Once you decide to get married, it can feel like one swift free-fall toward the big day. It’s easy to get caught up in wedding planning and let every single interaction with your sweetie revolve around wedding details and decisions. But whether your wedding is months or years away, it’s important to take this time not only to prepare for a beautiful wedding, but to get ready for a lasting and happy marriage. See what wedding and marriage experts recommend doing together before getting married, then grab your honey and start checking things off this list.
1. Take an impromptu trip.
Traveling together gives you a chance to see how you each handle stressful situations, which is valuable insight for your future life together, says Marisa Manna Ferrell of So Eventful in Healdsburg, California. So if you haven’t skipped town together yet, book a trip, pronto! Even if you’ve mastered the art of the couple getaway already, this is a good time to consider an engagement-moon. “It lets you decompress,” says Megan Velez of Destination Weddings Travel Group in Boston. Make it easy on yourself and consider an all-inclusive resort, which gives you the chance for down time without having to worry about details once you get there, recommends Velez.
2. Understand each other’s values.
Long before making that commitment to spend the rest of your lives together, it’s important to communicate and discuss your individual values and beliefs, such as religion, family dynamics and rituals, and politics. “You may not always agree, but you need to respect each other’s viewpoints and ensure that they’re not a deal-breaker before walking down the aisle,” says Brittny Drye, founder of Love Inc. in New York City. If you do find yourselves on opposite ends of the spectrum in one area, know that it can still work, but it might take some extra effort and pre-planning in your relationship to decide how to handle conflict before it happens (say, on Thanksgiving or Election Day).
3. Talk about money.
You and your significant other should agree on fundamental topics like finances—even though they’re not always fun or easy to discuss. “401Ks may not be on your mind when you’re in your 20s, but it’s crucial to have this discussion ahead of time so you’re not finding yourself in situations down the road that could do damage to your marriage,” says Drye. (Don’t believe us? The majority of marriages that end in divorce cite finances as the No. 1 culprit.) Talk about how you’ll share/divide living expenses, how you plan to live, and whether you both expect to work till retirement.
4. And kids.
Like the money talk, the conversation about kids is an important one. Do you both want them? If so, how many? Share your vision before you exchange vows. “Having children is a huge commitment, personally and financially, for the rest of your lives, and does change your relationship with your partner,” says Beth Bernstein of SQN Events in Chicago. “Couples go into marriages thinking it’s something they can work out later, or one thinks they can change the other person’s mind, but it rarely ends well. It’s important to agree on this one from the beginning.”
Consider taking dance lessons, but for an entirely different reason than you may expect. “Yes, it’s a great way to learn how to move on the dance floor with one another, but equally as important, it’s time where you can literally step away from the stresses of planning,” says Kevin Dennis of wedding business intelligence company WeddingIQ in Washington, D.C. It’s an opportunity to learn together, laugh together, and spend time together, phones down and focused on each other.
6. Live together.
More than two-thirds of new marriages are preceded by cohabitation. And for good reason: Not only does living together before marriage have economic benefits (one rent instead of two? Yes, please!), it’s arguably the best way to test your compatibility with each other. “It’s important to learn the good, the bad and the just plain ugly about your partner—their weird habits, their cleanliness, their morning routine—and make sure you’re domestically compatible,” says Drye. If you can’t or don’t want to live together prior to marriage, perhaps to due geographic location or religious reasons, at least aim to spend weekends together.
7. Play the name game.
Have a conversation about any name changes before getting hitched. “It’s easy to assume someone is going to take the traditional route, but these days, we’re seeing so many different paths taken, it’s best to visit the topic early,” says Emily Sullivan of Emily Sullivan Events in New Orleans. Whether you decide to take your spouse’s last name, keep your own, combine the two, create a new last name or choose something else entirely, consider the implications for both of your families and any future children that might come from your marriage.
8. Meet each others’ favorite people.
“Whether it’s their inner circle of friends or an entire extension of family, getting to know the most important people in each others’ lives gives you insight into who the other is as a person,” says Drye. If time and geography permit, spend time together and really get to know your sweetie’s loved ones. Building strong relationships with your significant other’s close family and friends will also deepen the bond between the two of you. A note of caution: If your families come from opposite sides of the country (or even the world), start having conversations now about how you’ll spend time with each of them once you’re married, especially when it comes to holidays.
9. Take a class together.
Going out of your comfort zone to learn something new together—whether it’s taking a cooking class, trying a digital photography workshop, or attending a TED talk—strengthens your bond over a shared experience. Or attend a few wine tastings. “Not only can it be a fun pastime, but better understanding wine allows you to make more personal wedding day selections for you and your guests,” says Heather Jones of Wente Vineyards in Livermore, California. Years down the road, you can open a bottle of the same wine you enjoyed on your wedding day, and the memories will come rushing back.
10. Take engagement photos.
If you’re waffling on whether to have engagement photos taken before the wedding, go ahead and do it. “It’s a great opportunity to get to know your photographer a bit better,” says Keith Phillips of Classic Photographers in Boston. After all, you’re about to spend one of the biggest days of your life with him/her, so breaking the ice early can be a smart way to make you feel more comfortable in front of the camera when your wedding day arrives.