Some marriage preparation homework
You can lay the foundation for a strong, vibrant marriage by discussing critical issues and adopting some key habits during the engagement period.
You don't have to figure all of these issues out right now, of course, but beginning to explore them together now will make things all that much easier during your first years of marriage.
Discussions to have
Expectations for children. The Church views all children as a gift from God and a blessing on a marriage. That does not mean that you won't have some expectations about what your family might look like, however. Do you expect a small family, or a large one? Would it be financially difficult to begin a family immediately? Do you know in advance that you may have problems trying to conceive, and if you find that is the case, how will you handle that challenge as a couple? Do you wish to adopt or do foster care? Then there are other questions regarding the raising of children; you should discuss your views on good discipline and good character formation. How will you teach your children to do the right thing? How will you show them what it truly means to be happy? How will you teach your children to love God? How do your own upbringings differ, and how will that affect your expectations for raising children?
Finances and household expenses. Seeing a financial planner (check in local directories) can be helpful, simply to get a good sense of what your finances will look like as you combine them. But there are bigger questions that need to be asked as well. How important is money in your life together? What attitudes toward money did you inherit from your family of origin? How much is really necessary to live a fulfilling life together? How do you define financial security? How will you share your money with others in need?
Work life. Do you both plan to work outside the home? If so, how much? What kind of work--paying or not--is life-giving to you both? How will you balance the needs of the family and household with your obligations to your workplace? Who is going to take responsiblity for which of the common household tasks like cooking, cleaning, shopping for food, or maintaining vehicles?
How to communicate and resolve conflict. This sort of thing is a life's work, but there are some tricks you can begin immediately. Setting aside time once a week to go over how you are communicating with each other is a good habit. If one of you needs to address something you know will be difficult, practice statements that do not sound accusatory. For example, Jack can say to Jill, "I got frustrated when you were short with me this morning about the garbage," which is likely to be received better than "You're always nagging about taking out the garbage two seconds before I'm about to do it!" Practice listening, speaking honestly but kindly, and forgiving each other.
Natural Family Planning. Taking classes in Natural Family Planning (a method of birth planning that is based on interpreting the ovulation cycle through observations of temperature, mucus, and other physical signs), is an excellent idea and required in some parishes and dioceses. If it is required, attend the classes that are recommended by your parish. If you have no access to local classes, the Couple to Couple League offers a home-based study kit that is quite thorough and a good resource. Although you may balk at NFP, go to the classes with an open mind: most people who practice NFP had many of the same misgivings, and happily practice NFP now, saying it gives them a greater appreciation of the mystery of life, sex, and the sacred bond of marriage.
"Family baggage." If you have come from a family background that is difficult—for example, if there was a divorce, or abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, etc.—you need to have a candid ongoing discussion with your future spouse about how that may make certain pieces of your married life challenging. There may be events or situations that would be "red-flagged" as troublesome. For example, if your parents' marriage ended in acrimonious divorce, simple disagreements may feel weightier and more desperate to you than they actually are. Try to see your past for what it is, and not let it unduly influence the present. Likewise, your spouse should be sensitive to difficult issues for you.
Religious practice. Are you both Catholic? Whether you are or not, you have some issues to discuss regarding how you will practice your faith as a married couple.
Practices to form
Prayer. Go to Mass. Pray regularly as a couple: at mealtime, and at the end of the day. Perhaps you would wish to attend a parish Bible study together, or do Eucharistic adoration. Perhaps you could plan to do a retreat together once a year. If God is to be at the center of your marriage, this is the best and most appropriate way to honor that.
Financial review. Going through your finances regularly—once a week or two is usually sufficient—helps prevent financial problems and makes you both accountable for good stewardship of money. Even if you decide that one person will be primarily in charge of bills and the checkbook, the other partner should be involved in this bi-weekly review.
Time for others, and time for yourselves. When you are newly married, usually you need to make time for others—to remember that wedded bliss is wonderful but you are members of larger families, communities, and circles of friends. If you have children, the issue is usually how to find any time to reconnect as a couple. As an engaged couple, consider how you will continue to be a part of the community, as well as things you could do to strengthen your covenant on a regular basis.