We need to talk
Should you discuss divorce before marriage?
Things change when you get engaged. Besides the ring and the glow, you suddenly have a secret Pinterest page on pet ring-bearers and a stack of bridal magazines. Vitamix has become aware of your existence and is hungry for you to be thirsty for blended vegetables. Even social media looks different. Your usual thread of inter-species friendship videos is now a steady stream of smiling, happy couples riding tandem bicycles through Valencia-filtered landscapes.
It’s a cloistered phase of life—and necessarily so. Without a carefully curated parade of dress options, cake options and new wedding tradition articles, you could be in danger of overthinking the fact that you are yoking your entire life to another person, indefinitely.
Don’t worry! I’m not here to talk you out of your decision. I’m just here to give you a little perspective from the other (other) side of the aisle, as a very wise, very divorced woman who knows you only want to do this one time.
According to the Pew Research Center, the odds of millennial marriages working out are a little rosier than the 50/50 statistic that has been burned into our brains. The real number—while difficult to calculate due to declining marriage rates, separations without divorce, and inconsistent data collection—is actually more like 42-45 percent, according to Harvard social scientist Bella De Paulo. Although this is not what you would call an inspiring piece of information to dwell on before marriage, it’s definitely not healthy to ignore it either.
Not much better is the onslaught of “divorce proof” listicles that pop up after every new celebrity split or political sex scandal. Nothing is anything-proof, and using language like this is lazy and misleading. Still, there are things you can do to prepare yourself—if not for the contingencies—for the realities of marriage. You owe it to yourself and your future spouse to have some tough conversations before you walk down the aisle.
Please tell me you have already talked about children. If you aren’t on the same page here, this is straight-up not going to work. Keep in mind that kids are a spectrum issue—not a black-and-white topic. You both may not want children now, but perhaps you are a “hard no” and your partner is a “not now.” That’s a pretty important distinction, and even though talking about it today might not change anything immediately, it’s good to know where you might be heading.
If you both want kids—or just one kid, another important thing to discuss—have you talked about raising them? What about a little expectation management once they arrive?
According to research out of the University of Florida and Pennsylvania State University, relationship satisfaction declines during the first years of marriage. For those couples with children, this downward trend is nearly twice as steep.
In a recent Guardian article, Matthew D. Johnson, a professor of psychology at Binghamton University, noted, “The arrival of children changes how couples interact. Parents often become more distant and businesslike with each other as they attend to the details of parenting.”
As a parent myself, I can attest to the shift in identity that follows the birth of a child. And, like many other women, I’m aware that while this change does contribute to marital strain, this isn’t an area where I would do anything differently.
Perhaps this makes sense in light of a recent survey of parents conducted by Open University in Oxford. When prompted to name the most important person in their lives, mothers named their children and fathers named their partners.
This begs the question, are we relying too much on our “most important people” to make us happy?
Expectations and happiness
Since getting divorced this past summer, I’ve been doing a lot of research on the topic of happiness—a.k.a., I’ve been reading a lot of self help books—and have come across one version of the answer. Chances are, you probably already know it.
Your partner can’t make you happy.
If you had told me this a decade ago, I would have emphatically agreed with you because—besides being one of those phrases you hear over and over again—it also makes a lot of damn sense. Too bad I never really believed it.
According to my favorite self help book, Real Love by Greg Baer, I’m not alone.
“Falling in love usually means that two people have found someone with whom they experience an abundant and relatively fair exchange of imitation love,” writes Baer. “We naturally turn to our spouses to supply what we’re missing, and our partners understandably feel resentful of our increased demands.”
That’s not to say, though, that long-lasting romantic relationships don’t contribute to overall happiness. They absolutely do.
Looking at the longest study ever conducted on happiness—the 80-year Harvard Study of Adult Development—the role of genetics is less important to longevity than the level of satisfaction with relationships in midlife.
So, the good news for you is that relationships can be a predictor for healthy aging. But they have to be built on a foundation of self worth and real love—not exchange.
Money is a bummer. On top of student debt, budgets and never-ending bills, issues with finances often go back to your childhood and dredge up deep emotions about your upbringing and even your self worth.
Now multiply your financial hang-ups by two, and you may understand why my ex-husband and I opted out of this conversation altogether—keeping our bank accounts separate by default and only talking about finances on a need-to-fight-about-it basis for the almost decade we were together.
Immature? Definitely. Irresponsible? For sure. Although this wasn’t the problem that killed our marriage (see previous section), it definitely wasn’t a harbinger of good things to come.
In a 2014 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, a third of couples cited money as “a major source of conflict” in their relationship. The good news is—unlike changing your mind about children—views on money tend to stay put. That means you can learn a lot about your fiancé’s financial acumen by having a simple conversation. Bethany and Scott Palmer, the authors of First Comes Love, Then Comes Money, advise engaged couples to talk about the following: joint vs. separate bank accounts, your childhood associations with money, dual- or single-income aspirations, saving and spending habits, and prenuptial agreements.
It’s usually this last topic that gets a lot of pushback—which makes sense. Talking about how you will split your assets before you combine them really takes the romance out of the equation. But there are good reasons to get a prenup that have nothing to do with keeping exorbitant amounts of money from your future spouse. For example, what does an equitable split look like if one partner gives up their career—and career momentum—to be a stay-at-home dad or mom? You are a lot more likely to have clear-headed answer to this, and other sensitive financial issues, while you are on each other’s side, like you are right now.
My advice? Take a few hours off from planning your wedding and plan your union. It will pay off in the end.