I've been a marriage counselor and premarital counselor online and in person for many years. I love working with couples eager to set their marriages up for success. As I look into the faces of my premarital counseling couples, I see a myriad of emotions: Excitement, anticipation, anxiety, fear, nervousness, and joy. And like most important milestones in life, it's possible to hold contradictory emotions at the same time.
Marriage is BIG. It's wise for couples to be asking each other essential premarital questions before they tie the knot. I want to address many of the myths and truths about marriage that premarital couples usually bring into my office. My hope is that if my premarital couples have a clearer understanding about what to expect and what is ‘normal’, then they can be more prepared to endure and accept and solve the challenges that will occur.
Premarital Questions to Address Before You Move Forward
Premarital Question #1: Do we believe that if we are having issues now (as a premarital couple), and require counseling, there must be something really wrong with our relationship?
This is a myth: Every couple has issues that they bring to a relationship prior to marriage, either consciously or unconsciously. Many of these issues exist at the beginning of any relationship and will continue to fester for years to come. All relationships have friction points like these. They are not necessarily ‘indicators’ of the success or failure of your future relationship. However, smart couples know that it's always better to get ahead of these relationship issues at the beginning of your journey, rather than ten years down the road. [Read: Why Premarital Counseling Can Make or Break a Marriage]
Premarital Question #2: Do you believe that you need to get all of my emotional needs met by your partner?
This is another myth: Spouses can not, and should not be expected to fulfill ALL of your emotional needs. In fact the opposite is true. Studies show that couples who have fulfilling ‘friendship’ relationships (other than their spouse) are happier in their marriage. In a healthy, happy, successful marriage, the main goal of our partners is to provide a safe place for us, to be attuned to us and to know that there is one person in the world who has our back. Yet, we also need close friends and authentic connections outside of our marriage to feel fulfilled. [Read: Do You Have Unrealistic Relationship Expectations?”]
Premarital Question #3: Do you believe that if you fight, there must be something wrong with your relationship?
Not true. Conflict is inevitable in a relationship. In short, fighting is good. You should be more concerned if you find yourself in a relationship that has no conflict. The problem is not that there will be conflict, but how do you deal with it and process your conflict. Do you escalate quickly? Do you avoid it? Do you fight unfairly? How you fight and how you repair is much more important than if you fight. [Read: Communication That Connects]
Premarital Question #4: Do either of you fear that if you lose your feeling of ‘being in love', it must mean you are not meant to be together?
This is another erroneous believe that can be very damaging to your marriage. ‘Feelings’ in life are fleeting, they come and go in cycles. And the feeling of ‘being in love’ is exhilarating and intoxicating, but realistically, it’s not sustainable over time nor is it substantial. The feeling of ‘being in love’ is what propels us into a relationship. What keeps a relationship strong is committing to the necessary ‘work’ to keep a relationship strong and lasting. Ironically that work can also keep the feelings of love alive. [Read: “How To Be in Love With Your Partner.”]
Premarital Question #5: Is one of your hoping that if you love your partner enough, they will change?
This is a very dangerous belief to base the success of your future marriage on. Always go into a relationship with ‘eyes wide open’. It is unrealistic to go into a relationship assuming that someone is going to change. It’s probably not going to happen. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t capable and willing to change in long-term relationships, but if you think you have the magical powers to change that person and that only by doing so, you can handle the relationship, then you are deluding yourself instead of accepting reality. The question to ask yourself, “If nothing changes about this other person, can I live with that?” [Listen: Should You Break Up or Stay Together.]
Free Advice From a Premarital Counselor:
It's vital that you and your potential mate ask each other the premarital questions that I've just talked through. But if you want to have a lifetime of love together, it's not enough to release the false beliefs you may have held about relationships. Instead, we need to replace them with truths about relationships. Here are just a few:
Relationship Truth #1: Marriage is hard.
I am sure you have heard this mantra before. But it’s the truth. Marriage is hard work. The work of marriage is to challenge us as people, to make us grow, to learn how to really love and be loved. If it were easy, the results would not be that fulfilling. It’s hard on purpose, just like any growth we encounter in life. [Read: A Growth Mindset of Marriage]
Relationship Truth #2: Expect less from your relationship and more from your life.
I thought that when I got married, I had arrived. I could enjoy my proverbial pina colada cocktail on the beach and enjoy life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Marriage was only the beginning of finding out how I wanted my life to unfold. I have been fortunate to have a marriage where I feel connected (most of the time), supported (most of the time) and loved (most of the time.) That has allowed me to feel secure and have a more full life.
Our relationships should give us a secure ‘base’ to live a full life. If we only look to our marriage to provide for all of our emotional needs, we tend to end up feeling resentful, versus working to bring your best self to a marriage—a self that is full of life and confidence. [Listen: Becoming Empowered]
Relationship Truth #3: You will both change and that is okay.
In a long-term relationships, you are bound to change. You might change your opinions, your beliefs, and your interests. A different part of you might come out. Relationships will become boring when you do not take the risk to change and do not take the risk to show that to your partner. What is more important is staying connected regardless of what changes come up—being available and present are two of the best gifts you can give your spouse through all of life. [Listen: Finding Your Soulmate; The Truth About Relationship Compatibility]
Relationship Truth #4: Increase the positives in your relationship. Our focus becomes our reality.
