Pre-marital counseling: Goin' to the chapel and we're . . .

How anyone goes into marriage without it, premarital, is still a mystery to me.

I don't know about you, but I, for one, have a lot of weddings to go to this summer. And sure, I’ll try to get over to Bloomingdale's (online, naturally) to buy presents, but just in case I don’t . . .

This one’s for you. Maybe it will save you time and money in therapy, or buying those books at Borders. On the other hand, it's not such a bad idea, buying books. And it makes for a nice date, good stuff to talk about.

Because marriage, commitment, is complicated. Two people, two very different egos, two very separate selves who come from two very different families (they're all different), with at least two different sets of expectations. Children from divorced, or blended families inherit multiple collective minds, each of its own culture, with different social, religious, political and economic biases. Add the well-differentiated siblings, and that's how many ways of doing there are to think and talk about.  That's how many, some not so silent, egos are in the room.

But young people who are marrying for the first time often look askance at their families of origin and the way they do things, because they assume that they're going to start their own, which they should. They should create their own couple identity. It's virtually impossible not to, which is why you may as well make the differentiation process conscious, becoming an entirely new social unit, or creation.

What trained (check out the certification before you see it on the wall) couples or premarital therapists, pastoral counselors, see that other people don't

Usually we're looking at people who think they know themselves pretty well, who think they know what they want, who think they know where they're going, or hope so.

We see individuals, even diagnose both, get a thumb nail of the family systems of each, and picture the two sharing the same family-room or dinner table nearly every single day for a lifetime. And if we do it well, we can see how all that certainty about identity and future might change. It has to change, but it would be nice to know that the changes will be in sync with individual goals, and that change is manageable, even welcome.  Not that we can actually control very much in life, is the truth.  But we want to try.

Some therapists (we like these) advise that the couple look into the past to predict, or better prepare for the future.

It is much more than one plus one equals two. Sure, there's talk of individuality, a couple discussion of personality, compatibility, as frank as you can make it. But if you've dated for a long time, done more than watch movies and eat sushi, then it is time to take a good hard look at families of origin, as well as the blended family. 

Now we're prying, seriously, but how can we not? Some say that people will never get married if they dig this deep, this far, but we do marry the family, not just a person. Parents and step-parents, adopted parents-- anyone significant-- can crawl into bed with us at the worst moments.

Not to get too oedipal. That's not the point. It's about the influence of the family, and the genetics, and what to do about it. Rather than close those baby blues and hope for the best, therapists encourage couples to look at certain things precisely and to genuinely consider how they'll have to cope with what they see in the future.
Things like:

(1) world view-- the way each family looks at life. Is it a bowl of cherries? A picnic? Sheer torture then you die? Should we really give ten percent to the church, or maybe more, and do the poor really matter? Are ethics important, honesty? Is it okay to marry outside the faith, will it make for a better life? Is it best to stifle emotion, to take life on the chin, rather than emote and blather? Do we have to dress up every day?

(2) strengths and weaknesses-- this includes mental illness, the skeletons in the closet, the arrests, the lies, the certificates and diplomas, skills and aptitudes, being stubborn, proud, unyielding, or overly giving. Giving in all of the time tends to bite us in the end. Resentments, like weeds, tend to fill vacuums.

(3) family ways of doing*-- this includes who cleans the refrigerator, and shlepping the garbage every day so that the spouse with the sensitive nose isn't subjected to foul scents, never romantic. This includes time for bed, and loneliness, touch, affection, and how that is addressed, what time to wake up, work ethic, and the ways extended family should be treated. It includes compulsions, things that won't give, and religious rituals, and whether or not two ways of doing can really live comfortably under one roof, i.e., a person who interprets the 10 Commandments to mean that even being in the same place with an idol is a sin, might not do well with one who worships in front of a statue. In other words, this is huge, should occupy your thoughts as a couple for more than one date.

(4) how emotion is managed-- is anger okay, is sadness, are tears a signal that the conversation is over, the person who is crying wins, or are the tears, is the anger validated, discussed rationally. This includes phobias, fears, including social phobia, and what to do when a spouse really should be at that office party but can't handle it, and it includes drug and alcohol abuse, including prescription drugs.

(5) ways of communicating, talking, answering one another. If working through issues means tossing insults to make a point, then the relationship might not work, not in the long run. This would include avoidance, not communicating verbally; or talking too much, to the degree that work isn't finished; validating thoughts, letting the other dream, plan, without bubble bursting. It also would include problem solving, which is a process, and generally requires very clear, empathetic communication.

