The Benefits of Premarital Counseling
Premarital counseling can help ensure that you and your partner have a strong, healthy relationship. This will give you a better chance for a stable and satisfying marriage. Premarital counseling can also help you identify weaknesses that may become larger problems during marriage. Good marriages don’t happen by accident. Many issues can be resolved prior to marriage with the help of a therapist. Common issues addressed may include work, finances, lifestyle, spending habits, credit card balances, student loans, savings, retirement planning, roles and responsibilities, children, parenting, in-laws, and leisure and fun. Marriage requires an understanding of yourself, your future spouse, and the tools and skills you need to make it work.
Does your significant other have a Mood Disorder? Issues with alcohol or substances?
Some moodiness is a part of everyone’s life; sometimes we feel happy, other times we are sad; some days we have lots of energy, while at other times we may be fatigued and unmotivated. When mood changes interfere with your ability to function, work or go to school, when they harm your relationships significantly, when they cause you to miss sleep, abuse drugs, or behave in ways you later regret, or when they lead to risky behaviors, thoughts of suicide, or losing touch with reality, your mood requires professional attention.
If this sounds like you’re intended. All is not lost. The key factor in this decision is Denial. If your partner tends to deny issues now, do you really think it is going to get better later?
I find that most premarital couples are well aware of their intended’s mood and alcohol/substance issues. My main questions are as follows:
• Willing to seek help?
• In need of psycho-education and symptom management?
• Willing to take medication, if prescribed?
• Willing to honestly address alcohol and substance abuse issues?
• Willing to see a therapist for relationship issues and support?
It’s not going to get better if your intended is in denial. Get out while you still can!
Civility and Respect
Work on resolving conflicts in a civil and respectful way. Lack of civility and respect will eventually be the undoing of any relationship. It is possible to argue, resolve conflicts, and agree to disagree in a respectful manner. In order to do this, all couples need rules of engagement for conflict. It is important that couples express how they feel, but this needs to be done in a very caring and respectful manner. This definitely means there should be civility and respect when conflict occurs. That means no hitting (of course), no yelling, no swearing, no screaming, name calling or sarcasm. I encourage you to look at yourself and your relationship with your intended. Are you holding onto resentments? If so, you will need a therapist to help resolve this and teach you how to fight with civility and respect.
Finances and Spending
One of the biggest causes of problems in a relationship is differences in values and goals and habits when it comes to money, and especially communication about money issues. As it is often said, Money can’t buy you love, but it sure can tear it apart. This makes a discussion of finances necessary before marriage. Learn how to talk about money, and align your financial goals. If you can do those two things, you’ve done more than many couples, and you’ve done a lot to start your relationship off on solid ground. Goals should include the following: savings, pension contributions, retirement planning, current debt, discretionary spending, school loans and the use of credit cards. How will you handle school loans and debt brought into the marriage? I recommend meeting with a financial planner to discuss issues such as spending, use of credit cards and financial goals.
Family Ties and In-laws
A family is made up of many unique individuals, each with a range of thoughts and opinions on almost every subject and situation. Add to the mix extended family with their countless beliefs and personal opinions and there is no wonder there are disagreements from time to time. Conflict is simply the natural and healthy progression of any relationship. Some questions to explore – What sort of relationship do you have with your extended family? Are they local? Do they like your fiancee? Are they affectionate? Are they over-involved or critical? Have there been any major conflicts or issues?
I suggest that couples begin to see themselves as their own family unit. When addressing family of origin, always say that “we” will have to discuss the event or holiday and that he or she should respond to their own family of origin.
This potentially contentious issue should always be discussed in premarital counseling. The first step is to seek a better understanding of your future spouse’s religious and spiritual background and beliefs.
Topics to look into are:
• How to reconcile differing ideologies and practices.
• How to observe and celebrate each other’s holidays.
• How to raise children so that they are exposed to both traditions.
• How to integrate both extended families, especially during the wedding/holidays.
Joe is not religious; Mary is and expects to go to Church every week. What if they did marry and have children; would Joe go to Church then? What if Joe is Catholic and Mary is Jewish? Will one of you convert? Does it matter at all? What will the respective families say? That is a big question especially in regard to children. “What do you mean; you are not going to raise the baby Catholic? Jewish?” For some, the consequences of that decision may be long lasting or a deal breaker. It is clearly better to decide before marriage and tell both families about your decision. In discussions with the extended families, always use the phrase “we” have decided.
Do you want children? How many and when? Are there already children from previous relationships? What do you expect from your spouse regarding parenting/step parenting roles? When a problem arises, how does my partner communicate? What are the responsibilities of each parent in raising a child?
I strongly recommend that you have two to four years together as a couple before you have children. This time is critical, it gives you the opportunity to get to know one another as a married couple. Children don’t bring you closer together; they create stress and sometimes distance especially if you and your spouse are not on the same page regarding roles and responsibilities. There is even more stress when ex’s and step in-laws are in the picture. I believe that the children don’t come first; your relationship comes first. Now I have already stated that I have two children so I know on one level that statement is just BS. On the other hand, if you divorce it will be children that suffer most. Of course, my point is don’t forget to make time for your relationship after you have children. Planning for alone time or date night is a key component in addressing this issue. But above all – Parent as a team!
Work, Lifestyle, Leisure and Fun
What sort of lifestyle do you want? Will you both continue to work once you have children? Do you have the same idea of what is fun? Where will you want to live?
Today most couples are comprised of two working parents. Couples want to maintain or improve the lifestyle they had going into the marriage. This is difficult in today’s economy and job market. For the first time in history, couples may not meet or exceed their parents’ lifestyle. The common expectation of employers today is long hours and work from home in the evening and on the weekend. This reduces quality time together. These forces necessitate compromise to make the most of the time you have together. Planning mutually enjoyable activities and social events, balanced with appropriate alone time is a key component in maintaining a strong relationship. There needs to be: me time, family time and especially couple time. When those are out of balance, conflict will occur.
I believe that the blended family has more obstacles then most couples consider prior to marriage. This is truly the one area that needs to be addressed in premarital counseling. The blended family has all the pitfalls listed here times ten. Yours, mine and ours is not as easy as the Brady Bunch made it appear. There needs to be a lot of discussion around the ex’s involvement, parenting issues, finances and much more.
You may not feel you NEED premarital counseling, but it is still wise choice to consider. You may be on cloud nine with the impending marriage but counseling may help bring up and resolve some difficult topics. Better to discuss issues before marriage then with a divorce attorney later.
For those in the metropolitan Chicago area, I have offices in Millennium Park on Michigan Avenue, and near 22nd St and Wolf Road in Westchester. Call 847-733-4300 Ext 638.
James E. DelGenio MS, LCPC
Senior Staff Therapist
The Family Institute at Northwestern University
Disclaimer: This material is meant to be used in conjunction with psychiatric treatment, medication when necessary, and supportive therapy. Always share this material and your questions about this material with your doctor and therapist.