Ask a Psychologist: The 5 Most Important Things to Discuss Before Getting Married


And how to talk about them

by Shara M. Brofman, Psy.D.

If you’re thinking about getting married, you and your partner probably already have a lot of things in common: friends, hobbies, interests, experiences, or values. Maybe you come from similar backgrounds and experiences, or maybe you’ve connected in other ways. The experiences you share in your relationship will serve as the foundation for your marriage, and they can keep you connected and strong in the spaces where you don’t have things in common—or when life throws curve balls.

After the excitement and magic of deciding to get married dies down a little, there’s important logistical stuff to address about the relationship. Some of this stuff is not as much fun to talk about as romance and wedding planning. It can be boring, unpleasant, overwhelming, or scary, and it brings up differences and conflict. You might be wondering, how does one even begin to think about these questions? There’s a lot out there on Everything You Should Discuss Before Getting Married, but there isn’t usually information on how to do this. So, here’s my take on five major areas to begin talking about before marriage, and how to talk about them. Keep in mind that you can, and will, continue to have these conversations after marriage, and that the conversations may change as your relationship continues to evolve.

WHAT TO TALK ABOUT

Finances and Legal Issues

Finances are an incredibly important topic. They influence marriage on a daily basis, as well as in more long-term ways. For many couples, marriage can be a financial benefit and an exciting opportunity. (Ahem, taxes, for one thing.) But money is also hard to talk about. Many people grow up in families in which money is not openly discussed. Partners can also come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, or have different values about how money should be saved, spent, or shared. Partners usually make different amounts of money. For some couples, the difference is larger than for others. Partners also have different amounts of assets and debt. For all of these reasons, money can be a complicated topic. But it can also be an exciting topic, and one that helps propel future planning. APW also happens to have a huge array of resources to facilitate conversations about money. So, for starters, check out some great resources on budgeting, thinking about money, and combining finances. And consider these questions:

  • What is important to each of you to spend money on? What kind of lifestyle do you want to cultivate?
  • How did your families address money?
  • How do you feel about combining finances? Combining some finances, but keeping other accounts separate? Keeping everything separate?
  • How do you think about and plan to save money?

Legal issues are another important topic. To start with a basic one, do you and/or your partner plan to change any part of your name after marriage? We live in an age in which many of us have choices in this—but choices can also be overwhelming. Luckily, APW also has terrific resources to help think about changing—or not changing—(any part of) your name here: on name changing, feminist choices, speaking up about name changing, and changing your middle name. But that’s just the tip of the legal iceberg. Here are some more questions to get you started on legal topics:

  • Does either of you have an interest in creating a prenuptial agreement? Now is the time to discuss why, or why not. (No, getting a prenup does not mean that you’re going to get divorced.)
  • Has either of you ever been arrested or involved in any legal (criminal or civil) situations?
  • Do you have any open court cases?
  • How do you each plan to approach wills, and what you’ll pass on to your spouse (or someone else)?

Family, Relationships, and SeX

Family can be a happy and exciting topic for some people, and a more difficult one for others. Our experiences with our families influence how we interact with our partners and how we think about creating a new family, and those experiences are not always easy. There will be aspects of our past experiences that we want to re-create, as well as things that we want to do very differently. We may have different images of the role of extended or immediate family in our marriage. While we’ll undoubtedly agree on some things with our partners, and disagree on others—and this discussion may shift as life circumstances (having children, having more or less money, living in a different place) shift. For all of these reasons, the topic of family may change the most as you continue to develop your relationship and build your family—and that’s totally okay.

And then there is sex. Partners may have different ideas and expectations about how sex factors into marriage, and they may come from different sexual experiences, some positive, some negative. With changing lives, bodies, libidos, and circumstances, sex is another conversation that may shift in different ways over time.

Consider these questions in thinking about family, relationships, and sex:

  • How do you and your partner define and think about family? What kind of family will your marriage create, and how will it impact your existing families?
  • Which relationships are important to you and your partner in your lives, and how will they interact with your marriage? Are children, parents, siblings, extended family, or family of choice important to you? Do you have previous marriages or children?
  • What is important to you in a sexual relationship? How do you feel about monogamy? What do you define as infidelity?

