The first time Keri Walthall locked lips with her fiance, Jeremy Prichard, she knew he was "the one."
"Which really doesn't make sense because I'm usually very practical," Walthall says, laughing. "But I just felt this connection right away."
Fortunately for the longevity of their relationship, Walthall and Prichard didn't get swept completely off their feet.
They were young back then - 19 and 21 respectively - and still uncertain about their futures. They credit their patience for the fact that, five and a half years after their first date, they're getting married on June 17 at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Lawrence.
Taking time to really get to know yourself and your partner is crucial to a successful marriage, says Monica Mendez Leahy, author of "1001 Questions to Ask Before You Get Married" (McGraw-Hill, $14.95).
Whether those conversations are motivated by books, self-initiative or formal marriage prep counseling - Walthall and Prichard went through a program required by the Catholic Church - they need to be open and honest.
"I do radio interviews, and one of the questions was, 'Do you really need to ask 1001?'" Leahy says. "And my response was, 'Yes! Ask 2002 or 10,010.' A lot of them are the ones you naturally ask, but what's missing is a lot of realism."
In other words - and this will be distressing to the hopeless romantics among you - love is not enough.
Navigating rough waters
A common scenario may go something like this:
Girlfriend asks boyfriend whether he likes kids. Boyfriend says yes. Girlfriend gleams and drops the subject. She's satisfied.
"But you're not asking who's going to wake up when the baby cries? Or what about bringing in children from a previous relationship?" Mendez says. "What are you going to do when this child's a teen and they say, 'I don't want to live with mom anymore. I want to come live with you'?
"They're all questions that will happen in a majority of relationships. And you've gotta prepare because then you can form a plan as a team, and it makes the rough waters a lot easier to navigate."
Of the many topics covered in her book, Mendez says couples should be most prepared for The Big Three, or The Three F's: family, finances and fooling around.
Family concerns can range from starting your own to maintaining relationships with siblings and in-laws.
An ongoing discussion in Walthall and Prichard's relationship is how often Walthall's mother calls and how long Walthall stays on the phone with her.
"I don't know if that's just because I'm a girl and he's a guy and he doesn't relate to that as well," Walthall says. "I think he feels like she calls too much sometimes, and I don't know that she necessarily does. So we've been working on that."
Finances can cause relationships rifts as well. Conflicts arise, for instance, when one person is a big spender and the other is frugal. But there's always a compromise, Mendez says. Maybe the wife who wants to outfit herself in the most current fashions could be limited to one new getup a month. Or perhaps she could just buy a few new accessories now and then.
"You can work with that instead of saying, 'We're not spending any money on clothes,'" Mendez says. "That doesn't work because then both people are on the defensive."
As for sexual relations, well, that's also a hot-button issue that bears discussion, no matter how embarrassing.
In pre-marriage seminars that Mendez and her husband teach in the Los Angeles area, they recommend couples choose a catch phrase to use as a signal for when they want to talk about intimacy. Then you know how your partner wants to be approached about the sensitive topic, and a conversation about needs and desires, likes and dislikes might flow more easily afterward.
Deal now, benefit later
All of these subjects are covered in the premarital counseling provided by many religious denominations. At St. John's, for instance, couples who want to marry in the church meet with an adviser who goes over some basics, then take a test that gauges their compatibility on certain issues and ultimately attend a class or retreat to receive guidance from a married couple.
The test, called FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study), includes questions about children, finances, communication, in-laws, drugs and alcohol, religion, sexuality, lifestyle expectations, friends and interests, problem-solving techniques and personality traits.
Often it's the conversations about compromise that occur after the test results are in that are most beneficial.
"One of the things that I always tell couples is it's not whether you're compatible or not compatible with one another," says the Rev. John Schmeidler, priest at St. John's. "It's how much you can transcend your own self to give to the other."
But how do you know whether you have that capability?
It takes time, Schmeidler says, which is why couples like Keri Walthall and Jeremy Prichard, who don't rush past getting to know one another, have the right idea.
"I do think that waiting is so beneficial," says Prichard, who enjoyed his marriage prep activities with Walthall. "Even if you've been in a relationship for so many years, you can still learn something new. You can still bring up something that you've been pushing aside because it's going to make you deal with that stuff.
"And if you can't deal with it now, how are you going to deal with it later?"