How Premarital Counseling Works

How Premarital Counseling Works

Use Premarital Counseling Strategies to Strengthen Your Relationship

Premarital counseling is so important for couples getting married. It’s a positive, empowering experience that helps you get clarity about the strengths of your relationship and work through potential problems before they become serious relationship issues. Most importantly, going through meaningful, high-quality premarital counseling with a marriage and family therapist teaches you how to keep your relationship strong through thick and thin. While intentionally and proactively cultivating positive aspects of your partnership, instead of trying to fix relationship problems once things are feeling hard. 

But did you know that — no matter how long you’ve been with your partner, or whether you’re even getting married — you can still use the principles of great premarital counseling to strengthen your relationship? Couples married for decades can still use empowering, proactive, and productive strategies to make healthy, positive changes to their partnership… and you can too.

On today’s episode of the podcast, I’m speaking with my dear colleague Brenda Fahn. Brenda is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and she teaches our Lifetime of Love Premarital Program. She has provided private premarital counseling services to countless couples over the years, and today she’s here to share some premarital counseling strategies that you can start using in your relationship right now.

If you want to jump right in, tap here to listen to:

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast while you’re there! 

You can also follow me (@drlisamariebobby) and Growing Self (@growing_self) on Instagram too, if you’d like to stay on top of all the latest pro-relationship info we have planned for you over the next few months. 

Lastly, you can listen to this episode on the player at the bottom of this page, or if you prefer a transcript of the episode we have that for you too (all the way at the bottom). 

I had a blast talking to Brenda (she’s as fun as she is smart) and I think you’ll get so much out of this interview. If you have additional premarital counseling questions you are welcome to leave them here for me/us in the comments section and I’ll respond to you ASAP.

Show notes are below — enjoy!

Xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

How Premarital Counseling Works: Podcast Episode Show Notes

Do you want to learn the secret to a long-lasting and happy married life? Then, tune in to this episode to discover some valuable insights into how premarital counseling works, and how you can start using expert premarital counseling strategies in your relationship — no matter how long you’ve been together!

In This Episode with Brenda, You Will…

  • Discover the benefits of premarital counseling.
  • Learn how premarital counseling can prepare you for married life.
  • Identify the common problems in married life and how to face them.
  • Find out why conflicts matter.
  • Know how to become more proactive and authentic in your relationship.
  • Understand the importance of honesty when answering premarital counseling questions.
  • Discover how long-term married couples can strengthen their connection.

Episode Highlights

The Problem With Most Premarital Counseling

Often, couples exploring premarital counseling don't fully understand the value of premarital counseling for the success of their relationship. On top of that, they're not seeking premarital counseling through a professionally trained couples and family therapist (to no fault of their own, they just don't know). Typically, when couples begin seeking out premarital counseling, they're turning to a religious or Christian premarital counseling service that usually consists of a couple of awkward conversations with a priest or pastor. It's not meaningful and doesn't teach them the important healthy relationship skills they get in real-deal premarital counseling.

These couples think they’ve done “premarital counseling” but they haven’t, really. It’s not authentic, or meaningful. They wind up getting superficial guidance, trite advice, and general instructions. Basically, an informational pamphlet on “How to be married” (which is not that helpful, let’s face it). Understanding the difference between religious vs. secular premarital counseling can prevent this problem.

The other problem with most premarital counseling is that many couples really do not understand the importance of good premarital counseling. They think that premarital counseling is simply a checkbox to tick off, like renting the tux, or ordering the cake. And when couples don’t address the questions they need to ask before marriage, they’re ill-prepared to weather the storms that come.

The Importance of Premarital Counseling

Premarital counseling helps couples envision and think about what life will be like when they are married. It also allows them to be more mindful and conscious of how they will make their relationship work. When done right, it’s a great marriage preparation course. Other benefits include:

  • preparing couples for the challenges of married life 
  • helping them differentiate normal experiences from problems to deal with
  • minimizing the risk of disconnection, separation, and divorce
  • normalizing counseling

Moreover, it helps couples catch a problem sooner before it becomes too late to fix. And because it happens when they are in a positive mood, therapy is more successful. As a result, premarital counseling can strengthen the foundations of their marriage. Effective, evidence-based, non-religious counseling can create positive changes in a relationship. 

These ideas can help all couples: As couples evolve throughout major life transitions, there are new and important things to discuss productively. We all grow and change as we move into different stages of life. If you’ve been married for a long time, it’s also worth knowing how to discuss the challenges that you face now — as well as the ones that might be coming down the pipeline. 

How are you staying connected now? How are you solving problems together now? Are the strategies and systems that worked for you at an earlier stage of your relationship still working now? 

These are positive, proactive conversations to have with each other throughout the course of your marriage — not just at the beginning. 

The Myth and Truth About Being in a Relationship

People sometimes believe that getting into a relationship is an endgame. So, they stop working on it. They don’t account for the changes that happen, especially when they get engaged. They fail to realize that they have to expand themselves to adapt to their partners. They also have to work on themselves so that they show up better in the relationship. 

Also, it’s actually at the beginning of the relationship that couples benefit from counseling. This is because they are still happy and positive. Counselors can help them figure out what makes them feel that way. From here, they learn what they can continuously do to keep their relationship working. 

According to Brenda, this helps because “our brains are really good at remembering negative things. They’re not always great at remembering positive things unless you’re conscious about it.”

Premarital counseling helps couples get very clear about their strengths and all the things they love and appreciate about each other. It also helps them create strategies to help each other feel loved, respected, and emotionally connected. 

Focusing on these things can be an incredibly powerful way to strengthen your relationship no matter how long you’ve been together.

6 Common Premarital Counseling Topics 

There are six plus premarital counseling topics that couples work through during premarital counseling. These include things like:

  1. Communication
  2. Conflict resolution
  3. Marriage and money
  4. Sexual intimacy
  5. Creating agreements
  6. Maintaining emotional intimacy, and more

Often, it’s only during premarital counseling that couples have deep, productive conversations about how they’re feeling in these different aspects of their relationship and what they could each do to make their partnership feel even stronger and more satisfying. 

“Communication is the key to life, regardless of what subject that is,” – Brenda 

The key is that, in premarital counseling, couples are talking about these things before they become issues. Although marriage counseling and couples therapy can be extremely effective in helping couples resolve issues…couples are there to talk about the things that aren't working for them, and that are causing pain. 

Premarital counseling is, in contrast, all about discussing important things that we need to be talking about openly but that aren’t necessarily problems or issues. This is a great takeaway for all couples — premarital or not. Figure out a way to talk about important things without it being in the context of a conflict, or argument. 

Why Constructive Conflicts Matter

Sometimes, couples are afraid to speak up when things are not okay because they are avoiding conflict. But Brenda shares that “If you don’t have conflict, I think you might have a bad relationship because you’re not letting yourself be seen.” She also discusses that not only is it okay to have conflict, but it is normal.

The important thing is to learn how to bounce back when these things happen. You have to know how to become happier partners in your relationship despite the conflict. You must also learn how to express that you still love and care for each other.

Remember that conflict is simply an opportunity for couples to have a deeper and more authentic understanding of one another.

Why Are Some People Afraid of Going to Premarital Counseling?

While premarital counseling is good for marriage, not everyone does it happily. Some couples even dutifully attend a couple of premarital counseling sessions to check the box, but avoid talking about meaningful things with their premarital counselor. It is because these people fear that when they discuss these future problems, they are “rocking the boat” and creating problems where none exist.

As Brenda puts it, “Couples who talk about sex have better sex lives. Couples who talk about their finances are more successful. And couples who talk about their conflict learn how to get through it.”

