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).
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.