Tough conversations about marriage: why a ring isn't enough

May 6 2013 | arielmstallings
Jake and Catie O!
Thanks to Catie for uploading this to our Flickr pool! Photo by Cadenza Photo Imaging

Recently, an old friend of mine decided to have a non-legal commitment ceremony… a commitzvah, they called it. For various reasons, she and her dude decided they didn't want to legally get married, but you know what they did instead? They sat down with a lawyer, and had some really, really difficult conversations and worked out a legally-binding commitment agreement. Conversations about money. Conversations about children and aging parents. Conversations about fidelity and divorce. Realistically, because they opted to build their legally-binding commitment from scratch, they had conversations that many of us planning state-recognized marriages don't have.

The more I started thinking about these conversations my friend and her partner were having, the more I realized that while our cultural wedding traditions use symbols to sorta encourage these conversations, many of us never actually follow through by having the conversations.

Look at modern proposals: we cloak these tough conversations about money and longevity in symbols like an expensive ring made to last a lifetime. Because rather than talk about how many student loans you're paying off or what your views about death with dignity are (these topics are depressing! scary! grim!), we buy something expensive (see? we're sorta acknowledging finances!?) that's meant to be extremely durable (see? we touch on the idea that this is a longterm arrangement, even if we're not talking about who's going to care for each other's aging parents or how we want to be buried).

The traditions give us these nice ways to sort of glance at the big logistics of a longterm shared partnership that includes finances, housing, health, possible reproduction (or not), and caretaking (of each other, of possible children, of family members), and sooo many other big things. With this ring I thee… do some big stuff with, but let's just look at how pretty the ring is and think about how much I spent on it to show that I CAN handle financial stuff like paying for utilities bills, tuitions, mortgages, and who knows what else, and OMG JUST LOOK AT THE RING. JUST LOOK AT THE RING.

I totally get it: I don't mean to make longterm partnership sound like a bummer, because it's not. For every financial, health, or logistical concern, there's joy and trust that layers up year after year after year, creating a lasting intimacy that isn't just sexual, but is a shared emotional landscape that you inhabit with this other person. It's big amazing powerful stuff, and you have big amazing powerful decisions to make… decisions that I don't think most of us always acknowledge are coming.

Because what does an engagement ring say about student loans, pulling the plug on a loved one in a vegetative coma, financial plans for after divorce, parenting strategies, eldercare, or alimony? Nothing. It hints at all these things in a nicely symbolic way, but unless you really want to dive into that shit… the symbol can remain just a symbol.

The tough conversations that my friend and her partner had with their lawyers were critically important. There are some churches and faiths that have this kind of pre-marital counseling built in, and this is one of those ways that I think religious weddings have it easier than secular weddings. A Catholic friend told me about the counseling she had to do before her wedding, and while she said much of it wasn't relevant to her (one of the questions was basically if she understood how babies were conceived), she said that it promoted some important and valuable conversations between her and her partner.

I don't think anyone needs a church or even a counselor to ask big questions though. The internet can be a great resource or hell, The Gottman Institute makes these 52 Questions Before Marriage or Moving In Card Deck that would work great. There's part of me that's like… I don't even know if the specific questions are as important as just the act of having some really long, unsexy, unromantic conversations.

Especially once you get into the mode of planning a wedding (fun and exciting — even the drama is exciting!), the bummer of planning a marriage can be hard to prioritize (boo: so depressing and boring). But here's the thing: symbols like engagement rings and funtimes like weddings are awesome, but it's important to peel back the symbols to stare down the uncomfortable truths about the realities of partnership.

  1. My now fiancé and I did the exact same thing. We had been living together for two years and raising his children. We decided to create a legal binding commitment document. We discussed finances, raising the children, how to be provide for them and how to protect them when we were both gone. We discussed end of life decisions. Had a very intense discussion over our wills and where we wanted to be buried. It was an amazing four weeks going back an forth we our attorney to get it all where we wanted it to be. I am so glad we took the time to really think past "the ring" before "the ring" ever showed up.

  2. My husband and I never went as far as this (but this is actually a pretty cool idea, especially for people who aren't completely behind the idea of marriage), but after being together for 10 years before getting married, most of these conversations had already come up. Of course the risk is, at least with us, if there will be a difference with how you feel about something when it's hypothetical versus when it's actually happening. (I could see this occurring with pregnancy and aging parent issues…)
    I definitely agree with the idea of having to tackle the harder questions before getting married. It might end up saving some people a lot of time, money, and frustration later on.

