If you are reading this blog, we have some excellent news for you. While marriage success rates are continuing to hover around the 50% mark, the statistics are much, much kinder to those couples who seek out pre-marriage counseling.
According to the Journal of Family Psychology, couples who participate in pre-marriage counseling report much higher levels of satisfaction in their marriage and are 30 percent less likely to divorce within the first 5 years.
The beauty of pre-marriage counseling is that couples in the early stages of building a life together are often in what relationship and marriage expert John Gottman refers to as positive sentiment override, PSO. When you are experiencing a state of PSO, you see your relationship, and your partner, mainly through a lens of optimism and positivity. The glass is not half empty; rather, it is half full. From this perspective, it is far easier to build a sound relationship house than it is to repair a marriage that's been hammered by years of unresolved conflict or betrayals. You might also say, you are anchored in what therapists call the “window of tolerance.”
Pre-marriage counseling is a way to bolster what’s working well and ward off what could get in your way in the future, and just the act of seeking it may very well speak to your strengths as a couple. So, give yourself a pat on the back for tackling the “tough stuff” early, and consider the following five steps to make your pre-marriage counseling efforts even more fruitful.
Imagine what would happen if you waited six years to have a tumor biopsied. Imagine you waited six years to have a cavity filled. Or six years to have a broken bone put in a cast. What would the consequences be on your overall health and future happiness?
Most of us would never put our physical bodies in such peril, yet we are often inclined to do so with our romantic lives. According to Gottman, spouses wait for an average of six years from the onset of a problem before seeking marriage counseling.
What attitudes or beliefs contribute to this kind of delay? One possibility is that many of us struggle with denial regarding the severity of our relationship problems. Due to the shame and stigma that can come with acknowledging our marriage is struggling, we tend to sweep issues under the rug.
However, as the adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Couples who choose to attend pre-marriage counseling are ahead of the game.
Through the process of meeting with a couples therapist, you are laying a solid foundation for your future relationship and the family you will have together. The reverberations of that have the potential to benefit generations after you.
While there is a wealth of marriage materials available in print and online, there are a few key foundational texts we have found to be most helpful in a pre-marriage context.
The first piece we recommend (especially since it is a quick read) is the New York Times piece, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” by Alain de Botton. Unlike the title suggests, this article does not portray a negative view of marriage or encourage you to abandon your partner.
Instead, it enlightens us on how antiquated notions of marriage have shaped and molded today’s modern romantic ideals. It challenges all of us to accept imperfection, both within our spouse and within ourselves.
“The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” by John Gottman might just be one of the best pre-marriage resources around. In it, you will find detailed observations derived from decades of research on the ups and downs of countless married couples. Gottman applies rigorous scientific principles to understand what habits and behaviors help marriage unions stand the test of time. It also comes with practical questionnaires and exercises.
Another foundational text for couples is “Wired for Love,” by Stan Tatkin, founder of the PACT Model (A Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy). Also based on research, it helps couples at any stage of relationship create what Tatkin calls a “couple bubble,” in which partners turn to one another as a resource and, in doing so, amplify each other’s strengths and tend to each other’s vulnerabilities. This puts the couple in the best position to handle the stresses and trials of partnered life. Tatkin’s book for pre-marriage couples, “We Do,” is scheduled for publication December 2018.
As touched on in Alain de Botton’s article, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” our society has largely replaced traditional marriages of logic (or convenience) for ones of feeling and romanticism. In response to the historic failures of planned marriages, we have all but thrown reason and logic out of the window when it comes to settling down and have opted, instead, to let emotions guide the way.
The danger in this, as de Botton points out, is that it can encourage us to avoid becoming self-aware. And if we do not pay attention to how challenging we can be before committing to another person, we may not do so later.
Contrary to the days when many married for convenience, family duty or financial necessity, today we tend to marry for love and happiness. While at face value, there is nothing inherently wrong with love, we are often led to believe the cultural mythos that love should not be hard work. And, if it is? Well, then divorce is always on the table.
Sadly, these factors have caused marriage counseling to be something many couples turn to far too late. After all, if you waited for six years from the onset of a problem to address it, there is a good chance it has mushroomed into a whole other beast.
As Kerry Lusignan, founder, and director of The Northampton Center for Couples Therapy puts it…
“The most important thing that a young couple needs to understand is that cultivating relationship health is no different than cultivating any other type of health. It requires two people to coordinate their efforts, as if they have a shared body to maintain. Doing this work together requires steadfastness and dedication. It demands that you show up for it every day, regardless of the degree of enthusiasm or inspiration you are able to muster.”
At NCCT, every couple starts with a comprehensive relationship assessment. We will meet with you both together and individually to assess your relationship strengths and weaknesses. The process will give us (and you) a wealth of information about how you are wired as a couple. Call it your unique “couple fingerprint.”
And as a result, you’ll learn how to navigate your differences building the foundation for a lifelong partnership, deeper connection and greater intimacy.
Once you have gained these insights, the work of pre-marriage counseling can take on a more practical and concrete tone. We can then devote our time to giving you the tools and skills required to transform that knowledge into a relationship that will last a lifetime.
Regarding the length of sessions, there is room for flexibility. If you and your partner are building on an already strong foundation, then you have the option to attend a one-day or two-day intensive couples retreat. Alternatively, you can come for a series of six to nine weekly 90-minute couples therapy sessions, with more sessions required for couples who are entering into more complicated marriages, such as second marriages or blended families.
“Thriving in a partnership is not an elusive mythical state only bestowed on the few and fortunate,” says Lusignan. “It is not something that is dished out by selective fairy godmothers to a shining few…....Rather it is a something that is accessible to each of us, regardless of roots.
It's an extremely heartening message - that our relationships can thrive and last a lifetime when we apply the scientific principles of relational success and commit ourselves to use them as a vehicle for growth.”
At its best, pre-marriage counseling is a package of helpful steps for success: including a comprehensive relationship assessment that examines your strengths and potential pitfalls, the acquisition of knowledge (as it pertains to your relationship's health), and the achievement of new and better relationship skills.
An experienced couples therapist will touch on all of these basics with you. They will evaluate the quality of your friendship with your partner, how you both navigate conflict and how you communicate.
They will also look at the quality of your sex life and even your dreams, including everything from babies and in-laws to finances and overarching life goals, in order to clearly lay out the steps you will need to take to make your marriage, or relationship, a success.
If you want to know more about the kind of skills, principles and behaviors employed by spouses of long-term marriages, read our previous blog, “The Most Crucial Relationship Skill You Can Have.” In it, we outline the how, what and when of managing marriage or relational conflict in a way that protects your bond and can even strengthen your levels of intimacy.
At the end of the day, success in anything requires an element of proactivity. If you and your fiance are seeking couples therapy this early on, that in and of itself speaks to your strength as a couple. It is indicative of the value you hold for one another and relationship. It shows you are willing to acknowledge that relationships take work and you believe in something greater than yourselves.
By addressing the inevitable relationship “woes” far before they become too big to tackle easily, you are building a foundation of trust and starting off “right” from the get-go!
Call NCCT at (413) 586-2300 to learn more about our pre-marriage counseling services or how our weekly therapy sessions or retreat intensives can help you get your marriage off to the right start.