Couples Therapy Before Marriage Isn’t Common, But It’s Also Not Unusual
In our NYC couples therapy practice, about a third of the couples we work with aren’t married. Some are anti-marriage, while others are just not there yet in their relationship. For our particular demographic of Manhattan professionals, couples therapy before marriage isn’t common per se, but it’s also far from unusual.
Couples therapy can be a bit scary for engaged couples. Couples are especially afraid that their therapist might tell them (or think, but not tell them) that they aren’t right together. While that is incredibly uncommon, I understand that vulnerability. However, a skilled couples therapist can do so much for a relationship, particularly one that’s struggling. Good therapists, much like good car mechanics, aren’t interested in fixing things that aren’t broken or trying to wrangle people in to run up the bill. We also recognize that couples have to be in a place where they’re ready to take on certain issues.
What Is The Difference Between Premarital Counseling and Couples Therapy Before Marriage?
In our NYC therapy practice, we offer both couples therapy and premarital counseling. The difference between the two frequently depends on whether the couple is in a crisis or is in pretty good shape, but thinking preventatively. Premarital counseling often works with couples when things are going well and the couple is focused on the future, creating good habits and building skills. Then, there’s therapy for couples that are either having modest conflict and want to “nip it in the bud,” or are in high conflict or otherwise navigating a very difficult time in their relationship.
In practice, though, this distinction breaks down a bit. At Tribeca Therapy, our premarital offerings (which we love doing, by the way) aren’t so rigid. We work off a loose curriculum–a set of issues we’ve learned are meaningful for couples to work on–but really, we create the curriculum together with the couple we’re working with, particularly early in the work. We reshape it as we go along and discover what the couple really needs. Often disputes end up working their way into premarital counseling anyway. Even if a couple isn’t at a level of conflict that would have compelled them to seek couples therapy, disputes are worth looking at and couples bring them to us since we’ve built some trust and are beginning to know the relationship. This is terrific when it happens–rather than hypothetical conversations about how conflict can be managed (and prevented), we get to address the issue live, perhaps with some fighting and other sorts of unhealthy communication happening right there in the office.
Couples Therapy Isn’t Just For Unmarried Couples In Really Bad Shape
There’s an idea that couples therapy is something that you do only when your relationship is in really bad shape. With individual therapy, at least in New York and similar parts of the U.S., there’s more allowance for the idea of going to therapy short of things falling apart. Culturally, we do a lot of our emotionality in private and I think this is especially true for couples. As a whole, we don’t want to be seen as having problems. For many people, most of the embarrassing things they do, they do in front of or in response to their partners. This is both a product of familiarity and the capacity that a romantic partner has to really push one’s buttons.
Many couples wait too long to go into couples therapy and in the process, suffer more than they need to, getting themselves in a deeper hole. If things are relatively okay, you can do a bit of work in couples therapy and then, dial back. Many successful couples we work with reach out to us periodically, do a bit of work and then, step back. If things are more intense, then naturally, the therapy needs to be more intense.
Many Unmarried Couples Come To Us For Couples Therapy With “Should We Stay Together?” On The Table
It is true, though, that a higher percentage of unmarried couples come to couples therapy with the question “Should we stay together?” on the table. It’s a hard question and one that unmarried couples in conflict understandably ask. Marriage is hard to undo, there often are kids involved, and many people take marriage as a contract that shouldn’t be broken. Obviously, from the frequency of divorce, it’s a decision that many people make, but we’re also aware that many people who are divorced say, “I wish we’d done it sooner,” and perhaps just as many say, “Wow, if we knew how to do a, b, or c, we might have made it.”
As couples therapists, we want a chance to get in there and help couples with these questions. If the relationship isn’t working, let’s be honest about that and spare everyone some grief (and also see if we can help impact how that happens). Otherwise, let’s get busy with the development work needed to make the relationship and future marriage work better.
Couples Therapy Normalizes The Challenges Of Being In A Relationship And Reminds Couples They’re Capable of Growth
A lot of the work we do with couples who aren’t married or are newly married is to normalize the challenges of being in a relationship. It’s a balance between working to not trivialize what’s happening (and not supporting a couple’s inclination toward denial, if they have such an inclination), while at the same time, letting couples know that people take these issues on and get better. When everyone is on board to do the work, relationships get better. This is an area of life that’s just saturated with cynicism. It’s such a shame and unfortunately, there’s a good deal of bad help out there, whether it’s conventional wisdom that’s off the mark, poor role models, bad advice, unhelpful self-help or even, bad therapy.
There’s also something of a myth in the world that couples ought to have everything sorted out before they get married–that if there are areas of underdevelopment like an underdeveloped capacity to communicate or work through hard things, it’s a problem. Part of what we do as couples therapists is remind couples that they are capable of (and, if they’re to have a successful marriage, obligated to) continue to grow well after marriage. In a way, we work to say, “Yes, this issue is a mess. You have growing to do, but we can take this on.”