(6) past trauma, or heartbreaks, as well as success stories, and family successes and failures, as far up the family tree as anyone can climb. Indeed any family stories are helpful, intimate, important. People don't share because they are ashamed, sometimes, but if a partner can't be trusted here, what will happen in the future? We marry a family, but we live with our partner, can't assign guilt, and probably shouldn't blame anyone in a family for anything. People have their reasons. It is the potential spouse who matters, his, her learning from what happened in the past that matters.

Throw in the na'rishkeit** and shtiklach,*** idiosyncrasies, too, and you know what you're getting into.

I think it's nice to know in advance. It's the what to talk about, the stuff that brings you closer. This type of interviewing is intimate, disarming.  Having the conversation without the therapist or pastoral counselor, reassurance of confidentiality might be necessary. 

And nothing can be used as future ammunition.

But if you're going to marry someone, why would you pocket information for harm? If you think you'll need ammunition, perhaps don't get married.  Marriage is about love, not war, being in love is being kind all of the time.

What happens when the premarital history is disturbing? More discussion, is all, no deal-breaker, hopefully. If the dialogue happens without the safety net of premarital therapy, then it might mean the couple really should seek professional help to work through fears about the future, to help them with that genogram, or family tree. History doesn't have to repeat itself.

There are such things as transgenerational problems. Family therapists change the proverbial writing on the wall. It is what they do best, predict the dysfunction, address how to manage it.

Take notes.  Write things down. Throw 'em into the wedding album.


original post, copyright 2008,

*I don't think you'll find this precise phrase, family ways of doing, in a textbook

***na'rishkeit in Yiddish means nonsense, childishness

***shtiklach are best described as idiosyncrasies


Sweet P said…
I've been reading your blog for several weeks. You give lots of great advice!

This post is fantastic! My husband and I are active in Catholic Engaged Encounter. We are a presenting couple and love every minute of a weekend when we do it.

We believe so strongly in Engaged Encounter it has become our gift of choice for our children and all our close friends who announce they are getting married.

Thanks for writing about pre-marital therapy. This post should be read by every couple when the announce they re getting married.
Anonymous said…
Hello! I've not commented in some time due to recent family commitments. Dad fell and broke his hip in February and spent 3 months in the hospital experiencing one complication after another. To get him out of there, I invited him to come and stay with us as a transition between hospital and his home. It's been interesting to say the least. . .
It's amazing, 5, 10, or 15 years ago I never would have imagined my being willing to do this for my dad. We've always had a somewhat volatile relationship. I finally figured out that it is because we are very much alike, father and daughter.
At any rate, I've enjoyed catching up with your last several posts. (I've been very busy of late, giving dad gastric tube feedings, something I haven't done since nursing school 25 years ago.) Things are settling down now, he is doing much better, getting stronger every day. At times it's been exasperating but there is no way you can't admire an 87 year old man who keeps going, no matter what befalls him.
Anonymous said…
What if you agreed to do something for your spouse prior to getting married, because you loved him and wanted to be with him for the rest of your life. But after 20 years you don't want to do this thing anymore. You still love him and want to be with him.

Suck it up and continue for another 20 years? And another 20 after that?
April said…
While I agree that knowing your partner's family background and the way they were raised will affect how you work your own developing relationship, I don't necessarily think that premarital counseling is for everyone. In my case there's a certain challenge of knowing that we will both be dealing with family issues for the rest of our lives---just another aspect of the outside world influencing our internal worlds---but those past experiences don't define us. My husband comes from a very dysfunctional family. Had we entered premarital counseling we may not have stayed together---knowing too much about someone's baggage can be off-putting. Also, I think that it is possible to be (somewhat) negative about your partner's family--- I don't pretend my parents are perfect and I don't mind when my husband gets frustrated by them. If he didn't feel comfortable sharing that with me I would think there's something wrong in our relationship. I don't mean outright insults, but you should feel able to bitch about something that's warranted. My opinion, anyway. I liked the post overall, especially "Marriage isn't war. It's making love. And you know, right, that making love doesn't have to be about sex. Making love is about the way you are with one another; it's whether you are loving or not, that makes each and every day good. . . or not," and I hope it's ok if I use that in a future blog post as long as I credit it to you with a link. If not, just let me know. Thanks.
Anonymous said…
When I saw "shtiklach" I read Sh*t-lock and I thought, 'Oh, right, the sh*t/baggage you bring to the marriage.'

