Whether you’ve been coupled up for a few months or a few years, if you have images of bridesmaid dresses, venue options, and pretty little flowers dancing around in your head, it’s time to get down to business. Because, yes, a wedding is fun to plan — though it can drive some brides to the near end of crazy — but it’s not all you need to plan for.
‘Getting married is about building a life together, and creating a foundation made of honesty, trust, friendship, and shared values,’ says Tara Fields, PhD, marriage therapist and author of‘To do that, you need to talk about some important issues, because whether we realise it or not, things change when you shift from simply dating to being married. Too many couples plan for one day — a wedding — and not a marriage. But that can make the difference between a realistic happily ever after and a quick trip to the divorce lawyer.’
In other words, it’s time for the two of you to talk. These are the topics experts say you shouldn’t skip over before that walk down the aisle.
1. What makes you feel loved?
It’s a common mistake couples make: assuming that the way you show love to your partner is the same way he does. While everyone tends to fall into a category known as the ‘five love languages’ — physical touch, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and receiving gifts — it’s not very common for two people in a relationship to have the same one as their top language.
That’s why dateologist Tracey Steinberg, author of , says it’s important to clear the air. ‘Often what makes one person feel loved is very different from someone else. Understanding what works for both of you will help you keep your connection strong and avoid bigger problems later on,’ she says. Example: you think you’re showing your guy you love him by cooking dinner before he gets home from work each night. That’s acts of service. But if his top language is physical touch, then simply sitting on the couch with your legs draped over him, scratching his back while you catch up will mean way more to him.
To figure out what each of you prefers, Steinberg suggests asking simple questions like, ‘What is the most loving thing someone has ever done for you?’ and ‘How do you truly know if someone cares about you?’ For a more in-depth approach, the two of you can take the 5 Love Languages quiz and talk about your results.
2. How much debt do you have?
It’s a topic you think would be covered — credit card debt, student loans, etc. are all pretty important numbers to know seeing as, ya know, you often take on the debt your partner has when you get hitched. But ‘it’s one of the elephants in the room that isn’t discussed, and I’ve seen it blindside couples all the time,’ says Fields. She describes it as often being treated like a don’t ask, don’t tell situation, but just like that policy was repealed, so should this one. ‘There’s a lot of shame associated with money, but every fear that comes up or any conflict is an opportunity to create more intimacy and a stronger bond,’ adds Fields. ‘It’s important to be able to say, “Here’s my truth, this is how much money I owe, let’s make a plan together for tackling this.”‘
Whatever you do, don’t lie about the amount of debt you’re in, even if it comes from a shameful place (ie: a gambling or shopping addiction). Fields says she’s worked with people who are secretly R200-R300,000 in debt; that’s not a situation you want to put yourself in despite trying to shield your partner from less-than-ideal conditions. At the end of the day, that secret erodes at your trust, and since money is one of the top reasons couples get divorced, Fields says it’s an easy way to send your marriage up in flames.
3. How will we handle our in-laws?
‘Along with money, in-laws are the topic that usually creates the most conflict and even pushes couples into divorce,’ says Fields. ‘People don’t understand that once you get married, you’re transitioning as a couple — and that includes becoming your own family that, in some ways, is separate from your individual families.’ That includes setting your own traditions when it comes to holidays, raising children, and making day-to-day decisions.
A common mistake guys make: siding with his mother over his partner, or allowing himself to be put in the middle, says Fields. ‘Any therapist will tell you he needs to take a big step out of the middle and stand solidly beside his wife. In-laws can either give incredible support that’s invaluable to a relationship, or break it apart. It’s up to the couple to set that boundary and establish from the get-go that you are a team.’
And if there isn’t any tension between you and your in-laws (holla!), foster that. ‘Emphasise the positives, telling your future mother-in-law things like, “I’m so grateful for you — I hear all these terrible stories about mothers-in-law, and I really appreciate how much you’ve allowed us to find our own way and establish our own rituals,”‘ she
says. That way you’re not only giving her a pat on the back, but also emphasising that it’s what the two of you need to have a solid foundation.