Mental Health, Substance Abuse, Trauma, and Medical Issues

Medical conditions, including accidents, surgeries, acute or chronic illnesses, or genetic illnesses in the family, are also very important to discuss openly with your partner, and you might not have fully explored yours and your family’s medical history until now.

Beyond that, mental health issues are common, even though we don’t always think of them as such. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that in 2012, approximately sixteen million adults in the U.S. (almost seven percent of adults) had at least one major depressive episode. There is a huge continuum of mental health experiences and problems that are important to talk about, which include substance abuse and trauma. Even if you or your partner has never had a formal mental health, substance abuse, or medical diagnosis, it’s important to understand each other’s past experiences and how they might play out in your life together.

  • Have you or your partner ever been diagnosed with a mental health, substance abuse, or medical issue? Have you ever experienced abuse, a serious accident, or another trauma? What was useful in helping you recover, and how can your partner support you if something comes up again?
  • Has anyone in your family struggled with mental health, substance abuse, or medical problems? How has it impacted you, and how might it impact your marriage? On a day-to-day basis? In the long run?

CulturAl Similarities And Differences

Everyone comes from a unique culture, stemming from many larger cultures (race, ethnicity, education, religion/faith/spirituality, socioeconomic, gender, sexuality, age, language, location, food, etc.). Every family creates its own culture. Partners may find it easy to connect on certain aspects of culture, hard on others, and somewhere in between on the rest.

Partners who have similar religious backgrounds may find that their families did things completely differently. Partners from a similar ethnic background may have grown up speaking different languages at home. Partners from different educational backgrounds may find that they really connect in terms of what city they grew up in or live in now. Start thinking about this broadly, and you’ll find that the conversation will get more specific:

  • How do you and your partner think about culture?
  • What cultures do you and your partner come from, and what kind of culture do you want to create together?

WHERE YOU WILL LIVE (AND HOW LONG YOU WILL STAY)

We live in an era in which many of us travel more than people ever have. We may live in a different place from where we grew up or went to school. We may live far away from our extended families, or even apart from our partner due to school or work arrangements. We have more ways to communicate across distance than we ever have. So, more than ever, it’s important to discuss location:

  • How will location factor into establishing your marriage?
  • Will you live in the same place for many years, move around, or travel?
  • How do family, friends, and work obligations play into location?
  • What is important to you and your partner in thinking about location?

HOW TO TALK ABOUT IT

It can get overwhelming, or even scary, to think about all of these issues. Try not to think about questions in terms of specific questions, answers, and “what ifs,” but in terms of how. Start broadly by thinking about the values you share and by asking more general questions before getting to very specific scenarios. This way of thinking allows you to examine your shared and different philosophies in a way that makes room for myriad types of situations (some of which may be more predictable than others).

Although it makes sense to discuss some past experiences or hypothetical situations specifically, it won’t apply to every future scenario. For example, the question, “What if we turn out to be infertile?” is impossible to answer in advance. First of all, you may never have to address the question in the first place. Second, there are so many possible scenarios that could play out in that reality, that it’s impossible to come to any answers (or even ask the right questions) in advance. A more approachable way to think about this topic might be, “How do we define family? What is important to us in building a family?” These open-ended questions can serve as general guidelines that can then inform how you’ll approach more specific situations.

It can be hard to start having frank conversations about complex and sometimes loaded issues, but talking as honestly as possible will pay off in the long run. Carve out some time to sit with your partner over coffee and go over this stuff. Make plans to go for a nice dinner afterwards. Have multiple conversations. It will get easier, and feel more useful, the more you do it. You can also always pursue premarital counseling or couples therapy. Similarly, you can set aside time when you’re not going to talk about certain topics. This way, you’ll be prepared to talk at a good time, and conversations won’t feel like a surprise or interfere with the more fun aspects of your relationship. Know that you may not be able to answer every question in advance, and that that’s logical and normal, but that these things are important to start to think about together.

For more resources on how to prepare your relationship for marriage, check out “Questions to Ask Before You Get Married” in Meg’s book.