  3. This article brought me to tears for a bit of a tangential reason… with all of the kerfuffle about gay marriage in the news these days, this article puts so poignantly what the BIG EFFING DEAL is about marriage in the first place… having someone to have these conversations with, having someone to love and trust and go through life's ups and downs with you, and to have a socially recognized way of formalizing that bond with each other and sharing it with the world. Thank you, so much, for putting into words something that I think a large part of our society has forgotten about. <3

  4. This is really great. Another helpful resource (from another lovely Seattle lady) is

    http://getyourshittogether.org/

    After loosing her husband unexpectedly, her whole life got turned up side down. She started Get Your Shit Together to help others to be prepared and not go through what she went through.
    It goes over how to make a will, living will, and power of attorney.

  5. My husband and I had a book like the card deck mentioned, tailored to engaged couples of our faith, and while we didn't even finish it before we got married, it helped get us more comfortable with having those " long, unsexy, unromantic conversations." There's still more to talk about and decide, but we can talk about those things and we do. As you suspected, it wasn't even the questions that mattered specifically so much as it was the ability to talk about the mundane or the tough. Sometimes we found we'd already answered that question before in a normal conversation or it would spawn a long discussion about something else we ought to know about each other. So, I agree, super important to plan the marriage and not just the wedding!

  6. I had a hard time finding a resource to guide these important conversations that didn't betray weird gender imbalances, but I finally stumbled on The Commitment Conversation. I think the organization folded, but they left their guide up there. It was a very good tool when my fiancé and I were deciding to commit to each other.

    http://www.equalityinmarriage.org/cc2.html

  7. We bought a house a couple of years before our marriage. And we had the whole discussion with lawyers at that time. My husband is older than me. He's an only child. His parents are wealthier. There's a total taboo in discussing finances in his family. And there was his money, my money (even if it wasn't a lot), his parents' money and my parents' money involved.
    We talked about money, inheritance, about the house, and about what would change if we were to get married and/or have children.

    I must say: it was awkward. Very unromantic. And very unpleasant at times. You really don't want to be thinking about that kind of thing when you're starting your life together and planning to live happily ever after.
    But it was worth it. We have a great, supportive, honest agreement. We are happy with it, feel protected and so are/do our families.

    If you can't have this kind of conversation before you get married, you sure as hell can't in more difficult times.

  8. This opened my eyes…we really have been dodging the tougher questions because it's painful to talk about. I don't want to think about my partner being dead, or being hooked up on life support…I know this is important, but there's really no fun twist to this.

    • In a weird way though, even though these conversations are really difficult to have, you feel better after the discussion is over. I realllllllly didn't want to have the "What if we're infertile?" conversation with my fiancé, but we now have a plan in place for what we'd do. I'm not saying it won't still hurt like hell if that ends up being the case, but at least we have an idea of how we'd address it.

  9. Well, that was sobering! I have a friend in her 30s who is single and does not believe in "marriage". To her, the ultimate sign of commitment is FAMILY. I must admit – I now see her point;

    This article got me thinking: what exactly does marriage mean in the eyes of the law? People have to sign long-winded contracts for jobs, leases and all manner of things. But the marriage, which is not to be entered lightly, which is a solemn commitment and a weighty undertaking, is not defined by any terms in any contract.

    We sign a marriage certificate but what exactly are we agreeing to? There is much room for interpretation in it comes down to an honour system implicit in individual couples' relationships. But what does the legal status imply other than just being a name and statistic in a registry somewhere?

    A prenup is a similar unsexy, unromantic conversation but why isn't there an explicit agreement for what happens DURING a marriage, not AFTER it fails? (Also, I just found out that prenups are not legally binding in the UK. Now how about that!)

    • What does marriage mean in the eyes of the law? People have to sign long-winded contracts for jobs, leases and all manner of things. But the marriage, which is not to be entered lightly, which is a solemn commitment and a weighty undertaking, is not defined by any terms in any contract.

      So very untrue. Click here for a MASSIVE list of the legal rights and responsibilities granted to those who are legally married in the US.

      • Fantastic! I'm gonna look these up in the UK. As Caroline said, perhaps many don't know all this; I certainly didn't. And no doubt the laws vary from country to country? To me, marriage does represent the commitment to stick it out through all the ugly issues forever. But how many people really go into the discussions your friends did?

