Building a strong foundation for marriage or another long-term committed relationship doesn’t happen in an instant. There are certain experiences couples go through over time that help them understand each other on a deeper level.
“We date and spend time together to figure out if a person is right for us, but time together is important also because the experiences that we have together build a bond, piece by piece,” marriage and family therapist Becky Whetstone told HuffPost. “The bonds are what helps the relationship withstand good times and bad.”
So ideally, what things should a couple go through together before taking a walk down the aisle? We asked marriage experts for their suggestions. (Note that what’s listed below are just that — suggestions. Every relationship is different, so this is by no means a be-all, end-all checklist.)
1. Take a big trip together.
“Whether you opt for a road trip across the U.S. or spend a few weeks backpacking through Southeast Asia, you need to see how it feels to truly rely on your partner when navigating novel experiences together. How do they cope with challenges like a flat tire or being immersed in a society without the ability to communicate in English? Are they able to roll with the punches and stay positive, or do they get pessimistic, moody or unreliable? This can be a litmus test for how they deal with the challenges that will arise later in life.” ― Spencer Scott, psychologist
2. Successfully resolve a big argument.
“Can you talk about things in a mutually respectful way? Can you communicate and collaborate without shutting down, attacking, blaming or getting defensive if you don’t immediately get your way? Or can you notice such reactions and then take a breath, step back, soothe yourself and continue the conversation? Can you arrive at some solution that feels okay to both of you? Facing and working through differences and conflicts creates an important foundation for your relationship going forward. If you can’t deal with conflicts at some point during dating, then how can you expect to deal with inevitable conflicts that arise in even the best relationships after marriage?” ― John Amodeo, marriage and family therapist and author of Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships
3. Have an in-depth conversation about your childhoods and family histories.
“Understand who your partner is and what they believe in. Spend time understanding one another’s history, learn about their family, what they loved and didn’t love along the way. Are they open or closed off? Do they believe they should put their parents above the marriage? What do they value and believe in? The more you know and understand about each other, the more solid your relationship will be.” ― Becky Whetstone
4. Make a shared budget and stick to it.
“Finances are the No. 1 reason partners who share a household fight. Before commitment, you need to know if you can rely on your partner to stay true to a budget and effectively manage your shared pool of money. It might be a good idea to start small, like agreeing how much money you want to spend as a couple one weekend, then trying to have fun within that set limit.” ― Spencer Scott
5. Hit a rough patch — like a job loss, health scare or other stressful event — and come out the other side.
“It’s easy to love when things are going well. However, it’s the thunderstorms and difficulties that arise that show us if the relationship is based on real love or infatuation. Ultimately, in every relationship, frustrations happen, storms arise and our unhealed wounds come out of the shadows for healing. It is important to have a ‘rough waters’ game plan when the inevitable problems, fears, anger or regressions hit. Nothing builds trust more than a good storm. That’s when you learn what you are made of, how secure the relationship really is, and how committed you both are. When it gets tough, do you fall apart, run away or hold hands and talk it out?” ― Sheri Meyers, marriage and family therapist
6. Go to couples therapy.
“Couples need to take the time to learn from someone that solidly understands the dynamics [of communication in a relationship]. The goal is to be able to transmit and receive messages in a way that remains respectful and doesn’t damage the relationship. This sounds easy and simple, but it isn’t ― especially when people are sensitive and tend to get feelings hurt or take things personally.” ― Whetstone
7. Live together.
“You’ll be able to find out how you live together, how compatible and how tolerant you can be toward one another. Sharing a living space will help you figure out what annoys and upsets you in regard to your differences, needs and priorities and whether the two of you can manage and accept them. Also, when you live together, you realize the importance of teamwork and respect while dealing with chores and responsibilities.
Managing shared lives is much more difficult than managing life by yourself. Through the experience of living together, you get to know your partner and yourself better. You are forced to develop boundaries, intimacy and relationship skills and hopefully you move toward personal growth.” ― Moshe Ratson, marriage and family therapist
8. Go through a sexual rut. Then be willing to talk about it.
“While it’s natural for couples to experience peaks and valleys in their sex lives, when a valley happens or stays too long, hurt, disappointments and rejection creep in. If your partner is starting to feel more like a roommate than a lover, this is a prime opportunity to come together and talk truth, all masks off about your desires, turn-ons and sexual expectations. How much sexual contact do you both want? What makes you feel connected and intimate? What are you going to do on the ‘off’ days? What do you each need to feel desired? How much experimentation is allowed?
“Look at ways to keep it fresh and stretch your comfort zone. Creating some conscious strategies early on will eliminate some of the disappointment that occurs when the sexual excitement shifts or goes temporarily dormant.” ― Meyers