My uncle called me yesterday, and we started chatting about my sister's pregnancy. A baby! The excitement!
But he confessed: He only wished that they'd get married first.
It wasn't that he was disappointed, but he sounded concerned for them. It came from a well-intentioned place, so I didn't disagree or give reasons why they're not planning a wedding. Truth be told, my sister doesn't really talk about marriage — and, given her current situation, I think she's being smart. Smarter than I was.
I'm familiar with the "are they getting married?" whispers because it was said about me (and to me) when I was pregnant.
So this is something that I want to discuss with anyone contemplating the Should I/Shouldn't I dilemma, or anyone faced with family pressure to walk down the aisle, shotgun held at attention. I remember Googling "pros and cons of marriage" back when I was pregnant, and certain family members — some of whom actually felt embarrassed that I wasn't married — convinced me that marriage was a smart financial move. Turns out, that's not exactly true.
Marriage is firmly embedded in religion and tradition, so that knee-jerk reaction to an "out of wedlock" baby is expected. But rather than getting angry or being coerced, it's important to rationally analyze your situation before making such a big decision. And if you do put off marriage, that doesn't mean that you won't eventually get married. It doesn't mean that you can't have a traditional co-parenting family without the signed document.
I'm not a finance or marriage expert, but these are some points that someone should have mentioned to me when I was contemplating marriage. Points specifically for "early" marriages. It's no secret that young marriages are statistically at risk, so you just might up your odds if you take these questions into consideration:
1. What's your credit/debt situation?
This is one of those situations where you have to try and step outside of the lovey-dovey romance and assess all of the things you don't like to think about. There might be clues — blatant, obvious clues — that you're choosing not to see.
First of all, is your partner in a massive amount of debt? I'm not talking about school loans (we all have school loans), but did he/she accumulate a heaping mound of credit card and loan debt? Are there creditors constantly calling and sending threatening letters? No one goes into a marriage assuming the worst, but if the worst does end up happening — if he leaves you and decides to default on all of his debt — then you will be held responsible.
Also: what's his/her credit score? You might think it's ridiculous and insulting to consider something as trivial as a credit score before saying "I Do," but it's actually a telling insight into your financial future. Not only that, but if you're going to be applying for big, important loans together (like, say, a house), they look at both of your credit scores. So that measly number can end up costing you more in interest — or even cost you a house — which is money out of your pocket and stress added to your life.
Don't overlook big financial blunders, as tempting as it is to give the benefit of the doubt. Is he defaulting on child support payments? Is he drowning in unrealistic car payments? Gambling debt? Borrowing too much from friends and family? These types of situations aren't just about money — they're about character, judgement, and maturity.
This isn't to say that you should leave this Financial Disaster. But maybe the goal of marriage could motivate you guys to clear up the credit blemishes and make smarter financial decisions, without the added financial and legal risks of marriage. And when financial issues are such a major stress on marriage — especially younger, financially inexperienced couples — it might be a good idea to get a handle on money issues before entering a marriage.
2. Do you need benefits?
One of the big perks of getting married, for me, was that Justin and Noah could be put on my top-notch State health insurance. But when I quit that job a year later for a no-benefits freelance career, we were screwed. We didn't make a ton of money — at all — but we still couldn't qualify for Family Health Plus health insurance or childcare assistance. And we really, really needed the help. Yet if we weren't married, we would have had a lot more help to get on our feet. Something to think about, especially if you're close to the cut-off line for public assistance (as we were).
Yes, you get a tax break for being married — but there are some real financial drawbacks for lower-income young parents.
3. Are you/Can you be financially independent?
Choosing to be a stay-at-home mom is, obviously, a legitimate and worthwhile path — but this is something to think about. I only say this because while Justin and I were going through our rough patch, I was very comforted by the thought that, God forbid anything happened to our marriage, I could fully support Noah and I. It eliminated that pressure — the psychological effects of feeling trapped — and allowed me to just focus on strengthening our marriage.
I'm also saying this for any young expectant mom who might be dropping out of school or quitting her career, assuming that she can rely fully on her husband. I'm all for inspiring and encouraging young couples to have a long-lasting marriage, but there comes a time when you have to be realistic. Young marriages can be challenging enough — the most important thing you can do is to protect yourself and your family. Having at least the option for financial security is, ultimately, a smart move.
4. Are you going through a big change right now?
Pregnancy is, quite possibly, the biggest change you'll ever go through. Especially if this was an unexpected pregnancy at an unexpectedly young age. You have hormonal surges, lifestyle changes — sometimes anxiety, depression, general freaking out. In all honesty, this might not be the best time to make another life-changing decision. Assess your emotional state before saying "I Do." You can always get married later, but it's much more difficult to un-do that decision.
5. Is there something you want to change about this person?
Are you hoping that he'll eventually stop smoking two joints a day? Or that he'll outgrow his video game obsession? Or that he'll get some ambition in his life? At the same time, is there something about you that your partner is trying to change?
You cannot — can. not. — go into a marriage expecting something about that person to eventually change, because it very well might not. You can either accept that person wholeheartedly, or perhaps put a halt on the marriage discussion.
This is also an important time to assess how the two of you communicate, and if you have any major trust issues.
So many marriage experts say that it's important to be your own person before you can belong to someone else. That you have to grow up before you can grow together. And if one or both of you has a lot of maturing left to do, why stack the odds against you? Of course you'll continue to grow in a marriage, but it's a smart question to ask yourself while weighing the pros and cons.
6. Why are you getting married?
Be honest with yourself and 'fess up about the real reasons that you're getting married. Is it to please your family? To have a storybook wedding? To do "the right thing," according to society? Then think about whether that's a good enough reason.
After all of the questions have been asked and answered, there's a good chance that you'll still decide to go ahead with the white dress. You might also be compelled to say "I Do" for religious and moral reasons, and who am I to argue with that? But it never hurts to put some rational thought into such a gigantic, life-altering decision — which is about so much more than love and baby carriages.
And if you don't put much thought into it — if you just throw a brown dress over your 8-month-pregnant belly, stick a white flower in your hair, and skip off to Town Hall like someone else I know, you might end up just fine. Four year and a few big life lessons later, and we're still going strong.
What do you think? Do you completely disagree? Do you have anything to add?