Pre-marital counseling is often recommended or required for many weddings that will occur within a religious institution. On one level, many couples want the opportunity to deal with some issues that could become a future problem for their marriage. Unfortunately, however, not all pre-marital counseling is created equal and not all the big, important issues get decent “airtime”. Sometimes this is because it’s hard to dig into big topics, especially when the focus is on happy feelings, and sometimes this is because people don’t even know the topics that would be most helpful to discuss.
As a marriage therapist, I want marriages to work well. It’s more helpful to address the important topics head on before marriage to have a good start.
Kids vs No Kids: This is not a place where compromise can even happen because you either have kids or you don’t. Usually, for a person who wants kids, it’s not a “kind of” desire. Often those people grow up making assumptions they will of course have children. Other people really don’t want children and may have any number of reasons for not wanting them. Some people haven’t taken the time to consider where they fall on this issue. The partners of people in this category often make the assumption that they will eventually decide they want kids without considering what would happen if that’s not how it goes. When that isn’t the decision, it can often become a deal-breaker for the couple and they likely are already married when it happens.
Money: This is a huge, multi-faceted issue that needs to be broken into sub-categories and it’s one that people shy away from discussion because our culture considers it taboo.
A) Outstanding debt and credit rating coming into the marriage. This isn’t very sexy but it’s super important to discuss. Some couples find nasty surprises otherwise.
B) Expectations about spending and saving. Differences in these areas cause many fights over the course of years. Within this are expectations about joint accounts, whether the person earning more has more decision-making and if so, what does that mean for the other partner? If there is a joint account, does each person get to make choices about personal spending without talking to the other partner? If there are multiple accounts, how is bill paying and depositing managed?
C) Who will manage the money? Will there be one primary person in charge of bill paying? How do decisions get made about retirement and college accounts? Is one person point on this or do they both thoroughly discuss all options and decisions in those accounts?
Work/Careers: Sometimes there are unspoken differences of opinion on whether both partners will work, especially after children arrive. If there will be a stay-at-home parent (SAHP) and it’s the father (20% of SAHP are dads), how could that affect the relationship? When both partners have important careers there may be a difference of opinion about whose takes priority. For example, when both parents work and there’s a sick child who will be expected to stay at home? If there is a SAHP what are the expectations about sharing house work?
Leisure Time: For many people this seems like a frivolous topic but in reality, it can be big. It’s actually fairly important for the couple to have SOME things they like to do in leisure time that are in common. Early on they might think going out to dinner or going to a movie is enough to have in common but over time the couple tends to drift apart.
Having said that, it’s also helpful for each individual to have hobbies or activities they like to do that help make them who they are as an individual. Sometimes women give up these parts of themselves for the relationship or kids and men can start to find them less interesting or overly-dependent. Some partners have hobbies that are very time consuming and that can be a source of conflict, especially after children are born. What are the expectations about how leisure time will be spent and how will hobbies be balanced with family?
Roles: People often have unspoken expectations about what the role of wife or husband, mom or dad, will look like. The problem here is that these expectations may not blend well. One partner may expect a more egalitarian role where another expects something more traditional. Within the role discussion comes how non-paid work will be managed. How are tasks shared? Who is responsible for things like birthdays and holidays and kid parties?
Values: This is a topic that people usually don’t discuss because they don’t even know how to do that. Within this category are values about religion, parenting, politics, education and status. Among the parenting topic are discussions about discipline, what respect look like, balancing independence and safety, screen time, the role of activities and scheduling and teaching children about charity/philanthropy.
Family of origin: When you marry someone, you are not only essentially marrying the family but you are assuring you will bump up against that family’s way of doing life. Some families are close to the point of being enmeshed and others can be kind of distant or aloof. Some families are “touchy-feely” and others are hands off, especially in public. Some families talk about everything and others have rules about not talking about personal things. Some families are totally comfortable with yelling when angry and others avoid conflict at all cost.
Although tackling these issues can seem daunting and like a major joy-kill, doing so helps prepare the couple for a solid marriage. Too often the focus is on the wedding, forgetting that is just one day. Don’t assume these things will just somehow work themselves out. Don’t let fear of differences and challenge keep you from talking about it. After all, if there really are such major differences as to be a deal-breaker, isn’t it better to find that out BEFORE you say “I do”?