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Questions to Ask Before Getting Married, a Collaborative Perspective

If you’re thinking of getting married, you’re probably thinking about the fun stuff: wedding venues, cakes, flowers, dress designers, and invitations. But before you choose your venue, set the date, and send out invitations, you might want to consider sitting down to take a marital inventory that includes an honest conversation about your finances, credit history, goals for the future, and shared expectations. No one wants to think about divorce when they are getting married, but the questions you ask your partner before you marry can affect not only your marriage, but also have an impact on your life should you ever choose to divorce.

According to the American Psychological Association the three most common contributors to divorce include lack of commitment, infidelity, and conflict. Researchers writing in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships noted that many marriage conflicts centered around time spent together (or not spent together), sex, money, and household management. The researchers additionally found that couples noted that many of the problems leading to their divorce were present early in their relationship and marriage.

While no one wants to think about divorce while planning to get married, it can be helpful to have a serious conversation that addresses some of the core issues that could lead to divorce long before you set your wedding date or send out wedding invitations. Prenuptial agreement lawyers and divorce lawyers spend their whole careers helping couples navigate the very issues that lead to divorce, and in some cases, conflicts in divorce could have been prevented had the couple sat down before they got married to take a premarital inventory, and have an honest conversation about finances, credit, goals for the future, and shared expectations. In this way, premarital agreements aren’t just for the wealthy. They can be a useful way for couples to have conversations about difficult financial questions in a collaborative environment, especially for couples who choose a collaborative approach to writing their prenuptial agreements.

Too many couples wait to have difficult conversations until problems arise. Relationship conflict is quite normal. In fact, conflict can be a good thing. It shows that you both care about each other and it can help you grow as a couple as you learn more about one other while you navigate disagreement.

In this article, we’ll explore some questions to ask before marriage based on common issues addressed in prenuptial agreements and divorce. We’ll also explore some tough questions you can address that are related to common conflicts divorce lawyers often encounter.

What assets, property, and debts are you bringing into this marriage?

Many couples assume they understand their partner’s financial situation, but unless couples sit down and make formal financial disclosures when writing a prenup, a surprising number of couples don’t know the specifics of their future spouse’s finances. How much debt, exactly, does your partner have? How much savings? Does your partner have a negative credit history that could impact your shared ability to make major purchases like a car or a home down the line?

Will assets, property, and debt you owned before the marriage be considered your personal property, or shared marital property?

Couples often make assumptions about property brought into a marriage. Just because your future husband lets you live rent-free in his house, this doesn’t mean he wants to put you on the deed. And just because your future wife lets you drive her car doesn’t mean she considers the car shared property. While state law will often dictate whether property is considered separate or shared, most couples don’t specifically address this question unless they write a prenup. If you do intend to keep some assets, bank accounts, property, or debts separate, you may need to take additional legal steps. A prenuptial agreement can help if you or your partner hold considerable debt, assets, or if one of you owns a separate business.

Will we have a shared bank account or separate bank account?

Some couples make financial decisions when they get married without considering the full financial implications. For example, if you open a shared bank account when you get married and put your whole paycheck into the shared bank account, this money would generally be considered community property, and half of it could potentially be subject to collections if your partner brings considerable unpaid debts into the marriage. When couples write a prenuptial agreement before they get married, potential pitfalls of shared accounts can be addressed, and couples can make informed decisions about whether they will have shared bank accounts, and if they do, how they will allocate their earnings to shared and separate accounts. If you are planning to get married, it can be helpful to decide whether you’ll share a bank account, keep accounts separate, or have a shared account for household expenses. If you will share an account, you can also discuss how you’ll use it. For example, will you save money from a shared account or only use your shared account to pay shared expenses? What will you consider shared expenses?

Will we have shared credit cards or separate credit cards? What is your philosophy on debt?

You could end up on the hook for any debts your partner takes on during your marriage. And even when spouses choose to keep debts separate through a prenup, creditors may still have means to go after a spouse for their partner’s debts. Having an honest conversation about debt and credit card usage is essential before you get married. And what about other kinds of debts, like student loan debt, car loans, or a mortgage?

Will property purchased or acquired during the marriage be considered shared or separate?

When couples write a prenuptial agreement, they often address whether property acquired during the marriage will go in both partner’s names. This is usually helpful when one or both parties bring in considerable wealth to the marriage, and when purchases of property and investments will likely be made after marriage. Yet, even middle-class families may need to address these questions. If one spouse will inherit a home from family, will the inherited home be considered shared or separate property? While inheritance is typically owned by the spouse receiving the property, ownership issues can arise if marital assets are used to make improvements to a property, or if marital assets are used to pay off liens. Having an honest conversation about what you will share and what you want to keep separate is wise to prevent future conflict and misunderstanding.

