06/04/2015 05:22 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2016

How to Create Your Own Unique Marital Plan

You've finally met someone special, someone you'd like to spend the rest of your life with. Congratulations.

Whether you end up making it "until death" or not, the intention to spend decades with someone -- no matter how well you may know him or her -- seems somewhat daunting. While no one can guarantee that your marriage will be as happy and healthy as you expect it to be, wouldn't you feel better committing to all those years together if you had a way to measure your marriage's success by something other than longevity -- the only way we currently consider a marriage successful?

Believe it or not, you do have a way; it's called a marital plan, a framework for your marriage that you and your spouse-to-be create together so you can define and agree to what will make your marriage a success. It's like a road map for your combined goals and dreams, with specifics on how you plan to accomplish them, and when. And it also holds each of you accountable.

After all, your partner is special -- you don't want to just create a life with him or her; you want to create a specific kind of life.

While Susan Pease Gadoua and I present such plans in our book The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, we are not alone in believing that marital plans are the way of the future for anyone considering marriage, or even renegotiating an existing marriage. I chatted with two family and divorce attorneys who are big proponents of marital plans -- Mark Ressa, who practices in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Michael Boulette, who practices in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Q: Why do you like the idea of a marital plan?

Ressa: Before they exchange "I do's," rarely do couples articulate in a meaningful way what their expectations are for the marriage. What do they want to see happen in the first three to five years? Are they on the same page about having children? What about intimacy issues? Marital planning provides an opportunity to discuss these issues beforehand, see if both parties are on the same page and, more importantly, set expectations and plan how to address expectations that are not met.

Boulette: I've started to see marriage planning as an innovative solution for a number of the problems plaguing modern relationships. It's a way to:
  • increase marriage rates among couples that may not feel ready for marriage (in its current form) but who want to create a relationship that's more than just roommates
  • incorporate changing social norms around what marriage means and to embrace a variety of different "meanings" of marriage without writing any one meaning into our laws
  • help reduce the conflict in divorce by allowing couples to create their own ideas of fairness when they still have each other's best interests at heart

Q: How do you see a marital plan differing from a prenup?

Ressa: Pre- and post-nuptial agreements, if enforceable, dictate what happens in the event of a divorce. Marital plans document the parties' intent and expectations about how they will move through life as a married couple. A prenuptial agreement largely deals with financial issues; a marital plan, instead, focuses on lifestyle choices.

Boulette: Marriage planning is a paradigm shift. Marriage plans reach beyond the financial into questions of what you want from your spouse as a partner, as a friend, as a co-parent, what you're seeking from the marriage emotionally, physically, even professionally. And also what you're willing to give -- what you're committed to investing to make the relationship and the family work.

Q: From your perspective as a family lawyer, what do couples ignore or misunderstand when they tie the knot?

Ressa: Most couples do not consider what happens in the event of a divorce, how the standard-one-size-fits-all divorce laws would apply in their circumstance. Rarely do I hear of couples who are about to marry -- other than the small percentage who actually enter into a prenuptial agreement -- contemplate financial, wealth acquisition or parenting issues.

Boulette: Because getting married is so easy, at least from a legal standpoint, many couples avoid hard questions. Ignoring these questions can create conflict later on, and in the most extreme scenario could lead couples to question whether the relationship is right for them.

Interested in creating a specific kind of marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.