It’s easy for couples to avoid talking about important things proactively. Premarital counseling teaches couples how to be brave and talk about their real feelings from the start. All couples can learn from this wisdom though: What have you been avoiding discussing in your relationship, and how can you be brave and authentic in order to have necessary conversations with your partner in a positive and productive way? 

What Pre-Marriage Counselors Want for Soon-to-be-Married Couples

Pre-marriage counselors help soon-to-wed couples prepare themselves for their future. The counselors want them to learn that conflict is not about playing the blame game. Instead, it is about how you can compromise to stay connected with your partner. This is just one of the many pieces of advice premarital counselors give to soon-to-be-married couples. 

Ultimately, premarital counselors want couples to learn how to enrich themselves. It begins with acknowledging that you and your partner are both growing and evolving humans with feelings and quirks that are unique. How do you love, respect, and appreciate each other for who you truly are? Pre-marriage counseling is also only the beginning of this conversation. Talking about each of your feelings, values, goals, hopes, and dreams should be something happening throughout your relationship — especially as you both continue to grow and evolve. 

Advice for Married Couples

Brenda believes that the concepts learned in premarital counseling still apply to married couples. She also adds that it is crucial to have an openness to learning when it comes to relationships. You also have to constantly be intentional in improving or maintaining your connection.

Long-term married couples can still attend premarital counseling courses. In doing so, they learn how to make their relationships work better. Healthy and happy couples are ones that are proactive. They put the effort into educating themselves and growing together. 

Brenda also adds that most of the time, when people say their relationship is getting boring, that’s not truly the case. What is happening is you are not allowing yourself to grow. And you have to do that and bring it to the relationship to make it better.

Premarital Counseling Resources

The info shared in this podcast is just the beginning. If you’re interested in learning more about premarital counseling here are a few links to learn more about:

Enjoy the Podcast?

Did you enjoy the podcast? Do you think you need to try pre-marriage counseling with your partner? How will neglecting counseling affect married life? Share your insights and questions — we want to hear from you!

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How Premarital Counseling Works

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: “I Do” by Derek Gust

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.

[Intro Song: I Do by Derek Gust]

Dr. Lisa: That was “I Do” by the artist, Derek Gust, I thought a great introduction to our topic today. Today, we are talking about premarital counseling, pre-marriage counseling. Not just what it is, not just why, but I really want to empower you in understanding the purpose of premarital counseling and how you can use some of the principles of great premarital counseling to strengthen your relationship. No matter if you are about to be married or if you have been in a relationship or even a marriage for many years, you can still use these ideas to strengthen and heal and grow your relationship. That is what we are talking about on today's episode of the podcast. 

The Problem With Most Premarital Counseling 

Just to jump right in, pretty much everybody has gotten the memo, at this point, that premarital counseling is generally a good idea. It's something that people do typically, though, as part of the wedding planning process. Usually, when people do premarital counseling, it is, unfortunately, of the variety where it's two or three very awkward conversations with a priest or pastor who's going to marry you. Then people think, “Great. We have checked that box. We have gotten premarital counseling. We are good to go.” 

They haven't done real, effective, meaningful premarital counseling, to their detriment. That, in itself, is part of the reason why I am making this podcast today, my friends, is to help you understand that this is not a box-checking endeavor. This is actually really important. It would be a mistake to devalue real, authentic, and deep premarital counseling because of the impact it can have not just on your relationship but on the entire trajectory of your marriage and on your future together. 

When you do that superficial type of premarital counseling with a pastor, you get a worksheet. You get some general instructions: say please and thank you, have date nights, prioritize your relationship, all that trade advice. But they don't really get into the nuts and bolts of the actual, not even tools and strategies, but mindsets that you need in order to have a really amazing marriage. They don't go into helping you understand each other or why you do the things that you do. They certainly don't help you anticipate the drift that occurs in every relationship over time so that you can see it coming and make proactive changes to keep it from impacting your marriage negatively. 

Because people don't get that, you then, have these nice young couples or—who are we kidding, marriages these days, it's a couple of 38-year-olds—glide off into marriage, thinking that they've done premarital counseling, they're good to go. Then, life starts to happen. There are the curveballs, and the transitions, and the lost jobs, and moving from one state to another, or welcoming kids, or if you are coming into the marriage with children already, that's a whole other set of challenges. 

Every couple, even the cutest, happiest, healthiest, most in-love ones, over time, will have to figure out how to talk about very challenging things that are emotionally triggering to both people. There is always going to be unavoidable conflict. I say conflict somewhat loosely because I think of conflict as not an argument, necessarily, but people being in different positions, and having to talk through their thoughts and feelings, and get back on the same page, and resolve problems together, and problems that you may have different opinions about in terms of the solutions. 

That is simply the work of being in a relationship. Then, on top of that: how to stay emotionally connected, how to be good partners to each other, how to understand and unconditionally love and respect your partner even when they think, and feel, and behave differently than you would. This is the growth process. This is just normal and expected. When you go into really, truly meaningful and effective evidence-based premarital counseling, you get a lot of that information that you don't get when it's this superficial experience that so many couples get. 

Today, in this episode of the podcast, what we are doing is diving into the kinds of ideas, the kinds of growth moments, the kinds of information that you get in actual premarital counseling. I have invited my colleague Brenda, who teaches our Lifetime of Love premarital counseling class. She does a ton of individual private premarital counseling. She's a Prepare-Enrich-certified Premarital Counselor. Brenda knows what is going on. She's here today to share her wisdom with you. Brenda, thank you so much for joining me today.

Brenda Fahn: Thank you, Lisa. I love talking about premarital counseling. I tell my premarital couples, they're my favorite because they're coming to be proactive, usually. They're coming to learn. They’re coming to make sure that they have better knowledge. It also shows that they really care that they're saying their relationships are important. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I always appreciate my premarital clients.

Dr. Lisa: I know. Me, too. I'm so glad for that. One of the things that always comes into my mind when we talk about premarital counseling, or I feel like, at our practice here at Growing Self, we do a lot to try to educate people around the importance of premarital counseling. I think it's because both of us have had so many years of experience working with couples who've been married, 5 years, or 10 years, or even longer, and who come in when their relationships are absolutely on the brink. 

They have had years and years of not doing the things that we teach in premarital counseling. I don't know if you've had this experience, but I have personally sat with some couples that are pretty far gone and thought, “Oh, my gosh. If you guys had understood some of these things in the beginning and not had all of these damaging experiences with each other over the years, we would not even be sitting here right now.”

The Importance of Premarital Counseling

Brenda: No, exactly. And I think that's one of the most important gifts premarital counseling does is it normalizes and de-stigmatizes going to counseling for a lot, especially for certain couples who might be more hesitant to come and say, “Here's what it was like when we didn't have a lot of problems, but it actually was pretty good. We got a lot out of it. We got some knowledge. We got some understanding of our relationship. We got to know what's more normal, what to expect.” 

When I have couples even come back, some of those premarital couples will come back for one or two sessions just to say, “Hey, we're stuck in this piece.” I think the premarital counseling really helped them be comfortable with that process and to realize it's okay. It's okay to catch it sooner because like you said, sometimes it's just too late. Dr. Gottman will say, “Catch the problem within a year.” But most couples wait up to six years before they address issues. Think of what's happened in those six years of disconnection or conflict that's been unresolved versus if you catch it within six months. There's a much better prognosis, like anything in life, if you catch it sooner.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. You bring up such a great point there. Also, I love what you're saying that in premarital counseling, it's a unique experience where couples will come into sessions with me, or you, or your class when they are in a good place. Because what we also know from research is that it is actually when your relationship is feeling fairly good, you both have positive regard for each other, things are going pretty well, that is actually the time when you can make positive changes in a relationship, where you can grow together or understand each other more deeply in a really powerful and effective way. That is the time to come and work on yourselves together. 

