During the height of wedding season, I spend a lot of time each week talking to couples not just about matrimonial law and the benefits of having a prenuptial agreement, but also about more practical issues, like the need to set a realistic household budget together and to be open to working with experts going forward to help with either financial questions or communication issues that are likely to arise throughout the course of any long-term relationship. For those that want to make it last, here are 5 key tips:
1. Talk about finances– Planning for a wedding and honeymoon is the first big test dealing with money talks for a couple, but certainly not the last. Even if the couple opts against a prenup, they should at least have the discussion about (a) what should be kept separate, (b) what will be joint, and (c) how will they handle the household budget? If you are willing to memorialize this in a prenuptial agreement, even better– especially if you want to protect yourself against an alimony claim in the future. Prenuptial agreements do not cost a lot of money and buy you (and your family) a tremendous peace of mind. In the meantime, if you feel overwhelmed by money talks or find that the two parties have vastly different views on spending vs. saving, go meet with a financial planner.
2. Premarital counseling– This is totally different from couples counseling that you seek when things are already breaking down– if you are there, that is not a good sign. What I am talking about is a pro-active effort to get some professional advice on strategies that will enhance your relationship. Many religious institutions offer courses, and there are some great on-line resources or workshops for couples, just one weekend if you like, where you can have a facilitated dialogue about how you envision your partnership working. What is important to you in a spouse? What are that person’s needs and desires? Do you share the same core values and vision for the future? How can you ensure that you continue to communicate well? Can you establish some rules for resolving conflict? I highly recommend Dr. Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
3. Learn Your Love Languages– Dr. Chapman wrote an entire book about this, but you also go to his website www.5lovelanguages.com and take a 4 minute quiz to determine your love languages. Rarely do we pick a partner with the same love language as ours, so you need to learn to use theirs and appreciate when they are expressing love in their own language. For example, mine is Quality Time- you will know that I love you if I make time for you, and I need you to make time for me in order to feel loved. Meanwhile, my son’s love language is gifts– he loves when I get him his favorite treat from the grocery store, and I know he is happy with me when he makes something special for me. Some people need touch, words of affirmation, or little acts of kindness to feel loved, and the point is we need to make a serious effort to speak our partner’s love language, and help him/her understand ours.
4. Build Your House– I am not suggesting you literally go buy a bunch of bricks, but you need to work on your emotional foundation every day. Do not take each other for granted– just because you put a ring on someone’s finger, does not mean you have purchased them. Dr. Gottman talks about building on your friendship, which is your foundation, and working through your conflict resolution skills by learning to argue respectfully. With trust and respect as your two pillars, you can then add a roof on top and work on nurturing your dreams and aspirations together. If you need a little more direction on this, check out Stephen Covey’s Family Mission Statement.
5. Set Boundaries– We all need to remain true to ourselves while forming a partnership. We do not actually become one when we marry, but rather we are two separate individuals that have agreed to allow a large part of our lives to overlap. Dr. Cloud wrote a great book, “Boundaries in Marriage,” which explains that to make a marriage work, you have to know and respect each other’s boundaries. For example, my work and my son are top priorities in my life, and these are fully my own domain. If anyone ever tried to undermine either of these two aspects of my life, they would see me bail at the speed of light. The point is, it is perfectly normal to have a zero tolerance policy on certain things like drugs, adultery, smoking, anger management issues… and Mr. or Mrs. Right will know how to walk that line.
Not everyone will be able to successfully negotiate all the details of merging two households, and that is okay– better to find out sooner rather than later. In all my years, I have never met someone that regretted the decision to call off a wedding. They all recall the feeling of absolute dread as the big day approached, and the great relief that washed over them once they stopped pretending that everything was okay when deep down inside they knew something was terribly wrong. And even if there are those who may not understand at the time, all I can say is follow your gut.
The fact is growing old together (as opposed to separately) takes a lot of work. It takes a great deal of commitment to work through challenges and never take each other for granted. Remaining loyal to your partnership’s mission and vision is key, otherwise trust and respect can easily be lost. When something is wrong, don’t expect the other person to read your mind or sit and suffer in silence. Communication is critical in order to address problems as they arise, and together you can find the right solutions while further deepening your love and admiration, knowing you have found someone that will stick with you during both the good and the bad times.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.