*Lisa and Don were four months from their eagerly anticipated wedding day. They loved each other. Perhaps even more importantly, they liked one another, had similar values and goals, and shared a love of puns and belly laughs. Yet they wound up on my couch.
Lisa says, "Don and I came from broken homes, so neither of us had good role models for marriage. We wanted to start things off on the right foot."
The erroneous belief that pre-wedding therapy means your relationship is in deep trouble is cracking open at the seams. In fact, a survey published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that 30 percent of couples that underwent premarital education experienced higher levels of satisfaction, as well as a 30 percent decline in the likelihood of divorce over five years.
During their 10 sessions, Lisa and Don learned how to truly listen to and empathize with one another's point of view without interrupting, getting defensive, or assuming they knew what the other was going to say. They learned the right (calling a "time out") and wrong ways (name-calling) to handle disagreements.
They also explored myths and expectations of what marriage should and shouldn't be. For example, while certainly crucial, love is not the most important determinant of marital happiness. Nor is getting all one's needs met.
Rather, a successful partnership revolves around each person making the relationship primary—aiming to always treat one another with respect and kindness (amazing how often we treat strangers with more courtesy than we do our loved ones!), and not expecting a spouse to be one's everything. A loving partner cannot fill a void left by a traumatic childhood. That requires self-awareness and learning to self-parent.
Before James Pillow and his wife married at age 23, they attended couples' counseling sessions. Now married for close to 20 years, he explains, "We came from very different backgrounds so thought it would be helpful to address the 'unspoken beliefs' we take into marriage. For example, one person thinks, 'You should do the yard work because that's how it worked in our family,' while the other is thinking, 'When I was growing up we did this as a family. Why aren't you helping?'"
Premarital counseling offers a couple a safe place to discuss hot-button issues such as money and religion, and guidance on how to move from being stuck on differing viewpoints to crafting a compromise.
Lisa says of how premarital counseling helped her prepare for life with her now-husband, "I learned to think like a 'we,' not just 'me.'"
*Names have been changed
Sherry Amatenstein is a New York City-based marriage therapist and author.