All too many couples get caught up in spending time planning their weddings without developing a plan for their marriage. The early stages of a relationship, when the feelings you have for your partner are usually positive, is the ideal time to become more conscious and intentional in the ways you interact and work together. Counseling can give you insights into where your particular relationship dynamics might be heading in the wrong direction.
Couples considering committing to one another in a long-term union such as marriage may benefit from exploring their relationship issues (or potential issues) prior to making a long-term commitment. Premarital counseling is an opportunity to explore the dynamics of your partnership and set yourselves up for a satisfying future together. There is often an educational aspect to premarital counseling, so that you can learn better communication skills and how to negotiate conflict so that you can resolve your differences in a way that actually strengthens your connection. Also, there is often a coaching aspect to premarital counseling where couples can practice, with the therapist’s help, the new perspectives and new skills that they are learning.
Premarital counseling is as varying and unique as the personality and background of the therapist providing the counseling. Finding someone that you can trust, and who honors your unique situation, is essential. The good news is that new models for developing strong, healthy relationships have been emerging, giving us maps for how to find our way in this new paradigm. Premarital counseling uses these models to help a couple build a strong, conscious foundation for their marriage. Remember that relationships are created; they are dynamic and perennially evolving. The relationship that you yearn for is not the one you start out with but the one you co-create with your partner over time. This takes commitment, trust, and the willingness to look more closely at your own process rather than that of your partner.
We come together from different families of origin. We have learned and have been imprinted, for better or worse, by these early experiences of connection. We come into a marriage with different personalities and temperaments, differing values and needs, and baggage from previous intimate connections. We come into the co-creating of a life together without a training manual or toolkit for how to manage the sometimes treacherous waters of our differences. Premarital counseling can provide this guidance so that each person can mature to their fullest potential within the boundaries of a vital, fulfilling relationship. Through premarital counseling, a couple can explore their dreams, their fears, their differences, and come to a greater understanding of what is sourcing their choices and behaviors.
Intimate relationships have experienced a major paradigm shift over the past forty years. We as a society are reshaping our core dynamics from a role-based model to a partnership model, but not without consequences. We have a divorce rate in the United States where more than half of marriages end in divorce. What is happening here?
Marriages used to serve family and society and the quality of the man/woman connection was secondary. Community pressure would hold a marriage together. Now, for the first time in history, couples are on their own. We have shifted from a community (or village) to a nuclear family so that we have one person, rather than many, to meet our needs. We have also shifted from a survival mode to one of self-actualization--we are demanding deeper levels of intimacy which puts pressure on each partner to fulfill more needs. We live in a youth addicted culture that promotes romantic ideals of love rather than images of couples who have matured after years of finding their way together. We also live in a throw-away society that reinforces the belief that we can have what we want by giving up what we have for the promise of something better. The divorce rate for second marriages is even more sobering at 67%, and 74% for third marriages, according to the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology.
Another important aspect of premarital counseling is to normalize what can happen in the early years of a marriage. Many of us have been seduced by the fairytale of the prince and his princess finding their perfect love. But the story really begins when they move into the castle together. Sometimes a newly married person experiences what could be called a post-marriage depression. The commitment can feel like a weight that is taking them down. They have said “yes” to this particular individual but “no” to all the other potential partners--this may result in grief. But ironically, the pain of this condition can deepen one’s ability to connect because by working through the impulses to run, by overcoming the belief that the grass is greener over there, and by making the grass greener here, this individual can find the freedom and joy that is possible in a long-term, committed relationship.
Sam and Pat, in their early thirties, are stuck in the dating phase of their relationship because even though Sam feels a strong love for Pat, he suffers from an even stronger fear of commitment. In premarital counseling, Sam discovers that the root of his feeling entrapped is related to a belief that he has to give up what he wants and needs in order for Pat to be happy. His behavior becomes defensive and he stays away from a deeper connection with his partner by “doing his own thing.” During therapy, he discovers that Pat is open to working with him and to giving him what he wants, when Pat knows more clearly what it is that he wants. He finds that when he opens up emotionally, Pat feels more connected and becomes less demanding. This enhances Sam’s ability and desire to give Pat more of what Pat needs, knowing that this does not mean sacrificing what he needs. Through this therapeutic work Sam comes to experience the freedom that exists inside a commitment.
Julie and Peter are about to be married and come into premarital therapy to learn how to communicate more effectively. They have a pattern where each partner’s communication style triggers the other. Julie grew up in a family that met conflict head on. Her family would often become very loud and passionate in their arguments. By contrast, Peter’s family did not talk about important things and stayed more distant in their interactions. What attracted Peter to Julie was her warmth and ability to engage with him, but as the wedding approaches, her emotionality has become too much to handle and he has started to withdraw and cut off conversation. Julie is feeling a sense of panic and tries even harder to engage Peter, who then feels even more overwhelmed and withdraws further. In therapy, this dance step of approach/avoidance becomes more clearly defined. The therapist facilitates a process so that each partner plays the role of the other. Both partners gain a greater understanding and compassion for how to meet on common ground. Peter learns how to stay present and feel safe when a conversation gets heated. Julie learns to trust Peter’s need to withdraw, and trusts that he will return to engage with her when his system has calmed down.
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Last updated: 12-15-2013
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