How will we budget household expenses?

Even if you’ve already been living together, it is always a good idea to sit down and create a concrete budget of household expenses and costs. How will you divide these expenses between the both of you? While some couples are fortunate enough to earn similar incomes, not all couples enter marriage on the same financial footing. One partner may make more money than the other. How will you divide expenses and costs? Who will be responsible for paying what?

What are your personal life goals and financial goals?

Do you want to start a business? Do you want to continue your education? Do you want to build your portfolio? Personal life goals can affect your shared financial goals and future. If one partner plans to finish medical school or law school, for example, will educational debts be shared or kept separate? How will this impact your shared financial goals and household income? Sometimes personal life goals aren’t related to career but can be costly. If it’s your partner’s dream to someday climb Mount Everest or Mt. Kilimanjaro, will he or she be responsible for saving money to fund this goal, or will you, as a couple contribute to funding this dream, and how will these goals affect your shared financial plans, personal plans, and goals?

What are our shared life goals and financial goals?

If you want to buy a house together, what kind of financial plan will you need to put in place to make it happen? Do you want to start a business together? Do you want to save money to travel the world? Being clear about your shared goals as a couple can help you get clear about budgeting and finances. Will you put in place a savings plan to meet these goals? Will you each set aside money from your personal incomes? What sacrifices, in terms of debt and spending, will you need to make?

How much money is reasonable to spend on a vacation, dinner, clothing, car, or home?

Conflict surrounding money sometimes comes down to the small details. Some couples draft their prenuptial agreements to keep assets and accounts separate and choose not to get involved when it comes to a partner’s spending decisions. But in most marriages, couples share some aspects of their financial lives, and spending habits can become a point of contention. Understanding how much money your partner thinks reasonable to spend on a nice dinner out, a vacation, and on clothing can help you set expectations before he or she comes home on Black Friday or makes dinner reservations for your anniversary.

Do we want children, and what would we do if we struggle with fertility issues?

Hopefully, if you plan to get married, you and your partner have discussed whether you want children or not. But have you discussed what you plan to do if you struggle with fertility issues? Will you spend money on fertility treatments? Will you adopt? Issues with fertility can be a point of strain for any marriage, especially if you and your partner don’t agree on I.V.F. or adoption.

What are your beliefs surrounding how children should be educated?

Planning for your children’s education and daycare can be one of the biggest family expenses. Do you plan to send your children to private school, and if so, what kind of private school? Will you set up a college savings fund? When children are born, will one partner take time away from work to care for the children, or will you set aside shared income for daycare costs? Will you need to save money to live in a “good” school district if the kids will go to public school?

Do you have any religious beliefs you’d like to share with the children? Do you hold any religious beliefs that could affect the children’s diet, upbringing, extracurricular activities, or medical care?

Religious beliefs can be a point of conflict for couples even without children, but a spouse who was formerly accepting of their partner’s religious beliefs may suddenly have issues when it comes to raising children in those beliefs. If you and your partner don’t share religious beliefs, it can be a good idea to discuss those beliefs, what role you want them to play in your life (or shared lives), and what role you want them to play in your children’s lives.

Are there extracurricular activities you would like the children to participate in? What are your beliefs surrounding extracurricular activities?

Are you the soccer mom type or the “free range kid” type of parent? Are there certain activities you find important (like learning an instrument at an early age, or participations in sports), or do you want your child to lead the way when it comes to choosing activities? How will you pay for activities?

What are your thoughts about vaccines? Wisdom teeth removal? Braces? ADHD, depression, anxiety, and use of psychiatric medication in adolescents? What about removing a child’s tonsils or surgical interventions for ear infections?

These kinds of co-parenting decisions often tend to arise in issues of divorce or between parents who are co-parenting, but they can also raise conflict among parents who are married. Answers to these questions could help you understand your partner’s approach to medical treatment in general, which can also be a sensitive issue, especially if medical concerns for the family arise.

If we have children, how will we share caretaking responsibilities?

Will both parents work and share caretaking duties, or will one parent stay home with the children while the other works? Asking your partner how he or she feels about diaper duty, late-night feeding, and meal planning could help you get a better sense of areas where you’ll need to compromise or address expectations.