4. Whose opinion do you value most?
No, this isn’t a trick question — he’s not supposed to say you. When you ask this question, you want to know who has the ability to influence how he thinks and views certain scenarios. ‘We like to think of ourselves as independent adults who make up our own minds, but often another person’s thoughts will determine your partner’s decisions,’ says Steinberg. ‘It’s very smart to get to know how that person thinks and what type of advice they’ll give to your partner, because one day they could be discussing your marriage.’
But you shouldn’t snuggle up to that person just so they say nice things about you. Instead, try to forge an honest relationship and connect with them. That way, if a problem does come up in your relationship, they’ll be more likely to view things from a more impartial perspective. Plus, ‘introducing each other to the important people in your lives is a sign of trust and intimacy,’ says Steinberg, so taking that step is proof you two are fully integrating each other into your lives.
5. Who did what in your home growing up?
It’s something you don’t really ever think to talk about — whether it was dad who did the cooking, or mom who paid the bills — because most couples don’t realise how much it affects the way you view relationship responsibilities, says Les Parrott, PhD, clinical psychologist and co-author of the best-selling book Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts. But it ‘sheds a lot of light on how the two of you will manage the day-to-day activities of your home together,’ he says.
If one of you grew up seeing your dad take care of the lawn while your mom handled the social calendar and doctor appointments, it’s likely you’ll naturally step into — and expect your partner to step into — the same role, says Parrott. But remember, the two of you probably grew up with different lifestyles. And the way you did things while dating (even if you lived together) may not translate to your married life. ‘Couples tend to be more independent when they’re just dating because they’re not always necessarily thinking about building a life together, or how their future might look as far as managing things,’ says Fields. ‘But once you’ve committed, the way you handle certain responsibilities can shift.’
That said, take a pause from the Netflix binge one night and chat about the everyday household responsibilities, and how the two of you envision those playing out. They certainly don’t need to be set in stone (but kudos to you if you get him on dish duty forever), but Fields says it’s smart to have a general idea of each other’s expectations before you start this next phase of your relationship.
6. Are we both growing emotionally and psychologically?
‘Few people ever consider this question, let along engaged couples, and that’s understandable,’ says Parrott. ‘After all, it’s heavy, right? And abstract in some ways.’
Despite its ambiguous nature, though, Parrott says it’s critical to talk about. ‘Your marriage can only be as healthy as the two people in it, and improving your emotional wellbeing is vital to your growth as a couple,’ he explains. So take the time to check in with how you’re actually feeling, and focus on increasing your self-awareness so the two of you don’t become stagnant. Parrott suggests taking a trusted personality assessment, like the Deep Love Assessment, to really hone in on how you communicate, how you express love, and what you need in order to feel cared for in various situations. It could make or break your marriage, as it’s common to see couples head for divorce because they never developed the emotional maturity to adjust to things beyond their control, he explains.
7. How do you feel about couples therapy?
Speaking of growth, the two of you should lay it all out there to find out how you really feel about therapy. For some, it’s NBD and an important part of personal growth. For others, it’s a sign of weakness. Fields says you should talk about each other’s viewpoints now because ‘the healthiest people and the best kind of therapy is when you don’t have any big problems or conflict, and you’re just coming from a place of curiosity and eagerness to grow and learn.’
The biggest mistake she often sees couples make in regards to therapy — other than ‘waiting until your marriage is hanging on by a thread,’ she says — is relying on a friend or just each other to work through issues. ‘Having a friend you can trust and talk to is great, but a therapist plays a very different role,’ she explains. ‘They’re there to support you, can provide reassurance, and give you the tools you need to grow as a couple.’
If your partner isn’t so keen on the idea, suggest finding a therapist you can check in with from time to time. That way therapy doesn’t send the message of ‘we’re in trouble,’ explains Fields. Getting one that you trust to be honest — not just someone looking to bill an hour of work — is key, she says, and you can pre-interview therapists on the phone to help you make that decision. Once you have someone, it simply becomes about having the option to talk in a safe environment and learning how to be a stronger team. ‘They’ll be able to take the temperature of your relationship and really pinpoint any red flags that may be steering you toward a big conflict,’ she adds.
