The Pre-Wedding Prep Couples Actually Need
Advice from two couples counselors and one divorce attorney.
By Craig Manning | April 4, 2020
Five-hundred twenty-eight. That’s the number of hours that the average American couple spends planning their wedding, according to a 2019 study conducted by the artist-and-designer marketplace Minted. That’s 22 entire days spent on everything from wedding dress shopping to creating and stamping invites to planning seating charts and selecting flower arrangements.
Yet, for all the time that couples spend planning their weddings, most brides and grooms-to-be invest much less time planning for the actual marriage.
According to the American Psychological Association, 40 to 50 percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce. But what if some of those hours that go into planning “The Big Day” could be spent planning for all the days that come after it? Could couples save themselves from ending up in divorce court, simply by sitting down and having a conversation about what their marriages will look like?
To find out, Northern Express convened a panel of three local experts on troubled relationships: two couples counselors and one divorce attorney. They told us all about the common conflict points and missteps that tend to sink marriages — and shared tips and advice that today’s engaged couples or newlyweds can use to pave the way toward a true happily ever after.
STRONG COMMUNICATION = STRONG FOUNDATION
A marriage without strong communication is doomed to fail. According to Caren Field, a local licensed marriage and family therapist who owns Traverse City’s The Path to Partnership, patterns of bad communication in a relationship tend to be learned and established before a couple ever says “I Do.”
“Anything and everything they don’t talk about before marriage can lead to problems later,” Field said.
Lori Schmeltzer, the founder, owner, and divorce attorney at Traverse City’s Schmelzer Law, agrees.
“There are questions that couples need to get out into the open if they're going to have a great marriage,” she told us. “‘What do you envision for how we're going to spend our money, or how we're going to invest our money?’ ‘How are we going to manage having children? Is one of us going to stay home and not work?’ ‘How is money going to be handled at that point?’” Schmeltzer notes that it’s couples who don’t discuss these matters ahead of time — along with other existential questions about marriage and what it will look like — that usually end up in her offices.
While asking these types of foundational questions can provide a sort of “roadmap” for marriage, though, simply checking big, important topics off a “to discuss” list is not enough to constitute a truly communication-driven relationship.
Gary Vann — a PhD family psychologist who has been working with coupled clients throughout northern Michigan since 1977 — recommends that couples make time in their schedules for a “daily dialogue.” Vann defines a daily dialogue as a chance for couples to sit down and talk to one another about their feelings, needs, and what’s going on in their lives. It doesn’t have to be much; he says just 10–15 minutes over coffee in the morning (or over a glass of wine in the evening) can be hugely beneficial and can help partners develop the listening skills and problem-solving skills that can keep their marriage functional and communicative for the long haul.
Even in the most harmonious partnerships, disagreements are bound to arise from time to time. Regular conversations between couples can lead to differences of opinion, escalate into all-out fights, and leave a lot of hurt feelings in their wake. In these moments, Vann says the most important thing a husband or wife can do is to take responsibility for their side of the marriage.
That responsibility can take numerous different forms. It might mean someone who is used to getting their way learning to compromise and adopt more of a “give and take” attitude. It might mean battling the impulse to be sarcastic, dismissive, critical, annoyed, or standoffish during an argument. If might even mean learning to be a better listener during the more combative moments of a relationship, rather than resorting to finger-pointing and blame. These skills, Vann says, are things that many people don’t learn growing up — whether from observing their parents’ relationships or seeing how other friends and family members conduct themselves with their partners.
“A good marriage begins with you, rather than with pointing the finger at the partner,” Vann said. “It’s important to start looking in the mirror and to look at what you can do to take responsibility for your side of the marriage. Once we start doing the finger-pointing at the other person, that's the fast-track toward problems. If each person can become aware and enlightened about their side of the marriage, and about what they might be doing wrong, they can often fix problems themselves.”
DON’T OVERLOOK RED FLAGS
When an employer makes a hiring decision, they do their “due diligence” by vetting a candidate thoroughly and looking for red flags. Our marriage experts say couples should do something similar – but often don’t, because it doesn’t jibe with the romance, attraction, infatuation, and “love” that comes with the early phases of a relationship. Since many couples get married during this “honeymoon stage,” Field says brides and grooms often don’t think critically about the things they might not love about their partners.
“The biggest mistake I see people make in choosing a marriage partner is ignoring red flags,” Field told the Northern Express. “Any red flag, whether it’s in how they interact with you, or how they interact with others, is heartbreaking to see in hindsight. To look back and say ‘Yeah, I knew about that from the start, and I married them anyway’ is a hard pill to swallow.”
Vann often recommends that couples spend more time dating or being engaged, rather than rushing into a marriage after being together for only a year or so. This pre-wedding time, he says, provides ample opportunity for due diligence, and for someone to make sure their partner “has the tools and the skills” to be part of a successful, supportive partnership.
“If they love each other, that's great, but they have to like each other too,” Vann explained. “It's extremely costly to go through a divorce, both financially and psychologically. If people love each other, that's a good start, but at the same time, for newlyweds, feelings of love as part of attraction or infatuation are never enough to develop and sustain a long-lasting and healthy relationship. That's one of the reasons for the high failure rate of marriages in the country today."
What’s the most important red flag to look for in this due diligence stage? According to Vann, the biggest deal-breaker for most relationships is a partner who isn’t empathetic. “You want to ask ‘Is this woman or this man showing any empathy toward my feelings and my problems?’” he said. “If yes, that goes a long way. If no, and you're not getting any empathy, you're probably going to be very unhappy two or three years down the road.”
