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. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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,

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