What can you do before you walk down the aisle to put the odds in your favor that you’ll have a lasting union? That’s a question I get asked a lot as a family law attorney who works with couples on prenuptial agreements before they tie the knot, as well as those who have decided to sever the marital bond.
They say love is blind, but I believe in taking off the romantic blinders by having a series of conversations with your intended before the wedding to help put you both on track for marital success. These conversations help each better understand the other’s expectations and establish a healthy foundation for working through problems that arise in any marriage.
I don’t know anyone who likes to spend an afternoon or evening having a serious talk — especially about money — but there are ways to make the experience less of a hassle and more of an opportunity to bond on a deeper level. Just bringing up your desire to have these discussions may make you feel uncomfortable. I suggest framing it to your soon-to-be spouse as a team-building exercise and arrange to have your talk before or after an activity you enjoy doing together, such as going on a hike, hitting balls at the driving range or having lunch at a hip new restaurant you’ve been dying to try.
Vision of the future
I recommend leading off the process with a discussion of your 10-year plan as a couple. Successful entrepreneurs and businesses have a clearly defined vision of where they want to be in the future — whether that’s 1, 5 or 10 years ahead. Looking at your marriage like an enterprise in which you are united to achieve goals is empowering and creates a sense of common purpose, which is one of the most important ingredients in marriages that last.
One of the first things you should look at when putting together this 10-year plan is your home. Do you see yourselves working toward home ownership? In what kind of home do you want to be living in 10 years — a condo in the city close to work or a suburban house with a big backyard for kids? Or do you want to rent and save for other purposes, like funding a business or pursuing an advanced degree. Do you want to continue living in the city or town where you are now or move to be closer to one of your families? Understanding what each of you values and aspires to will help you start your new life in alignment, better positioned to achieve your goals. This is also an opportunity for you two to discover if you have vastly different goals and to see where you can adjust and find consensus.
Other elements you’ll want to tackle in your plan are career, family, money, community and leisure time. There are some great resources online to guide your discussion and help you document your plan.
At the top of the list of things couples argue about — and even divorce about — is money. In your conversation about your 10-year plan, you’ll have talked about big-picture financial goals, but it’s critical to take a deep dive into practical money matters. You’ll need to decide what money will be channeled into joint accounts and what will remain or go into separate accounts. Which account will you use to pay for your mutual expenses or big purchases, and who will pay the bills? These are the types of questions that we help couples answer in a prenuptial agreement.
You’ll also want to talk about establishing a budget and your individual saving strategies, especially if one of you is a saver and the other a spender. I have worked with many clients who entered marriage clueless about his or her partner’s debts or spending habits and get a very rude awakening when they find out where their joint assets are being spent. Aligning your expectations about finances now will help reduce arguments about money later and enable you to work together to build toward a secure financial future.
Even if you think you know how your partner feels about having children together, I recommend having a talk dedicated to kids. The desire to have children is one thing and the reality of having them is another. First, you should talk about the timing of any kids. How do you feel about adoption should you have difficulty conceiving? Talk about the number of children you want to have — although this number often changes after a first child. In any case, it’s good to know if one of you envisions half a dozen kids and the other thinks two is the limit.
Think ahead about how you want to raise those children. How do you see sharing child-rearing roles and responsibilities? What values or faith do you want to instill in your children? How will you approach disciplining them? These can become highly charged issues when having kids goes from theory to reality, so it’s preferable to come to an understanding ahead of time.
Sex and intimacy
This will probably be your most fun conversation and a celebration of what makes the sparks fly between you! Start this session by sharing two or three things (special words, techniques, positions or role-playing fantasies) you particularly enjoy about your lovemaking and how they make you feel. You may be surprised about some of things that excite your partner. This is a natural lead-in to talking about things you want to explore and making a commitment to continue communicating about your sexual desires or turn-offs.
Breaking the ice in talking about intimacy now will help you make a habit of communicating on this level and feeling comfortable speaking up if sex starts taking a backseat to career and family or becomes routine — two of the biggest complaints I hear from my divorcing clients.
Put it in writing
One helpful exercise is for each of you to write down the three to five most important ideas that come out of each discussion. It’s a good idea to keep these notes and go over them at least once a year, perhaps as an annual ritual during the holiday season or near your anniversary. It’s not unusual for people to find some things that were initially important are less so over time or that new issues have emerged that you want to tackle in another conversation. Besides, looking at these expressions of your hopes and dreams for the future will also help you recapture the optimism and joy you felt as you prepared to say “I do.”
Lisa Helfend Meyer is a founding partner of Los Angeles-based Meyer, Olson, Lowy & Meyers, one of the nation’s leading family law firms.