Within three months of dating a guy, I could always tell why the relationship should end. But most of the time, I’d keep dating him anyway. We were having fun. I thought he might change. I didn’t want to be alone. Some of these relationships lasted for years, but finally that voice deep inside of me started screaming. The gut feeling in the pit of my stomach turned into queasiness that I couldn’t deny. Mind you, these were all wonderful, loving guys. They just weren’t the one I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with.
When I met my husband, Peter, I checked in with my gut at three months. I was sort of wondering if it had gone on vacation, because I wasn’t hearing any complaints. I remember going into a church to ask for guidance, and when I came out, I saw Peter walking toward me, smiling. Instead of feeling sick, that little voice in my head made a girlish squeal of delight.
As someone who has a deep respect for little voices and gut feelings — a.k.a. the spiritual guidance of God — in big decision making, the premise of Anne Milford and Jennifer Gauvain’s new book, How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy intrigued me. While most dating and marriage guides focus on the goal of getting to the altar, Milford and Gauvain ask us to step back and make sure we really want to take that walk down the aisle.
Eighteen years ago, Milford called off her own wedding — and was surprised by how many women confided in her that they, too, wished they’d done the same. Intrigued, she began looking for similarities in their stories: Were there signs? How would you know what the right decision should be? What about the cost of breaking an engagement when wedding plans were underway? She teamed up with Gauvain, a clinical social worker and couples counselor who leads Pre-Cana marriage preparation courses. Together they wrote a smart, wake-up call book for anyone who has second thoughts about their relationship. Recently, we chatted about the book:
Christine Whelan: When you get engaged, it seems like you are jumping on a fast-moving train — and jumping off the train is really, really hard. What are the top five questions men and women should ask themselves if they are in a serious relationship to avoid getting engaged to the wrong person?
Anne Milford: We talked to hundreds of women and asked them: Why did you get engaged to a man who you knew, deep down, was not right for you? We categorized their answers into the following themes:
- Insecurity or loneliness
- External pressures
- Belief that marriage was next logical step
- Length of time in relationship — didn’t want to “waste the time spent”
In How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy, we turn these themes into questions to help our readers determine whether they are getting engaged for the wrong reasons. Here are five key questions to ask:
- Will you want to marry the person six months from now?
- Are you under any pressure to get married? (Are you being influenced by your family or friends? Have you set an arbitrary deadline for marriage and that date is looming? Ticking biological clock?)
- Are you getting married because you think it is the next logical step or you don’t want to “waste the time invested” in the relationship?
- Are you getting married because you are tired of being alone or afraid no one “better” is going to come along?
- Do you and your boyfriend share the same goals, beliefs, and ideals for your marriage? Have you even talked about any of this with each other?
CW: Your book is written for women — but it seems like the advice could equally apply to men. Are women more likely than men to knowingly marry the wrong person? If so, why?
AM: The advice in How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy absolutely applies to men. In fact, we have heard from a lot of men who said they found the book extremely helpful. (We think a lot of mothers buy it for their sons!) However, we joke that most men will have to read our hot pink book in the privacy of their own home to avoid raised eyebrows!
In the course of our research, we talked to several men who said they “knew it was a mistake as they were walking down the aisle” and discovered something fascinating. The reasons that men cited for marrying the wrong girl were typically more noble and honorable than the women. The women’s reasons can be described as “selfish” i.e. “I am tired of being alone” or “I want to get married before I am 35 so he will have to do.” The men said they went through with a misguided marriage because of a sense of honor: “I made a promise to her.” Or the most common reason cited by men: “I didn’t want to hurt her.” We can’t say one gender is more likely to marry the wrong person but the reasons for doing so seem to differ. Overall, the men cited more thoughtful reasons for marrying the wrong girl.
CW: Given that, what are five questions couples should ask each other while they are dating or during the engagement period?
AM: The first step is to articulate what you both want and need. And we aren’t talking about eye color, income, beauty etc. Instead, you need to think about what is important to you. For example: “Family is very important to me. I want a spouse who values family and family traditions as much as I do.” Or “My faith is important to me. I want a spouse who wants to grow in his or her faith and actively participate in a church community.” Obviously, this list will be different for everyone.
But the second list is universal. And that’s a clear understanding of the qualities of a healthy relationship. Through Jennifer’s practice and our research, we’ve observed five universal signs of a healthy relationship. Here are five questions to ask while you are dating to help you determine whether the relationship is healthy and fulfilling for both of you:
- Do you bring out the best in each other, not the worst? You encourage each other to grow personally, professionally and emotionally, recognizing that change is positive and healthy.
- Do you trust each other and know that you can count on one another to do the right thing? There’s no jealousy or second-guessing in the relationship.
- Do you have fun together? Playfulness adds spice, and laughter is an aphrodisiac.
- Do you share common core beliefs and values? Connecting on an emotional and spiritual level is just as powerful — and important — as a physical connection.
- Do you communicate with each other out of care and concern instead of judgment and criticism? Think about it this way: What’s your tone of voice like when you’re critical and judgmental? It’s hard to have a harsh tone when you speak out of care and concern.
Do you have these qualities in your relationship? If not, it’s time to pay attention to your gut feelings. Deep down, you know whether he or she is right — or wrong — for you.
CW: In your book, you talk a lot about red flags and listening to your gut. To me, that’s sounds a lot like the Catholic idea of discernment — being quiet and listening to God’s voice and guidance. We all know that we should do it, but it’s a challenge. How do we learn to see red flags for what they are? And what’s the best way to discern whether a relationship should move toward marriage?
AM: When we speak of gut feelings, or that little voice in our head, I think we are really talking about our conscience. It is the same voice or feeling that we heard or felt as a child when we did something wrong. Unfortunately, as we grow older, we squelch that voice. Instead of training ourselves to tune in to the voice of God, we can slowly train ourselves to tune Him out. The subtle voice that called out to us when we took candy from the candy store as a child will help us make the right choices as adults. Consider this: If your boyfriend or girlfriend says or does things that are counter to your morals or beliefs, how does it make you feel? If something feels funny or doesn’t “sit right” — pay attention. Define what concerns you and then think about how that behavior or attitude will look 15 years from now. Your choice of spouse is a decision that will dictate a good deal of your joys and sorrows. God wants what is best for you. Pay attention to what He is trying to tell you.