As Herb and I make plans to attend our dear friends’ daughter’s wedding, I am once again struck by the challenge that all couples face after the wedding is over--how do you make a marriage succeed over time?

Many couples work diligently for months to plan the “perfect” wedding. Every detail is addressed and decided upon. Contingency plans are devised, schedules are finalized, and preparations are thoroughly organized and arranged. There is even a rehearsal for the big day’s events. No component is left to chance; every possible circumstance is envisioned and accounted for.

But how many couples invest even a fraction of the time they spend in wedding planning on marriage planning? How many plan for the marriage at all? And yet, the morning after they say, “I Do”, they wake up as married couples and spend the next years of their lives trying to navigate their way to “happily ever after.” Sadly, many will never get there as nearly one-half of all marriages end in divorce.

And living together before marriage is no formula for success either. Several studies, including a recent book by Mike and Harriet McManus, Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers, indicate that around 67% of couples who live together before marriage eventually divorce, as compared with 45% of all marriages.

So what is the “magic formula” for a long and happy life together?

Well, I am of the opinion that making a marriage work starts L-O-N-G before the marriage and begins inside each of us. First we must become mature, loving, unselfish, forgiving, secure individuals with a clear understanding of our expectations, needs, likes, dislikes and requirements.

Read that again: mature, loving, unselfish, forgiving, secure. Does that describe you, or the person with whom you are involved? 

Do you clearly understand your expectations, needs, likes, dislikes, and requirements? Can you communicate them effectively, and honestly reconcile how well another person is suited to complement those prerequisites?

If you are not currently in a relationship, now is the perfect time to determine the traits and characteristics that are necessary in order for you to be happy being married. When you are not involved with someone, you can be more objective about your true assessment.

Taking a cue from the old “Ben Franklin approach”, be honest with yourself and develop two lists—one that inventories all the attributes, values and qualities that are a “must” for you--things you can’t live without. This can be anything from “is deeply spiritual” to “loves college football” to “faithful, kind, thoughtful and considerate”, to “has a positive outlook on life”. Bear in mind, this is YOUR list, so do some serious soul-searching here to compose a personal, meaningful, and descriptive analysis.  

On the other list, put everything that you cannot live with, perhaps “jealousy”, “infidelity”, “controlling personality”, “doesn’t want kids/dogs”, or “negative thinker” etc. Take the time to really examine what has worked and what has not worked in your previous relationships, and WHY. Be sure to periodically refine and update these lists as new thoughts come to you. And be as comprehensive as possible—remember you are seeking to define the traits that you will have to live with, day in and day out, year after year after year!

And make sure that these are character traits, not superficial features. Keep in mind that looks change over time and are a lousy indicator of whether you will be compatible and happy together. People gain weight, lose hair, (grow hair where it didn’t grow before), and develop wrinkles. Accidents can cause disfigurement, illnesses rob of our healthy skin, and gravity forces everything to bend and sag. So be sure to define what you want to see inside a person, not outside!