When Dave Adams* told his mother that his girlfriend, Maggie, had accepted his marriage proposal, Mom blurted out, “Have you told her about your student loans?” Later, Dave related his mom's comment to Maggie, who promptly asked, "What student loans?" Dave owed $60,000 to a bank — a monetary shocker that he'd overlooked when talking to Maggie about their future. “He honestly hadn't thought of telling me,” Maggie says. “Financial matters just aren't his specialty.” Still, when you're about to marry someone, you've really got to give your intended the whole picture, no matter what.
Financial obligation is a classic example of personal baggage, a term often used to define any encumbrance — debt, children, exes, friends, relatives, psychological issues, physical conditions — that can potentially cause conflict. Just about everyone in the world has at least a small suitcase, if not several loaded steamer trunks.
Baggage allowance The critical first step in dealing with someone else's burdens is simply being aware of exactly what those burdens are. This can be accomplished by taking the time to get to know each other thoroughly. Some experts say that couples who live together or have long engagements have a better chance of staying together in the long run because they know what they're getting into. John W. Jacobs, M.D., a New York couples therapist and the author of “All You Need Is Love” and “Other Lies About Marriage,” advises couples to be completely honest with one another before they get married. “Get it all out there on the table so each of you can decide what you can handle and what you can't.” Dr. Jacobs' golden rule: the baggage a person brings to a relationship is his responsibility to unpack.
Instead of waiting for his mom to bring up the subject, Dave should have practiced full disclosure with Maggie. Even if you don't have such a huge financial liability, you and your fiancé, committing to a life together, should obtain copies of your credit reports and show them to each other. Everything on these statements can affect your joint financial future, which will come into play when you're trying to make a major purchase, such as a car or home.
Some financial matters may be negotiable; things like child-support payments and loan installments are not. You have to accept, says Dr. Jacobs, that whatever part of your fiancé's annual income goes toward these payments is a done deal and won't be part of your family resources.
If your potential mate is behaving irresponsibly toward his financial duties, Dr. Jacobs suggests that you discuss his actions immediately and find a solution. Put the marriage on hold until the negligent behavior has changed; otherwise, the fiscal responsibility may fall in your lap.
What about friends or family members who are difficult, dependent, or divisive? First of all, says Dr. Jacobs, remember that your primary allegiance is to each other — just like the marriage vows say. Maybe there's a particular buddy of his — call him Sam — who rubs you the wrong way. If you spend a lot of time with Sam, Dr. Jacobs suggests that your spouse first consider downsizing the relationship a bit, and that you excuse yourself from their get-togethers. If Sam becomes destructive to the marriage — dragging your husband to strip clubs, for example — the friendship may have to change or end.
Sticky situations involving relatives, on the other hand, can't — and shouldn't — be as easily dismissed. Part of the commitment of marriage is doing things you don't necessarily want to do, like spending time with family you find trying. You may have to have dinner at your mother-in-law's more often than you'd like, or take a vacation now and then with his sister's out-of-control kids. What you don't have to accept is incivility.
Mark and Jackie had a persistent problem. His divorced mother continually criticized everything about Jackie. Because Mark felt sorry for his mom, he did nothing to defend Jackie. What can you do in such a sensitive situation? Have your fiancé talk frankly to the person who's causing conflict and insist that you be treated with kindness and respect. It will also help if you try to forgive the offender and learn to take the criticism less personally. If the verbal abuse continues, you'll need to speak up. Saying “you're being hurtful” may jump-start his mom into a reality check. If not, Dr. Jacobs says, walk away. Your fiancé may have to deliver an ultimatum — be more courteous with my loved one or spend less time with me.
Ex marks the spot
The ghost of a previous relationship can often wreak havoc on a new marriage. A spouse can find himself overreacting when he's in a situation similar to one that caused problems with his first partner.
For Mitch and Carla, the trouble was jealousy. His former wife had cheated on him, and subsequently he'd become suspicious and paranoid with girlfriends. At a party months after he and Carla became engaged, she gave an innocent peck to a male friend, which sent Mitch into a jealous rage.
When mistrust is the problem, Dr. Jacobs advises that you examine your behavior to make sure you're acting like an almost-married woman. Reassure your fiancé of your love and loyalty openly and clearly. This will resolve the problem with nearly every couple; if not, seek professional counseling. No matter what the problem, you will never have more leverage in asking him to fix it than you do now, before you're married. If your mate won't even talk about it with someone — you, a friend, a counselor — it's a serious red flag.
No kidding around
Having children from a previous marriage is one of the most serious stresses a couple can face. Men often assume that their new wives will automatically have warm, loving feelings toward their children and expect them to take enormous responsibility for managing the kids' lives. “This is a scenario for disaster,” says Dr. Jacobs. “The man has to take primary responsibility for his children in every area. The new wife can become a mentor, helper, or good friend. Over time, she can slowly move into a role that offers comfort and support.” But until that position is established, the father needs to do all the heavy lifting. “There's a good reason our culture has the wicked-stepmother stereotype,” says Dr. Jacobs. “Well-intentioned women have usually tried to do too much too fast and have inadvertently precipitated conflict and resentment.”
Whatever your personal baggage, it needs to be faced squarely and handled with care. Life is never without problems, but overcoming them as a team is what solidly cements a marriage.
Should I stay or should I go? Certain issues should give you serious second thoughts:
- Violence: Your intended has a history of violence, or has been violent with you on any occasion in the past.
- A criminal record: He's been convicted of a crime. The nature of the illegality and his rehabilitation determine how critical the problem is.
- Addiction: He has an untreated addiction, such as one involving drugs or alcohol. The urgency depends on the substance and the chronicity. (Alcoholism may be tricky to identify when you're in an environment where many people drink a lot, says Dr. Jacobs. Rule of thumb: If you think someone needs help, he probably does.)
- Financial: To find an accountant, get recommendations from friends (many people use a CPA to get their income taxes done), or contact the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (nasba.org).
- Emotional: To locate a therapist, ask your primary-care physician for a referral. For counselors and classes that handle couples' issues, try smartmarriages.com.
- Addictions: Twelve-step programs are available for most, if not all, addictions, and many have online chat rooms. (The dependence, such as alcohol, gambling, or sex, is usually followed by the word "anonymous" in the Yellow Pages and on Internet search engines.)
- Legal: For a lawyer in your area, log on to the American Bar Association Web site (abanet.org).
This content originally appeared in Brides magazine. For more wedding tips, visit Brides.com.