The information provided in Ask a Psychologist is intended by Dr. Brofman and APW to serve as general advice and guidance for all readers. The advice herein does not constitute a clinical recommendation or relationship, and Dr. Brofman and quoted mental health professionals do not take clinical responsibility for this information. Ask a Psychologist does not take the place of a confidential clinical consultation with a trained mental health professional.

Shara M. Brofman, Psy.D.

Shara Marrero Brofman, Psy.D., is a psychologist who values all things practical. She studied Child Development at Tufts University and worked in case management and clinical research before earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers University. Dr. Brofman practices in New York City and has special interests in women’s and reproductive mental health. She can be contacted at drsharabrofman at gmail dot com. Photo by Smitten Chickens.

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  • Sarah E

    Thanks for sharing all this, Dr. Brofman! One thing that I’ve seen played out in different ways, both in my family and in my partner’s, is care for elderly parents. It’s a more specific scenario included in the broader discussions of family and location above, but it’s something that I think about very often, especially as I begin to see the light at the end of my partner’s grad school tunnel, and my dad reaches retirement. We are fortunate to have great relationships with our parents, as well as responsible siblings, but knowing how much time and effort my mom (lovingly) puts in as primary caregiver for my grandma, it’s a major concern to me to have a plan. . .at least, in the broad way Dr. B describes of setting priorities.

    • Ilora

      Yes to this. My guy has a brother who has a disability and will always need to have a guardian. While he currently lives with their dad, their dad is already old enough that he won’t be able to care for him much longer. We both know that the expectation will be on us to take the brother in (they’re twins) and that we will do it if need be, but that it will be hard, (two introverts here).
      Sometimes things like this can be planned for, but other times life happens and it comes unexpectedly. This is definitely an important aspect of the ‘what family means’ discussion.

    • Jess

      You know, I don’t often see that brought up as a Things to Talk About, or mentioned by people about to get married, but it is really important!

      It came up rather suddenly a year ago when my mom mentioned considering moving into the next town over (from 3.5 hours away) to be closer to me for when they got older, and I was rather taken aback. So, even if you aren’t thinking about it, your parents may be.

  • Jess

    It doesn’t seem like today there are too many people around, but I’m just kind of wondering – does anyone have any recommendations for someone whose partner doesn’t want to answer/give opinions on The Big Stuff?

    R has history of dating someone who spent a lot of time and energy in fighting and threatening to leave due to disagreements. I can tend to be opinionated, but I also really kind of like being challenged and provoked into thinking about something differently.

    I don’t shy away from tough topics, but R does, even when directly asked. It usually gets reflected back at me (“Well, what do you want?”) or deferred (-stone silence- “I just… don’t know how to respond”).

    How do I start some of these conversations while being pre-engaged with someone who doesn’t want to rock the boat? I’d like to talk them through to get some kind of an idea of what future-us could look like, and to understand whether we’re on similar pages.

    • Meg Keene

      You really really really need to go to couples therapy. Not because you’re doomed or anything, but because unless you can start talking, you’re not even going to be able to see if you have a long term future together that you want… let alone make it through that future!

      Ten years into this relationship, five years married with a kid and one on the way, I think about 70% of marriage is being answer and problem solve big questions together. Then, there is a part that’s sex and a part that’s having fun together (and hopefully when we’re in another phase of our life those parts will grow again), but so much of it is solving problems. Or hell, just debating each other over the days news.

      Really the only way I know of to break the log jam (or figure out that you can’t break it) on having real conversations, is couples therapy. If you can’t break it, LEAVE. But you really might be able to, with the help of a good therapist!

      • Jess

        I think that’s probably the answer, and I like the visual of breaking the log jam – it seems most accurate.

        So, sitting down and prefacing with “I don’t want to be angry at you for your answer, I just want to get an understanding of where you’re looking to go” and then kind of forcing the hand by having a person whose only job is to both ask us tough questions and make sure both of us are heard. Plus said therapist may be able to reinforce the conversation aspect in his brain rather than the argument aspect (which would be nice).

