way of putting everything in perspective and helping you focus on what really matters.

And what matters to me is not the fact that two-thirds of second marriages end in divorce. I simply want to focus on what I can do to continue to make my second marriage happy and successful.


On a related note, I chose my second husband carefully after learning from my mistakes. Here are the significant ways that he’s different than my first.

What NOT to Do If You’re Unhappy in Your Marriage

unhappy marriage

So you’ve come to realize that you’re unhappy in your marriage.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that you look forward to the times when your spouse is out of the home. Maybe you’re feeling increasingly stifled or frustrated with your life and you’re experiencing a driving need to do something different. Or your spouse has begun to feel like a stranger to you and you startle to learn that you feel longer with them than when you’re by yourself.

Your mind is a whirlwind of conflicting thoughts and emotions. You remember your vows and you think about the pain that divorce would inflict upon your partner and children and you make an internal pledge to suck it up and make it work. Then, as you contemplate endless years with more of the same unhappiness or discontentment, you begin to summon the courage to make a change. And then you remember your shared history and the time invested into the relationship and you’re again unsure.

I’ve written before about what to do when you’re in the midst of a marital crisis.

But what about what not to do? Sometimes we need to be able to see the hazards clearly so that we can make sure we avoid crashing into them.

Here is that list –


What NOT to Do If You’re Unhappy in Your Marriage:


Don’t Ignore It

When things are uncomfortable or suboptimal, it can be tempting to turn away from the unpleasant reality. To pull an adult version of, “If I don’t look for the monster under the bed, it can’t exist.” Yet ignoring any concrete issues in the marriage or your own unhappiness with the status quo will not only be unsuccessful, it will also be unsustainable over the long run. The issues, whatever they may be be, will not resolve on their own and your ignored feelings will refuse to stay silent indefinitely.

It is only by facing your unhappiness that you have the possibility of resolving it.

Worried that you’re ignoring some important signs of marital discord? Here are five signs that you may be in denial.


Don’t Fixate On It

It is important not to deny your marital unhappiness and it is also critical that you refrain from becoming preoccupied with it. Whatever we nurture, grows. If all of your attention is focused on your discontentment, it will begin to multiply until it blocks your view of any residual affection or commitment.

When your marriage is in trouble, it’s natural for it to threaten to become all-consuming. After all, tremors in your relationship create aftershocks that travel through your entire life as you begin to realize how much everything is connected. You may find yourself grasping onto whatever you can as a fear of loss and isolation begins to press against your ribcage, threatening to cut off all of your oxygen supply.

Even as you’re navigating this uncertain and scary time, continue to reassure yourself that you will be okay no matter what the outcome.


Don’t Assign Blame Without Responsibility

It’s so easy – and often quite deserved – to place the blame for your marital dissatisfaction  at the feet of your misbehaving or unenlightened spouse. “I’m miserable because he drinks.” “If she would just pay attention to me instead of just the kids, we’d be okay.” “We’re struggling because he keeps flirting with random girls on Facebook.”

All of those things may well be true. And it may also be true that your partner’s actions and your happiness are mutually exclusive, that as long as their behavior continues, you will be miserable. You cannot change their choices. Yet you also have a responsibility to yourself. What you tolerate, will continue. What you allow, communicates how you can be treated. When you only blame, you give away your power. When you take on responsibility for your own decisions, you become even more powerful.

It’s important to recognize, name and confront the decisions and behaviors that your parter is making that negatively impact the marriage. And it’s also important for you to identify and express the choices that you have in light of the circumstances. You may not be able to save your marriage alone, but you do have the power to save yourself.


Don’t Have a “Bandaid” Kid

What more tangible sign is there of a unity of two people than a child? This living, breathing combination of both of you. An impressionable and defenseless embodiment of love wrapped in blankets and dreams. So it’s no surprise that people often (consciously or subconsciously) have a child in an attempt to refresh a struggling marriage.

Yet children are also an immense strain on a relationship. Tempers flare as sleep becomes a rare and precious commodity. Finances stretch under the new responsibility and the partnership often feels the strain. And the challenging steps of negotiating a fair division of labor while navigating new roles can make even the closest couples begin to have doubts.

On top of the inevitable stressors that a child adds to a marriage, it is also unfair to task a kid with the burden of stitching a worn and threadbare relationship together. Just as you spruce up the physical space to welcome home a new baby, ensure that the repairs on the marriage are undertaken before a new child is brought into the fold.



Don’t Open Up the Relationship

Many of the podcasts I listen to and advice columns I read feature advice-seekers who begin by describing their dissatisfaction with their marriages and then follow up with a question about the viability of opening up their marriage. On the one hand, I get it. They’re desperate to find a way to keep what they have that also provides the excitement and novelty that one or both spouses are craving. On the other hand, navigating the transition from a monogamous relationship to an open one is fraught with many stumbling blocks. I can’t imagine a couple that is already in trouble successfully communicating about emotionally-charged boundaries and rules.