Whereas, in brink-of-divorce type of relationships, it is not emotionally safe. People are so defensive and mad at each other. That is not conducive to growth at all. It's a whole paradigm shift to come in while you still like each other. And Brenda what you’re saying is that you bring up a good point, too, is that when you have done premarital counseling and if it's a positive experience that felt good for both of you, it becomes that much easier to say, “Yeah, let's go see Brenda again for a couple of sessions,” at the first sign of trouble, so it doesn't even become a capital P problem. That is one of the primary benefits.

Brenda: I'm sure you know this, too. The more stress or the less safe a relationship feels, the harder it is to have empathy, the harder it is to hear actually, even physically. For some people, it's just hard to hear when they're really defensive. You're working against so many variables if you're already in a high-stress situation where you're feeling like the other person doesn't really have your back, maybe doesn't care versus premarital couples are coming in saying, “We really care about each other. We want to make sure.” A lot of them have come from divorced families, too, that will say, “We don't want to repeat. We didn't see great relationships. We saw how people did things poorly.” 

They're putting this as a priority because I think that adage gets used a lot of “Relationships are work.” It's the work of consciousness and mindfulness. There's a saying that even if you don't do anything wrong in a relationship if you don't do anything right, it will still die. But you have to be doing a lot of positive actions to keep the feelings going. It doesn't mean that the feelings have to go away. They can wax and wane, obviously, but to say, you don't let your emotions just take over like they did at the beginning of a relationship. You're saying, “What do I need to do? What actions do I need to keep taking to keep these emotions in a positive element in my relationship?”

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Oh, my goodness. You brought up such a great point because that was honestly one of my first questions for you: why is this so important? What do people not understand about premarital counseling? And why do it for real? So far, you've mentioned that just the act of doing, deeper work premarital counseling will make it so much easier to nip potential problems in the bud going down the road. 

Also, when you learn, specifically, what to do to stay in a good place with each other over the years, that is worth so much like exercising, and taking your vitamins, and eating your vegetables. In relationships, it's not waiting until you get sick. It's what you're doing all along. So many couples, when they're getting married, they are just awash in all kinds of love and positive things. They think, “This is just the way it feels because we love each other. It'll always feel this way.” 

They're not doing the relational equivalent of eating their vegetables or getting a good night's sleep. They're just coasting along on good feelings. When those feelings start to change because they will always, they don't have any tools to start to re-inject positive interactions and energy back in. Is that it?

The Myth and Truth About Being in a Relationship

Brenda: Yeah, definitely. I think part of it is to say maybe there's a myth of like, “Once I get into a relationship, I can relax.” So many people are so hard, like, “Let me get into a relationship.” But I tell all my couples, “That's when you get to expand.” This relationship will hopefully expand you, sometimes, in really uncomfortable ways. This is hoping to grow, what it means to learn how to love better, to learn how to be loved, to learn how to be the better version of yourself, and to give that to your partner. 

So if that was easy work, it wouldn’t actually be that rewarding. The thought that “This should be easy,” is actually a paradox of saying, “No,  because it's harder, it actually gives it a lot more value.” This is challenging you to step up in life, not to just relax and say, “I can do whatever I want now.”

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, definitely. In premarital counseling, for you, Brenda, to be delivering that message to people, while they're still really motivated by feelings of love and affection that they want to do everything that they can to have a great relationship between that and some of our couples that feel like they've been through a war, by the time they get into marriage counseling, they don't want to do the things. They don't feel like being generous to their partner, who has been so mean and unkind to them. It's so essential to be learning about this in the beginning.

Brenda: Yeah, no. Exactly. Because we both do emotion-focused therapy to say that people get into these dances like anything, and they become polarized in a dance of negativity. It's hard to start to convince someone to come back. When someone comes in already positive, they're saying, “How do we build this?” You probably have couples come in, sometimes, they go, “We don't have much to talk about this week. It's actually going well.” 

I'll say that's great because I love those weeks where you feel like things are going well because now we can look at what are you doing that's making this feel good. Our brains are really good at remembering negative things. They're not always great at remembering positive things unless you're conscious about it. Even a couple saying, “There's not much to talk about,” there's probably lots to talk about, but it's the good stuff. It's saying, “What are you both doing every day for yourself and for this relationship that's helping to be in this place?”

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, definitely. That, too, they don't know yet what they should be talking about because it doesn't currently feel problematic. That's what I love so much about your approach, both in the Lifetime of Love class and with your individual premarital counseling. I know it's different in the class because you just walk through a number of topics. But with our Private Premarital Counseling, you always do an assessment, either it's our free in-house premarital counseling assessment or I know that since you're preparing for the fight, you do that assessment a lot of the times. Because it's like an X-ray. It can help couples be like, “Oh, yeah. We haven't actually talked about this.” 

And I'm curious. What are some of the things you see come out, either from that assessment or from the information that you present to couples in your premarital class that you find, isn't shocking, necessarily, but it is new information that premarital couples being like, “Oh, yeah. We haven't thought about that, or we haven't talked about this part, and we should.” Have you noticed any patterns around what seems to be most important and under-discussed, unless you create those?

Common Premarital Counseling Topics

Brenda: Yeah. That's a good question. I think that the major theme that comes out of married couples or premarital couples is communication. We feel like we don't communicate great. Communication and conflict resolution, which go hand-in-hand, usually come out the most if we don't know how to do this differently. I think what comes out, it's not like I wouldn't say it's one topic, because there are some couples who need to work on finances. There might be some couples who need to work on their sex life. I don't feel like there's one theme that I'm like, “Oh, we need to talk about this.” 

I think every couple comes in usually knowing that they have one or two things that they've either been avoiding, maybe mind-reading, or making assumptions, and maybe scared to talk about. It's trying to bring those things up in a gentle way that you… Communication is the key to life, regardless of what subject that is. Where do you guys get off track around communication about any topic? 

I think a lot of education goes with that, too. Seventy percent of conflict doesn't go away, according to Dr. Gottman. It's differences of personality, habits, opinions, lifestyle. How do we learn to live with this? How do we get away from trying to change pr control? What do I need to do to adapt, and accept, and understand who you are better and where you're coming from? I think if couples are on finances, we go deeper to say, “Where does this come from? What's the meaning of money? What are your habits you've had? What did you see, as a child around money? What are you still holding on to that, maybe, is giving them a way of you guys having a better communication about this?” That could be finances, sex, habits. 

Sometimes, couples have a really hard time saying, “You know, what? I really don't like that you”—I'm trying to think of a good one—“don't exercise more. I feel like you're not healthy. And that makes you unhappy. I'm worried about you, but I don't know how to say that in a way without making you feel bad.” Almost every topic comes back to how are we communicating with each other. Couples are going to two camps, a lot of times, either we're avoiding it and hoping that's going to go away, or we're saying it in a way that's pretty critical and attacking. We don't know how to come together, and show up, and be vulnerable in these issues, and really hear and see each other.

Dr. Lisa: Oh, my goodness. It’s so important just to develop those skills about how to talk about these issues that feel hard. Because if you have that, you can resolve any issues. I appreciate what you said that a lot of times there isn't a final solution. But resolve it in the sense of understanding each other and developing appreciation for each other, not even just despite the differences, but because of them towards acceptance and growth and unconditional love.