    • Sara P

      You might just have to keep asking or give it more time, depending on how long you’ve been together, I guess. My fiance also avoids hard topics like the plague, until just recently (a wedding coming up has pushed us to have a lot of talks about stuff that we’d so far just skimmed), and it’s still a struggle sometimes. We just recently decided to pursue premarital counseling, so I’m hoping that helps us learn how to talk about things better. Long car rides can be good for this kind of thing, too.

      I think Meg’s suggestion of couple’s therapy is a good one, but your partner may be resistant to that. If you haven’t really discussed the future-us, you might just have to sit down with your partner and explain to them where you would like to see this go and that they need to meet you halfway here. It’s hard – best of luck!

    • Julia

      I can relate to this, so much. It’s really hard to be the person in the relationship who is always bringing up the difficult topics. My partner used to deflect with “I don’t know what you want me to say…” (Me: Um, anything? Just talk? Ha.) We’ve had a lot of conversations (and therapy) about the fact that my asking a question about a loaded topic isn’t actually a threat — it’s an invitation. I want to know what he thinks and how he thinks, and I want him to be curious about me in the same way.

      With time, the more he understood that there wasn’t necessarily a “right answer” that I was hinting for, in bringing topics up, the more he felt willing to share his thoughts/opinions. But again – I definitely fall on the side of thinking such conversations are fun (yes, for real) whereas he often feels like “why are we talking about something that may or may not happen? why not just address it when/if it comes up? why are we [as you put it] rocking the boat?”

      My advice? Go to therapy, like Meg said. You’re not being dramatic to want to talk out hypotheticals with your beloved. Being able to argue, or disagree, or challenge one another is indeed important throughout a partnership with someone for a whole long life. And really, the desire to avoid rocking the boat? Well, much of life is a rocky boat. Kind of important to address with your partner from the get-go, if you’re looking for someone to ride out the rocky waves with you :) Best of luck!

    • Dawn

      I agree that you need to be able to talk about these things, but I think it’s also important to be sensitive and patient with those who resist it. My husband avoids difficult topics (other than recreational arguments about the news! ) and tends to see everything as a problem for him to solve, so bringing up a complicated issue sounds to him like a problem he can’t solve. It stresses him and he lacks experience due to his family culture. This may or may not be related to the fact that he is Asian ( in the us since high school) and I am a white American with a straightforward communication style in my family , but I think it is an area in which we may have benefited from the obviousness if our different backgrounds.

    • Violet

      I have a dear friend whose pre-engaged partner is like this as well. They went to a couples’ counselor. I’d describe the process as happening in stages. He had to first come to terms with the fact that issues need to be discussed (his family of origin… basically didn’t talk until there was a problem, and then it was too late.). He then had to realize that someone needs to raise the issue to discuss. My friend came to terms with the fact that as unfair as it is, it will usually be her raising the issues to talk about. (If she waits for him to bring something up, nothing will ever be talked about.) Then he had to realize that since she’s the one who is taking on the burden raising the issues, that it’s his responsibility not to freak out/shut down when she does. They agreed on some mutual times/places to have these kinds of talks, and how the topics will be brought up. It was through their work with the counselor that they now have their timeline for getting engaged and married.

      That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but at least they now have some general agreed-upon terrain to build from. So that when my friend brings something up the way they agreed on, if he gets defensive, she’s allowed to point that out. Whereas before they would have gone seven rounds of Why Are You Asking Me This in the First Place? Which gets exhausting.

      Couples’ counseling is good for when two people are trying their best and still going in circles!

    • We wrote letters. Because it took me a long, long time to be able to talk about difficult topics, but I could write about them. So we wrote letters back and forth about difficult topics. Sometimes we would give each other lists of questions and have the other person write long responses back. We had conversations going back and forth on different issues over a series of years.

