I've been writing an advice column in some shape or form for close to 10 years now, and I can say with confidence that at least 75 percent of the letters I receive from married people are about issues that could have been avoided if the couples had better communicated their expectations about married life before tying the knot. Letters like one I answered recently in which the husband and wife had drastically different ideas on where they'd like to raise a family are, sadly, not uncommon. But they'd be much more of a rarity if couples would discuss these 15 issues before getting married:
1. Outstanding debt.
Who has some and what is the plan for paying it off?
Do you want them? If so, how many? If not, are you sure enough about that decision to take permanent steps to ensure you don't have them (like a vasectomy)? If you do want them, when do you want to have your first? Are you open to adoption or fertility treatments if you're unable to conceive naturally? How long do you want to try to conceive naturally before trying different options?
3. Location, location, location.
Where do you want to put roots down? And if you don't want to put roots down and would prefer to stay on the move indefinitely -- my parents, for example, raised me and my sister in three different countries (none of which was the U.S., where they were raised) -- make sure your partner is on board with that idea. How would you rank location in terms of importance for your well-being? If you love where you live, what would persuade you to move -- a job offer, desire to be closer to family, better schools for your kids?
If you practice a religion or have a particular faith, how important is it that your partner share the faith and practice it with you? How does your religion or faith affect your lifestyle? If you plan to have kids, what religion, if any, do you want to raise them in?
Marriages are broken in the aisles of IKEA every day. Do not underestimate the power of the Swedish smorgasbord of cheap, disposable home goods. If you and your partner plan to spend even a minute of your marriage in IKEA, decide whether a $40 book shelf is worth the two or three years from your life it may cost you.
6. Dream home.
Do you want a McMansion in the 'burbs? A cozy condo in the sky? A beach bungalow? A cabin in the woods? A macked-out tree house? A ranch in Utah? You may never live in your dream home, but knowing whether you and your significant other share common long-term goals will help solidify your roles as partners in each other's lives and confirm that you're working toward the same thing.
7. Bank accounts and bill-sharing.
Will you share a bank account? Keep individual accounts? Both? And what bills will be paid by what accounts? Will you each put a certain percentage of your income toward shared bills? Do you have an emergency fund? What if one person is out of work or decides to stay home to raise the kids? What's your plan for affording that?
8. Division of household labor.
Dishes, laundry, yada, yada, yada. Barter, negotiate and plead if you have to so that you aren't stuck doing the thing you least like all the time. If you hate, hate, hate washing dishes, but don't mind cooking, suggest to your partner that you head meal preparation if he or she agrees to take on the dishes. This works best if the thing you hate with a passion isn't also the same thing your partner hates with a passion. If it is, find a way to compromise, using your best negotiation tactics "Okay, I'll empty the litter box and do the laundry if you please wash the dishes..."
Do you want to sleep with just one person for the rest of your life? Can you and still be happy and satisfied? If not, you need to discuss either the possibility of an open marriage, strategies for keeping the spark alive, or waiting on marriage until the idea of monogamy isn't a death sentence for you.
10. Hard or soft.
Your mattress! You will (hopefully) be sleeping in the same bed as this person for a very, very long time, and a comfortable mattress is imperative for a good night's rest. Rack up too many sleepless nights and your relationship will suffer. So, if you and your partner have different ideas of what makes a comfortable mattress, how will you compromise?
11. Family obligations.
How much time do you spend with your family now, how much do you expect to spend with them once you're married and potentially have children, and how much time do you expect your spouse to spend with them (and vice versa)? How do you plan to spend your holidays and what's your plan for giving both sets of families equal time with you/your children during the major holidays? Are you the type of person who likes to vacation with your family, and if so, how often?
In addition to extended family vacations, you and your partner need to discuss what other types of vacations you do or don't enjoy. If you're a Disneyland fan and your significant other hates Mickey Mouse with a passion, that may cause some friction. If one of you only likes camping and the other prefers staying in chic boutique hotels, there's an issue. Likewise, if the workaholic in your relationship can't bear to be too far away from the office while the other would like to get as far away from home as possible, you need to talk through how you're going to compromise. You can't expect to plan all your vacations for the rest of your life together, but discussing some solutions that you're both OK with will help you address friction in the future.
13. The name game.
What's your family name going to be? Will one spouse take the other spouse's last name? And if not, what surname will you give any kids you have?
How committed is each of you to your careers? Do you live to work or work to live? How will your respective careers affect family life? Where are you in terms of living a "dream career"? Do you have more schooling and apprenticing to finish? If so, what's the time frame for completing these steps toward obtaining the kind of job you hope for? What kind of personal sacrifices will you have to make to climb the career ladder of your choice?
15. TV in the bedroom: Yay! Or nay?
Think of the TV in the bedroom as a metaphor for your whole marriage. Do you want a method of escape or to protect the intimacy? Neither answer is right or wrong, but answering yourselves the question before you get married could provide a valuable insight into how you picture your married life together.