The summer of 1978

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On this morning’s walk, I suddenly realized around mile three that my ex-husband and I got engaged 40 years ago this month.

I was 21 years old; he was 20. It was the summer before our senior year in college. He mowed lawns and painted houses to collect enough cash for a diamond ring that he put on my finger on a hot July afternoon in a city park.

Instead of sharing our news right away, he wanted to ask my father’s permission to marry me, so he came home with me soon afterward. I waited all weekend for him to speak to my dad, but he finally confessed that he couldn’t do it.

So, when everyone was gathered around the kitchen table before our three-hour drive back to college, I blurted out to my assembled family and relatives that we were engaged. Instead of the happy congratulations I’d expected, there was silence, and I ran from the room, crying. My older sister followed me and assured me that everyone was just taken by surprise. Before we left for the drive back, my mother tried to tell me the same – my dad was strangely silent.

Like so many, we were way too young and too naïve to foresee the challenges ahead.

Color-blind to red flags.

Smitten with the idea of being a couple.

Deaf to the warnings of family and friends.

Unaware of what we didn’t know we didn’t know.

In the months to come, we began making wedding plans for the following June. That’s when he told me he didn’t want to be married in my church or go to the pre-marriage class that was required back then. He wanted to marry in a church we would choose together. After many tearful nights, he agreed to marry in my church, but ditched the class halfway through while I stayed to get the certificate. Our marriage was blessed by a priest who’d counseled me months before to end the engagement.

Forty years later, his wish to be married somewhere else (especially since neither of my daughters were married in a church) doesn’t sound out of the ordinary. But I was from a small Iowa town — my church was my extended family. I couldn’t conceive of getting married anywhere else but my church back then.

Obviously, this was only the beginning — there was so much we didn’t understand about each other. And even though my gut might have urged me to slow down, my heart sped forward. But that’s all behind us now: He’s engaged to be married next year to a long-time “friend” he met at work — exactly 40 years after his first marriage.

Some 50 percent of the couples who were married in 1979 have made it, and some 50 percent of us haven’t. In the past two years, I’ve learned that some marriages go on despite being toxic, and others end at the slightest hiccup. Some enrich; others strangle. Some grow through challenges; others wither with weakness. Some give unconditionally; some take. Some bend; some break. Some are monogamous; some aren’t. Some are a business arrangement; some are true love. And some just are. In the end, maybe divorce simply occurs when one or the other says: “Enough.”

However, no one enters marriage thinking they will be on the losing end. Every marriage begins with hope and trust. I still believe that. And I respect those who work at it every day.

If you are lucky enough to find someone special and are considering marriage, take a few minutes to quiet your racing heart and ask yourself some (or all) of the questions below. Being honest with yourself from the beginning could help your relationship down the road.

You might even check out these questions if you’ve been married a while. Not all the questions will pertain to your situation but pay attention to the ones that make your gut say: “Uh-oh.”

  • Does he/she get along with your friends? Do your friends like him/her?
  • Does he/she have friends? Have you met them and do you like them?
  • Does he/she get along with your family?
  • Do you like his family – and do they like you?
  • Why does he/she want to marry you?
  • Why do you want to marry him/her?
  • Are you marrying this person for any reason other than love?
  • Where will you live after you marry?
  • How will a move affect his/her or your relationships with friends and family?
  • What do you like most about his/her personality?
  • What do you like least about his/her personality?
  • Are you similar or very different from each other – and how does this affect your relationship?
  • Do you do anything to change your personality to make him/her happy?
  • Is she/he employed? Are you proud of the work he/she does? Do you have any concerns?
  • Are you employed? Is he/she proud of the work you do? Does he/she express concerns?
  • Do you have any concerns with how he/she spends (or doesn’t spend) money?
  • How important is the topic of money in your relationship?
  • How did your family handle the finances when you were growing up? How did his/hers? How will you handle the finances in your own marriage?
  • Do you plan to have children? Does he/she? What are your concerns?
  • What do you know about his/her childhood? What does he/she know about yours? Do you have any concerns?
  • How were you disciplined as a child? How was he/she?
  • When you disagree, what areas of your lives cause the most friction? Why?
  • What’s your passion? What’s his/hers?
  • What pushes your buttons? What pushes his/hers?
  • How do your religious, political, cultural, educational views align or vary?
  • Is there anything in your past that you think he/she should know before you marry? Have you asked him/her the same question?
  • Does he/she enjoy doing activities with you? What do you like doing together? What do you like doing by yourself?
  • Does he/she make you laugh? Does he/she laugh with you?
  • Are you happiest when you are with him/her?

There are a thousand other questions to ask. This is a good place to start. I keep adding to the list.

Do you have any suggestions?

Be kind. Do no harm.

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