    • You are signing a contract when you marry legally. A really long one composed of every law on the books relating to marriage and every precedent set by a court case in your jurisdiction.

      The issue is that it is an invisible contract, that most people don't know what it is. (Because it is scattered all over the legal codes and in court precedent).

      I think it would be awesome if when you got married they handed you all the various laws relating to marriage, and said here you go, here's the contract you are signing.

      • depending on where you live you do see the code. I got married in Quebec and though I guess you could ignore it when you go to the website for your premarriage meeting (here you have to have a legal appointment with a clerk at least 21 days in advance of your wedding– aka you cannot elope spur of the moment here) they have all of the legal commitments written out- as you also have 3 options for how you want the finances to divide (you decide at the meeting). Yes, people can ignore it but it wasn't difficult to find either.

        • Here, in Argentina, you get a "Marriage Booklet", where you´ll register all your (up to 13!) children together, which starts with (basic) legislation (and sanitation and health issues – like how to brush your teeth!-) notions… Basic enough to get a generic idea of what you´re getting into…even if your have bad breath! 😛 Thing is that a few months after my wedding, a lot of the national legislation (including the marriage laws) changed, so my "booklet" is now outdated in regards to my rights/obligations, because my marriage now has to abide the "new" laws, and not the old ones. Just an issue to think about when getting a "hard copy" of your "contract"!

  10. My partner and I went to see a financial planner, mostly for more superficial reasons than things like wills and such. Through the process we ended up discussing things like wills and living directives, as well as setting each other up as beneficiaries on everything, etc. It was very liberating to have these things come up in such a pragmatic, somewhat detached way. We could address some of the hard stuff with the guidance of a third party that allowed us to be a little less emotional about it.
    I hadn't anticipated this benefit when we decided to use a financial planner, but was very grateful when I realized after that we had just tackled some really difficult stuff without it tackling us.

  11. This is a great post. Really quite encouraging and not at all a bummer for anyone who knows this stuff is inevitable, and difficult, with the only question being how prepared you'll be at the time.

    My fiancé and I want to find a lawyer to talk finances and to get some wills and etc together. BUT. How do you find (1) a good lawyer whom (2) you like/trust enough to feel good about their relatively expensive time?

    Our state bar association has a website but its referral service isn't a listing I can browse; you submit your topic and they forward it to invisible lawyers who then contact you (and are in the referral service by virtue of nothing except having paid to be part of the service. The bar earns a % of the associated fees.)

    I don't have time to sit through a bunch of free consultations. Do I ask friends who got divorced if they liked their attorney? Browse the yellow pages for family law firms and cross my fingers?

    • Brand new J.D. here engaged to a lawyer. Referrals from satisfied friends are the best place to start! And if you have any lawyer friends, even if they are not in family law/estate planning, ask who they would see for those services. Another good resource is your county bar association. They are more likely to know lawyers in your area that would be a good fit for your needs than the larger state bar. Good luck!

      • Thank you for replying! I will see if the 2 (all of 2, ha) attorneys I know locally have any suggestions, even though they aren't at all in family law/estate. I really like the way you've phrased the question, "who would you use (or ask for recs) for these services?"

        Best of luck in your law career!

    • Best attorneys I ever worked for would sit for the consultation, give you their rates (or the retainer fee), a copy of the contract you'd be signing, AND, if asked, refer you to someone else. It threw me off guard at first, but sometimes attorneys have to pass on clients because of conflict of interest, lack of knowledge on something that could come up (immigration law for example), or simply because they recognize that they and the client will lock horns later. So while a practice may have to pass some folks on the attorneys they refer them to can do the same back at them.

      So it might be worth at least one or two free consultations!

      • Consultations are awesome, I just can't audition the entire family law section in the city, ha. 🙂 WAY TOO MANY, and they all seem the same. But I'll totally use your reference points for expectations once I get a shortlist to narrow down the options. Thanks!

  12. My boyfriend and I (6 years as a couple, 3 years of living together) have had most of the big conversations by now – kids (yes or no, how many, when), parents (we never ever want to have any of our parents living with us, but we will support them if possible, and his father is not allowed anywhere near our flat or future kids), home (where we can imagine building our dream house), money (since we don't have much, that one was easy), pulling the plug (I want my organs donated, he doesn't) and such. REcently when we bought a new car together we even decided to write a paper specifying what happens to the money paid and the car itself in case we stop liking each other before the car is paid off. ^^

    I think having these conversations in a relaxed manner helps a lot navigating stressful situations, because once the dirt hits the fan you do already know the other person's position and can cooperate accordingly.

