It happens less and less often, so, when I get the phone call from the enthusiastic bride-to-be, I notice. She wants to schedule premarital counseling. All right, then.
I believe in premarital counseling. It can be useful. There are tons and tons of curricula available. Some are religion-based. Some more psychological. But, it seems to me that there is virtually no defined, observable standard for the practice of mental health professionals offering premarital counseling.
If you’re getting married within the traditions of an American religious institution, many clergy require some encounter with premarital counseling.
The couple sits down with a priest, pastor, rabbi or cleric, and together they … what, exactly? Talk about in-laws? The proper care and management of toothpaste tubes? Toilet seats? Gender roles? Sexual etiquette? Fighting 101?
To say the least, as I watched, over the years, the near random variations in the practice of premarital counseling by the many and varied providers thereof, I couldn’t help but think of the process as often more a gauntlet, sometimes more a hazing then an edifying and helpful encounter.
So, I weigh in with my own collection of clinical and social presuppositions and prejudices. Here’s a brief overview of my curriculum, as such, in premarital counseling …
What is marriage? I’m convinced that modern couples reach for marriage as an unconscious, instinctual reflex. How else could a young man, married a few years, sit on my couch and say with a straight face, like he possesses an actual grievance, “Why should I have to tell her where I’m going and what I’m doing and when I’m coming back!”
I always want to shrug and say, “Uh … because you’re married?”
So, I invite couples to investigate the question “What is marriage?”
What are its anthropological origins? What provoked its evolution? Why do it at all? Can you articulate the difference between getting married and emotionally committed cohabitation? Would you say the differences are merely a question of legality and social conformity? Or do you believe marriage has a deeper, ontic/symbolic value?
I invite couples to investigate the paradoxical dance of “I” and “We.”
We can’t participate in the joys of “We” unless we nurture a healthy “I.” Yet, the only way, ultimately, to wield a healthy “I” is to throw yourself headlong into the Radical We. So, let’s discuss the equation of “separateness and connectedness.” And trust me when I say the two of you will be negotiating this equation every day for the rest of your lives.
I urgently recommend - OK, implore - that couples get it out of their head that great love can merely and always “flow.” That vital and thriving marriage can “just be natural.” Yes, sometimes your marriage will flow. But, when flow happens - which isn’t all the time - it happens in the context of conscious intention and rigor. Every day we decide - again - to show up for the work of intimacy. Every day we choose - again - to work for the happiness and wholeness of our life partner. Marriage can and does yield big feelings; but, it’s not about feelings. It’s about committed, inspired action.
Fidelity. Presence. So, stop waiting around for a feeling.
I invite couples to talk through family-of-origin. What did you love and admire about your parents’ marriage? What did you not respect about their marriage? What are your models for love and family?
And, lastly, I try my best to deliver urgent warnings …
Never, ever forget that everything about this culture is antithetical to the nurture of marriage. Atrophy and erosion of the marriage bond is a “camel’s nose, sliding slowly under the tent.” You won’t notice until it’s too late. So, think of your marriage as Castle We. Stay vigilant. Walk the castle walls every day, looking for decay, crumbling bricks, or anything and anyone who would assail these walls.
Come to marriage counseling in time! Don’t stockpile resentment for eight to 12 years and then expect therapy to save you. Come while the bond still thrives. And, if/when your mate comes to invite you to therapy, should you then say, “I don’t need therapy … You go if you want,” … then, just know this is a singularly absurd thing to say. Near delusional.
And, the last warning: The majority of divorces in America are clinically unnecessary. That is, there is no inherent pathology in the union. The problems you hope you can remediate with divorce will go with you into your new, single life, blooming again in your next relationship. Divorce is, in most cases, a bill of goods.
I’d love to hear from other therapists about their curriculums.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.