Why Conflicts Matter

Brenda: If we feel like they care, and I think the one thing that I like the most to tell couples is to say, “You may miss each other. You're going to miss each other in relationships. You're going to disappoint each other. You're going to hurt each other. How do you come back? You fall. How do you get back up?” That's a really important concept for what makes happier couples. But it goes away from what some people think. 

I have a lot of couples who will say, “If we have conflict that must mean we have a bad relationship.” That's not the case. Actually, if you don't have conflict, I think you might have a bad relationship because you're not letting yourself be seen. You're not letting yourself show up as much. You're not letting yourself have your partner look into the nooks and crannies of what makes you, you. 

If you're doing that, then you're going to have conflict, but that's okay. It's giving couples a lot of the times permission to have it, tried to have it in a healthy way, and to say, “Even when you miss each other, how are you coming back? How are you making those small movements to say, ‘We're still on the same team? We're still in this together. I still love you and care about you.’”

Dr. Lisa: Brenda, we need to think up a different word for conflict. As you're talking, I always and I try to teach couples this, but we need a new word. Because when I think “conflict,” and you do, too, clearly, you just said it, but here's an opportunity to understand each other more deeply and authentically. Whenever people are being authentic, they're going to find that they're not exactly the same as others. This opportunity for understanding, I'm gonna put that in the hopper, Brenda. We need to get a new word. 

Brenda: We’ll be like Shakespeare, come up with a new language around it. 

Dr. Lisa: That’s right. That is really a key core skill that you're always going to, in premarital work, is how to talk about things, how to be authentic and vulnerable, but also just setting expectations around the goals for communication. Through that, you cover a ton of topics. There's sex, which can be very difficult to talk about. Also, we do a lot of financial therapy for couples here in our practice, in general, but especially for premarital couples at the beginning of their relationship to get finances straightened out. I think that there are different mindsets for people who do reach out to us for premarital counseling. I think that people who come to us for premarital counseling are wanting a deeper experience. 

I speculate sometimes that the reason why people shy away from the type of growth opportunity, that say, working with you would offer, is that they have this even subconscious fear that “if we start talking about some of these things, we're going to realize that our differences are too great, or that we're not compatible somehow, or we're going to discover things about each other. I love this person so much. I would be crushed if our marriage got derailed. I would almost rather leave the lid on it. We'll just deal with that after we are securely married because it's almost like this threatening feeling.” 

Have you heard that expressed at all in couples counseling? Or the people who come to see you they're like, “We want to bring it on.”

Why Are Some People Afraid of Going to Premarital Counseling?

Brenda: There's probably been some of both. I think there's sometimes… I definitely noticed some couples who are really hesitant to admit to any issues going on. Because if Prepare-Enrich testers gauge that, they’ll say if you're trying to make yourself look too good, we're also going to catch that. We can see it's hard for you to admit things like, “I will always be happy with my partner.” If someone says, “Yes, I'm 100% of the time happy,” then we talk about that. What's going on that you think you might not ever doubt this relationship or that you might not ever wonder if you married the wrong person? 

I really want to normalize that those are the moments, usually, that we want to run. You could say there's a different language that we use in psychology around that. But to say when things are tough, sometimes, we want to run, but you would run to another relationship where you’re going to feel the exact same way, most of the time. So, I want to normalize those feelings that it's okay to be afraid. All of us are afraid to look inside, but what's the cost of not looking inside? 

Our brains are not good at avoidance. We think they are, but they're really not. There's a lot of energy and, sometimes, shame and power that goes into trying to avoid these things. That's why research would say couples who talk about sex have better sex lives. Couples who talk about their finances are more successful. Couples who talk about their conflict learn how to get through it. I think it's trying to just give people permission to say, “No. There's light when you bring it out. There's darkness, actually, when you're trying to keep it at bay.”

Dr. Lisa: The way that you framed that, Brenda, was so profound because I think I even understood something differently about premarital couples feeling hesitant to do premarital counseling because of what the possible consequences could be. You're saying that that in itself is an indication of an avoidant tendency when it comes to addressing relational issues. That in itself is a really strong indicator that you should because it's like retraining you to move towards authenticity and manage that anxiety of talking about things openly as opposed to indulging that avoidance reaction that we know will always, ultimately, cause harm in the end, even if in the moment it feels protective.

What Marriage Counselors Want for Soon-to-be-Married Couples

Brenda: I think there are, obviously, we see couples after years where they want to blame the other person to say, “He's the bad guy.” “She's the bad guy.” We want to help couples not get there to say we're not playing a blame game. We want you guys to see that you interact with each other, sometimes, in ways that trigger each other. We should come up with another word besides trigger because I use that word too much. But we want you to both see how you play your own role and that there's no bad guy or good guy. This is both of us struggling. We're all really imperfect people. We're trying to find a way to still stay connected. 

That disconnection equals loneliness for a lot of people. That's the most painful thing in relationships. So, how can we stay connected even in the moments where we see parts of ourselves we don't love, parts of our partner we don't love? How do we get back to our better selves versus trying to pretend they're not there or stay away from them? It really does give them more power if you try to avoid. Using mind-reading and making assumptions is really dangerous for couples. 

That's why I tell couples all the time in the class, “This is just the beginning of your conversation. I want you to continue these conversations. I want to make it less scary so that you guys know you can go here. It doesn't overwhelm anyone. It doesn't scare anybody. You can get through this.”

Dr. Lisa: Oh, my goodness. That in itself, Brenda, you're modeling exactly the type of emotional safety that we hope that couples can create, really. I just love what you said that the goal here isn't some imaginary, perfect ideal that is impossible to attain. The goal here is acceptance of who we each really are and how to stay connected and loving in the midst of that. That's so important.

Brenda: I will say most premarital couples come away feeling grateful that they have the opportunity to talk about things that would have been hard on their own that we did facilitate. Most couples who come in for premarital counseling don't have 10 issues they need to deal with. They have one or two that they're stuck on. They just don't know how to get through those. So they come in with pretty solid relationships, but they have a few issues that they just haven't known how to navigate. Again, I think going to the scary places makes it less scary. That's my hope, is that then when they go there, they can do it again in the future with or without a therapist.

Understanding Premarital Counseling Questions

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, definitely. Then, another question for you on that note, and I know we've talked about this a little bit, but assessments can be a very important part of the premarital counseling process. Again, we have our free 200-question premarital assessment that we can give to clients. I know that people on the team like you who are Prepare-Enrich-certified, there's a whole other assessment process that you do that is also really valuable. 

Why would you say it's so important for couples to be open to doing this assessment, as opposed to just popping in and telling you about the two things that they want to work on? Why would you do that assessment with a premarital couple, anyway? What information do you think it can generate that they may not be consciously aware of?

Brenda: One is it covers topics, sometimes, topics they haven't even thought about. I hear that quite a bit. We're not even sure what we're supposed to be talking about, or maybe what we're missing. The Prepare goes over about 12 different topics. Some of them are just topics that couples haven't thought about in that they haven't framed it in that way—everything from talking about sex to finances, to roles, to responsibilities, to partner’s style and habits, to leisure activities, to how are their family and friends influencing their relationship, the communication, and conflict. It's a structured way to look at their relationship and to also see their strengths. 

I want to go over their strengths to say, “Hey, these are the areas you guys are getting along really well.” Now, there's sometimes still one or two questions where you say, “Hey, let's talk through that and see how you both are feeling about this one piece of communication,” let’s say. But I think it just brings up, in a structured way, topics that they maybe haven't thought about, but they've been issues that maybe have been bothering them, but they might not bring them up organically. This helps give them, one, some template to look at. And two, it helps them, then, identify things that, maybe, were bothering them that they hadn't articulated or put into language yet.