  13. Isn't that what marriage is all about? Thank you so much for this refreshing article!! Even here at Offbeat Bride I was starting to believe that a wedding was all about puffy dresses, pretty rings and cute cocktails. 😛

      • Yes! I just love those article on OB that talks about the meaning behind the wedding, it gets me all warm and fuzzy inside. This one particulary gave me chills, my hamster is still running from this morning!

  14. My partner and I did a book called "1001 questions to ask before you get married"- it is one of the few pre-marriage guides out there that isn't religious- it was great. I just wish that they had used more gender neutral pronouns- but generally it didn't link certain tasks with certain genders. I would recommend it to people of all genders despite its lack of neutral pronouns. It was funny what questions were hard for us. We had already talked about a lot of the big stuff already and the sex life questions were easy since we were open about that- but one question about wills led to a huge discussion but has led to really important conversations and changes.

  15. I just finished my Catholic marriage preparation course with my fiancé, and although not every aspect of it was useful for us, it did get us asking questions about things we hadn't considered initally. Like we're both finding this "combined finances" thing really mysterious and the sessions gave us some ideas about how we could do it, as well as people we could ask.
    I do think there could be a secular equivalent that could take a couple through these questions, especially with regards to finances.

  16. I really like the "commitzvah"!

    We had, and sometimes have, these conversations as we go along. Some of it we talked about before we got married, some of it we mention but don't go into detail ("Will you still love me if we can't have kids?" "Yes" Raises the possibility, gets us thinking), some of it is kind of under the umbrella of "Don't know how this is going to work out, but know we want to figure it out together when the time comes". Stuff that's a bit more unpredictable like looking after elderly parents, because you don't know who will get sick/die, comes under that. Although we have had the POA conversation with both sets of parents.

  17. I looked up the "52 Questions Before Marriage or Moving In Card Deck", and I like the idea, although [fortunately] my fiance and I have been good about having such important conversations.

  18. I'm in the process of doing this with my husband right now. Prior to our wedding we had many discussions and made notes, especially because I have Cerebral Palsy and may need surgeries in the future. I wanted to make sure he knew what my views were when it came to the use of certain drugs and medical interventions. We had to discuss finances because I'm collecting SSI and I'd lose it if we were to legally marry. We discussed so many life events because CP affects nearly everything I do. It's tough, but at least we know what the hell we're doing.

    • My fiance and I had some of these same conversations because I'm a dwarf and had spine surgery this past January I think those of us with disabilities are forced to have some of these conversations, but I think it can enrich the bond.

    • My partner and I are in a similar situation. We both have chronic illnesses/on-going health concerns (it was one of the first things we bonded over–hospital war stories :-P), and from what I am understanding from your post, he and I have had conversations in the same vein as the ones you and yours are having, including the one concerning Social Security payments. I agree wholeheartedly with you that the conversations are tough, especially because of the extensive nature of many chronic illnesses and ultimately rewarding in providing a sense of calm and control over what may happen,

  19. *smile*
    We got engaged when we were talking about US hospitals, visitation rights, and how I wanted to die – and that if I did, I trusted him to make the right choice for me.

    Bioethicists. We're just the life of a party. 😉

  20. This is one of the many reasons my now-husband and I decided to delay the ring purchase. We got rings (albeit on the student-budget-friendly side of things due to our current situation) a couple months before the wedding, but we made it a point to discuss a lot of the icky, "serious business" bits like finances, religion, kids, living arrangements, and the like before we went ahead and started doing the "fun stuff" like getting shiny rings and diving head first into the party that is wedding.

    And, even in the "wedding planning" part, it's totally possible to build in the tough issues. We learned a lot about each other's financial priorities when it came to deciding to take up parental offers of financial help (and where and when that happened), as well as specifically what things were important for us to spend on and what weren't. We made tough decisions about to handle our vastly different family sizes (I come from a large family where I even know my third cousins relatively well, he comes from a small, spread out family that contacts each other maaaybe once a decade in some cases), and we compromised about our family's different spirituality situation (and how both of those differed from our personal spirituality as a couple).

    So… you can have both! And ultimately, that's what marriage is – a combination of tough decisions, hard conversations, and lots and lots of fun, awesome, party times… all in one!

