On this episode of the podcast, learn how to break free from a codependent relationship dynamic so that you and your partner can both grow, flourish, and cultivate healthy interdependence.
Strengthen Your Bond
Pre-engagement counseling, who is it for? As an Utah couples therapist and online relationship coach I have couples come to me in all different stages of their relationships. One of the most common types of couples that I work with are couples who are in a serious, long-term relationship but not yet engaged. These couples are typically looking to build a strong foundation or looking for guidance through communication issues, conflict, or big-picture plans.
I love working with pre-engagement couples because there is no better time to build your bond, strengthen your relationship skillset, and find ways to work together! Many couples who come to couples counseling or marriage counseling are typically doing so because they feel like the relationship is already too far gone – however, being proactive (like getting your annual wellness and physical at the doctors) can help establish healthy habits and strong, positive relationships.
Today, I want to share with you some couples therapy insights to pre-engagement counseling and answer your top questions!
Growing Together: Better Communication
It’s completely normal to have some areas in your relationship that aren’t perfect. Having a wonderful partnership is a continual work-in-progress rather than a destination that we “arrive” at one day.
One great working goal to have prior to getting engaged or married is to improve your communication, both in the day to day, as well as during conflict. When thinking about your day to day communication, you might consider asking yourself the following:
Do my partner and I check in with each other on a daily basis?
Do we get at least 15 minutes of conversation every day either face to face or on the phone (not text)?
Do we get daily communication without distractions (phones away, TV off)?
Simply spending more time having undistracted conversations with your partner on a daily basis is a great way to make sure that the communication channels stay open.
Communication is a foundational skill, and if you can establish good communication between you and your partner earlier in your relationship, it will make the difficult times easier to navigate. Think of communication like a rudder and your relationship is the boat. Without the rudder, the boat will have no true sense of direction – the waves and wind will push and pull it in whatever direction they wish. Communication, much like a rudder, can help guide your relationship through the good and the bad times. The stronger your communication, the easier it is to stay the path you’ve prepared together.
Working Together: Growth Through Conflict
Another area that many couples work through in pre-engagement counseling is how to grow closer together through conflict. Much like communication, the ability to work together as a team through conflict is a vital skill to the health and longevity of your relationship.
Improving communication patterns during conflict is one of the most common goals that the couples I see in therapy want help with, and for good reason! Conflict is normal, but learning how to have conflict in a way that feels healthy, safe, and productive is a key part of creating a lasting relationship. Working with a professional relationship therapist or coach can be very helpful in understanding where unhelpful conflict patterns stem from and creating a personalized plan for your relationship, but here are some general tips that can help all couples have better conflict:
- Don’t be afraid to take breaks. If conflict feels overwhelming or you can sense yourself becoming heated, taking a break can be great! Breaks can give you a chance to calm down and collect your bearings so that when you do return to the conflict at hand, you are able to express yourself more clearly and actually hear what your partner is trying to say.
- When you take breaks, don’t get caught up in rumination. As helpful as taking a break can be, it’s only helpful if you take the time to calm yourself down rather than stewing and ruminating. Consider taking a walk or doing some breathing exercises during this time.
- Say how you feel. Often during conflict, we get caught up in saying what we think instead of how we feel. Both are important, but expressing our feelings can help our partner better understand where we are coming from. Try to expand your expression beyond words like “angry” or “frustrated” (examples could include “hurt,” “afraid,” and “unimportant”).
- Consider how you bring things up. The way we start a difficult conversation can have a big impact on the direction things go! One helpful tip for bringing up the hard stuff is to try to use “I” statements and talk about how you feel as opposed to “you” statements that include blaming.
Conflict is normal, but learning how to have conflict in a way that feels healthy, safe, and productive is a key part of creating a lasting relationship.
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Strengthen Your Foundation: Friendship
Another great area of your relationship to focus on is to strengthen the foundation of your relationship: your friendship. When we become comfortable with a partner, it can be easy to get into a routine that no longer involves trying new things, having fun together, and continuing to learn about each other.
I always like to remind my couples clients of the importance of making daily conversations and connection a priority, and taking the time to do something fun or special together every week. This is especially important during quarantine, when, if you live together, you may be together more often than normal. Some COVID-friendly date ideas include:
- Making a new meal or treat together
- Enjoying a candlelight dinner with your favorite takeout
- Buying a new game and learning to play together
- Going on a picnic to a new park
By focusing on your friendship, you build trust and security in one another.
Pre-Engagement Counseling: How Does it Work?
I believe that counseling is a great option for everyone, including couples who feel that their relationship has a strong foundation! In this situation, the purpose of counseling would be to strengthen all of the good things that you and your partner have developed, as well as discover some new areas for growth and discussion.
I believe that there are always ways we can become better communicators, and working with a therapist can help you fine-tune things and figure out what about your communication is working well for you (and areas of communication growth!).
