A safe bet: most couples put much more time and thought into planning their wedding than they put into planning their marriage. The wedding industry is a $50 billion/year machine that provides decision-making advice, warnings about possible pitfalls and disasters, in-depth information about choices, and just generally plenty of help in the process of designing and then enacting a wedding that satisfies the dreams and needs of the interested parties. Above and beyond the commercial side of wedding planning is the usually enthusiastic involvement of family and friends, all of whom want to share valuable wise guidance based on their own personal experiences. A "village" truly comes together to support the enterprise of making a successful wedding. Without a doubt, a similar confluence of information, wise guidance, support for insightful choices, coaching, and help in discovering needs and dreams is needed to ensure the success of a marriage. Unfortunately, no system comparable to the wedding industry exists for the purpose of making successful marriages. The church and counseling 'industries' try to fill this role, but neither has the influence (or utilization rate) they should have. Fulfilling this need for premarital guidance should reasonably fall to family and friends but a host of cultural and other factors tend to weaken the influence of loved ones in directing marriages wisely. And, sadly, with the divorce rate at about 45% in this country (down a bit from its long-standing plateau of 50% in the 60's-90's), it must be acknowledged that many of our family members and friends are not having the kind of success in their marriages that would lead to rock-solid premarital advice for our marriages.
Young couples who understand that a successful marriage is a complex endeavor requiring new skills, realistic attitudes, and emotional maturity know that it is a pretty big gamble to "hope for the best" once they are married. Participating in premarital counseling is the single most helpful thing a committed couple can do to exert positive control over the development of their union. As you will come to see, at the heart of premarital counseling is wisdom that has been distilled from both psychological research and the experiences of marriage 'winners' about how to maintain and grow a loving partnership. Premarital counseling essentially tries to embody the missing "village" so desperately needed to stave off divorce and relationship despair.
The most comprehensive and yet flexible approach to premarital counseling is based on the work of Les and Leslie Parrott. Their influential book "Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts" serves as the backbone for the counseling sessions conducted by Dr. Aber and Dr. Burrows and we ask our clients to be reading the book before and during the course of counseling. The Parrotts offer a free premarital assessment on their website that provides an opinion about a couple's current readiness to marry plus suggestions for areas of concern to focus on in counseling.
So, what are the broad areas covered in premarital counseling?
1) Exploring the couple's belief in common destructive myths about marriage:
"Each of us expects exactly the same things from our marriage." Explicit discussion of each partners' expectations about marriage will help expose and hopefully negotiate the Unspoken Rules each lives by and expects their partner to live by (such as: 'always celebrate birthdays in grand style', 'always pay bills immediately', 'never drive fast', etc.) and the Unconscious Roles they assign to themselves and their partners (such as: the cook, the money manager, the cleaner, the planner, etc.)
"All aspects of life will improve once we are married." It is an illusion to think that the romance felt at the beginning of a relationship will last forever. We have idealized images of our spouses that inevitably give way to an acknowledgement that they are a real person with flaws and differences from us. This loss of an idealized vision of our spouse is the most dramatic loss involved in marrying, but there are others, too, such as the loss of autonomy, that must be put into proper perspective so that they do not become destructive sources of disappointment or disillusionment.
"Everything bad in my life will be improved by marriage." Although it is a wonderful institution, marriage is not powerful enough to erase all our personal pain, nor will it lead to sudden improvements in life circumstances such as our family relationships or our jobs. This expectation can lead to a troubling disappointment that life is not incomparably better after marriage.
"My spouse will make me whole." The expectation that a love relationship will complete us, whether by raising our self-esteem, erasing our anxieties, or eliminating our loneliness, can distract us from the responsibility we all have to do the difficult work of self healing. Relying on our spouse to make us whole usually means we become too dependent upon or even enmeshed with them, which almost always leads to angry disappointment when our spouse naturally is more concerned with his or her own happiness than ours.