      I’m a fan of that method, especially for when starting out because:

      1) I literally just physically could not talk about most of these things when we first started dating. Like… words would not and could not come out of my mouth (but I do have language-ing problems that most of you might not be directly dealing with). But if you gave me hours and days and time alone to process, I could write it. If you tried to press me on the issue, I would get frustrated at my inability to talk and cry and hide.
      2) It gives you time to think about what to say.
      3) It gives you time to react and respond. You get the letter seperately. This means you can react initially however you want. You don’t have to worry about hurting someone’s feelings if your initial reaction is OH MY GOSH NO even if upon further thought you have a more nuanced answer. Because what you initially write doesn’t have to be what you give them. Likewise, I know at least for me, I am more able to be honest if I don’t have to see a first reaction of something. Because some things you say are going to hurt, because expectations are different and people are different. But at least you don’t have to watch. You can act defensive if you need to when you first read it and slowly let things sink in over days as you wait for your response to formulate. It allows you to feel (and acknowledge if you want) your emotions without worrying how they will affect the other person. [Reading “when I first heard this, I was upset.” is much more manageable than watching someone get angry when you have just told them your secrets]

      4) You can reread things you need to. I could reread things over and over and over again (I take a lot of processing time) without needed to go back to the same conversation. It’s also nice because while there are some sad and angry and frustrated letters, there are also ones where we talk about our future and realize that we might be able to make this work or where he tells me he loves me for one of the first times and I can go back and read them forever. It’s nice sometimes to go back and see how our relationship has progressed since we started dating 6 years ago.
      5) It felt safer to me. There wasn’t a threat hanging over every conversation that it might become Serious and scary. It was a set-apart time. You could arrange when you were going to read the letters and be able to react to them. That was really really important starting out.

      Honestly, I think more people should write letters. Because it’s a way to discuss issues and solve problems when you are having trouble. it can supplement talking conversations (as we got better at it, we were able to talk more and more about things as they came up) if needed. They can interact if you want. We wouldn’t have made it without letters. Especially if you are new at talking about things like this, but have experience writing journals, [but I think even if you don’t sometimes writing things down can be easier than saying them] it can be a good transition (or not! if you can solve most big issues this way, I don’t see why you need to switch to verbal conversations, although it is quicker that way) or a good way to start sharing opinions on difficult topics.

      • Chava

        THIS!! Everything you said!!! My husband and I do this with email. I have depression and generalized anxiety disorder, plus I was emotionally abused by my mother, so whenever I’m in a situation that looks like it can even remotely lead to an argument or conflict, I completely shut down. Like you said, words literally cannot come out of my mouth. I’m a pretty eloquent writer, though, so email/letters are the perfect solution. It gives me time to process information and to word my response in a way that keeps me from putting my foot in my mouth.

        • It really helps. I’m not even a great writer, particularly, but you can edit a letter as many times as you need to for it to make sense and for it to say what you want it to. It’s a lot harder to do that in conversation.

      • Jess

        I wanted to follow up with you – I just wrote R a letter! I broached a few topics last night because there’s a potential apartment we would want to move into and after some tense moments of questioning if I even wanted to move in together (um… seriously?) he said, “Can you just… give me a list? Then I can prepare and maybe actually discuss instead of just being like, ‘I don’t know what to say!!!'” So, we’re writing letters! :D

  • Stacy {Woodsy Weddings}

    These are all definite subjects to talk about prior to getting married. A neutral party can really help a couple get to their bottom lines and find ways to compromise.

  • These are a great start — yes, monogamy! yes, defining infidelity! — but a lot more needs to be discussed — parenting styles, what about IVF if there are fertility issues? — and put in writing. Yes, writing; it holds each person accountable, and that’s really the only way for a couple to assess if their marriage is going along to their expectations. And it’s a contract that needs to be looked at, discussed and tweaked regularly. Now that no one needs to marry anymore — we can have kids, sex, financial security and a live-in partner without tying the knot — it’s important for couples to ask themselves why they’re getting married. And, it’s important to understand family-of-origin issues.

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  • An excellent technique to start on this issue is sit together and writes a budget for your first month of marriage. If both work, how much is available and how they plan to distribute? always planning how much they can spend and how much to save. They must analyze their priorities, tastes, needs. They should also discuss their projects long, medium and short term, and make resolutions and actions that lead them to comply.

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  • NoWonderWhyIAmStillSingleToday

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