Marriage is one of those Big Commitments that requires a great deal of thought. To be perfectly honest, I have to admit that my husband and I did not have a long courtship. We met, became engaged three weeks later and married two months after that. It took two years of marriage for me to have known my husband for as long as some of my previous romantic relationships had lasted (although, presumably, this is the longest such relationship I’ll have). But, even though we had only known each other for a short time, we talked a lot. We both lived in the dorms at college, and had ample opportunity to get to know each other. And before we married, we talked about 3 of the most important things to discuss before marriage: money, kids and religion.
People have different money personalities. And since money is such a big part of life, it is important to understand where the other person is coming from when it comes to money. You need to know how you feel about money, and you need to assess how your partner-to-be feels about money. Is one of you a saver, while the other is a spender? Do both of you fall somewhere in between? What are your spending priorities. What are some of your short-term and long-term financial goals?
You need to talk about money, and decide how you plan to divide up the finances. (Or, maybe, how to combine them.) Figure out who will be responsible for specific bills, and create ground rules for making large purchases, saving up for big expenses and how much each of you can spend without consulting the other. Investment, savings and retirement strategies should also be a topic of discussion. My husband and I pool everything, paying for everything out of a joint checking account. We consult on purchases of items that cost more than $50. It works for us, but I know that this doesn’t work for everyone.
It is also important to put everything out on the table. You both need to be completely honest about spending habits and debt. Share all of your outstanding debt. You may also need to reveal past credit problems if it looks as though your credit history may impact other financial goals, such as buying a home or a car. Decide how the two of you will handle paying off debts, and who will be responsible for them. My husband and I had little debt beyond student loans (I had credit card debt from stupid college spending choices and a car loan), so it was not hard to decide to simply combine what we had and go on from there.
It is also important to discuss who will work, and how much. While both of you might have full-time jobs initially, it is likely that at some point one of you will quit working or will switch to part time. At various points in our seven-year marriage, both my husband and I have taken turns staying home, working full-time and working part-time. Right now I work 25-30 hours a week from home while he works part-time as a student assistant. This discussion of work leads into a discussion regarding kids.
Children are large parts of some people’s lives. Before you get married it is a good idea to know where the other stands in terms of progeny. If you want to have children, but your potential mate has no desire to have even one child, it can become a point of strain on the relationship — unless one or the other of you is willing to compromise. But if you are both set on your view of children, marrying with the intention of changing your partner’s mind is a short road to frustration and possibly divorce.
Deciding on who will be the primary caregiver is vital. After my maternity leave ended, my husband spent the first 18 months of our son’s life as the primary caregiver due to the fact that I was employed full-time while he worked on his B.S. When I got my M.A. while my husband began graduate school, we split duties pretty evenly. But we always knew that I would be the primary caregiver for most of my son’s life, and I am comfortable with that. This is a discussion that you need to have, since caring for a child can affect financial and educational plans.
You should also discuss preferred methods of discipline and parenting techniques. Realize that you will need to present a united front to your children, and deciding how to handle raising them on the fly is a good way to provide material for kids to manipulate you both.
For my husband and me, religion was not an issue, since we are both active in the same church. Interfaith marriages can work, as long as participants agree to respect each other’s religions, and agree on how to raise the kids. Many parents put off the issue, allowing their children to choose for themselves as they get older. It is possible to have children attend with each parent on an alternating basis. If one spouse does not attend church, it is vital that you decide how to handle religion in the home ahead of time. The non-attending spouse needs to be supportive, while the attending spouse should avoid nagging and trying to force the other to attend. Religion often shapes and represents deep-seated parts of those who participate actively. It is important to address this issue prior to marriage, and to work out compromises.
These issues after marriage
Nothing is set in stone, no matter how settled things are prior to saying “I do”. Chances are that you will have to periodically touch base on these issues, and re-assess where you stand. You may change your views on these issues, and old rules may have to be modified while new are created. Marriage requires ongoing communication and a degree of flexibility in order to thrive.