Dr. Lisa: That's such a good point right there because especially with premarital couples, many times, they're getting along well. There's not Problems with a capital P. Even if there are little annoyances, or they haven't quite elevated to the point where there has to be the talk about the problem. And so they’re like, “Ah. It's not that big of a deal.” But you're saying that the assessment will provide a safe, structured way for them to talk about those things that maybe haven't reached that level of importance yet. But it’s still so important to discuss so that they don't turn into a big, hurtful problem. 

Brenda: Some of the questions are even like, “I can see this becoming a problem versus it is a problem.” But anticipating events around the preparative parenting expectations and marriage expectations. So it's saying, “I think this might happen. I’m afraid this might happen.” 

We're also talking about future fortune-telling of where they see the future going that it's not there yet, but there is some fear or hesitation. It is a feeling of like, “Well, should I bring it up now? Or do I bring it up after it's happened?” “Your mom said something that was so offensive. I couldn't handle it.” Or instead, we’re saying, “Hey, what do we do if that situation comes up? How can I support you in those moments?” Again, it's proactive. I can't think of a better word just to try to anticipate or sometimes avoid certain situations.

Second Marriages and Premarital Counseling

Dr. Lisa: Proactive is the perfect word. You're getting out in front of it before… Well, that's super helpful. Then, another question that I had for you. I think that there can also be a thing with premarital couples who are that kind of stereotypical: they're young-ish, or it's their first marriage for both of them. Those are often the couples who are doing all the things. They are the wedding planners, and the color-coordinated flowers and bridesmaid dresses and doing the premarital counseling, and everything. 

Then, there's this other thing that happens, I think of it as your first baby. When you're pregnant, you have the shower, and you have the photo shoot with your belly bump. Then, by the time you have your second or third kid, you might have a friend drop off a trash bag of old clothes on your front porch, that kind of thing. 

Brenda: You’ve done this.

Dr. Lisa: Right? It’s like, why? I think that there can, sometimes, be that difference in energy with somebody who’s getting remarried after having been to that rodeo once before. I'm wondering if you have seen any differences, or differences in importance, even, with couples who may be getting married for the second time and thinking, “Eh. Why should we even do premarital counseling,” or having different needs in a premarital counseling environment? What would you say to them if that were the circumstance?

Brenda: Their case? The couples who end up coming are usually the ones who just say, “We want to do it differently.” Because, one hypothesis, there might be more of why our divorce rate’s higher in second marriages and third marriages. There's one hypothesis that said you didn't learn what to do differently. You just jumped into another relationship without becoming, sometimes, more educated or self-aware. If you want to lower your rate of divorce, I'd say the need to have more self-awareness is really important, especially because it's usually more complicated. You, a lot of times, are dealing with an ex or exes and dealing with children involved. So there's more stress. The honeymoon period doesn't last, always as long or very long at all. 

The couples who come in to me are just saying, “We want to make sure that what we learned from this last relationship, we're going to do it differently, and how to navigate those relationships.” If you think of someone who's coming in and adopting, maybe, really hard ex with their partner, “Okay, how do we deal with this? How do we be on the same team because that can create a lot of conflict and division? How do we parent each other's kids?” 

The Prepare-Enrich test does do step-parenting expectations, what role might the ex play in the relationship that could be an issue. Then, we're, again, talking about that and bringing it to the light to manage thoughts, feelings, hopes, and expectations to hopefully have a better chance of fighting together and being on the same team.

Dr. Lisa: That's so important because that is so hard, just the circumstances and dynamics. We also do a fair amount of blended family therapy here. But again, it's that importance of premarital counseling, to be talking about these things proactively before it becomes a yucky-feeling issue, not just in your relationship, but potentially, having kids who've decided that they hate your new husband or whatever. Let's not do that because that's just so hard to unwind. 

Brenda: Talking through, I think, for a lot of times, that still comes up in certain areas—finances, sex, conflict—to say, “Hey, I'm really scared to trust you with money because my last spouse ran up our credit card bill to $30,000.” You're bringing in, sometimes, some of those fears to talk through it to say, “Okay, what do you need from my support? I know that there are moments you're not reacting to me. You might be reacting to an ex. And how can we not create some disconnection for us?” And to own that and to see that for what it is versus pretending it's not there.

Dr. Lisa: Absolutely. The awareness about your old trauma triggers from past relationships. We’ll encourage my listeners if you haven't already, and if you just had a moment of recognition from what Brenda said, did a podcast not too long ago about trust issues in relationships. You might want to check that one out because I think that what Brenda is saying is that's a really common experience. If you've had a traumatic relationship, there's no other way to say it. How do you go from having those reactions and projecting those things onto your new partner? I'm glad you brought that up. 

I know we don't have a ton of time here, and I'll let you go. But before we do, I wanted to ask you one last question, which is, unfortunately, and I wish it were different, I'm still trying to figure out how to help change this zeitgeist, but in the kinds of conversations and the work that we do and that we're talking about right now, Brenda, is around premarital couples to be proactive, talking about important things before they become a problem. 

Is there any thoughts that you have for somebody listening to this podcast, who's 10 years into a marriage, nobody is doing premarital anything, that boat has sailed, but to still be able to use some of these ideas or concepts in order to be able to strengthen and support their existing marriage? If you were to apply the power of premarital work during the marriage, do you have any thoughts?

Advice for Married Couples

Brenda: I think, to be honest, the application and the understanding of a lot of the concepts that I teach to premarital couples are relevant to any couple, regardless of how long they've been together. I frequently have one couple within a group that has been married for a while. They do want to do a checkup or be more intentional about the relationship. Those people do still come along fairly often.

I would say there's a thought that every long-term relationship is going to have two or three different kinds of relationships. Sometimes, you're at the end of one, and you can start another one. I think that these concepts have been what really makes relationships work with couples who've been together, who are both open to having a new relationship, and getting away from the past to say, “What do we need to do differently?” I think those couples, if they're both open to it, then it can be a great tool for them. I've seen that happen with couples where they've said basically, “Let's start over it. That worked for a while, but it's not working anymore.”

Dr. Lisa: I think this openness to learning “What do we now have to do to have a good relationship?” I can't even tell you how happy I am, right now, to hear that married, long-term couples come to your premarital class. That's the best thing I've ever heard. 

Brenda: Glad I made your day, Lisa. That’s awesome.

Dr. Lisa: Well, good. I left you this message. It's never too late for premarital counseling. Even if you're well into a marriage, that it's not too late to say, “You know, what? What could we be doing better or differently?” Come and even show up for couples counseling and say, “We don’t really want a premarital experience. We don't have many specific things, but we just want somebody to get a sense of what we're currently doing. What are our strengths? What are our growth opportunities?” And help coach them on how to be better partners for each other and just have that be the intention of relational growth work.

Brenda: I think, hopefully, again, it gives couples a lot of education. I do some attachment work in, even, the class to say, “Okay, if someone's anxiously attached and someone's avoidantly attached, what's that look like?” That doesn't matter if they've been together 2 years or 10 years. They still start to see patterns. I think it takes away some of the shame to say, “It wasn't us. This is how this relationship looks like. Now, we know how to do things differently. We don't have to keep doing that.” 

Dr. Lisa: I love it. But that's always the truth. The healthiest, happiest couples are the ones who are proactive and really putting effort into educating themselves about how to grow, how to increase their understanding about the attachment styles just throughout the process, as opposed to the ones who are like, “Nope, we're fine. It's not that bad.” Then, by the time they show up, it's so bad. 