8. How did your family celebrate birthdays?
This one’s a BFD if you haven’t been together very long, and therefore haven’t celebrated too many birthdays together, says Parrott. A lot of people look at birthdays as an opportunity to not only celebrate someone’s birth, but to show a big sign of love and appreciation. (Prime example: those who love celebrating ‘birthday week’ or even ‘birthday month.’) For others, it’s common to simply pass off a card or ‘happy b-day’ SMS and, well, that’s that. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care — if it’s what they grew up experiencing, then it’s just what seems normal to them, explains Parrott. So, to save yourself a future fight — and potential sleepover on the couch — talk about how much your soon-to-be spouse values these celebrations (make sure you throw holiday talk in there, too). That way you can each adjust your expectations and basically guarantee the other feels properly loved and celebrated on their special day.
9. What’s your stance on kids?
You’ve heard this one before, but it’s worth repeating: You need to know, without any certainty, whether or not your partner wants to have kids. It’s cool if they don’t — especially if you don‘t, too. But if there are disagreements, then you need to think long and hard before tying the knot, as it’s a significant life decision that can lead to resentment and anger, says Karen Ruskin, psychotherapist and licensed marriage and family therapist.
‘Whatever you do, don’t assume that once you’re married you’re going to change their mind, or that they’ll change for love, for you, or that they’ll grow into it,’ she says. ‘If you do, you can eventually feel like you’ve been duped and that can lead to resentment, hurt, pain, and even depression.’
That said, if the two of you disagree it doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed. But it does require flexibility, as one of you will have to shift the vision of how they imagined their life playing out (going from a house full of kids to one that’s not, for example). Regardless, honesty is crucial. ‘You can’t tiptoe around this topic,’ says Ruskin. ‘Be direct, and assume that they’re doing the same and not going to change their minds. Then decide whether your relationship is worth any sacrifices the two of you may have to make.’
10. What kind of PDA did you see between your parents?
No, we’re not asking you to dig deep and unlock the memory of that scarring time you accidentally caught mom and dad going at it in the kitchen (but, hey, at least that’s a good relationship sign). Parrott says that noticing how they treated one another can influence your own indicators of love. It doesn’t even have to be something sexual. ‘Upon reflection, it can be them realising that dad always brought mom a hot coffee first thing in the morning, or mom always scooped some mint chocolate chip ice cream for dad after his golf game,’ says Parrott. Basically, it’s those things that, even though your parents never seemed to talk about these behaviours, they were always present.
What’s the point of talking about them? ‘Everyone gets married with unconscious expectations because of the home we grew up in,’ explains Parrott. ‘We come to believe that certain little behaviours indicate love. And if the behaviours aren’t there, we wonder if the person really loves us — you can literally reason that your future hubby doesn’t love you because they aren’t doing the same things, no matter how unspectacular, that you witnessed in your parent’s marriage.’
11. What are your deal-breakers?
For some, it’s having sex with other people. For others, that’s part of an open marriage and they’re totally fine with it. Whatever your deal-breakers are, your partner needs to know about them, says Ruskin, and vice versa. It doesn’t need to be quite as dramatic as sex, either. ‘In the past few years, a major issue is the use of technology,’ says Ruskin. Some partners don’t want their SO talking with an ex on Facebook, for example, whereas others take issue with how much time the other spends on social media regardless of who it is.
It may seem like a small issue now, but Ruskin says it can blow up into something big because it’s directly connected to expectations. ‘You have this idea in your head of how things will be when you get married, and that’s not always what happens,’ she explains. ‘That can lead to a lot of conflict. But if you talk about it ahead of time and lay out your expectations, and even set rules when you need to (like no cell phones on date night, or never sleeping in separate rooms), then you’re better equipped to handle tough situations when they pop up.’
This article originally appeared on Redbookmag.com.