I am noticing an increase in the number of couples seeking pre-marital counseling in my psychotherapy practice. Often they have been encouraged to devote some time to pre-marital sessions by a married, couple friend who wish they had made counseling part of their preparation for married life. Research has shown that couples wait an average of 7 years before seeking help for their relationship troubles. Pre-marital counseling can help create a template for how conflict is managed, as well as support practices of skillful communication and appreciation. All couples disagree at times; the way we hold our differences and return to an open heart is what we are seeking.
So what does pre-marital therapy look like? It can be a structured endeavor with a pre-determined number of sessions and specific topics to be discussed. There are questionnaires I use (for those who enjoy homework!) to help assess the strengths and challenges in the relationship, the patterns. Or the counseling can be a more general inquiry; space to explore important values and life decisions specific to each couple. Often a couple will be motivated to seek counseling with several issues in mind. Perhaps one person has been married before, already has a child, or there are differences in the cultural heritage and upbringing. As we collaborate, the needs of the couple are made clear and the counseling structure is created. My intention is to hold a neutral and safe space where a healthy curiosity is encouraged, and differences evolve into a rich diversity and the warmth between the couple deepens.
The cultivation of empathy is what allows love to grow and blossom rather than having it go underground beneath defensive postures. I am often touched by the love and kindness in the room when sitting with a young couple (not necessarily in age). I think of this quality as a generosity of spirit; there is often a powerful willingness to find the way through distance and hurt. So what gets in the way of this fresh openness that can meet whatever arises with care?
John Gottman (www.gottman.com
), a marriage researcher from Seattle, identifies four qualities, Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling, which he calls The 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse. Not allowing these qualities to grow and become the habits of the couple's dynamic is key. Charged topics and perpetual problems can be held well, so the partner bond is strengthened and deepened no matter the content.
Sue Johnson (www.eft.ca
), another researcher in the field of couples therapy, describes attachment needs as the core elements in building trust and satisfaction for a couple. Below the strategies for protecting ourselves from loss and hurt lie universal human needs for connection, safety, and relationship. Pre-marital counseling endeavors to put into place attitudes, qualities, and skillful responding that support these deeper needs to connect and reach for another, rather than distance and strike out from fear and disappointment. At the end of this article I list a number of good books that describe these researchers findings in depth.
To love and be loved sounds simple, especially in the beginning stages of relationship. The purpose of pre-marital counseling is to harness this tremendous force of loving relationship and to make the habits conscious that allow it to flourish. When the couple can recognize the patterns they unconsciously are repeating as the problem rather than each other, they have made a big step toward handling whatever blocks arise in their intimate life together. The practice of relationship is indeed a practice. When we learn how to repair the breaks that happen, we make the vessel stronger than ever.
Please call with any questions you may have about pre-marital counseling. Here are some good resources for further study: