While statistics have shown that the divorce rate in the United States is steadily on the decline, thanks in part to people getting married later, having more education, and living together before saying “I do”, people still do regrettably break up. But as divorce attorney Vikki Ziegler has found, putting in some heavy-duty homework before you head down the aisle can help you make sure you never end up on her client list. “People need to plan not just the wedding and the one-day affair but their whole lives,” says Ziegler. “You’ve got to dig deep to determine whether or not you’re marrying the right person, and you’ve got to deal with your past and the things that are holding you back from being the best partner you can possibly be.”
Meet the Expert
Vikki Ziegler is a divorce attorney and partner and co-founder of Ziegler, Resnick, and Epstein in New Jersey.
To help you get both emotionally and financially “naked,” as Ziegler put it in The Pre-Marital Planner, a relationship advice workbook that asks some majorly probing questions providing tools to better communicate with your spouse, work as a team, and fight fairly over the course of your marriage. “The tough questions are not where’s the venue and how many people and who’s sitting at what table,” she says. “It’s what’s wrong with your past, why did you break up with people, how could you improve, how can we communicate when we fight—those are the really important things.”
While all of her clients have sought the services of a divorce attorney for different reasons, Ziegler says she has seen some common threads, particularly lack of communication, not fighting respectfully, and someone running out of the marriage or cheating rather than working through a rough patch. “If they had figured out these techniques before they got married, I don’t think they would be coming to see me,” she says.
While no one can predict the future, you can set yourself up for success starting right now. Here’s the relationship advice you need to put yourself on the path to happily ever after.
Unconditionally Respect Your Partner
“The minute you cross the line of disrespect, I think we have a major problem,” says Ziegler. You’re not always going to see eye to eye with your spouse, but if you don’t fight fair, then you’re setting a bad precedent for your relationship. Your partner’s feelings are still their feelings; hear your spouse out, try to understand where they are coming from, and explain your perspective without insults or eye rolls. Like Kristen Bell said, “You might as well break up right then because it’s contempt.”
Be Honest About Money
“Everyone has a different attachment to money,” says Ziegler. You’re a saver, they're a spender or vice versa—totally fine, but just get on the same page now about how you two will collaboratively approach your finances, who will set up the family budget, and what will that budget look like, or be prepared to fight about splitting assets in court. Planning the wedding and organizing that budget are a great test run, but marriage is a long haul, so you need to set up a game plan to take you forward, through kids, your first home, and all the (expensive) bumps in the road you haven’t even imagined yet. You also need to get honest about any debt you have.
One third of adults under 30 have student loan debts. And it may take some until their 40s to pay it off, which means odds are these bills will show up when you go to borrow to buy a house or will affect your retirement plans. That’s not something you want to surprise someone with years down the road.
Know Your Deal Breakers
While you should love your partner unconditionally, you should also love yourself enough to not stay in a situation that could potentially be unhealthy. “When you’re dating, keep your eyes wide open, and when you’re married, close one eye,” says Ziegler. “The reason I say that is because people are telling you who they are. You choose to listen; you choose to see the red flags or not.”
Obviously physical abuse is completely unacceptable, but what about if someone yells at you or makes you feel inadequate? What about cheating? Or if your partner ever has a problem with drugs or alcohol? When you're dating, don’t be so blinded by love that you stay in a toxic relationship, hoping you will one day change the other person. However, once you’re married, don’t always be looking for flaws, so much so that you pick your partner apart. “You need to think clearly about what you won’t tolerate,” she says. “Be aware of those deal breakers and be honest.”
Get a Grip on Your Past
Whether you want to admit it or not, you may have had a few “what the heck was I thinking” relationships. Join the club, we’ve all been there. But there’s something to be gained from having dated Mr. or Ms. Wrong: It helped you recognize Mr. or Mrs. Right. By identifying the good and the bad, you can keep from making the same (hurtful) mistakes again and again, and it’ll keep you from projecting your past issues with Mr. or Ms. Constantly Stood You Up, on your sweetie who maybe just forgot your dinner plans this one time.
Come to Terms With Your Parents
Unless you’ve been married before, your parents’ marriage is your only firsthand account of what it’s like to be married. And while some people’s parents are the loving couples TV sitcoms are made of, others are a warring divorced duo with custody agreements. Recognize the good things you’ve seen your folks do and replicate those in your own life, and learn from the things that have been a total disaster so you don’t make the same mistakes. Says Ziegler, “Take these lessons from what’s happened in your life up until now and try to figure out how can you improve and apply them to issues that arise when you have something go wrong in your marriage.”
Work on Your Listening Skills
When you’re in the midst of an all-out shout fest, it’s so easy to get caught up in the momentum of “winning” that you don’t even hear what the other person is saying. “Sometimes you need to step back and listen without emotion, and you need to regurgitate what someone just said to you so you can take it in,” advises Ziegler. “When you start talking about other things and trying to hurt someone because your ego feels attacked, that’s when things shut down. People really need to be sensitive to the words that come out of their mouth, and when you do that, you say things from a place of love, not from a place of hurt. That’s when you have a solid marriage.”
If you’re fighting over them not doing their share of the household chores, don’t start piling on a laundry list of nonrelated grievances, like that time they stayed out too late last month, or when they trash-talked your brother. Also, the phrasing of your argument can easily change the tone and help bring you to a resolution. Consider “I hate it when you leave all your filthy dishes in the sink” versus “I love it when I come home to a clean kitchen.” See?
Focus on the Marriage You Want
Issues are going to arise, and there will be good times and not-so-good times in your future. But keeping your eyes on the prize will help you ride the wave like a pro. Come at disagreements from a place of love, not “I hate your guts” (even though you might at that moment). “Talk about why you’re vulnerable and how to improve upon your vulnerability, why you’re actually marrying this person in the first place, what you love about them, and focus on the good,” says Ziegler. Keep working on making yourself the best person you can be, not only for your partner but also for yourself. Take time not just today, but regularly over the course of your marriage to ask yourself, “am I trusting you, am I showing gratitude, am I emitting emotion, am I giving you recognition?” and you may help give your marriage longevity.
United States Census Bureau. "U.S. Marriage and Divorce Rates Declined in Last 10 Years." Published December 7, 2020.
Pew Research Center. "5 Facts About Student Loans." Published August 13, 2019.