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When Should You Start Talking About Divorce? Right After You Get Engaged

6 minute read
James J. Sexton, Esq., is a divorce lawyer and author of the forthcoming If You're In My Office, It's Already Too Late: A Divorce Lawyer's Guide to Staying Together.

Congratulations on your engagement! Now, let’s talk about divorce.

I know, I know. This is a time for celebration and excitement, not pragmatic pessimism. Right now you want to plan the cake (vanilla buttercream, if I get a vote), not a hypothetical division of assets. I get it, I do. But give me three minutes to try to persuade you (I do that for a living) that talking about divorce, right now, is the most romantic, committed thing you and your fiancé could be doing.

I knew that would get your attention.

As a divorce lawyer, I see good people at their worst. I see relationships that, like yours, started with high hopes and, unlike yours (so far), ended in pain and heartbreak. I genuinely believe that none of the people who have ended up in my office meant to screw up their marriages, just like you have no intention of screwing up yours.

Right now is the perfect time for you and your fiancé to talk about divorce, because right now, at least in theory, you have more affection for each other than you do for anybody else on the planet, and you’re the most excited about your love you’ll ever be. Of course, ideally, with time your love will deepen and mature. Still, if you’re planning your trip down the aisle, you’ve got two amazing things working for you in abundance right now: affection and optimism.

The people in my office end up there for a variety of reasons, but most of the time it boils down to one or both of two factors: (1) they don’t know themselves and/or (2) they don’t know their spouse. Talking to your fiancé about divorce right now is a simple path toward eliminating both of those factors.

So, what should you talk about, what do you stand to learn and how should you start?

Talk about why you would get divorced.

Talking about why you might consider divorcing someone is a direct path to identifying and sharing with your fiancé your expectations for marriage and what you understand his or her expectations to be. What are the non-negotiable issues for you (fidelity, financial transparency)? What are the things in your marriage you suspect you would be willing to see change over the years (amount of time spent with friends, career focus, frequency of sex)? Talking about what you think are “good” and “bad” reasons to get divorced is a great opportunity to learn about your fiancé’s goals for the marriage and how realistic his or her perspective is on how your relationship should and shouldn’t change. It never hurts to hear yourself say — out loud, to your fiancé — what you think he or she should already understand about you.

Talk about how you would try to prevent divorce.

You’re going to have trouble in your marriage. Trust me. There’s no such thing as a marriage that never experiences any troubles. What distinguishes a successful marriage from a marriage that ends up in my office is how the people involved handled their problems. Talk to your fiancé about what you would do (and what you would expect him or her to do) if you were feeling troubled in the marriage or observing signs of trouble in your spouse. Would you go to counseling? Would you try to “wait it out” and hope it gets better without intervention? Would you expect your partner to intuit that something major is wrong, and if he or she didn’t, well, that just proves how bad things really are? What do you and your fiancé think are the kinds of problems that merit specific discussion, focus and effort, and what are things you both agree are natural and no reason for stress?

Talk about what you would want and need from each other if you got divorced.

Believe it or not, when I do prenuptial agreements, this is the topic my clients tell me leads to the most emotional and insightful discussions they’ve ever had with their fiancés. It’s a tough conversation to have at this stage of your relationship (“What do you imagine we would do if we split up?”) but it provides tremendous insight.

What value does the space you share have to each of you? Would one of you move out of your shared home and the other keep it, or would you both want a “fresh start” someplace new? How much financial help might you need from each other to begin new chapters in your lives, post-separation? What changes in your professional life would you need to make? Which of each other’s family members do you think would remain close to both of you and which would pick a “side”? If you plan to have kids, how would you want to arrange their parenting? These are difficult questions to think about, but the underlying issues they address will spark a dialogue about your future that will benefit your relationship, whether you stay together for life or ultimately face the challenges of separation.

Take a moment in this time of celebration and optimism surrounding your engagement to remember that the affection and love that you and your fiancé feel for each other are to be cherished and vigilantly maintained. Your bond is worthy of protecting. It’s worthy of reflection, for a moment, on the ways it might wear down or slip away in the struggles of day to day life. Talk to your fiancé about divorce and try to keep it somewhere in your line of sight for the rest of your marriage. When we stay conscious of the way that things often fall apart, we’re more skilled at keeping them together.

There’s something incredibly romantic to me about acknowledging that the gifts of your fiancé’s affection and commitment are loaned rather than permanently transferred. You have the right to care for these gifts or to neglect them. Do the former, and I suspect you’ll never end up in my office.

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