  21. My husband and i had a pre-nup drafted before we got married. We hashed out the details of how we both thought things "should" be and presented what we wanted to my lawyer to have the pre-nup written legally. I have a son from a previous relationship, rental property, and own my own home. He's a writer and has various screenplays and other intellectual property. I've paid off my student loans and he is still working on his. Basicially, we wanted to own what we each own and owe what we each owe. We didn't want to lord over one another's economic decisions. I pay for any life insurance coverage i want on him, he pays for the life insurance coverage he wants on me. Our pre-nup and my will both indicate that ownership of my real estate will transfer to my son (i've also left money to my ex to help offset the expense of continuing to raise our son as a single parent) and my hubs will have the right to live in our residence rent-free for two years after that, his rent would revert to "market" value. If we purchase real estate together, we'll draw up a contract specific to the joint purchase. We didn't include end of life decisions or disposition of remains in our pre-nup because those are issues more accurately covered by living wills and wills in general. Once our pre-nup was drafted, he found a lawyer and had it reviewed. By doing all the footwork negotiations ourselves, we spent less than $500 to have our pre-nup drafted and got a second review.

    One thing to keep in mind, a lawyer can't really represent the interests of two different people. They are bound to advocate for the interests of their specific client and will take you as a "couple" but that could create some inherent problems. In my opinion, it's better to use one lawyer to draw up the pre-nup/contract on behalf of one member of the couple and have a different lawyer review it from the perspective of the other member of the couple. It is also important to hold your conversations and negotiations someplace other than the lawyer's office because you are being billed and don't want to pay an attourney's fees while you talk about your feelings. There are a lot of books out there that can help you hit all the "big" issues that a pre-nup or partnership contract should consider. Use those a guide before you call any lawyer.

    One "funny" thing that came up during our talks was that my husband didn't want to appear caulous or cheap becasue of some of my preferences. I'm a nurse and don't want a whole lot of intervention if i were to be in catastrophic accident or developed a devastating medical condition. So, he wanted me to be VERY clear about how long he should permit treatment and how strongly he should advocate for non-intervention (DNR/DNI) once we're old. Those sorts of details are included in my living will. My "regular" will also includes a section related to the fact that i want my remains to be creamated and disposed of in the least expensive way available (if you haven't looked into it, the average funeral costs $10K and the industry preys on grief). Something about these concerns sort of cracked me up but i specifically included them so he could point at the piece of paper and say, "It's what SHE wanted."

  22. This is such a great reminder of what a marriage is (and isn't). The wedding and the party are great, but the marriage is a commitment and a promise that encompasses many difficult choices and sometimes not-so-pleasant issues. Having those hard conversations before making the commitment will lay a solid foundation for weathering the inevitable storms that life will throw at you!

  23. I think I will have this kind of conversation with my guy soonish. I think about this kind of stuff a lot. We are in a long distance relationship at the moment, not to mention navy deployments soon and who knows what else.

    What if I get hit by a car while I'm about town? What if something happens to him? Will someone remember my green burial request?

    DO we want to have a place to ourselves or do we still want roomates? A kid someday? Heck! He wants to get out of the Navy and I plan to go back in.

  24. My guy and I were actually a little strange in that burial arrangements and end-of-life decisions were the first thing we sorted out as a couple, and actually wound up being a catalyst for deciding upon a formal marriage as opposed to not. As a US Navy vet (he was in during 9/11), he has access to and wants to be buried in Jefferson Barracks military cemetery, a national monument in St Louis. His parents are buried there (he nursed them both through fatal bouts of cancer), and if I wanted to be buried with him, we had to be married. (and I had to give up my dream of being a Bio Pot someday).

    Between his parents' cancer and my late boyfriend's sudden death, neither of us had any illusions concerning the suddenness and indignity of death. We haven't drawn up living wills or tradition wills yet, they're on deck once the marriage is finalized, but we've had those conversations. He is already a partial beneficiary of my life insurance (50% to him, 50% to my brother, to be changed to 100% once we're married). He especially didn't want to talk about things like life insurance and paying for funerals, but it had to be done and now we know what each other wants.

    We knew from the beginning neither of us wanted children, so the most awkward part became the money discussions. It was no fun, not at all, but we did it, and now we have a plan for paying for school and homes and such.

    Just like a lot of other parts of marriage–it's no fun, but it's got to be done, to leave you free to enjoy the good bits.

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