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