After you have dating for a few years, met each other’s parents, and moved in together, it may seem like the next natural step is to get engaged. But on the relationship ladder, this move is more like a leap up than a simple step. Being engaged is a new and unique experience for everyone, and despite societal pressures, it’s important to understand if you are ready.
“You know that you’re ready to get engaged when you want to spend your life with that person,” explains Paulette Kouffman Sherman, a psychologist and author of A Shared Vision. “This means you want this, not only because they make you laugh or make your heart flutter, but because you are ready to mutually face external and internal challenges together.” In other words, you’re ready to deal with the unexpected curve balls—both good and bad—that life is about to hurl your way. We’re talking past the obstacles involved in wedding planning. Think arguments over family holidays, disagreements over how to discipline children, uneasy emotions, and more.
What will this mean for your future? Are you both on the same page? Will being engaged change things? All of these questions and concerns are totally normal—and expected. To help you come to terms with the idea of a proposal, we asked top relationship experts for the questions you should run by your psyche before he or she gets down on one knee.
“Do we find meaning in the same things in life?”
Before you hop, skip and jump to the altar, it’s important to be on the same page in regards to what you want out of life. This goes way beyond the whole white picket fence thing. What about children? And, if so, how many? “In addition to the great children debate, things like maximizing or minimizing the time you spend at home versus in your career or living in a particular part of the country to be closer to family matter,” says Kathy McMahon, a psychologist and president of Couples Therapy Inc. “If you are hoping these things will ‘work themselves out,’ they typically don’t.” In other words, have this conversation with the knowledge that it’s better to know now than to find out later.
“Am I trying to rush this because of external pressures?”
Once all of your friends start tying the knot, it’s totally normal to get the wedding bug yourself—even if you’re not in a committed relationship. But experts urge against letting this sway you in one direction or another. Doing so could leave you rushing into a decision you’re not totally sold on—meaning you may end marrying someone who is right now, but not right. “Ask yourself if you are really clear about the personality, interests, and ambitions you are looking for after dating different people, and if this person meets these criteria,” says McMahon.
“Do we fight fair?”
Some people are more confrontational or hot-blooded than others, while other are more passive, laid-back, or inclined to avoid confrontations altogether. While neither style is better, Julienne Derichs, a licensed clinical counselor based in Chicago, notes that it’s not so much how often you fight or what you fight about that creates the greatest impact on couples, but how you fight. “Ask yourself, ‘Do I have a different style than my SO? Can I accept the way that my SO deals with a fight? Am I a conflict avoider and my spouse more eruptive? Do I think my spouse is wrong for being different?’” she suggests, adding that if the answer is unclear or unsettling, then counseling is a great step to take at this time.
“Can I live with my partner exactly how he or she is?”
This question has to do with whether or not you have expectations for your partner to change. As the saying goes, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” While there are subtle changes, such as adopting a healthier lifestyle, that aren’t unrealistic, many other attributes are likely unchangeable. “Most people who have a reasonable amount of flexibility can adjust to things that make you feel uncomfortable and vice versa, as we’d expect in any healthy relationship,” says Fran Walfish, PsyD, a couple and family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills. “However, basic temperament, personality, and character do not change.”
“How does he/she treat his/her parents?”
Does he treat them with respect? Do they have healthy boundaries? “Parents are the strongest role models for how their children learn to operate in adult relationships,” says Derichs. “The parent-child relationship is the first experience of a close relationship most people have, and through this relationship people learn about trust, separation, connection, and who they are as individuals.” In other words, if your partner treats their closest family members with no respect, then you can likely expect them to do the same to you.
“What do your parents and siblings say?”
“Most of us seem to believe that the opinions of parents and siblings shouldn’t count for much, but they often know us better than we’d like to admit,” says McMahon. While it can be hard to hear that they disapprove of the person you might want to spend the rest of your life with, it’s important to pay attention to their thoughts and concerns. “Ask their opinions and if it is less than enthusiastic, ask them what specific traits they see as most bothersome,” suggests McMahon. “What’s more, your family can either help you see what any doubts are all about, or confirm that your cold feet are normal and natural.”
Are there any blatant or non-obvious signs of abusiveness?
On the laundry list of red flags, signs of abuse tops the list. “Some of these may be obvious, like violence and infidelity, but it’s good to discuss this upfront,” says Sherman. “You may want to talk about possible addictions, cursing, yelling, smoking, emotional affairs, being gone a lot or anything that you foresee would be very troublesome in a relationship before it becomes a problem.” If you’re not sure what qualifies as abusive behavior, seek out the help of a therapist who can clue you in and give you the best advice.