Before Your Marriage, It’s Important To Talk About The Tough Stuff In Premarital Counseling
As a NYC therapist who does premarital counseling, I see couples often shy away from discussing the hard stuff before their marriage. But, planning for a marriage is more than just about the venue, the dress or the destination. It’s also important to get close to the dirt under the rug, so to speak–the things you both really need and want to talk about, but avoid or feel at a dead end with so they stay under the rug.
What do I mean by the dirt under the rug? One or both partner’s worries, assumptions, concerns, fears, secrets or uncertainty. This can include, but is not limited to, finances, choosing to have kids (or not), in-laws, family expectations and experiences, emotional communication and needs, sex and physical intimacy, your careers, kids, location, how both partners fight, and how race, ethnicity, class, socioeconomic status, religion, sexuality and gender come into play in how both partners see the world and the relationship.
It is so key for couples to get to a place where they can talk about this hard stuff pre-wedding. Couples are signing up to build a whole life together–the reservations, assumptions, family structure/rules, family and personal secrets, wants or fears are all part of this. It’s essential to figure out how to talk about these topics no matter how messy they are. If a couple can get really close to these issues before the wedding, they can usually work through the rest, come what may.
Couples Tend To Shy Away From The Tough Topics In Happy Times
In happy times, like before a marriage, we tend to avoid the hard stuff. Before a wedding, couples are in bliss and busy, planning and dreaming of the event and the time as a newlywed with a good sexual connection. Pre-marriage is not usually stress-free, of course, but the stress is often connected to the event of the wedding rather than looking down the road long-term.
One might assume that couples will want to talk about all areas of life they envision together. Couples do often talk about their lighthearted dreams like how many kids will they have, will they get dogs (fur babies) first, their hopes, etc. But it’s also important to talk about the less exciting practical things like budgeting, how to spend money, how to navigate family, fears about leaving the city, losing singlehood, how important is monogamy, what happened in their last relationship or marriage, how many kids do they really want to have, how does race, culture, religion, social status or sexuality come into play and what do they need care and protection around in their relationship.
Often couples think, “I don’t want to bring this up now,” “Maybe it’s not that big of a deal,” or “We can talk about this later when it comes up again.” It’s hard not to want to ignore these issues before the wedding and in some sense, ignorance is bliss. But it’s not a good long-term plan for your relationship and this is where premarital counseling can step in to help couples get this dirt from out under the rug early.
How Does Premarital Counseling Help Couples Find Ways To Talk About The Stuff They’d Rather Not?
When doing premarital counseling, I tend to lead more than in my other work with couples. Essentially, couples in premarital counseling are asking me to be nosy because we have all agreed to meet, talk and figure stuff out. When I first meet a couple, I get a sense from them about what they bring to the table and am curious if they are concerned about the major issues that frequently come up for couples. I usually ask about the three things that tend to start breaking a relationship down if they are not discussed: finances, kids or no kids and in-laws and family relationships, which includes race, ethnicity, religion or non-religion, location to family, expectations of family, etc.
Oftentimes, I ask the couple to come up with the things they try to forget in their relationship. This goes right at the fear, secrets, anxiety or sometimes, the behind-the-scenes management couples will do with their families before the marriage. As a therapist, I’m doing this to say, “I’m here to help you navigate this and offer direction, leadership and skills, but you are here to give me a sense of what is going on that you try to avoid, not talk about or quickly try to solve and patch up.” Every couple has things they like to leave under the rug that is better not left there.
Sometimes, we (the couple and I) make a list of topics to get through, which helps keeps things from being swept under the rug, even in session. It’s setting the agenda–rather than talking about what happened this week about the wedding, we will be serious about taking care of your relationship. That requires some direction. Often I help navigate this agenda, guiding the couple to come together in a new way and really look at how they struggle with talking about, for example, money or their in-laws.
Talking About These Issues In Premarital Counseling Might Be Awkward (And That’s Okay)
At first, talking about these tough topics in premarital counseling might be awkward. It might feel weird and you might squirm in your chair, but that’s okay. It can be difficult to admit that you don’t really know how to talk about this or that subject, or you would rather not. But together, in premarital counseling, we can figure out how to do this.
Just getting the conversation started is a big step. Sometimes that means I ask a lot of questions and guide each partner through the conversation so that they can go home and continue to talk. For example, if a couple is interracial, I often suggest that we talk about this–what it means to them in the world, to their individual identity and the identity of their family, both as a couple and as an extended family, and what it means if the couple will have kids. It can be awkward to sit with these issues, but it’s key to find out what work the couple has already done and what they haven’t. Often, couples have talked about some things, but others they have often just assumed or bypassed talking about. This way, we can think about what tools a couple needs to talk rather than just waiting for something to happen or for the subject to pop up sometime in the future.
Ultimately, I help couples find ways to talk about tough subjects with intentionality, meaning they know they want to talk about this and have a lot to say, but sometimes it takes courage to say it. Premarital counseling allows couples to see that it’s okay to voice what might, at first, seem scary or hard, but they can do it with respect and care even if they cry, get mad or have trouble hearing it.
In Premarital Counseling, Couples Learn Together How To Talk About The Hard Stuff Going Forward
Often in a relationship, we feel butterflies when we find someone who gets us or who feels so comforting and comfortable so we try to navigate around the difficult stuff. Even though premarital counseling is short-term, couples can build up the muscle for challenging conversations they often tried to navigate out of going forward. They can also learn how to take a break or cut a conversation short when they need a breather to heal when discussing a particularly hard topic. This way they can re-group and come back later fresher and more ready to grow together in this process.
Because you don’t want to be fighting about the same thing for twenty years, you need to learn how to unpack what happens, look and listen, as well as be curious and creative about how things could look different. In premarital counseling, there is skill-building, and individually tailored doing and thinking homework. In session, couples learn to slow down. They can be curious, creative and caring in having a conversation rather than an immediate reaction and can also let his or her partner cry about what they are flustered about. This is an imperative process as you build a life together–to be able to say, “I’ve hit a wall. We have to slow down, talk this out and figure it out together.” Through the process of relating, a couple can figure most anything out.