So you want to write your own ceremony! Wonderful!
You may have been hoping I would just give you a ceremony template (and I’ll do that too, eventually…) but to hand off a template with no context would be a disservice. After all, this entire wedding is really about the marriage – and creating a ceremony from scratch is a beautiful way for the two of you to dive deep into your beliefs around marriage, and to figure out what exactly you want to promise to each other at your wedding.
Before you start writing the ceremony, we have to dive deep – the first step is to sit and talk about your thoughts on marriage, why you’re getting married, and your relationship (both now and many years into the future).
One way to explore these ideas is in premarital counseling – stay with me! – because it can be a nice way to talk through your expectations, plans, hopes and dreams for your life together in a neutral, safe and supportive environment. A common misconception is that couples only go to premarital counseling because they have a problem – and while counseling is always a great option for working through issues, premarital counseling is also helpful when you don’t have any particular issues! A little further on, I have a list of topics you may want to discuss with each other – some people feel comfortable tackling these on their own, and others would rather talk them through with a counselor with whom you both like and feel comfortable. Counseling can also give you tools to improve communication, and strategies for conflict resolution – both of which are much easier to learn and talk about when you’re not simultaneously trying to resolve a conflict or wade through miscommunication.
There’s an added bonus to seeing a counselor – if in the future you and your partner are coming to heads over an issue and could use a neutral third party – voila! – you already have a counselor who knows you both.
However, you can also devise your own premarital session. I’d recommend setting aside a full day (at least) to go through these questions – preferably in a place that is private and where both of you feel safe and open to being vulnerable (i.e. not in a coffee shop!). If you think you’d rather get out of the house to minimize distractions – turn it into a mini-vacation, book a cabin in the woods or by the beach for 2 or 3 days, and hash all this out. Call it your premarital-moon or your marriage retreat. Bring notebooks, snacks and maybe a bottle or two of wine. You’ll probably both cry. You’ll also emerge with a better idea of what marriage means to the two of you!
Here are a list of things to discuss:
- Yes? No? Not sure? And if yes – how many?
- If yes, what would you like your timeline to be for starting a family? What if you have trouble conceiving? Would you be open to fertility treatments? Are you interested in, or open to, adoption?
- If you do want to have kids, describe how you envision your roles as parents – would one of you stay at home? Would you divide all parenting tasks equally? What does this look like in practice?
- How do you both feel about having your extended family be involved with raising children, if this is an option?
- If one or both of you already has kids – talk about that too, and how you’re planning to create a blended family that is a welcoming, loving and positive space for everyone.
- Will you keep your given surnames? Take each others’ names and have a hyphenated last name? Will one of you take the other’s name? And if you have kids – what will their last name be?
- Where do you want to live? Do you imagine staying in one place or moving around? Would you want to live internationally?
- If you both have careers – how will you navigate where you’ll live or where you’d go if one of you gets a job opportunity? Would you move even if the other person didn’t have a similar opportunity?
- When you imagine your home – what is it like? In the suburbs, on a farm, in a city, on a boat?
- Will religion and/or spirituality play a role in your lives? If you choose to have kids – do you want them to have any sort of religious or spiritual education?
- What about ways in which your parents or extended family practice religion? Especially if it’s different from what you plan to do – how will you integrate this into your lives?
- Family obligations
- Where do your respective families live, and what are your relationships to them like? What are your expectations for how much time you’ll spend with your families (e.g. will you spend yearly holidays with them? Go on vacations together? Have them over for weekly dinners?)
- How do you imagine caring for aging parents? Would this fall to you and/or to siblings? Where do your parents live – and would they move to wherever you are if they need more care? Who will pay for care if needed? How do you (and they!) feel about nursing homes versus them living in your home once they are no longer able to live alone?
- Household chores & division of labor.
- Pretty self-explanatory… take some time to talk about what your expectations are for how you’ll both navigate chores and day to day household tasks.
- Autonomy & Privacy
- How much time do you each need to spend alone? What areas of your lives do you expect to still remain autonomous, versus what will be shared with your partner?
- What do you think about sharing details of your relationship with friends? There’s a door/window metaphor I’ve found helpful – imagine you and your partner are inside a room together, and that room contains all of the intimacy and trust you both have built up over time. When confiding in a friend, or talking about a difficulty you’re having with your partner, you’re opening a window into that room. Through a window, there are still limits on what you’d share without your partners’ permission, in order to protect your partner’s privacy or to give you both time and space to work through a sensitive issue before venting about it to someone else. But you wouldn’t want to open a door to a friend or an acquaintance – that’s where you’ve stopped bothering to protect your partner, or you’ve started to seek emotional intimacy elsewhere. That said – if at any point you really need to open a door – go to a counselor!
