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. *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. 😉

  2. 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!

  3. 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.”

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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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