Brenda: When I tell couples if you feel like things get boring, it's probably not the relationship. You're probably holding back parts of yourself that you're not sure if the relationship can handle. We're always changing. We're evolving organisms. As people, we’re always looking to learn ourselves, and create ourselves, and recreate ourselves. Are you bringing that to the relationship? If you're not, if you're trying to keep it really contained, it's going to feel flat. Most people don't want that. 

Esther Perel would say, “People don't want more sex, they want better sex.” People want better relationships, but that means you have to, sometimes, go to scary places within yourself to bring that into the relationship: what you feel, think, and who you are.

Dr. Lisa: I love it. What a wonderful note to end on, Brenda. Then, a takeaway for every couple: no matter what stage of relationship you're in, think about what you aren't currently talking about that maybe you should be. I love that. 

While you’re saying that, Brenda, made me think of a little tool that we have for free on the website of growingself.com is our How Healthy Is Your Relationship? quiz that anybody can just come and take. It's not a ton of questions, probably 20 questions, but a little assessment that can help you be like, “Oh, are we talking about this? Should we be talking about this?” This is a little roadmap but to be thinking about what the growth opportunities are in your relationship and being proactive about it, whether or not you're already married. I love it. 

This has been so good. Thank you so much, Brenda, for spending this time with me today and just for sharing your wisdom with my listeners. So good.

Brenda: Thank you. I do love these couples. I hope it helps marriages be long, and happy, and successful. This would be my hope. 

Dr. Lisa: Me, too. Thank you, again.

[Outro Song]


Premarital Counseling: Conversations for Commitment

Premarital Counseling: Conversations for Commitment

Premarital Counseling: Conversations for Commitment

What to Know Before Marriage

Imagine you and your partner want to go on a big trip together, you know you want to do this together, but what else do you plan for? Are you going somewhere sunny and beachy? Or somewhere where you can go skiing? What does your budget look like for this trip? Do you want to go big on where you’re staying or on food and experiences? Does one of you organize the activities or do you decide on them together? 

These questions might come naturally to some, and maybe to others they’d rather point to a place on the map, throw caution to the wind, and have an adventure. They all have something in common though; they highlight beliefs and expectations we each bring into big decisions about our future and what we would like it to look like. What’s even crazier, we might not even be aware of certain expectations until you catch yourself feeling disappointed or frustrated over something that didn’t cross your mind to talk about ahead of time. 

For example, you get to your warm and sunny beach vacation and your partner DID NOT pack the sunscreen. You might think, “Why wouldn’t they think to do that, we’re going to the beach!” A question to ask yourself in this situation might be, why did you expect them to pack the sunscreen? 

We each have lenses through which we view the world that have been shaped by our own subjective experiences, messages we get from families, teachers, and society that lead us to having certain beliefs and expectations. Sometimes we can forget that and get caught thinking, “well I would’ve definitely remembered putting the sunscreen in the suitcase first because we’re going to the beach,” but our partner might not have that thought due to their unique beliefs and expectations. 

 

Premarital Counseling: The Road Map to a Successful Marriage

 

Expectations, both conscious and unconscious ones, can be really important to discuss ahead of making big life decisions, like deciding to get married. This is where premarital counseling can be so helpful. Talking about these expectations ahead of time, before you find yourself wondering why the heck your partner didn’t pack the sunscreen, can be helpful in understanding more of what to expect from each other in marriage. 

What is helpful to me when working with premarital couples is having a sort of roadmap ahead of starting our work together, another way I’ve described this to couples is “let’s do a relationship check-up”. Maybe you’re a really strong couple, or maybe there are areas you are both struggling, a check-up can be helpful in both scenarios. 

In order to stay healthy, we don’t just go to the doctor when something is really hurting or broken, we go in annually to make sure everything is working the way it should. This is how I like to view premarital counseling as well as counseling or therapy in general. 

 

Topics of Discussion in Premarital Counseling

 

So, what does this “check-up” look like? We can assess common areas that couples may have mismatched expectations, such as managing family relationships, finances, sex, deciding whether or not you want to have children, etc. These are great topics to go into to give each partner time to describe their beliefs, expectations, and meanings of these topics in their future together. 

A few examples of questions that might come up are shown below.

Finance Examples

  • When we get married will we merge our finances? What will that look like – will we share access to all accounts or just some?
  • What are beliefs about money that impact the way you spend, save, or invest? Where did those beliefs come from?
  • What are our shared financial goals? How can we come up with a plan to reach those goals? What does that timeline look like?

Extended Family Examples

  • How involved do we want each side of our families to have in our decisions as a couple? How involved would we want them in the lives of our children if/when we have them?
  • What boundaries already exist between your partner and their family, are they healthy? 
  • What is the meaning of family to each of you? Is it different? How might that impact your expectations around spending time with or making decisions about family in the future?

Let's Talk. Schedule a Free Consultation Today.

 

Exploring Relationship Strengths and Weaknesses in Premarital Counseling

 

In addition to exploring expectations and beliefs around topics such as these, part of our “check-up” is assessing areas of strength and weakness in your relationship. 

Maybe you both have an incredible friendship and agree on a lot of things, but a disagreement ends in yelling, defensiveness, and anger. Or maybe you find it hard to talk openly about certain topics and might need more tools to feel confident in having that conversation and feeling heard by your partner

These seemingly “small” things might feel like things you’ll both just figure out in time or things that don’t matter as much because you both really love each other, but why not have a place to explore them with someone who could give you tools, help you both gain clarity, or even just share a different perspective?

Things we might “check-up” on in your relationship include:

  • What does your friendship look like? How well do you know and attempt to learn about your partner’s world?
  • What does trust and commitment look like in your relationship?
  • How are you both supporting each other's goals and dreams?
  • How is your communication with your partner? Do you feel heard and validated? Are there often misunderstandings?
  • Do you see your partner in a generally positive way? Or do you catch yourself seeing your partner more negatively, maybe in the form of past mistakes?
  • What does conflict look like in your relationship? What does resolution look like?
  • Are there past hurts from previous relationships that keep coming up in your relationship and causing stress or conflict?

As you’re reading this you might be thinking, “My partner and I have such a strong relationship and we’ve talked about so much ahead of this decision, I don’t think we need to consider something like this.” Maybe you’re right and your relationship is super solid, AND I bet there are still things you might uncover in this work that you didn’t even know to ask or didn’t know about your partner. 

 

Preparing to Go the Distance

 

I think of premarital counseling more like training ahead of a race. Maybe I feel confident that I’ve taken the necessary steps in preparing, but I haven’t run this race before so I might get some training tips from someone who coaches or who has expertise in how to get me ready for something like this. Regardless of the state of your relationship, premarital counseling or this relationship check-up, can help celebrate and bolster the strengths you already possess, give assistance and tools in areas of weakness, and give space to conversations that might have layers of beliefs, expectations, and meanings associated with them. 

 

What to Expect in Premarital Counseling

 

A couple of questions might still be coming up for you as you read this. I think a common question I hear when a couple starts premarital counseling is, “so how long do you think this will take?” and I love this question. I think it really depends on the couple. 

Generally, going through this work together can take time, so I like to understand what expectations my clients are coming into premarital counseling with. Are there time or budget restrictions that I should be aware of that might impact how long we are able to work together? 

I like to start with an assessment of the relationship that covers a lot of the topics and areas mentioned above, to have an idea of what we’re needing to make space for in session. Then I bring this to the couple and highlight areas of strength and areas and topics that might need further discussion. If there are restrictions on our time together, maybe we prioritize the most important topics or areas for you, and I get you connected to supplementary resources that could help outside of session for the topics we don’t get to. It’s possible to spend a few sessions on a topic, or discuss it in one, it all depends on what you both need out of it and if there is clarity at the conclusion of that topic. 

