As a family lawyer and mediator, I have a unique insight into people's relationships. I work both with couples who are about to take their joyous first steps into married life and those who have reached the end of their marital journey. After 20 years, this perspective has revealed some common themes about those marriages which flounder and those which stand the test of time. Drawing on this experience, here are some important conversations I recommend you have with your partner before marriage, to put in place the strongest foundations for building your life together.
1. Do we want to have children?
This might seem like an obvious one but you might be surprised by how many of my (younger) clients have not discussed with their partner, their respective views about having children. It can be a source of awkwardness if lawyers raise this question during prenup negotiations, only to find themselves with front row seats at the couple's first ever serious discussion about whether (and if so when) they each want children.
The devil is also in the detail. Whilst you might have agreed in principle that you both want have children in the future,
2. How will we manage our finances?
When you marry, your financial position becomes legally intertwined with your spouse's. Therefore, any choices your spouse makes about how they spend, earn, or save money is relevant not only to your joint future but also your own financial position if you divorce. Financial irresponsibility (including, sometimes, one spouse bringing debt to the marriage without telling the other) or different attitudes to spending versus saving are common complaints from my divorcing clients.
Important questions to discuss are: will you have a joint bank account; will you pool your incomes; if one of you gives up work how long will this be for and how will they be supported? How is the marital home to be owned? Are major financial decisions to be shared? And a crucial one - how will one spouse's needs (and those of any children) be met if the unthinkable happens and the other spouse passes away unexpectedly?
3. Will we both work?
I have many clients who were both working when they began their relationship but, upon marriage or once they have children, one of them chose to give up work. For many, this is a common-sense decision based on the needs of the family, but it is helpful to discuss these arrangements beforehand. I have seen cases where resentment has bubbled for years, for example where one spouse feels unfulfilled by the home-maker role or where the breadwinner resents being the only one supporting the family financially.
Whilst it might seem a long way away now, it is also important to discuss expectations around retirement. Some of my clients continue working well into their 70s, either through choice or necessity, whilst others are in the fortunate position of being able to retire young. But both can be triggers for marital disharmony.
4. Where will we live?
As mobility has increased, it is less common for couples to settle in the town in which their families have always lived. Increasingly, couples I work with come from opposite ends of the country or even the world. For many couples, where they live may be determined by where their careers take them (and this can change during marriage), family ties or tax planning, their children's school catchment area, etc.
Coming from different geographical locations/backgrounds can hugely enrich a relationship but can also create challenges. Such couples should have early conversations about where they see the focus of their married life being, where they would want to raise their children and what they would do if job opportunities arose in a different town or country. I have seen many cases where different opinions about whether to take up an opportunity in another country led to relationship issues, or where living in different geographical locations for part of the week led to couples drifting apart or separating.
5. Dealing with particular issues associated with blended families
The most recent stats (published in 2015), suggest that one-third of marriages involve couples where at least one has been married before. This brings with it additional considerations – what is your spouse's relationship, financial and otherwise, with their ex-spouse? Paying maintenance to an ex-spouse can be a particular source of tension; be open about the position and discuss when it is likely to change. What will be your relationship with any children from your spouse's previous marriage? How often will your spouse see the children? How will you blend your families if you go on to have children together?
It is important that you all find a way of co-existing so that any children of your spouse's marriage can move freely between homes and that parents and step-parents can all be in the same room together on special occasions for the children.
6. How will we resolve our differences if we disagree?
From the mediation sessions I do with couples I see that conflicts often arise due to a breakdown in communication. It's perfectly normal to have disagreements during a marriage, and it's how you work through those disagreements that matters.
Having an honest discussion with your partner about how you both deal with conflict is a good idea.
The ones which may founder are where one or both spouses bottle up their feelings and let things fester until it is too late. It is sensible to explore, before you marry, what your respective communication styles are and how they'll interact.
7. What does marriage mean to you?
Some couples I work with seem to think that marriage may straitjacket them. In reality every marriage is unique and that's what makes every union so special. It's about working out what works best for you as a couple. In mediation, people sometimes ask me questions like "how do most married people manage their finances?" I always answer, every case is different. The same can be said about living arrangements – I see some couples who regularly spend time apart, e.g. due to work, but have a very happy, healthy relationship; I have others who become unhappy because they are under each other's feet all the time.
Whilst there's no right or wrong answer to the questions set out above – you may not even know what your own views are yet – the process of discussing these questions together is important. Spending the rest of your life with the person you love is a wonderful prospect. Having these conversations is all part of that exciting journey and will hopefully stand you in good stead for a long and happy marriage.