- Love Languages
- While you’re doing all this, you might as well figure out what your love languages are! There is a lot of information online about love languages (you can also read the original book by Gary Chapman, though you don’t need to read the book to figure it out). The love languages include: gift giving, words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch and acts of service. If these don’t speak to you, come up with your own! The point isn’t that everyone needs to ascribe to Gary Chapman’s ideas of love languages… it’s to figure out what your partner needs in order to feel loved.
- Fights & Counseling
- How do you handle fights?
- Are there things you fight about over and over?
- If in the future you are having trouble in your relationship and can’t seem to move past it – would you both be open to seeing a counselor?
- This also could lead into talking about your thoughts and experiences on divorce. I think this is especially important if either of you have divorced parents – how did your parents divorce come about? What was that experience like? How has that shaped your thoughts around fighting in relationships? And if one or both of you has been married in the past – it also might be a good idea to talk through those experiences with your partner.
- Discuss the importance of physical and mental health in your lives – what are your relationships with physical health (such as diet and exercise), mental health (therapy and self-exploration), and spiritual health (if this is something that is important to you)?
Still with me? OK, just a few more…..
- What are your expectations and feelings around sex? (Let this be your starting point – you can then discuss whatever is most relevant to the two of you in regards to sex and intimacy).
- While you’re here, talk about your feelings around monogamy. Are you both entering into this marriage wanting it to be monogamous? Or do you imagine you will have an open relationship?
- Porn: Do you watch it? Together? Alone? What are your feelings about porn?
- Will you have separate bank accounts? How will you handle the resources that each of you are bringing into the marriage (money in the bank, stocks, houses, cars, etc…)? What if one of you had a large inheritance – would this go into a combined account, or remain separate?
- Will you manage your finances together, or will one of you take the lead? How have you both managed finances in the past? Will you have a shared budget?
- How will you share information with each other about money? Do you want to talk with each other before making a big purchase? What does a “big” purchase even mean – anything over $50? $500? How will you decide who can spend what?
- What are your savings goals? (Retirement, emergency fund, college funds, travel and vacation funds…) What are each of your priorities around money?
- What if one of you decides to stay home to raise children – how will your financial arrangements change?
- Debt! Talk about the debt (if any) that you both are bringing into the marriage. How will you manage paying off this debt? How comfortable are each of you with debt in general?
- A lot of these conversations will shed light on habits you both have around money – maybe one of you is an obsessive saver, but the other loves to buy gifts for friends and spend money on experiences. If you want to look at how these habits may have been formed, you can talk about how you learned about money growing up, and how your childhood experiences shaped the way you feel about money.
- If you want some further insight on how to think about all this – it might be helpful to chat with a collaborative lawyer who can talk you through what happens (on a financial level) when you get married. Most people seek out collaborative lawyers to talk through a divorce, but they are so happy to chat with couples who want to talk through everything before getting married! This also opens up the idea of writing a prenup… (for more information on that, you can see my prenup blog post here: https://www.kinshipandcompany.com/2018/05/prenups-are-for-lovers/)
- And lastly… your vision for the future. This part is fun!
- What’s your vision for your life together 5, 10, 50 years from now?
- What brings meaning to your life? How can you support each other in living fulfilling lives that you both feel are full of meaning and purpose?
It’s highly unlikely that you both magically agreed on everything – and the point isn’t that you have to agree. The point is to start a conversation about all of these topics, and to have clear communication about areas where you may disagree. And best of all – moving forward, none of these topics are off-limits.
From here – knowing all that you now know about each other and your hopes and dreams for your life together – you can start writing your ceremony and your vows. Onward!
Bonus exercise: Do the 36 questions that lead to love!
(And if you have no idea what these are, read the original Modern Love essay here)
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
…and then stare into each others eyes for four minutes. No talking!
“13 Questions to Ask Before Getting Married.” New York Times. March 26 2016.
“How Well Do You Know Your Partner? Readers Offer Still More Pre-Marriage Questions.” New York Times. March 29 2016.
“The 36 Questions That Lead to Love.” New York Times. January 9 2015.
“11 Questions You Should Be Able To Answer Before You Get Married.” The Huffington Post. March 9 2018.
“5 Conversations You Need to Have Before Getting Married”. The Knot.