Another question that typically comes up after this is, “well what if we work together and find that we have some deeper issues going on somewhere in the relationship?” There is no shame in this. You’re actually in the perfect place to process deeper issues if they do come up. 

If we assess areas of strengths and areas for growth, and during our work, come across something that needs more time and processing, we can work together to reexamine our goals to accommodate what is most pressing at that time. 

Premarital counseling is beneficial to any couple wanting to get a relationship check-up ahead of a big decision such as marriage. It doesn’t have to be reserved for religion or couples that are struggling, it can be a helpful space for assessing strengths and weaknesses and identifying topics and expectations that could use more discussion. 

Wishing you all the best,
Kara

Dr. Rachel Merlin, DMFT, LMFT, M.S.Ed.

Kara Castells M.S., MFTC is a couples counselor, life coach, and individual therapist who creates an accepting and supportive environment for you to find clarity in your personal life and relationships. She is skillful at applying systemic and evidence-based approaches to create lasting change. Kara can help you and your partner prepare for a happy life together through premarital counseling and couples therapy. 

Real Help For Your Relationship

Lots of couples go through challenging times, but the ones who turn "rough-patches" into "growth moments" can come out the other side stronger and happier than ever before.

 

Working with an expert couples counselor can help you create understanding, empathy and open communication that felt impossible before.

 

Start your journey of growth together by scheduling a free consultation.

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Real Relationship Advice: The Key to a Healthy, Happy Marriage

Real Relationship Advice: The Key to a Healthy, Happy Marriage

Everyone Wants “The Key” to An Amazing Relationship…

I've been marriage counselor and premarital counselor for over a decade now, and so I often have people ask me for relationship advice. I was recently on a short road trip in the mountains here in Colorado with my husband, our 1 year-old daughter, our close friend Greg (the best man at our wedding), and his new girlfriend of 6 months. As we were driving home together the new couple asked me to give them my best advice as a marriage counselor and premarital counselor about what they “needed to know” if they get married. “What's the key to a great relationship?” they asked.

Thankfully my 1 year old was zonked out in her carseat, so I had the chance to tell them the real truth.

As a couples counselor, I hear this question frequently. “What is the key?” The key to the fairytale, the everlasting passion-filled love story romance? What is the key that makes love last? What is the key to keeping couples together?

So I told them the real truth. And halfway through my answer this question, Greg said sarcastically, “Wow, you really know how to sell it!” and laughed awkwardly at my candid but true response. You see, I didn’t sugar-coat it. I was honest.

And I'll be honest with you, too.

 

Amazing, Beautiful Relationships Are Not Perfect Relationships

Here's the truth: The key to everlasting love isn’t that you must find the perfect person to live the perfect life. Instead, finding the person who will fight through the hard times, work through the rough spots, and stay committed is absolutely important. The key is that you will marry someone who will be your partner, and you will go through life together – all of its messy and joyous moments.

Dr. Sue Johnson, couples theorist and the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, said, “Life isn’t the way it is supposed to be, life is the way it is. It is our response that matters.” Very hard, difficult, and trying times will affect each and every couple. There will be transgressions, hurt, loss and pain. The key, the ticket, the magic, is finding someone who is willing to work at it with you and who is open to finding help through it. The key is having someone who fights for you as a couple when life’s confusing, complicated and and chaotic circumstances undoubtedly happen to you, your partner, or you both as a couple.

Awareness that you will have ups and downs as a couple, and that you're committed to get through them together is vital. But every happy, healthy couple is also usually surrounded by people who help them hold their marriage together during the hardest times.  I often tell my clients, it takes a village! Yes, it takes one to raise a child, but it also takes a village to support a couple and help them be happy and healthy, whether or not they have children.

The thing is, our culture typically doesn’t give new couples the honest truth about the difficulties that lie ahead. At the start of a new marriage, couples are more often than not focused intensely on planning a wedding. This is-super fun (and stressful), but it is not going to prepare you for a lifetime of love. Honestly, nothing will prepare you for it all. Indeed, couples are often surrounded by community during easy times, including weddings and baby-showers. And yet, couples are often quite isolated and alone during the hard times, such as months that define infertility or grief and loss.

In these hard times, you need your community. You need people in your life who can remind you that most important part of this whole thing called love is to remember, you are human! (And so is your partner). You both have so many beautiful strengths and accomplishments that you bring to a relationship. You both also make mistakes. You both also have baggage and behaviors that will make a relationship beautifully complex and challenging. You need people in your life to remind you that no relationship is perfectly easy all the time, but that you can get through it and out the other side stronger than ever with the right support. 

“Love has an immense ability to help heal the devastating wounds that life sometimes deals us. Love also enhances our sense of connection to the larger world. Loving responsiveness is the foundation of a truly compassionate, civilized society.”

― Dr. Sue Johnson

Founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and author of Hold Me Tight: Your Guide to the Most Successful Approach to Building Loving Relationships

Healthy Relationships Have Support

Whether you talk with friends who can relate or parents that are able to provide you with wisdom, or put a good relationship book in your hand at the right time, it is so important that you find support along the way for your relationship. Great relationships don't just happen; we all have to work at it, intentionally. I personally strongly encourage couples counseling for everyone as a way of ensuring that your relationship stays strong and healthy, and that you both know how to navigate the inevitable bumps in the road when they come up. They don’t teach you how to have a great relationship in school! They really should but that is a soap box I’ll stand on another day.

I also encourage couples to check in with a counselor if they are thinking about having kids, or if there has been a death in the family or financial strains, job loss or even if they're in a little bit of a slump with each other. One of the biggest relationship mistakes you can make is to wait until you are really struggling to get support. There are so many things a good marriage counselor can teach you to help you navigate all the highs and lows of life, so that it never gets as bad as it can get. (And as a marriage counselor who works with too many unfortunate couples who did wait until they were on the brink of divorce before they came to counseling, it can get very, very bad.)

So here are the real keys to a great relationship:

  • Know that all relationships take work, and none of us humans do them perfectly.
  • Find a partner who is committed to sticking with you through the ups and downs.
  • And get support for your marriage, and use it to learn, grow, and work through the hard times together.

So, back to Greg and his new relationship: he says he’s is so excited for this love he now has and he believes he has found a person he wants to fight for and with far into the future. We are thrilled for him and can’t wait to see all that life has to throw at the two of them. There’s no doubt they will have support from us and the many good friends, family that surround them. And I've also already given them a referral for a great couples counselor… for when they're ready. 

All the best,

Meagan Terry, M.A., LMFT

Pre-Engagement Counseling

Pre-Engagement Counseling

Pre-Engagement Counseling

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.

Let's Talk. Schedule a Free Consultation Today.

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.

Warmly,
Kensington

 

Dr. Rachel Merlin, DMFT, LMFT, M.S.Ed.

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.

Real Help For Your Relationship

Lots of couples go through challenging times, but the ones who turn "rough-patches" into "growth moments" can come out the other side stronger and happier than ever before.

 

Working with an expert couples counselor can help you create understanding, empathy and open communication that felt impossible before.

 

Start your journey of growth together by scheduling a free consultation.

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Men, Women and Housework: How to Create a More Egalitarian Relationship

Men, Women and Housework: How to Create a More Egalitarian Relationship

Men, Women and Housework: How to Create a More Egalitarian Relationship

Sharing The Load…

[social_warfare]

According to research, women are still bearing the majority of the burden when it comes to household chores like cooking, cleaning, getting kids ready for school, etc.. Despite the fact that, in many cases, they work as much outside of the home as their partners do. This dynamic is bringing many couples into online marriage counseling or online couples therapy because it creates relationship problems.

