You’re spending countless hours planning the perfect wedding day, but there’s an important thing you can do to ensure a happily-ever-after marriage. Studies show that couples who have premarital counseling or education are 30% more likely to stay together.
What makes these efforts so effective? Whether offered by a therapist, clergy or educator, the best premarital training teaches couples how to communicate, manage conflict, negotiate, collaborate, problem-solve, and feed and nurture emotional and sexual intimacy over time.
Preparing for the big step
Three of the most common reasons for divorce are not being able to talk together, unrealistic expectations and lack of preparation. Premarital work addresses these challenges, helping engaged couples build a foundation for a healthy relationship. Although there is no standard format, in general couples gain a realistic view of what it takes to maintain happiness over a lifetime and discuss key issues.
Three important aspects of marriage preparation are:
• Learning how to communicate effectively. Miscommunication often leads to arguments and feeling misunderstood. As a couples counselor (and married person), I know how challenging it can be to clearly express important needs and desires. Are you comfortable asking for what you need directly? Do you expect your partner to automatically know what you want?
• Improving your conflict-resolution skills. What happens after you and your partner have a conflict? Does one of you try to avoid discussing the issue while the other can’t let it go? Are you able to repair the rift, or do you “forget” and move on? Many couples tend to fall into playing the blame game instead of trying to find a mutually satisfying solution to their problems.
• Talking about expectations and hopes for the future. Are you and your partner on the same page when it comes to how you plan to make, spend and save money? Have you discussed the possibility of having children and how you want to parent? Are you comfortable talking about sex? Will you spend holidays with family? Whose? It’s easy to assume that you and your future mate share the same values and goals, but the reality may lead to heartache in the long run. Discussing your dreams now is an opportunity to deepen the relationship or to discover if the differences are too great to bridge.
Finding a counselor
Couples planning a religious ceremony usually are required to take faith-based classes or pastoral counseling sessions prior to marriage. While religious organizations have long been the largest provider of premarital programs and education, licensed health-care providers such as marriage and family therapists, psychologists and social workers provide a secular option.
A recent search for Los Altos-based premarital and marital specialists found 40 individuals and group practices on the Psychology Today website. Some use a particular program such as Prevention and Relationship Education Program; others may develop their own unique approach or use specific relationship-based approaches such as Emotionally Focused Therapy.
It’s important to find someone with whom you feel safe and connected, so read providers’ websites carefully and take advantage of any free consultations offered to find a good match for both of your personalities. Be sure to find a person, approach or method that feels comfortable for each of you.
The cost for premarital sessions is difficult to estimate because session fees vary, as do the number of sessions you will need. Premarital counseling may stretch your wedding budget, so following are a few ways to get the most out of your sessions.
• Keep an open mind. The idea of going to therapy may feel foreign or unnecessary when your relationship is conflict-free. Consider this an opportunity to learn valuable lessons about your partner and yourself as well as new skills to be the partner you want to be.
• Expect that it may be challenging. Talking about private matters with a third person can be uncomfortable. Learning new skills especially around communication and problem-solving may be hard at first, but the lessons you learn will be worth the effort.
• Be thankful for your partner’s participation. Appreciate that your partner wants to learn what it takes to create and maintain a strong relationship. Don’t hesitate to express your gratitude for the willingness to attend and use sessions to build a better bond.
• Keep it private. While you may be amazed at what you and your spouse-to-be are learning about each other, refrain from sharing it with others. Learning to keep things between the two of you is an essential practice that protects the relationship in the long run.
Marriage counselor Gary Chapman, author of “The Five Love Languages” (Northfield, 1995), described his own painful experience of discovering “that being in love is not an adequate foundation for building a successful marriage.”
Despite intense mutual love and a desire to make each other happy, Chapman writes that within six months, the premarital euphoric feelings he and his fiancée had imagined would last a lifetime had been replaced by anger, hurt, disappointment and resentment. He blamed this on a lack of preparation for marriage and the failure to learn the skills to work together as intimate partners.
Learning what it takes to develop a loving, supportive and mutually beneficial marriage is the smartest way to make sure that love lasts.
Here are a few books engaged couples might read to start the conversation:
• “Wired for Love” (New Harbinger, 2012) by Stan Tatkin
• “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” (Harmony, rev. ed. 2015) by John Gottman
• “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” (Little, Brown Spark, 2008) by Sue Johnson
• “The Five Love Languages” and “Things I Wished I’d Known Before We Got Married” (Northfield, 2010) by Gary Chapman
Nancy Andersen is a Los Altos-based marriage and family therapist. For more information, visit nancyandersenmft.com.