What Engaged Couples Should Talk About Before Saying I Do

Expert Advice to Help Prepare for a Successful Marriage

  Klaus Vedfelt

Sadly, current statistics show that those marrying for the first time face a 40% to 50% chance of divorce. Of first marriages that end in divorce, most last only 3 to 5 years. Children of divorced parents are at increased risk for psychological issues that often do not become apparent until adulthood. Sometimes, these couples experience distress even during the engagement period. With divorce having such far-reaching and negative consequences, it is imperative to take a look at some ways couples can prevent divorce prior to saying "I do."  

As a marriage and family therapist, I am concerned when couples on the path to marriage can't describe how they resolve conflicts.  If they report never having arguments, I worry that they are not discussing important topics, or that they are avoiding conflict altogether. On the other hand, excessive fighting and disagreements raise a "red flag," as well. There are numerous techniques to help engaged couples overcome these problems. Here is a sampling of what I believe works, and what some other experts advise to help get you on the right track before tying the knot.

Linda A. Kerns, a family law attorney in Pennsylvania and New Jersey believes that "Marriage is a business arrangement as much as it is about love and family. Engaged couples should understand each other's expectations regarding finances and also plan how to handle money during the marriage."  She goes on to say that "Combining assets and debts can be complicated and requires planning.

Every couple must find their comfort zone whether that means keeping finances separate, combining everything or a hybrid approach." Protection of assets from your spouse in the event of divorce also varies by the laws of your state. 

Texas family law attorney Natalie Gregg notices that "Couples often get caught up in the romance and forget to discuss big picture items, such as when and if they might have children, who might stay home with those children, and what kind of career is sustainable for their lifestyle." She ponders why people "put more thought into buying real estate or a car than the person whom we are planning on marrying.

 Marriage is a delicate dance of egos, careers, and lifestyle, all of which need planning and articulation for the future."

Megan Bearce, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author in Minnesota recommends that couples looking to marry for the first time, together read  Susan Piver’s book, The Hard Questions: 100 Questions to Ask Before You Say " I Do". Bearce noted, "So much time is spent choosing flowers, the caterer, and making decisions related to the wedding day instead of thinking about the issues that can lead to conflict down the road." Bearce likes Piver’s book as it is "broken out into chapters on money, career, children and the like and lists related questions that get to the point of how each person feels about them. I also recommend that my single clients read it, too, so that they get clear about what they do and don’t want in a relationship and figure out what is important to them in the long-term, not just the coming months."

"The family you grew up in shapes an amazing amount of your prejudices, unconscious behavior, values, and reactions," states Dr. Tina Tessina, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California and author of several books aimed at helping couples.

"Make sure you spend as much time as possible with each other's families before you make the move. It's easier to see your partner's quirks and habits in a parent or sibling because you're not blinded by lust. If one or both of you don't get along with your families, find out why. Family style is going to have a big impact on your relationship." Dr. Tessina has a list of many other important questions for couples to consider before they tie the knot concerning personality traits, moving in together, dividing up chores, preferences for personal space, religious differences and so on.  

Before marrying, couples are able to seek out guidance from many sources: licensed therapists that specialize in premarital counseling, specific programs that prepare couples for a successful marriage  (e.g., PREP or PREPARE/ENRICH), their clergy, family law attorneys, and financial planners, to name just a few.

PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) is one of the most comprehensive and well-respected divorce-prevention/marriage strengthening programs available today. It has been proven effective through substantial research. PREP emphasizes strategies under two essential frameworks: strategies geared toward lowering risk factors and strategies for raising protective factors to help marriages succeed. PREP is an educational program that participants can learn using several formats depending on their preferences, such as in-person workshops, online and home study, or classes run by clergy. 

If you do get some sort of premarital counseling or engage in a program such as PREP, the goal is to take it seriously and do the work. "The key limitation of a premarital program is that often couples approach these sessions without the seriousness it requires" notes Jessica Rios, the chief clinical officer at iCouch, an online therapy service. "It’s important that both partners be fully involved in the process. I recommend that couples see their counselor both as a couple as well as separately to help the counselor understand what each person wants without those wants being glossed over or ignored during the couple’s session. Sometimes pre-marital counseling might reveal that a couple should not get married."

Leana Sykes, a New Jersey-based couples therapist and developer of an online course called "Premarital Boot Camp" also points out that one of the drawbacks is that programs "don't challenge couples to dig deeper and move past their comfort zone as counseling can. Working with a counselor is more customized to the couple, and a counselor can help the couple navigate more sensitive topics such as money, spirituality, and intimacy." Dr. Jane Greer, New York-based relationship expert, radio host, and author recommends pre-marital programs as well but agrees that they are not as individualized. She states "If the couple has difficulty talking to each other directly, it's a good idea to see a counselor or clergy such as a priest or rabbi.

Also, they can talk to other couples who've gone through this and ask how they survived the road to marriage."

There are valuable resources for engaged couples on the internet.  Smartmarriages.com provides wealth information, educational classes, and links for couples. NationalMarriageProject.org imparts relevant research and analysis to promote healthy and stable marriages. Both of these organizations are non-faith based and non-partisan. Avvo.com is a web-based free legal resource that engaged couples may also find to be a helpful resource for information on topics such as prenuptial agreements, immigration law for international couples or property issues. 

There is a consensus among experts that the “blinders” do need to come off. Don’t let the engagement bliss keep you from openly and sincerely discussing serious topics. Deal with the hard issues before getting married. This may be the best way to keep yourselves from becoming another divorce statistic!