Marriage Prep 101

From the burning questions you should ask each other before you walk down the aisle, to the jitters and cold feet, here’s a crash course in building a marriage that can last a lifetime.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 07, 2007
6 min read

Dan T. and his bride-to-be have a wedding to plan, with hundreds of decisions that need to be made leading up to the big day. More important than the floral centerpieces and the DJ’s playlist, however, they also have big decisions to make about the marriage: How many kids will they have? Will they both work? How will they come to terms on the differences in their religious beliefs?

“We want to dig through the big issues,” says Dan, from Albany, N.Y. “We know where we each stand on some of the them, and while we don’t agree 100% on everything, we still know that our relationship is built on something solid.”

Dan and his betrothed are making all the right moves, with a focus on building a marriage that will last by working through some of life’s big-ticket items. But all couples aren’t as pragmatic, and intentionally or not, they ignore the writing on the wall, leading to a bad case of wedding fever that turns from the jitters into cold feet and then a nasty bout of the marriage blues.

How do you make a marriage that will last until death do you part? From the jitters to cold feet, to the burning questions you should ask each other and come to terms on before you walk down the aisle, experts give WebMD a crash course in building a marriage that will last a lifetime.

“The personal ads where they say, ‘I like to take long walks on the beach,’ those things are minor,” says Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, a marriage and family therapist. “It’s life philosophies that matter in a marriage.”

What’s on the checklist of life a couple should talk through before the wedding bells start to toll? Here are your pre-wedding topics for discussion:

  • Kids. “When it comes to kids, it’s more than do you want them or not?” says Susan Piver, author of the New York Times best seller, Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say “I Do.” “You need to ask how many kids you each want. When in your life will you have them? How will you raise them? You can be 100% different on everything else on this list, but if you’re off on kids, that’s when things get difficult.”
  • Money. “Don’t wait until you are standing at the altar to tell each other how much money you do or don’t have,” says Piver. “Money is the issue that is hardest to talk about, and it’s the one that seems to create the most conflict as a relationship progresses. Ask each other things like how much, but also are you going to create one account, keep separate accounts, how will you save, and how will you spend?”
  • Religion. “Even if two people were brought up in the same spiritual tradition, there are still questions to ask,” says Piver. “Which holidays are we going to celebrate? Where will we celebrate them, and how? It’s important to know what is important to the other person and what is non-negotiable.”
  • Sex. “Make sure your sexuality is copacetic,” says Weston, who specializes in sex therapy. “Be specific with each other and discuss what you can and cannot tolerate, and be clear on what your bottom-line expectations are around sex.”

If you dig your way through these issues with your betrothed and find you don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, don’t panic -- disagreeing is not a recipe for divorce.

“Sometimes there are differences that are sizeable in these area, and that’s OK -- you don’t want to marry your clone,” says Weston. “You just have to balance between how much you alter your life and how much your spouse alters his or hers, or you just agree to disagree.”

Still, explains Weston, it’s important that your individual differences are well understood, and ideally, those differences should come out of the closet well before the down payment is made on a ring.

“People should know where the person they are dating stands on these topics before there is a proposal,” says Weston. “While it doesn’t always happen that way, knowing where you each stand on these issues before you even consider marriage is ideal.”

But better late than never, explains Weston. Even for June brides who are steps away from saying “I do,” getting through these issues now with their husbands-to-be is far better than putting them off until after the honeymoon.

You’ve made it through your pre-wedding discussion checklist, and it’s time to move on to the menu and the floral selections. The problem is, you still can’t shake a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach and it’s not the stuffed mushroom hors d'oeuvres you spent the afternoon sampling, it’s the jitters.

“Everyone experiences jitters to some degree,” says Allison Moir-Smith, author of Emotionally Engaged: A Bride’s Guide to Surviving the “Happiest” Time of Her Life. “You are going through a major shift in your identity, and the jitters are a result of that.”

The jitters, explains Moir-Smith, can be a healthy part of your transition into married life, helping you to look inside yourself and grow.

“It’s important for brides and grooms to know that the jitters are OK,” Moir-Smith tells WebMD. “You know how to be single, or to be a son or a daughter, and now the jitters are a way for you to self-evaluate and change as you figure out how you are going to be as a husband or a wife.”

While the jitters are relatively normal, one step up on the ladder of wedding anxiety are cold feet -- a phrase that sends chills down the spines of pending brides and grooms everywhere. How do you tell the difference between the jitters and cold feet?

“One sign is that you are really picking your fiancé apart and are hypercritical of him or her all the time,” says Moir-Smith. “While you might not be ready to call the wedding off, having cold feet means it’s time to do some emotional work around getting married.”

Therapy and some serious one-on-one time with your spouse-to-be are both smart choices; sifting through your thoughts and concerns is the only way to make it to the altar in one piece. But if still doesn’t feel right, calling it off can be the right decision, even if it’s last-minute.

“If you’re going to call off a wedding, the sooner the better,” says Moir-Smith. “It’s far better to call off a wedding than get divorced, and while it will be painful, everyone will be better off in the long run.”

Whether it’s surviving the hard discussions on kids, religion, and money, or getting through the jitters and overcoming cold feet, experts give WebMD some seemingly simple but powerful tips on making a marriage work that every couple should keep in mind:

  • Start at the beginning. “Brides and grooms expect themselves to know how to be married to each other,” says Moir-Smith. “But they should allow themselves to be a beginner at being married and not compare themselves to their parents who have been married for 30 years.”
  • Love your spouse and your life. “There is a big difference between loving someone and making a life together you both love,” says Piver. “One without the other is no good.”
  • Look before you leap. “Always date for one year before you make a proposal before marriage,” says Weston. “You need to see how the other person behaves 365 days of the year -- birthdays, deaths, Thanksgiving, etc. You learn how they treat these events and treat you before, during, and after they occur. Give relationship a full four seasons before you think about marriage.”
  • Don’t forget the checklist of life. “A wedding may last a weekend, but a marriage may last you a lifetime,” says Weston. “Give issues like kids, religion, money, and sex proportional attention before you get married.”

What are your tips for a long and happy marriage? Share them on WebMD's Couples Coping message board.