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.