I remember before my first marriage, I was afraid and having doubts. I’m not even sure what they were. I didn’t want to break up, but I was fearful of getting married. Probably because it was a challenging relationship. We had a lot of unresolved issues. But I did love my first husband, and we did marry.
We divorced 11 years later. It was one of the most painful times of my life. Today, I would not get married until I felt surer. By the time I remarried, I had completed a lot of psychological work, personally, as well as with my first husband and with my second husband to be. What I learned changed me and helped me become a person who could be successful at marriage. I am now grateful to be in an incredible and nourishing marriage with my second husband.
Getting married is a big step. It is not just about love but also legalities. These legalities include financial and health ramifications. Further, divorce is expensive and painful. Kids don’t do as well in families that have a lot of conflicts, and divorce is also tough for them. Thus, being ready for marriage is essential.
Let’s look at some ways that pre-marital counseling can help you.
1) There is a difference between habit and inspiration. Inspiration is why we get married. We are in love. We want to live in that feeling. Inspiration is great, but it is temporary. Habit is what makes inspiration permanent. If we develop good habits, including the practice of exploring how we connect with our loved ones, we can make that inspiration turn into a work in progress. We can make our relationship unshakable.
We often do not understand the wisdom of creating habits. We may believe that “things will just work out.” But being good at anything, whether being in great physical shape, or being a great musician, or anything else, generally requires the habit of practice. As we practice, we are building something new. Something that did not exist before. A great relationship is not a given. It is an accomplishment.
2) Have you discussed your goals and dreams? Are you on the same page with them? How do you each manage your differences? Are they a source of conflict?
Differences in a relationship can cause significant issues. Imagine if one person wants six kids, and the other isn’t sure they even want one. Also, imagine if one person wants sex 3 times a day and for the other person sex once every two weeks is enough. Is one of you planning on taking time off to write a book or start a company, and the other isn’t supportive? What if one of you already has children? Are you on the same page in terms of discipline and child-rearing?
Believe it or not, people get married without exploring or understanding each of their needs and desires. These differences need to be talked about, or you can get blindsided by a conflict you do not know how to navigate through.
3) Do you understand how to communicate so you can find a way through difficult conversations and times? Are you able to have open discussions with each other? Without yelling or retreating? If not, the time to learn this is BEFORE you get married.
Communication is often a big issue in relationships. Partners get caught in the surface problem, like what to spend money on, or whose parents to visit on holidays. Partners often do not know how to communicate about the underlying issue – which includes the need to feel as if their partners care about what they want.
I remember in graduate school, our class would meet as a group and would use a talking stick. We learned to pass the stick, and the person holding it would talk while everyone listened. It was a great process to participate in. We learned new ways of communicating — we each held space for the one talking. There was no arguing. This communication format naturally allowed the expression of thoughts and feelings. Both sharing and listening skills could be better developed.
It is essential to listen as well as tend to your partner’s share. It is crucial to share honestly about your feelings. Communication skills can be learned. Premarital counseling or a premarital educational program is a great way to learn these skills.
4) Do you feel completely safe in your relationship? Not just physically, but emotionally. Or are there times when you feel criticized and pull back to find a sense of safety? Does either of you keep secrets? Why?
Feeling safe with our partner is essential to a connected relationship. Yet sometimes, we do not feel safe. Not feeling safe could be because we have shame about some aspect of ourselves and are unwilling to be vulnerable. We don’t trust our partners will be kind to this aspect of ourselves because we have such awful feelings about it. Or perhaps our partner isn’t sensitive to us. We may feel unseen or unheard, and this can contribute to our sense of not feeling safe. Or we may have trauma that is impacting our sense of safety. Maybe one person’s sense of play feels too aggressive for the other to feel safe.
Our differences in how we relate can contribute to a sense of feeling on guard instead of feeling as if our partner is like a soft pillow we can lean into. Regardless, bringing these issues out into the open gives us a chance to figure out how to create safety for each other. Often, we need help doing so, whether with a therapist, another trusted person, or a couple’s educational program.
5) How do you contribute to each other’s lives? Relationships have the potential to be 1+1=3. They expand each partner’s life. And yet, we cannot necessarily reach this potential if we have not sustained the habit of focusing on our relationship. For example, in one couple, Susan believed in her husband Jeffrey’s dreams of developing his photography – even though he had a lot of doubts and feelings of not being good enough. Her support of his dream allowed him to pursue it and develop his artistic side. At the same time, Jeffrey was very supportive of his wife’s desires, which included her desire to adopt an older child, which they did. Jeffrey and Susan support each other’s dreams, and this expanded each of their lives and their life together.
Premarital counseling or a program that helps you explore your relationship and allows the relationship to develop to its fullest potential. Just as a seed must be planted and watered, weeded and tended to, for it to have a great harvest, so too must a relationship be nurtured. The soil needs to be tilled, the weeds tackled, and the new growth nurtured. Many of us grew up in families without adequate relationship skills. But they can be taught and learned.
These are some of the ways pre-marital counseling or a pre-marital program can help a couple.