Couples forget to focus on what is going well in their relationship. They forget to tell their partner what they appreciate. When the focus becomes on what is going wrong, that focus becomes reality and it perpetuates more negative interactions. It can become a self-reinforcing narrative that can overwhelm your relationship. As the famous psychologist, John Gottman, reminds us, marriages succeed if they have 5 positive interactions for every one negative interaction. Increase the positive! [Read: How to Strengthen Your Relationship]
Relationship Truth #6: Do not be afraid to ask for help when you come to an impasse in your relationship.
We all get stuck in relationships sometimes. You can save yourself years of misery, if you seek help. My analogy is that it’s always easier to try to lose weight when it’s 20 pounds versus 150 pounds. The smartest, most successful couples are the ones that get themselves into marriage counseling sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, couples who wait too long may have lost their opportunity to repair their marriage. Don't let this happen to you! [Listen: How to Stop a Divorce and Save Your Relationship, and Read: The True Cost of Marriage Counseling]
Relationship Truth #7: Every relationship will have issues.
Decide if your partner's issues are ones that you can live with. Don't go into a relationship thinking you can change or control the other person. A paradox of life is the more you accept someone, the more they will be willing to change. But if you base your satisfaction in the relationship with ‘if' that person changes, you will be forever chasing the ‘what ifs’ and not the reality of your life. [Read: Are You Stuck in a Codependent Relationship?]
Relationship Truth #8: Everything in life has a balance.
“The closer you come to paradox the closer you come to truth.” — Unknown author.
Know that two things can be true at the same time. I remember clearly my husband saying to me, at the beginning of our marriage, “It’s crazy. In one day I can feel like I need to get away from you and later in that same day I feel like I am so in love with you.” We can hold two truths at the same time. You can love your spouse and yet they can drive you crazy at times.
The same is true when you both have different perspectives on the same thing. That doesn't mean one of you is wrong. Practice getting on your partner's side of the table, and understanding their point of view. Doing so will help you both become more tolerant, more mature, and have a stronger marriage for it. [Read: Empathy and Connection]
Relationship Truth #9: Don't get caught in the ‘someone else is better for me’ trap.
It's always easy to compare the weakness of your real partner, against the unrealistic nostalgia of an ex-boyfriend or someone you know casually. These are unrealistic expectations at best, and fantasy at its worst.
This tactic or tendency is usually based on some unconscious need to create distance between you and your partner; to pull back and disconnect. There are many explanations as why we do this, but I have found that, in most circumstances, it has more to do with your own feelings and insecurities, than with your partner’s perceived faults.
At the same time, it’s okay to feel that there might be parts of your partner that make it hard for you to show up, or make it hard to want to be close, but if you get into the ‘comparison game’ you can easily feel like you are a victim. You can be tempted to feel like your life is not fair and if you only had someone different life would be amazing and you would never have to feel ‘negative' feelings again.' [Read: Why Your Marriage is Worth Saving]
Relationship Truth #10: There are some traits in your partner that should not be tolerated; and in these cases it's okay to walk away.
Referring to the myth that you can magically change someone, realize that if someone has an addiction or abusive personality traits–no matter how much love and care and support you give them — they need to deal with those issues on their own. They need to take responsibility. You cannot save them on your own and being in a relationship with an addicted or abusive partner, who isn’t willing to take personal responsibility, will not end well. [Listen: What to Do When Your Partner Has a Problem]
Get help for yourself if you struggle with an addiction, a personality disorder, anxiety or depression. Don't expect your partner to save you, in the process, it is too easy for both of you to drown.
It doesn't mean our partner can't help us heal some of our wounds from the past, but they can't be our therapist. You will find your relationship will be much more satisfying if you do your own work. [Listen: Is it Depression?]
Relationship Truth #11: It really does matter how you say something.
I remember a client, whose marriage was on the brink of divorce, said something in session to his wife that was biting and insensitive. I suggested he try saying the same thing, but in a different tone and manner. I ‘modeled’ an alternative narrative without changing the content. He looked at me with disdain, and in a sarcastic tone said, “Does it really matter if I change a few words?”
The answer is a resounding YES. Marriage and family expert Dr. John Gottman has shown us, through years of research, that our negative communication habits can kill a relationship. Those habits are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. If you use those techniques, work on expressing your feelings and your requests without blame or shame. Learn how to say something to your partner in a way that they can hear it and that can mean changing only a few words sometimes. [Listen: How to Communicate When Your Partner Shuts Down, and Why Your Partner is “Always” Angry]
Here are some last words of advice, from an experienced premarital counselor and marriage therapist to every bright young couple on the cusp of marriage.
I have been married for 14 years and I would be lying if I said they were all blissful. They have been challenging. They have been wonderful. They have been hard and they have been a gift. The thing I did not expect was how much it would make me look at myself—my own weaknesses, my own strengths, my own stubbornness and my own ability to love.
I have learned that all of us are more satisfied when we are being pushed to grow. I encourage all of you premarital couples to jump into this journey of marriage. It is a place to grow. It is a place to choose love… and therefore a place to choose being truly alive.
With love to you on your journey of growth together,
Brenda Fahn, M.A., LMFT