As a premarital and pre-engagement therapist who works with many happy and compatible couples, one of my favorite things to do is have couples take a relationship assessment. The relationship assessment that I use covers a wide range of topics that couples may not realize they are neglecting to talk about.
My happy couples clients have often said that taking the assessment helps them to realize how well-prepared they are for the rest of their lives together while also giving them ideas for a few areas of growth that would be helpful to cover in therapy.
[Want to take an assessment on your own? Try the How Healthy is Your Relationship: Free Relationship Quiz]
Another huge benefit of participating in counseling prior to marriage (even if you do not have concerns about your relationship) is that it makes participating in couples therapy less scary, which can be extremely helpful if your relationship encounters bumps in the road in the future.
Common reasons why couples will often wait to try therapy until an issue feels very pressing include not knowing what to expect from therapy and not knowing how to contact a therapist. By participating in couples therapy at the beginning of your relationship, you know what couples therapy will be like and also have a therapist you can reach out to for help or referrals.
When attending pre-engagement couples counseling, it’s important to work with a counselor that you and your partner are comfortable with, as well as someone who is experienced in working through your desired goals. Your success in couples counseling starts with finding the right fit for your relationship and generally would involve a free couples consultation with a couples counselor or relationship coach of your choice.
In your consultation you can discuss your relationship goals, struggles, and strengths to set up a plan that will work well for you and your partner. Often then, you will take a relationship assessment so that you and your partner can see your areas of strength and areas of growth.
Many couples that are coming to couples therapy for proactive sessions typically meet with a counselor or coach for less than 10 sessions!
Help! Are They “The One?”
If you find yourself asking questions like, “How do I know if my partner is the “one” for me?” Or, “If we have areas where we don’t see eye to eye or struggle to understand one another, does that mean it’s doomed?” You may be feeling a sense of anxiety around your future together. Even if you know that you love your partner and want a future together, but still find yourself worried – you are completely normal.
Even when partners are highly compatible, it’s perfectly normal to have some areas of disagreement! In fact, being aware of the areas where there is room for growth or improvement shows that you are not shying away from talking about the hard things. This is a situation where it would be great to work with a professional relationship therapist or coach.
Here are some things to consider and that a therapist can help you work through if you find yourself in this situation:
- What are the things that you disagree on? Are they things that are possible to accept or compromise on, or are they deal breakers for either partner? The areas that partners may be willing to accept and compromise on or not vary from couple to couple, and may even be different between partners. Some common areas of concern for couples include political views, religion/spirituality, and wanting to have children.
- What have you already tried to resolve your differences? To what extent have those attempts been helpful or unhelpful? In my experience, when couples have differences, learning new communication skills can often help them to understand each other's perspectives and come to a place of acceptance or compromise. Because we all come into relationships with our own personal histories and communication patterns, we often don’t recognize the ways that our communication styles may be ineffective. Working with a therapist can help you gain new insights and skills around your communication and facilitate meaningful conversations to help you and your partner work through your differences.
In my experience as a therapist, when it comes to making it work with someone we love but are having a hard time getting on the same page with, the qualities that make it most likely that couples will be able to enjoy a healthy, long-lasting relationship include:
- Level of commitment to the relationship
- Willingness to compromise and change
- Respect for your partner’s opinions and beliefs
- Willingness to apologize
- Having a growth mindset.
When partners have these qualities, I have seen that, with some work and professional guidance, they are able to create happy partnerships.
Dating and Personal Growth: Being the Best Version of Yourself
As you think about what you want in a partner, think about the people you have gotten to know. What qualities do you like in others? What do you dislike? What would it be like to be life partners with each of these people? Some of these questions can give you hints about the qualities that you may prefer in a partner.
Here are some other questions that are important to reflect on when considering what it would be like to be partners with someone:
- What are their core values and goals for their lives? Are these compatible with your core values and goals?
- How do they treat you and others around them (including friends, family members, coworkers, and service providers)?
- What do they do when they’re upset or angry? Do they feel comfortable discussing emotions?
- How much time do they like to spend with friends and family? How much time do they like to spend with you? How much time do they like to spend alone? Are these compatible with how you like to spend your time?
- Do you like being around them?
As you prepare to be a great partner, you can ask yourself many of these same questions. A large part of being a great partner is knowing yourself and being able to express your emotions, values, beliefs, and preferences clearly to others.
If you have friendly and safe relationships with people you used to be in relationships with, it may be a good idea to ask them for their perspective. What were their favorite parts about being in a relationship with you? What things were hard? You may also consider reading evidence-based relationship books, such as “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” by Dr. John Gottman.
Regardless of whether you feel 100% compatible with your partner, have a few concerns, or simply want to work on yourself in preparation for a future relationship, consulting with a professional relationship therapist or coach is always a great idea to help you resolve concerns, gain skills, and create a strong foundation for a lifetime of meaningful love and connection.
With compassionate understanding and unique insights, Kensington Osmond M.S., LAMFT, MFTC, helps you improve the most meaningful parts of your life, from your emotional well-being to your relationships.
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