2) Exploring each spouse's style of love:
Love can be thought of as having three components: Passion, Intimacy, and Commitment. Each of us comes into marriage with a unique sense of how we want to be loved and then we tend to assume that this is the way our spouse will want to be loved. These 'ways of loving' differ between people because they emphasize different amounts and combinations of passion, intimacy and commitment. For instance, a partner who shows love (and feels loved) through acts of responsibility and consistent respectfulness (an emphasis on Commitment) may seem cold to a partner who shows love through endearments, gifts, and sharing inner thoughts (an emphasis on Intimacy). Conversely, the Intimate style may seem somewhat empty or 'easy' to someone who values Commitment. This mis-matching of styles can lead to feelings of being unloved. Open communication in premarital counseling about these styles of love can guide each partner to stretch themselves to show love more consistently in the style preferred by their spouse.
3) Exploring the effectiveness of each spouse's communication skills:
Most couples, even unhappy ones, communicate fairly well when the subject under discussion is neutral or not overly emotionally-charged. But communication quality differs sharply between happily and unhappily married couples when the topic has emotional relevance for at least one of the partners. John Gottman, Ph.D. has studied this difference and has some very important guidance about how to correct the common communication mistakes that lead to conflict and unhappiness. That guidance is summarized here: Marriage Counseling, so please give that article a look. All of Gottman's findings about what to avoid (the 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", harsh startups) and what to do more of (turning toward 'bids', soft startups, accepting influence, compromising, etc.) are of crucial value to young couples and should be covered in premarital counseling. Beyond those important insights, young couples can also greatly benefit from a review of the essential qualities of effective communication, which are Empathy, Warmth and Genuineness, as well as explicit instruction about, and chances to practice in premarital counseling, the following bedrocks of communication in intimate relationships:
* Making "I" statements rather than "You" statements ("I feel unimportant when you show up late." vs. "You are inconsiderate.").
* Listening Reflectively, which means listening beyond or below the words used to grasp the real message and then showing that it has been grasped.
* Expecting typical gender differences in communication styles: Men tend to see conversations as forums for information exchange and problem solving, whereas women tend to see conversations as forums for interpersonal connection. Couples can learn to negotiate what type of conversation they want to have so that frustration is avoided.
* Apologizing sincerely when necessary.
* Communicating through affectionate touching, not just words.
4) Exploring the couple's attitudes and compatibility in several common areas of conflict:
It can be extremely helpful for new couples to be alerted to the five common areas of conflict in marriages and to be encouraged to discuss those issues openly. The five areas are: Sex, Money, Running a Household, their Respective Families, and an Overarching Vision for the Marriage. Each of these topics warrants honest discussion. Young people often have not had the need or the opportunity to clarify for themselves and then verbalize their attitudes toward sex, money, and the roles and responsibilities they want and do not want in their household. Frank communication can lead to mutual understanding and negotiation/compromise if necessary. The subject of how much influence each spouse's family will have on the marriage and how much time will be spent with families deserves attention in counseling as this is an issue that commonly leads to jealousy, insecurity, and divisive conflict. Lastly, a shared vision for the marriage should be developed and made as explicit as possible. This should include not only concrete aspects such as children (yes or no?; how many?; when?; is adoption a possibility?), where to live, religion, interests/passions to pursue, etc., but also an abstract component similar to a "mission statement" for the couple recognizing the dreams and aspirations of each partner and a commitment to help each other attain them.
As you can see, premarital counseling is educational but also sometimes challenging. Ultimately, though, it is a very affirming experience. Loving connections are deepened when people reveal their sincerely held attitudes in a trusting context. Having a 'meeting of minds' at the launch of a new marriage really does avert disappointment, greatly increase mutual understanding, and lead to the kind of lifelong constructive communication that predicts marital success. We encourage you to consider premarital counseling; it is the single best investment you can make in your own future happiness with, yes, we'll say it, a much greater potential Return on Investment than those doves you're thinking of releasing after the ceremony!