Relationship Counseling; Pre Marital Counseling

 Pre Marriage Counseling

Most couples spend more time planning their weddings than their marriages! With divorce rates at an all time high, it seems that couples are facing more challenges than ever in preserving their relationship stability. In my work as a counselor, I’ve seen countless couples who come into my office at the “end of their ropes.” Many have very shaky relationship foundations, diminished emotional safety and little ability to deflect internal conflict within their relationship, let alone the stressful external events that life sometimes can dish out. If you think about the amount of financial and emotional investment that goes into preparing for the wedding itself, doesn’t it make sense to invest a little in strengthening the relationship at the onset? Many couples preparing for marriage honestly believe they are strong going into the union – and they probably are in a lot of ways. Being caught up with all the loving feelings and other feel-good stuff going on ahead of nuptials, couples often don’t consider the potential pitfalls. Those “pitfalls” are often times what leads them into a therapist’s office some time down the line.

I strongly encourage couples to give their marriages the best possible start – to do all they can ahead of time to avoid marriage counseling later. Based on my experience with couples who see me for marriage counseling and the issues they bring in, there are a number of things that would have been helpful for them to have known about or worked on previously.

Here are six great reasons to get pre marriage counseling:

1) Strengthen Communication Skills: Being able to effectively listen, truly hear and validate the other’s position is a skill that isn’t necessarily a “given” for many people. Couples that really communicate effectively can discuss and resolve issues when they arise more effectively. You can tune up your talking and listening skills. This is one of the most important aspects of emotional safety between couples.

2) Discuss Role Expectations: It’s incredibly common for married couples to never really have discussed who will be doing what in the marriage. This can apply to job, finances, chores, sexual intimacy and more. Having an open and honest discussion about what each of you expect from the other in a variety of areas leads to fewer surprises and upsets down the line.

3) Learn Conflict Resolution Skills: Nobody wants to think that they’ll have conflict in their marriage. The reality is that “conflict” can range from disagreements about who will take out the trash to emotionally charged arguments about serious issues – and this will probably be part of a couple’s story at one time or another. There are ways to effectively de-escalate conflict that are highly effective and can decrease the time spent engaged in the argument.

4) Explore Spiritual Beliefs: For some this is not a big issue – but for others a serious one. Differing spiritual beliefs are not a problem as long as it’s been discussed and there is an understanding of how they will function in the marriage with regards to practice, beliefs, children, etc.

5) Identify any Problematic Family of Origin Issues: We learn so much of how to “be” from our parents, primary caregivers and other early influences. If one of the partners experienced a high conflict or unloving household, it can be helpful to explore that in regards to how it might play out in the marriage. Couples who have an understanding of the existence of any problematic conditioning around how relationships work are usually better at disrupting repetition of these learned behaviors.

6) Develop Personal, Couple and Family Goals: It amazes me how many married couples have never discussed their relationship goals – let alone personal or family. I honestly think it just doesn’t cross their minds! This is a long term investment together – why not put your heads together and look at how you’d like the future to look? Where do you want to be in five years? Approximately when would you like to have children? How many children? There are many areas that can be explored and it can be a fun exercise to do together.

Pre marriage counseling doesn’t need to be a long process, especially if you feel you’re starting out with a very solid foundation and only need some clarifications and goal-setting. For some people who are poised to start out the marriage as a “higher conflict” couple or have deeper issues to contend with, the process could take a bit longer. Regardless, be sure to take the time to invest in your marriage as you might in the event itself. The return on your marriage investment has the potential to be life long!

Marriage Counseling

Let me briefly tell you what I think couples counseling is, and what I actually do with couples. 

Couples counseling is for married and unmarried couples.  I meet with dating couples, couples thinking about marriage, engaged couples, married couples, same sex couples, divorcing couples, and divorced couples.  I also meet with one member of the couple when the other member does not want to participate in counseling.

There are many therapeutic approaches used when meeting with a couple.  I personally like to evaluate what approaches to use based on your needs and style as a couple.  There isn’t one “right approach” to doing therapy as there isn’t one way to live.  I provide education on what I have found that is useful in relationships.  I invite you to look at new ideas and possibilities for living.  I encourage you to try new ways of behaving and communicating.  I like to learn from you about what you really want in your relationship.  I am very interested in what each partner has to say about what has led to their struggle or becoming stuck.  I want to know what you have done to change your situation, what has worked and what has not worked for you.  I am careful not to duplicate what hasn’t worked.