How much alone time (or independent time with friends and family) do you need?

With or without children, one of the common points of contention is how much time you and your significant other will spend together or apart. Talking about your needs and how you plan to meet those needs is important before you get married. For example, if you’d like to have time with your friends over the weekend, how will you balance this need with the need for shared couple time, and with shared parenting responsibilities? Understanding how you each define privacy is also important.

How will we balance work and family time?

Work-life balance is another issue that can raise conflict, and it often intersects with caretaking responsibilities, as well as time invested in the relationship as opposed to time invested pursuing personal goals. Will you set family expectations for time to disconnect? How do you feel about your partner brining work home in the evenings or on weekends, traveling for work, taking work calls, or spending time on work functions or events? Will you as a partner, be expected to participate in some of these activities and how do you feel about this?

Where do we want to set down roots?

Conflicts can arise when couples disagree about where they want to live. You might also want to address how you might handle conflict if one of you was offered a better job in another city, or if your work moved to another city or town.

What are some expectations surrounding in-laws and extended family?

Are you close to your parents and plan to visit them every week? Or is one spouse very close to family while one not so much? Relationships with in-laws can raise conflict, not just in terms of time spent with in-laws, but also in terms of ground rules regarding what is okay to share with in-laws and family, and what issues should be kept within the marriage. If the in-laws want something and your spouse wants something else, how would each of you resolve this kind of conflict? If you plan to spend holidays with family as a couple, how will you divide time between both sets of in-laws?

What is your definition of infidelity? What happens if one of us is unfaithful?

It’s surprisingly common for one or both partners to develop feelings for another person over the course of a long marriage. How do you plan to address this? Will you let your partner know, or does your partner prefer not to know? And if one of you does develop feelings, what counts as infidelity? Is looking at pornography being unfaithful? What about flirting? Is an emotional affair an affair? If infidelity does arise in your marriage, what is your gameplan? Do you agree to both try counseling? These conversations can be difficult but can open lines of communication about commitment and fidelity that can evolve as your relationship grows.

What do you expect when it comes to sex?

When a couple’s sexual needs don’t match, conflicts can arise. Passion can change over the course of a relationship, especially as children come into the picture. Taking time to understand each partner’s sexual needs and ways you can meet them, individually and together is important. It can help to talk about how you plan to keep the romance alive, either through date nights, yearly vacations, or small gestures that keep you connected.

If we were to get divorced, what is our plan?

No one wants to think of getting divorced when they are planning to get married, but having a game plan can help. Some couples see the value in having a prenuptial agreement as they explore difficult premarital questions.

What are some ground rules for how we will manage conflict?

It is entirely normal to not be in perfect alignment when it comes to these crucial questions. In fact, conflict and fights in marriage and relationships are not only common, they are often part of every healthy relationship. If you always agree on everything, this could be a red flag that one of you might be making internal compromises without the other one knowing.

How you fight is more important than whether you fight. According to the journal, Family Process, “withdrawal during conflict by either or both partners, though quite common, was associated with more negativity and less positive connection in relationships.” Relationship therapist Dr. John Gottman identified four communication styles that could effectively predict the end of a relationship. According to The Gottman Institute, these four styles included: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

When discussing sensitive or difficult topics, it can be helpful to keep these styles in mind. For example, criticism is different than a critique or complaint. A criticism is an attack on a partner’s character, while critique addresses a specific issue. A critique might be letting your partner know that his or her credit card use makes you feel financially insecure and makes you feel frightened you won’t meet your financial goals. A criticism would be calling your partner irresponsible and selfish after finding out he or she has maxed out credit cards. It can be difficult to avoid criticism when emotions are high. Contempt involves using sarcasm, ridicule, or other forms of disrespect in an argument. Defensiveness is when we come up with excuses for our behavior rather than taking responsibility. Stonewalling involves withdrawing from a conversation, shutting down, or failing to respond.

Before you begin a premarital inventory or begin to have these tough conversations, it’s important to set some ground rules regarding how you’ll argue and how you plan to address disagreements should discussions become tense. Avoiding Gottman’s four communication styles, while also listening to the other person’s perspective can help you resolve conflicts.

Some couples find it helpful to discuss these tough premarital questions in a collaborative setting, while working out a prenuptial agreement. The collaborative lawyers at Truce Law help couples address some of the most difficult relationship questions that can arise in divorce and premarital agreements using negotiation tactics and effective communication. If you think the collaborative approach might help you, reach out to Truce Law today.

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