Even now with more couples staying at home together and others just beginning to enter back into the workplace slowly, questions and expectations around sharing the load continue to leave partnerships entangled in unequal expectations and confusion around “who does what.”

This imbalance understandably leads to many women feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, not to mention frustrated. When couples aren't working together as a team, it creates conflict and resentment. Many couples struggle with figuring out how to create a more balanced, egalitarian relationship.

But why? In our modern era shouldn't we be past this? The roots of gender inequality in family roles go deeper than having good intentions. Creating a more balanced partnership requires self-awareness, mindfulness, and open communication.

By understanding the subconscious belief systems that both men and women still hold, you can begin to break old patterns and start creating a more egalitarian relationship.

Why Gender Division of Labor Problems Still Occur

The reason that traditional gender roles still play out in many modern families (families who intellectually know that a more egalitarian relationship and family structure is healthier for all) has to do with two psychological principles:

1) Without a high degree of self-awareness and intentional living, we humans tend to subconsciously create dynamics that mirror what was happening in our families of origin.

Whether we like it or not, old, deep, subconscious expectations about who does what is baked into us by the time we hit junior high. It is easy to forget that many of the woman's rights issues we take for granted today have only come to pass in recent decades. (Side-note: I once met a highly successful female entrepreneur who was not able to get a bank loan without her husband's consent in 1985.)

While male and female feminists successfully work to change the roles of women both in the home and in the workforce, the emotional and psychological expectations of gender roles we all carry are much harder to change than public policy.

Today's parents were parented by men and women (who themselves were raised by men and women) who were the products of a socio-political zeitgeist that emphasized home-making and childbearing for women, and breadwinning for men.

As such, today's adult parents as children absorbed powerful meta-messages about gender roles from observing their own moms cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, scheduling the social activities, and dad going to work and mowing the lawn. Both men and women often feel (not think, but feel) that the tasks they observed their same-sex parent doing are theirs, and that their partner should do what their opposite-sex parent did.

This is often played out even when people believe that each gender is both competent to do more, and bears a responsibility to do more. Women often feel vaguely guilty when “their” job needs to be done, and many men (bless their hearts) simply do not see “women's work” as something that needs doing at all.

Though no fault of their own, many men were raised in homes where magic elves (aka, mom) simply took care of things. These well-meaning women inadvertently created adult men who put a carton of milk with half-an-inch left in the bottom back in the refrigerator and do not think to make a mental note to pick more up at the store.

In order to create an egalitarian relationship, men must address their subconscious expectations plus get deeply acquainted with the reality of all the small, daily tasks involved in maintaining a functional home.

2) Families are systems, and systems are powerful.

Whenever even one partner in a relationship has an expectation about the way roles should be carried out, they do their half of the “dance” they expect their partner to engage with them in. It's like leaving space for the other person to do their thing. This creates pressure in the system that pulls the partner into the role that their partner expects them to fulfill.

For example, my husband will run the laundry through the washer and dryer but he expects me to do the folding and putting away. His half of the “dance” accumulates in a laundry basket of clean clothes left on the bed. Then I dance in and (with great satisfaction, actually) fold things into obsessive little squares the way Mari-Kondo taught me and squirrel them away into drawers. Our “dance” in this area feels balanced and it works for us.

What does not work is when one person's “dance” ends substantially further away from the middle point, leaving the other person having to come all the way over and do everything. This is what happens in out-of-balance partnerships.

In families where partners are not living with a high degree of self-awareness and intention, even if one person (usually the female partner) would like a more balanced, egalitarian relationship in terms of housework, childcare, or home management, the system may create pressure on her to do more than she wants to, or should. I have certainly experienced this in the past, in my own marriage.

For example, in the past (before we worked on this as a couple) if my husband did not recognize the tasks that need doing (or did not perceive them as needing to be done by him, or did them but not the way that I thought they should be done, or didn't do them quickly enough) I would often feel pressure to step in and do them because I felt they are important and they were not happening.

However, when I “just did it” I was inadvertently contributing to a dynamic where my husband was lulled into a familiar dynamic (as a son raised by another woman who handled things for the family) where there was an unspoken rule in the home that I would do things. So he never thought of them as his responsibility.

In short: The harder and faster and more I “danced”  the less he had to. I was overwhelmed, and he was confused about why I was low-grade angry all the time and always tired.

Sound familiar?

How to Create a More Egalitarian Relationship

Changing both ingrained expectations and family systems require a high degree of self-awareness, communication, and intentional living. However, it can be done and it should be done. (Trust me, it feels SO much better).

Egalitarian families are generally happier, less stressed, have lower conflict, and are fairer to working women. Furthermore, modern parents who work together to model a more egalitarian relationship and family system for their children break the cycle of rigid gender roles of previous generations.

Here's an example of how couples create more balanced gender roles:

Jane and John are a millennial couple with two kids, and they both work. Both Jane and John grew up in homes where mom (who worked too!) did all the inside housework except watering the flowers and dad did all the outside home-tending except taking out the trash.

Now, in their own family, Jane is struggling with resentment as she feels overly burdened with working, childcare, doing the lions share of meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, bill paying, organizing activities, and the general mental energy that many women exert on behalf of their families that men often do not feel.

The couple is fighting. Jane is feeling resentful and exhausted. John tries to help out around the house, but she seems annoyed with him when he does because he's making the bed wrong, or bringing home the wrong brand of mayonnaise, or not doing things fast enough to please her. So he stops trying.

He does what he thinks he should: Going to work every day, bringing home a paycheck, shoveling the snow, and getting the oil changed at regular intervals. John is frustrated because he experiences Jane as not affectionate or fun, nor interested in sex, and kind of naggy, and he doesn't know what else to do.

Through couples counseling, the couple learns how to work as a team. First, they start by talking about how each of their early experiences in their own family of origin shaped their expectations for themselves and each other in their own family. Then, they negotiate a plan where each of them agrees to take on specific responsibilities around the house in a distribution that feels equitable to both of them.

In implementing that plan, Jane needs to restrain herself from stepping in to do things that are John's job (or to correct John, or nag John). In doing so, she is creating pressure in the system for John to not just step up, but to develop new homemaking skills.

For his part, John needs to learn a very different way of thinking that women are often groomed for (and most men are not) which is considering both what currently needs doing, and what will need to be done, and taking the initiative to do those things. No magic elves to the rescue.

Changing both subconscious expectations and family systems are challenging, however, the rewards are immense and meaningful. Trust me: As a woman who is married to a man who now — without being asked! — does the dishes when he sees they are dirty, sweeps the floor when it needs to be swept, and goes to the grocery store to buy food of his own volition… it feels so much better.

Similarly, I see the same shifts occur in the couples we work with for marriage counseling and couples therapy: They reorganize their responsibilities in a way that feels fair and balanced to both. Squabbling stops, things get done, and most importantly — they start enjoying each other again. 

You deserve the same, and I hope this relationship advice helps you create it!

xo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

P.S. Want to know more about online couples therapy? Have questions about teletherapy in general? Here's an article to answer all your questions: Online Therapy: What You Should Know About Teletherapy

 

[social_warfare]

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Let's  Talk

Real Help For Your Relationship

Lots of couples go through challenging times, but the ones who turn "rough-patches" into "growth moments" can come out the other side stronger and happier than ever before.

 

Working with an expert couples counselor can help you create understanding, empathy and open communication that felt impossible before.

 

Start your journey of growth together by scheduling a free consultation.

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