Helping you ... Helping yourself

OVERVIEW OF PREMARITAL COUNSELING

By Lynne Foote MA, LPC

Intimate relationships have experienced a major paradigm shift over the past forty years. We are reshaping our core dynamics from a role-based model to a partnership model, but not without consequences. We have a divorce rate in the United States where more than half of our marriages end in divorce. What is happening here?

Marriages used to serve family and society and the quality of the man/woman connection was secondary. Community pressure would hold it together. Now, for the first time in history, couples are on their own. We have shifted from a community (or village) to a nuclear family so that we have one person, rather than many, to meet our needs. We have also shifted from a survival mode to one of self-actualization so that we are demanding deeper levels of intimacy which puts pressure on each partner to fulfill more needs. We live in a youth addicted culture that promotes romantic ideals of love rather than images of couples who have matured after years of finding their way together. We also live in a throw-away society that reinforces the belief that we can have what we want by giving up what we have for the promise of something better. The divorce rate for second marriages is even more sobering at 67% and 74% for third marriages according to the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology.

The good news is that new models for developing strong, healthy relationships have been emerging, giving us maps for how to find our way in this new paradigm. Premarital counseling uses these models to help a couple build a strong, conscious foundation for their marriage. We need to remember that relationships are created; they are dynamic and perennially evolving. The relationship that you yearn for is not the one you start out with but the one you co-create with your partner over time. This takes commitment, trust, and the willingness to look more closely at your own process rather than that of your partner.

We come together from different families of origin. We have learned and have been imprinted, for better or worse, by these early experiences of connection. We come into a marriage with different personalities and temperaments, differing values and needs, and baggage from previous intimate connections. We come into the co-creating of a life together without a training manual or toolkit for how to manage the sometimes treacherous waters of our differences. Premarital counseling can provide this guidance so that each person can mature to their fullest potential within the boundaries of a vital, fulfilling relationship. Through counseling, a couple can explore their dreams, their fears, their differences, and come to a greater understanding of what is sourcing their choices and behaviors.

What does premarital counseling look like? It is as varying and unique as the personality and background of the therapist. Finding someone that you can trust, and who honors your unique situation, is essential. All too many couples get caught up in spending time planning their weddings without developing a plan for their marriage. The early stages of relationship, when the feelings for your partner are usually positive, is the ideal time to become more conscious and intentional in the ways you interact and work together. Counseling can give you insights into where your particular relationship dynamics might be heading in the wrong direction. There is an educational aspect to premarital counseling as well so that you can learn better communication skills and how to negotiate conflict so that you can resolve your differences in a way that actually strengthens your connection. Finally, there is a coaching aspect to premarital counseling where couples can practice, with the therapist's help, to use the new perspectives and the new skills that they are learning.

When I work with couples, I teach Relationship as a Spiritual Path. I believe that we have everything that we need to wake up, find the Self beyond the ego, and mature into fully alive, compassionate human beings by working through the difficulties and often painful struggles that are in our most intimate relationship. We do not need to retreat to a cave to discover our inner truth. It is mirrored to us daily by our partner, by how we show up, or fail to show up, in this most important connection. We can learn to keep our hearts open to what is arising by knowing when to set good boundaries, by knowing what is and is not my responsibility, and by not going numb in a status quo state of co-existing.

Another important aspect of premarital counseling is to normalize what can happen in the early years of a marriage. Many of us have been seduced by the fairytale of the prince and his princess finding their perfect love. But the story really begins when they move into the castle together. Sometimes a newly married person experiences what could be called a post-marriage depression. The commitment can feel like a weight that is taking them down. They have said "yes" to this particular individual but "no" to all the other potential partners. There is a grief factor here. But ironically, the pain of this condition can deepen one's ability to connect because by working through the impulses to run, by overcoming the belief that the grass is greener over there and by making the grass greener here, this individual can find the freedom and joy that is possible in a long-term, committed relationship.

It is my intention to write monthly articles over this next year that give couples ways to build or enhance a conscious and healthy foundation for their relationship. I will provide both new perspectives and time-tested tools that can make a difference between thriving and surviving. Together, we will look at the elements that create a strong, lasting relationship. We will see how personality differences can show up as obstacles and how to turn them into strengths. We will learn how to balance the WE and ME needs so that we mature as an individual and as a couple. I will provide you with tools that will develop better communication and conflict resolution skills. We will look at the importance of Wedding Vows and how to use them to grow. We will dialogue about common issues that arise around sex, money, parenting, extended family, and daily household tasks. We will examine the roots of the Power Struggle stage and how this can paradoxically mature you into a more loving connection. It is my hope that whether you are about to enter a marriage or committed relationship, or you are ready to change the relationship that you are in, that you will gain what you need to create the relationship of your dreams.

CASE EXAMPLES

Sam and Patricia are in their early thirties and they are stuck in the dating phase of their relationship because even though Sam feels a strong love for Patricia, he suffers from an even stronger fear of commitment. In therapy, Sam discovers that the root of his feeling entrapped is related to a belief that he has to give up what he wants and needs in order for Patricia to be happy. His behavior becomes defensive and he stays away from a deeper connection to her by "doing his own thing". During therapy, he discovers that Patricia is open to working with him, and to giving him what he wants, when she knows more clearly what it is that he wants. He finds that when he opens to her emotionally, she feels more connected and becomes less demanding. This enhances the ability and desire in Sam to give Patricia more of what she needs, knowing that this does not mean sacrificing what he needs. Through this therapeutic work Sam comes to experience the freedom that exists inside a commitment.

Julie and Peter are about to be married and come into premarital therapy to learn how to communicate more effectively. They have a pattern where each partner's style triggers the other. Julie grew up in a family that met conflict head on. Her family would often become very loud and passionate in their arguments. By contrast, Peter's family did not talk about important things and stayed more distant in their interactions. What attracted Peter to Julie was her warmth and ability to engage with him but as the wedding approaches, her emotionality has become too much to handle and he has started to withdraw and cut off the conversation. Julie is feeling a sense of panic and tries even harder to engage Peter who then feels even more overwhelmed and withdraws further. In therapy, this dance step of approach/avoidance becomes more clearly defined. The therapist facilitates a process so that each partner plays the role of the other. Both partners gain a greater understanding and compassion for how to meet on common ground. Peter learns how to stay present and feel safe when a conversation gets heated. Julie learns to trust Peter's need to withdraw and that he will return to engage with her when his system has calmed down.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

  1. Journey of the Heart by John Welwood, 1996.
  2. Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment by Kathleen and Gay Hendricks, 1992.
  3. The Heart's Wisdom: A Practical Guide to Growing Through Love by Joyce and Barry Vissell, 1999.
  4. Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work by John Gottman, 2004
  5. Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson, 2008
  6. Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, 2007
  7. Passage to Intimacy by Lori Gordon, 2001
  8. The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield, 2009

Your feedback and ideas are welcome.


Contact Lynne Foote

Phone: 303-447-2987

Email: Lynne@LynneFoote.com


Top of page