Part of the reason that opening up the relationship may be appealing in times of discord is that is acts as both a distraction from the marital problems and another source of the validation or intimacy that may be missing from the primary relationship. And when attentions are focused elsewhere, the unhappiness within the marriage is likely to grow.


Don’t Make a Major Purchase

For many of us, when we’re unhappy, we look to material goods to fill the voids that we feel inside. It’s easy to fall prey to the illusion put forth by advertisers as we see happy and smiling families spilling out of new homes or heading out in their newly-acquired vehicle on some sort of perfect adventure. We can begin to blame our current possessions for our discontentment and pin our hopes on becoming happier once we secure that next new thing.

Not only is this snipe hunt a distraction and wallet-emptier, it can become an endless search for meaning and satisfaction where it cannot be found. No matter what baubles decorate your marriage or what wrappings surround your relationship, the basic connection (or disconnection) remains the same.


Don’t Seek Emotional Intimacy or Validation Elsewhere

When you feel invisible in your marriage, it’s tempting to find others who will truly see and appreciate you. Be careful on this slippery slope. Attention feels good and you can end up unintentionally sliding into an emotional affair (here are the key signs to watch out for).

If you think your marriage has a chance, give it that chance. Focus your energy towards making your partnership stronger and growing yourself into a better spouse. If your marriage is already on shaky ground, focusing elsewhere is a surefire way to send it tumbling into ruins.

And if your marriage is dead, have the respect to communicate its demise before you turn your attentions elsewhere.


Don’t Disappear

Because that’s just a cowardly and malicious way to end a relationship. You have the right to leave, but don’t lose sight of your spouse’s rights as well. Here is what you do owe your spouse, no matter what decision you decide upon for you.


My Side, His Side and … the Truth?

narcissist lie

One of the more infuriating responses I’ve received when others have heard my synopsis of my ex-husband’s actions that led to the divorce is, “Well, you know how it is. There’s your side, his side and then, somewhere in between them, there’s the truth.”

After I swallow my scream, I try to respond with a well-meaning and polite-sounding, “That’s so awesome that you haven’t met anybody like him. I hope you never do.”

In general, I am a huge fan of the concept that there are facts and then there is the way we perceive the facts. And those perceptions can be very different. Give two people the same fictional book and they will not only interpret the characters’ actions in different ways, they will likely build mismatched views of the protagonist’s appearance.

Yet the text is the same.

And that’s where I have a problem with this phrase being applied to the circumstances surrounding my divorce.

Of course my ex-husband is entitled to his own opinion. But he is NOT entitled to his own facts.

Which is exactly what he was doing.

When he told the police that we had been divorced for years, I highly doubt that he was simply expressing some metaphorical feeling that he was keeping under wraps. As he recorded my salary on the financial disclosure as a third more than it was, I don’t think it was because he’d viewed the numbers in a different way. And when he described how his “workday” was going while he was on his honeymoon, I struggle to believe that he was really under the impression that he was working long days on the trade show floor.

Those are facts. And there are thousands more where those came from.

And those facts don’t care about feelings – his or mine.

Now, when it comes to the particular climate of the marriage that acted as fertile soil for those deceptions to grow, I’m sure we have our own opinions and perspectives. I would have loved to have been given the opportunity to hear his side. To try to understand where the unhappiness resided and to learn more about his interpretations and outlook.

But I was never given that chance.

So all I have is my side, my best guesses at his side and the facts.

And as for the truth? I’ll never know.

Ten Ways to Shut Down a Conversation

We all know that communication is key when it comes to building and sustaining relationships. Yet that knowledge alone isn’t sufficient to establish an open and mutually beneficial approach to conversations.

Because, let’s face it, it can be challenging to communicate when we feel emotionally threatened or when our beliefs are being challenged. We can all make the mistake of listening to respond rather than listening to understand. And we all can respond in ways that have the unindented effect of shutting down a conversation.

Much of the time, these maladaptive responses are not ill-intentioned. Instead, they often come from a place of self-preservation or a lack of attention. Like with any behavior, these reactions can become ingrained. And like with any habit, the first step to changing it is in recognizing it.


Ten responses that immediately shut down a conversation…


1 – One-Upping

The intention here is usually a good one, an attempt to share a similar experience in an attempt to express camaraderie and understanding. Yet when this analogous experience is shared too soon or expressed in such a way that makes it seem as though there is a competition, it has the opposite effect. Instead of immediately going into the details of your similar history, consider using your personal knowledge to ask the important questions or share relevant and potentially helpful information. Alternately, you can say, “I’ve experienced something similar. Would you like to hear the specifics?”


