Jake and Catie O!

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.

Comments on Tough conversations about marriage: why a ring isn’t enough

  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.

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