5 Things to Discuss Before Getting Engaged

For many of us, being engaged means putting most (if not all) of our attention on wedding planning. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the fairytale aspect of wedding planning, making it easy to forget that besides planning a party, you are merging your life with your partner.

As a San Francisco-based psychotherapist, I specialize in supporting individuals and couples in manifesting the life they envision. Clients often wonder what the magic formula is for a successful relationship and more times than not, my answer is communication and your relationship with yourself. Whether single or coupled, consider these important conversations to create a solid foundation with your significant other.

1. Finances

Many of us find it hard to  discuss finances with a significant other. It can bring up feelings of shame, embarrassment, and comparative judgment. When talking about finances with your significant other, it is important to be gentle and move slowly. I have worked with numerous couples in therapy that describe frequent arguing, violated expectations, and profound disappointment in one another and in the relationship, often in part because of financial issues. I believe the most important thing that can be done for one another is to stay away from blame.

It is OK to have a different “money personality” from your partner, and if there is something specific that you worry about in regards to finances, better to bring it up sooner than later. Curious about your partner’s credit score? Interested in joint accounts? Prenup? Do discuss—in-depth. Harboring your feelings will only lead to resentment.

It’s important to first get clear on your own feelings and priorities about money before sharing what you expect from your partner. I encourage couples to set time aside each month to have a money meeting. This may seem like overkill to some, but consider this; issues with money contribute to divorce more than any other topic—sex, children, and division of labor.

Here are some important questions to get you started:

  • How much debt do you have?
  • Do you have a 401k?
  • What is the max one of us can spend without having to consult the other?
  • At what age would you like to retire? What are our retirement goals?
  • What happens if we want children but cannot conceive? How much are we willing to spend on fertility treatments or adoption?
  • Would you financially help family if they needed it? How much would you be willing to give?
  • Do we have equal say on how we use our money as a couple (i.e., buying a house, investments, childcare, etc.), no matter who earns more?

2. Children

We have all heard the obvious questions. Do you want children someday? If so, how many? But what about all of the other stuff that comes along with having children? Baby names and nursery decor are fun, but there’s so much more territory to traverse besides picking the perfect appellation.

We all have our own narrative about what kind of life we want to provide for our future babies and sometimes it is hard to remember that there is another adult who has an equal say in how this whole parenting thing will play out. Raising a child with another person is perhaps one of the most fun and challenging adventures a couple will have together. Where couples can get into trouble is when they don’t discuss the fundamental aspects of co-parenting.

Here are some important factors to consider:

  • How will you afford the new addition to your family?
  • How will you handle it if one of you is not able to conceive?
  • Are you open to adoption? IVF? Surrogacy?
  • What are the expectations about who will be the primary care giver for your children?
  • Will they be raised under one religion?
  • What do you imagine your discipline style will be?
  • Public or private school?
  • Never forget that before baby, your partner was your one and only. How will the two of you maintain a loving connection?

3. How to Fight

Disagreements happen and are a normal process of being in a relationship. You’ll argue about what to have for dinner or which movie to watch, and you’ll even have some bigger fights about hurt feelings, paying the bills, and having a family. It’s how you argue or work through disagreements that can determine the long-term success of your relationship. Disagreements and, yes, even fights, don’t actually have to be emotionally distressing or negative. In fact, the happiest relationships don’t avoid or fear disagreements; they use them to become closer and understand each other better. 

As cliche as it sounds, you’re now a partnership which means you’re on the same team. You both should think about every argument in terms of how to fix it and work through it together, rather than how to win it. If you made the decision to spend your life with someone, odds are your relationship is more important than who is right and who is wrong. Before you get married (but any time throughout your relationship), work together on the way you’re communicating. If your arguments still escalate too far or you’re both saying things you don’t mean, consider seeking a therapist who can help you work through disagreements and practice communication. 

Consider using these phrases during an argument:

  • “I’m feeling a little stressed, would you help me pick up the house today?” instead of “You never help with chores.”
  • I’m sorry you feel hurt” or “My intention was never to upset you,” to acknowledge your partner’s feelings (even if you disagree).
  • Ask “How do you feel about our relationship today?” and “What more can I do to make this relationship even better?” often to encourage frequent communication
  • Instead of waiting for your turn to talk, ask questions like, “Explain to me more why this action made you feel that way?” or “Can you tell me what your perspective was?” which will also make your partner feel valued and heard.
  • If you feel like a fight is getting too heated, say “Can we revisit this in the morning?” or offer to do something relaxing together so you can both reset your perspective.

4. Career

Confucius said, “Choose a job that you love and never work a day in your life.” Well, that’s dandy, but what about when the job you love requires you to travel, stay at work late, and generally eats up a lot of your time? Or rather, what if your partner’s job requires this? OR, what if this doesn’t apply to you at all and you are in a job you dislike or even despise? It is important for you and your partner to share your feelings about your respected jobs/careers and how you envision moving forward. Again, you can only know so much in advance, but it is a good idea to have a basic understanding of what you and your partner expect from one another.

Consider the following questions:

  • Would you relocate to a new city/state for a job? Or for your partner’s job?
  • What are your feelings if you are the sole breadwinner in the relationship?
  • How will you support one another if one of you gets laid off, or wants to change careers? Or go back to graduate school?
  • How do you feel right now about the time commitments given to your careers? How will this look if you decide to have children?
  • How will the division of labor in the home be divided if both of your work? Or only one of you? Who is expected to do what? (This question is a biggie, ladies.)

5. Sex and Intimacy

Sex is omnipresent in our culture. We are bombarded with messages from so many mediums that prompt us to think about, talk about, and seek out sex. You’d think we’d all be relaxed, open, and comfortable talking about it, but in my experience the opposite is actually true. Have you ever noticed it feels easier to talk about sex with your friends rather than your partner? We know how to have this conversation outside of our relationship but when it comes to exploring this topic with our lover we feel anxious, vulnerable, and unclear. I know it may feel scary. But feel the fear and talk about your sex life anyway! As sexual communication skills improve, so will the quality of your relationship.

I want to emphasize how beneficial it is to understand your own body and how to use it. In other words, master your territory so you have a basic idea of what you like and don’t like. Next, I encourage couples to establish safety with each other around this topic before diving in. This often starts with a conversation about fear. Talking about what you are afraid of and why helps you and your partner cultivate trust and empathy. Chances are you are both afraid of the same thing…rejection. Truth be told, most people want to be able to explore their sexuality with their partners and sometimes just don’t know how.

Here are some helpful tips to get you started:

  • Start this conversation outside of the bedroom and work your way in. Things are less tense, fragile, and vulnerable outside of the bedroom so don’t bring this conversation up for the first time when you’re getting busy.
  • Tell your partner what you need to feel safe and vice versa.
  • Respect differences in sexual preferences. You do not need to agree to do any particular activity, and it is so so so important to be open and not pass judgment on your partner’s preferences. This will lead to feeling angry and ashamed and will likely shut your partner and this entire conversation down. Shame is the worst.
  • Listen without interrupting.
  • Watch an erotic film together (only if both of you feel comfortable enough to do so).
  • Practice makes perfect. During and after practice, offer positive feedback (super important!), compliments, and love.
  • Keep talking about how to keep your sex life fresh and fun. When things feel stale, get creative! For one couple this may mean sex toys and role-playing while for another it may mean having an open marriage. This is your life and you and your partner get to design it to keep you happy and fulfilled!