So much of the time leading up to getting engaged and planning a wedding is focused on happy moments: meeting someone, falling in love, popping the question. And with good reason! Those happy moments make a love story really compelling. But marriage is more than Saturday-morning coffee and staring lovingly into one another’s eyes: There are difficult topics that you and your partner will need to be able to address, whether it’s while you’re still dating or after you’ve made it official.
In fact, they’re topics you should really start to talk about now, because you won’t want to make it all the way down the aisle before finding out there’s a major difference that you two just can’t resolve. Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., relationship expert, author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great and professor at Oakland University, sat down with us to share three major topics you and your partner need to be able to discuss, as well as the questions you should both be able to ask one another.
Financial Status and Attitudes About Money
Questions to ask:
● Is one of you in debt?
● What is your outlook on saving and spending?
● Are you proactive about saving money?
● Does either of you have an IRA or 401(k)? How often do you contribute?
● Does one of you earn less money than the other? If so, how do you both feel about that?
● How often are you comfortable eating out or going on vacation, given the confinements of your budgets?
“It’s important to know how the financial burden might be divided between the two of you, as well as how you’ll manage your money together,” says Orbuch. “Especially considering that money is the number-one thing most couples fight about!” While talking about money can be hard at first, practice really does make perfect—and it can have a big impact on your relationship. “Talking about money (as well as your feelings and attitudes surrounding it) will strengthen your relationship, because talking about money reduces any tension you might feel about the topic,” Orbuch explains. “Try to talk about money in positive or low-stress situations, because if you only discuss money during negative times (e.g. tax season or when the credit card bill arrives), the topic will always have a negative connotation.
Faith and Beliefs
Questions to ask:
● Does one of you identify with a particular faith?
● How strong are your religious beliefs?
● If you plan on having kids one day, would either of you be adamant about raising them in a certain faith?
“This is a big one to talk about earlier on in the relationship,” says Orbuch. “It will help strengthen your bond with your partner, because your faith could be a very strong and important part of your identity.” And talking about how you see yourselves practicing religion in the future is also important. “You may feel that, when it comes to religion, love knows no bounds. Religion doesn’t have to be an immovable barrier to love, but a person’s faith can oftentimes be a core part of her identity, and can become even more so—and surprisingly divisive—when kids come into the picture.”
Kids and Family
Questions to ask:
● Do you want children?
● How many?
● When would you like to have children?
● What are your views on parenting and gender roles?
● Can either of you imagine taking a break from a high-powered career in order to focus more on caregiving?
● How do you see your roles as parents?
● What about your own families? Do you want them near you, involved with raising your children, etc.?
“Before getting in too deep with a partner, you should both know how the other person feels about children,” says Orbuch. “Down the road, you may or may not want to have children, and knowing what your partner is thinking early on will help you identify and address any issues you might have in the future.” Everyone places value on family and children to a different degree, and having a similar outlook to your partner will determine how well the two of you will get along in the future, from when you’ll have kids to negotiating how to spend your holidays.
How to Start the Conversation
“You and your partner need to discuss these topics before you make a commitment or get married,” says Orbuch. “At the beginning, when you bring one of these topics up, your partner may feel uncomfortable discussing the issue. These topics are never easy to discuss, but the conversations are incredibly important.” Know that not all people will be comfortable with every topic, especially earlier on in a relationship. “Be patient but persistent, and give it time,” Orbuch advises. “How we’re raised plays a big role in how comfortable we are sharing our feelings and addressing challenging topics, so you can’t expect your partner to be just as comfortable or forthcoming as you are right away.” Begin by revealing your own thoughts and opinions, which will encourage your partner to respond in kind.
When you sit down with your partner to have a “talk,” start with straightforward questions that are as devoid of emotion as possible. “If you’re discussing money, for example, begin by asking your partner what he or she likes to spend money on, or what kinds of vacations they like, then graduate to bigger topics,” suggests Orbuch. But don’t skip over the questions that can lead to big problems down the road if left unaddressed. “Important questions to raise eventually include your short- and long-term money goals, as well as what you both consider to be an acceptable amount of debt.”
If you bring up the topic several times and your partner still gets defensive, this may be a red flag that something more serious is going on. “If you notice there’s a topic your partner simply won’t discuss, but you’re both committed to one another, seek the assistance of a professional,” Orbuch says. “A financial counselor or couple’s therapist will be able to help the two of you sort through the issues.”