Do You Really Need To Go To Pre-Marriage Counseling Before Tying The Knot?
Couples counseling is finally started to shake some of its taboo, with celebrity couples like Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard opening up about how therapy is the key to maintaining their happy bond. "It's not effortless. It seems effortless," Dax said of their relationship in a recent interview, adding that he and Kristen are open about going to couples therapy. "We work it like a job."
But therapy still has a rep as being a last resort for couples in crisis (you can probably thank reality TV shows like Marriage Boot Camp for that), which is totally not true according to the experts. In fact, they even recommend seeing a marriage therapist before you tie the knot.
"As a couples therapist, I wish everybody did pre-marital counseling," says Brandy Engler, Ph.D., a Los Angeles-based couples therapist. "Learning the skills to get what you want out of your marriage is super important for the quality of your life. This experience should be normalized and not a threat to the marriage at all."
Still, the experience of signing up for therapy can be intimidating—especially if you and your partner have never gone before. So we asked experts to give us the rundown regarding what you can expect when it comes to pre-marital counseling, and what you'll get out of it in the long-run.
What happens in pre-marriage counseling?
What happens in a therapist's office isn't that different than what would happen in a conference or class you'd attend to beef up your professional skills. "Sex and love have to be negotiated," says Engler.
Pre-marital counseling is basically about learning techniques and communication strategies that will help you smooth over relationship issues before they become deal breakers. "For example, learning how to propose constructive solutions when problems arise rather than complaining or blaming," says Engler. "Or learning how to state a request rather than a demand. Or learning the art of negotiation to deal with all the differences that will arise."
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According to Rachel Sussman, L.C.S.W., a relationship therapist in New York, a typical counseling session might review each of your expectations for what happens after the "I do's" and touch on those hot-button issues that tend to cause trouble down the road such as money, career goals, sexual expectations, gender roles, and kids. "By being open with each other and discussing these issues before they come up, you will have a better understanding when problems arise and a solid foundation to fall back on through the years," Sussman says.
Pre-marital counseling is also a great place to help you both work through wedding stress, adds Sussman. "It's an excellent choice for an engaged couple as it offers support plus clarification of their marital goals."
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Why you should go
"Who wouldn't want to consult with an expert before embarking on one of the biggest emotional and financial decisions of one's life?" asks Engler. No matter how smoothly your relationship is running on it's own, it can't hurt to pick up some extra skills from professionals who have actual degrees in making relationships better.
In fact, if you're on the road to the altar, you should make pre-marital counseling "as important as picking your venue or florist," says Sussman. "It's your relationship—this comes first."
Aside from the new skills you'll pick up, talking to a pro can be useful for helping you learn to take constructive criticism within the relationship. "That helps you grow tremendously as a person, which is the ideal in a marriage," says Engler. "Be challenged to grow to be the best person you can be."
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If you still don't want to go...
"If you are getting married, you should endeavor to be great at conflict resolution," says Engler. So if the idea of talking to a therapist puts you way too far outside of your comfort zone, you can still do some of that expert-recommended pre-marriage prep on your own.
"To ensure a happy and lasting marriage, it is crucial for couples who are interested in marrying to understand why they are getting married, what they expect of their marriage, and how they will work through the inevitable ups and downs of life that will test their commitment to each other."
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With or without a therapist, address any major differences you've been avoiding—especially those around money, kids, religion, work/life balance, sex, in-laws, division of labor, and even how you like to spend your free time.
The goal is to envision future problems and how you'll handle them. For example, "I notice that married couples tend to neglect romantic time with each other in favor of working hard or taking care of kids," says Engler. "Planning in advance to avoid that pitfall will fortify you relationship."
The bottom line? A solid marriage doesn't start after the bouquet toss—building that foundation begins way before that. Calling in a pro can help you build the kind of foundation that will have your friends asking for how you two stay so happy for years to come.