For a Catholic chick I'd say my definition is pretty close to the actual definition you gave: ***shtiklach are best described as idiosyncrasies.

You know, in a pot-AY-to/poe-tAH-to kind of way.

And to second and third the other comments, great post and very good advice.
Anonymous said…
Excellent. I wish I had heard this a few dozen or so years ago.

Some things I would add to the list are;

How did you receive comfort as a child? Were you allowed to express you feelings? How did you handle chaos when it appeared in your home?

I think what you said about how each mate must want to learn about the other and themselves is SO important.

If I were to advise a couple before marriage, I would say that they each have to hold a PHd in each other's childhood before setting a date.
Kindyland said…
My husband and I went through premarital counseling and it helped a great deal. It seems to me that the best advice I could give someone who is wanting to get married is -- make sure you know your issues and get them resolved before entering into a marriage hoping IT solves your issues...'cause it'll only compound them later on.

And make sure he has a very nice mother -- otherwise, your life can be hell later down the road. (funny, but not)
Isle Dance said…
Thank you so much for saying this, because now I know I really was attempting the healthy thing, for thirteen years, before the divorce. :o) It's not always easy, but it is necessary.

"But you, as an about to be newly married person, it is your job to want to learn, to want to become a better person, to want to grow in all of your relationships.

Good marriage is about change, adaptability, flexibility, and elasticity, you'll need those skills every day of your life."
Anonymous said…
Hmm...talking about and with families before the wedding. It's thinking before doing - the stuff of maturity.
Anonymous said…
Really terrific advice, as always. More marriages would last if they followed it instead of entering into marriage with their eyes closed and their romantic notions of what they're hoping marriage will be running the show.
therapydoc said…
Thanks all for writing.

Anon, sorry about dad's hip!

Other ANON, if you agreed before marriage, maybe it's time to renew, reword, the agreement. People change and marriage has to change with them. Three people in the room. You, your partner, and the relationship. Everybody grows.

Sweet, I'll have to check this out, Engaged Encounter. Sounds excellent. We need this in my community, badly, maybe every community.

April, thanks for the feedback, but, an educated consumer, still is the best customer, in my book :)

Cardio, you gotta' learn the Yiddish, you'll love it

Christian, GREAT additions,

Kathryn, having a nice m-i-l is a blessing (my feeling) not a given, hence the need for tx so much of the time after marriage, but we are NOT blaming m-i-l's, I'm one, too.

Isle, hi, how're ya'?

therextras, right, maturity, never happens all at once

and AUTHOR, how're those dogs? Romantic notions are hard to keep alive, true. I wonder if writers do a better job than the average bear?
Jack Steiner said…
Good MILs make a real difference because a bad one can wreak such havoc.
therapydoc said…
Jack, so true. Should we start this thread here or should I write another post. We have to have this conversation.
One essential piece of advice you list here which I should have received, and which I would pass along to others: make the process conscious.

Whether they're going to follow my specific advice or not, at least they had better think through what they are doing.
therapydoc said…
Rabbi, I was so hoping you would join in. Thanks.
Syd said…
A good marriage is about all those skills that you mentioned plus a sense of humor and mutual respect. It's about friendship and acceptance. And a whole lot of patience.
Anonymous said…
I would love a mother-in-law post. I've come to terms with my MIL, she's not terrible, but she has done and said many hurtful things to me - all because she is "trying to help."

My husband's MIL (ie; my mother) is no picnic either. He's come to terms with her I suppose.

We avoid them a lot. And we've reached the point where we laugh about them. I guess that means we have a successful marriage.
Anonymous said…
Very interesting post. Very real. Thank you.

Anonymous said…
Great post.

One of my husband's and my mantras is: "Always speak the unspeakable. What doesn't get spoken gets acted out."
Geosomin said…
Too true - I agree with you on the counselling.
It makes you look at finances, family and your personalities - my husband and I were given personality test to see areas where we'd disagree and actually flush out how we'd deal with finances and other things. I'm sure we could have figured it out eventually, but MAN was it nice to have someone ther with solid advice who could help us out.
So many people don't deal with the important things until they have too, and it's so much harder then.

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