2 – Minimizing or Dismissing

There is a delicate balance between acknowledging somebody’s feelings and enabling their wallowing in those feelings. It may feel helpful to tell somebody that their situation “Isn’t that bad” or that they have “No reason to feel that way.” It can seem like a sort of verbal pat on the back, a message that they can handle this. And even though you may very well be right and they may be overwhelmed and overly pessimistic in the moment, minimizing their feelings will not help them move forward.


3 – At Least…

This is a form of minimization where you point out the positives before the person is ready to contemplate them. I heard this quite a bit in the early weeks after my ex’s disappearance. “At least you didn’t have kids.” “At least you have a job.” “At least he didn’t kill you.” And even though those were all very real and valid statements, I couldn’t hear them at that moment. This is one of those situations where the slightest turn of phrase can make quite a difference. Instead of “At least,” which implies it’s not that bad (and assumes that they also place value in what you do), try saying, “It’s good that…”


4 – Redirecting

Conversations rarely operate like a movie on Netflix, where you can push the pause button or change the channel and pick up where you left off. When you change the subject or interject with a joke or off-topic comment, you may be inadvertently communicating that this conversation is not important to you. Sometimes this interjection is done to introduce some levity into a serious talk or to shift gears when the discourse has veered into unproductive territory. These types of redirections can be positive as long as they’re undertaken with care and intention.


5 – Beginning With Your Foot Down

Boundaries are important. And so is an open mind. When you begin a conversation with your mind already made up, you are not leaving any space for the other person. In other words, it’s no longer a dialog, it’s a knock upon a door that’s been nailed shut. It’s okay to say “No, I don’t agree” and it’s also okay to listen first. When you start a conversation with your foot down and no room to budge, views have a tendency to become even more diametrically opposed instead of landing on some common ground.


6 – Believing the Other Person is Wrong

Unless you’re talking to somebody who is insisting that 2 + 2 is 6, it’s rare that conversational viewpoints are so clearly incorrect. (And even then, I would be curious to learn why somebody believes that 2 + 2 is 6. I may just learn something.) I have found that curiosity leads to better conversations that judgment. Even when somebody is expressing something that goes against my personal beliefs, it doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. They simply have a different view. And that is okay.


7 – Trying to Fix Things

Stereotypically, men are the ones who respond to everything with a ready solution, even when their opinion on a resolution isn’t requested. But this reaction is not limited to men. Women are just as likely to try to solve every expressed problem, even when it’s nothing more than an observation or a venting session. There are two problems with this response – you may not accurately identify the problem and by offering a solution without a request for advice, you are undermining the other person’s ability to take care of their own business.


8 – Responding With Absolutes

“You always…” “You never…” Those phrases are rarely true. Even the biggest procrastinator sometimes comes in before a deadline. And the most passive person will sometimes stand a stand. Usually when these phrases are used, it is in an attempt to get the person to do more of the opposite. Yet, by refusing to acknowledge when the desired behavior occurs, it actually lessens the chances of it occurring. Instead, try some version of, “I noticed when you [desired behavior]. I liked that.”


9 – Overreacting

I saved my particular struggles for last. I’ve shared before about my own tendency to overreact. When a response is at a level ten, it encourages the other person to back off and avoid triggering a similar reply in the future. Overreacting can help create an environment where it isn’t “safe” to share and where one person feels the need to “protect” the other from the truth.


10 – Defensiveness

For me, this comes from my deeply internalized belief that I am what I can do for others. So, when some mistake or oversight is highlighted, I easily take that to mean that I am not enough.  Ugh. A defensive response erects a wall in a middle of a conversation. When you’re busy defending, you are no longer able to listen and process new information. I’m still working on this one myself. I think a lot of it comes down to accepting the difference between somebody rejecting my idea/opinion/feelings and somebody rejecting me.


I listened to a podcast last year (Conversations With People Who Hate Me), which is a fascinating study of constructive and open dialog. The host, an outspoken liberal, often faces intense criticism from people with opposing views on his YouTube channel. Instead of internalizing these comments or ignoring them, he reached out to the posters and invited them onto his show.

And here’s the really impressive part – at least to me – he talks to them with NO defensiveness and NO preconceived ideas. He asks questions and listens to their responses. He’s not afraid to voice his disagreement, but he does so in a way that doesn’t shut out the other person.

The shows are often awkward. Painful, even. Yet, more often than not, the two people who started out on opposite sides of an enormous divide, manage to find some common ground and mutual respect. It’s heartwarming, motivational and inspiring. A perfect study in how NOT to shut down a conversation.