I am curious about your thoughts and perceptions about why you are together, how you met, and what has gone well in your relationship.  One thing that I have learned along the way, is that, all couples have patterns in their relationship.  These are patterns of behavior and communication styles.  Paying attention to what patterns are useful and how to repeat them can be very valuable.  It is often easier to do more positive things then to STOP doing negative things.  I believe that what we do, think, and feel that is positive can breed more positive

It can also be useful to agree to STOP repeating problematic behaviors such as criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling, arguing to get your way and thinking that your way is “right,” being unwilling to give your partner space when they are ready to explode with anger, following your partner out of a room to keep on discussing an issue when they don’t want to, blaming your partner and not taking responsibility for your part of the relationship, and I can go on and on.

  • I believe that couples counseling is about becoming aware of your patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that are useful to you and those that are harmful to your relationship.
  • You can learn that you have choices to do more of what can be helpful to improve your relationship.  Working together on this is a plus, but one partner can begin and the other can follow even if they are not in therapy.  You can practice new ideas and behaviors outside of the therapy hour and return to discuss what has been valuable and what has not.
  • Agree to live-in and celebrate the present and not lament on the past.
  • Discuss what each other believes rather than read each other’s minds. Keep in mind that beliefs are just that, beliefs, and NOT facts.
  • Value each other’s differences and learn from them to strengthen your relationship.
  • Don’t say things like, “I want to divorce,” or things that you don’t mean because it’s hard to take them back. Being angry doesn’t mean that you have to be mean.
  • Validate your partner’s feelings rather than telling them that their feelings are wrong.  Then, share your point of view and acknowledge the differences. You can learn from each other.
  • Do say things that you really mean and feel, and in a manner in which your partner can understand you.  This is being intentionally assertive and not harmful. ” I feel this way because…”

Clarify things if you don’t fully understand them rather than placing your own meaning on your partners words.

Arguments, differences of opinion, and sometimes extra-relationship affairs, don’t necessarily lead to splitting up.  How you as a couple deal with these issues is most important.  Being kind, emotionally giving, and caring towards your partner will definitely improve your relationship.

Does it work?

Yes, counseling works very well. In an article published in The Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, clients of 526 marriage counselors were surveyed, and 91.2% of the clients said they were satisfied with the amount of help they received.

You and your partner have learned many things during your lives. If you want to, you can also learn new ways of being with your partner, and there is an excellent chance that couples counseling will help you to get the changes you want in your relationship.

I’m not sure if we need counseling or not. How can we know for certain?

My belief is that if you think you might need counseling, you probably do! Relationship counseling is under-utilized. Counselors should be consulted sooner, rather than later! Studies show that the average couple doesn’t seek professional help until six to seven years have passed since the relationship started to go downhill. Sometimes a couple is on the verge of divorce before they begin working with me, and they always wish that they had started counseling sooner.

My husband would prefer to see a male marriage counselor. But wouldn’t a male marriage counselor take my husband’s side, and/or not understand how a woman feels?

Counselors avoid taking sides because it is counterproductive to long-term success. That said, if I feel one partner needs to make a change in a particular area, I’ll say so. I have spent years as a counselor  helping men and women from every imaginable background and I am capable of seeing things empathetically from both perspectives.

Why is counseling better than reading a self-help book, such as the one by Dr. Phil?

Relationship counseling books may help a few people, but they rarely motivate people to do the things necessary to achieve long-lasting improvements. Authors don’t know the details of your relationship, so they can only present general suggestions in a “one size fits all” manner. Another problem is that a person may incorrectly interpret things from a book in a way that favors his or her own position. On the other hand, marriage counselors are unbiased and insure that neither partner can claim an unfair advantage over the other.

Will counseling make us agree on everything?

That’s unlikely! Up to 70% of couple conflict, even in stable couples, is about “perpetual” issues. My goal in dealing with perpetual problems is not to decide who gets their way and who doesn’t, but instead to avoid gridlock by establishing healthy dialogue about the issue, in which each partner communicates acceptance of the other’s position. Amazingly, in a healthy couple, these perpetual issues can become a source of amusement! It’s safe to say that there is no relationship without at least one perpetual problem.

My husband (or wife) refuses to go to a counselor. Is there any benefit in me going alone?

Yes. When one partner makes some positive changes and shares what has been learned, the other partner frequently becomes motivated to make his/her own positive changes. Hopefully the reluctant partner then becomes willing to attend counseling.

Does infidelity mean the relationship is over?

No, infidelity doesn’t have to mean the end of the marriage. Many couples have survived infidelity. It’s traumatic, it hurts terribly, but you can get through it with professional help. I have found that the crisis brought on by a unfaithful spouse is frequently the trigger for the couple to seek the counseling they have needed for a long time.

Are you the kind of counselor who just repeats everything I say?

No. I listen to what my clients say and then either ask questions in order to probe deeper or point out other things that may need to be addressed.

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    The problem is not that we GET angry. The problem is HOW we express our anger.


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