BRING IN 3RD PARTY PRIOR TO MARRIAGE
"I know I'm a divorce attorney, but I wish I could save some people from divorce,” Schmeltzer said. “And as weird as it sounds, meeting with a divorce attorney before you get married might actually save you from divorce.”
Schmeltzer says that engaged couples are often reluctant to do anything that might signal a lack of commitment to their partner, or a lack of faith in the partnership as a whole. That impulse leads couples to avoid frank conversations about how they would handle a divorce if their relationship came to the point, or to scoff at the idea of drawing up a prenuptial agreement.
According to Field, there is often a similar stigma attached to pre-marital counseling. “Too many couples think they don't need it because they're ‘in love’ and they believe that ‘everything will work out after the wedding,’” she said. “Unfortunately, life doesn't work like that.”
Schmeltzer, Field, and Vann all agree that every couple should consider sitting down with a third party before their wedding, whether to work through issues they already have in their relationship or to talk through questions and topics they may not have thought about.
Some religions do require (or at least recommend) that couples go through pre-marital counseling. Especially if a couple is set to be married in a church, with a church-affiliated officiant, either the church or the officiant may have stipulations that the couple must follow in terms of pre-marriage classes or counseling.
Schmeltzer says there is far less of a push for engaged couples to sit down with divorce lawyers before they get married, which can lead to fundamental misunderstandings about what will happen with money, parenting, child custody, and division of assets in the event of a divorce. In particular, Schmeltzer sees a lot of misinformation about what constitutes “separate property” in a marriage and what constitutes “marital property.” Since all marital property is divisible in a divorce, many couples end up being blindsided to learn how much they thought was “theirs” is actually “ours.”
“The No. 1 myth that I see is that people think if they keep their bank accounts in separate names and keep their money separate, then that's his money and that's her money, or her money and her money, or his and his,” Schmeltzer explained. “That's simply not true.”
Marital property includes any money earned during the marriage, including money from either person’s job, earnings on investments, retirement accounts, and more. Separate property includes anything that was owned by either partner individually prior to the marriage, as well as anything received as gifts or inheritance during the marriage that hasn’t been “co-mingled” with marital funds. “If your grandma passes away during the marriage, and you inherit $10,000, that’s separate property,” Schmeltzer continued. “But if you put that money into any sort of joint asset — be it a joint checking account or a marital home that you share with your spouse — that action converts the gift to marital property.”
To avoid some of these complexities, Schmeltzer recommends that couples consider working with a lawyer on a prenuptial agreement — even if they think they’ll never, ever need it.
“A lot of people think they only need a prenuptial agreement if they are wealthy, or if they are older and have children from a prior relationship,” Schmeltzer said. “The percentage of people who actually use prenuptial agreements is so low compared to the percentage of people who really should have them. I think having those conversations early on, while it isn't fun or romantic, is a good form of planning for a life. It offers peace to a lot of people. By the time clients are in my office filing for divorce, they are so confused and wound up and uncertain about their future. A document drawn up ahead of time, when things are good, can offer that peace. And if you never get divorced, it's just a document.”
7 CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS
Talks to have before you tie the knot
Our three experts all said communication was core to a successful marriage – and that this communication needs to start in earnest before a trip to the altar. But what topics should engaged couples be absolutely sure to talk about ahead of their big day? Here are seven essentials.
1. Money, debt, and budget
Money can be a huge sticking point in any relationship, especially if one person is a saver and the other person is a spender. It’s important to understand one another’s financial beliefs and positions —including any existing debts — and to come to an agreement about how money will be budgeted, spent, or invested going forward.
Are you and your partner planning to have kids? If so, when, and how many? Differences in vision in these areas can be genuine deal-breakers for couples, so addressing them upfront is vital. Schmeltzer says it’s also incredibly important to address how child-rearing will occur once kids are in the picture. Will one parent stop working and stay home? If so, how will there be a fair balance of parenting duties and parenting time? What will day-to-day care look like? These questions can impact everything from the marriage to the relationships that each parent has with the kids. They can also be fateful decisions that impact custody battles in the event of a divorce.
3. Work and careers
Understanding how each partner will be financially contributing to the household is crucial to make sure that neither person feels like they are bearing an undue burden of responsibility. For instance, if one person is going to supporting the other through grad school or other education, those agreements need to be talked through ahead of time.
Some couples aren’t religious at all, which can avoid conflict in this area. For couples where one partner is religious and the other is not, or where the two partners are affiliated with different faiths, pre-marital conversations should address how religion will affect lifestyle, child-rearing, and other decisions.
5. Household labor
As with money and careers, it’s unfair for one partner in a marriage to shoulder most of the household duties. From cooking to cleaning to yard work, build out a fair division of labor so that the marriage feels more like a partnership.
6. The past
Knowing your partner means knowing a lot about their life up to the point when you met them. Talking about past relationships, mistakes, or hard times can be difficult, but it will deepen your bond with your partner and could avoid future surprises where a revelation about a partner’s past changes how you see them.
7. The future
What are your goals? Your plans? Your hopes? Your dreams? Your bucket list items? From kids to travel destinations to career aspirations, talking with your partner about the future and where you see yourself in five or ten years is one of the most important conversations you can have before getting hitched. You are preparing to share a life, so make sure you each have similar visions of what you want that life to look like.