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  • Will Gutterson

Should we get pre-marriage counselling?

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

I once heard a story about a clergyman who conducted premarital counselling by asking couples only two questions: who would do the housework, and where were the couple going to spend Christmas/ significant family holidays? The sage clergyman recognised that these two questions span the gamut from the minutiae of the everyday, right through to the significance of family loyalty. He felt that if a couple can answer both questions, everything else will fall into place. Or will it?

While these questions are a good start, I recommend deeper consultation through a range of topics. A good place to start is the wedding itself. While often seen as the bride’s purview, the wedding day is also a test for how the couple can navigate concepts such as cooperation, difference, disagreement, and compromise.

Planning for the event will be beset by a myriad of choices – venue, budget, guest list and size, plus the meaning and significance behind the ceremony itself. And what about things that aren’t acknowledged or said. This might include unconscious or unvoiced elements within each person’s past history and expectations, that sit alongside the invisible influences of family, friends, religion, culture, class, gender roles, LGBT issues if relevant, and society as a whole. A veritable minefield!

Expectations and ‘shoulds’ are useful topics. What does each partner expect of the roles of husband, wife, father and mother?

How couples argue and disagree is also an important issue to discuss. I try and help couples find names for the method of their communication, usually starting from saying how each couple feels at any given moment during conflict. All couples fight, but angry exchanges full of blame only exacerbate and cement conflict. Badgering a partner to respond or answer a concern is also a dead end. Conversely, avoiding talking about conflict is also a road to nowhere. Therefore, couples should agree how and when to talk about important issues – every day is too often, every month is too infrequent.

I always cover the topic of repair and reconciliation whenever I counsel pre-wedding couples. Every couple, at every stage, will have challenges, rough patches, hurdles to overcome, and burdens to bear. Life can be chaotic and unpredictable. And coping with the good times is usually a doddle, but how couples repair from conflict and rupture is where the real work of a relationship occurs.

I believe it is critical that couples learn both how to express themselves, and how to listen. Using “I” statements is a good rule of thumb for letting your partner know how you feel and where you stand on an issue. Expressing your views rather than assuming your partner agrees, and doing it in a timely way helps resolve both the important and petty issues without letting them fester. When couples avoid working through difference and disagreement, feelings and concerns become buried – but not forgotten. Those swallowed feelings, like Whack-a-Mole, unwillingly reappear in another form, at another time, and never go away unless forgiven, or the couple concludes they respectfully “agree to disagree” and decide to move on.

And returning to our wise clergyman, who will cook, clean, polish, choose the family car, pay the rent, take care of the children? Do both partners want children? Will they adopt of they can’t have children of their own? Perhaps there are some unexpressed rules or expectations about marriage or becoming a committed couple? Were your parents a role-model, or their dynamic something to avoid at all costs, or something in between?

An Exercise: A prospective couple may want to conduct this exercise: Divide a piece of paper in four and title across each quadrant: A Husband Should... A Wife Should… A Mother Should… A Father Should… Work separately over the next few days filling in each quadrant from your own viewpoint. Then, compare answers. Where do you see eye to eye? Were there any surprises in what you wrote? Or in what you partner wrote? The exercise is a great way to kickstart a discussion about your views about partnership and parenthood, if that is where your direction of travel. The purpose of all the exercise is not to score how much you agree – or even don’t see eye to eye. The point is to understand how your partner sees the world and find out how much adjustment you need to make to accommodate that view. For as we all know, the only person you have the power to change is yourself. So can you live with dirty socks, the snoring, unwashed dishes, days of silence, short temperedness, a night owl?

And of course there’s the issue of intimacy and the sexual relationship. What role does sex play in the worldview of each partner? Is sex about pleasure, bonding, expressing love, physical release, exploring dominance and hostility, repairing after a fight, having a baby? There are endless reasons why people are sexual. How will a couple handle any phases of non-sexuality? How does the other partner feel about masturbation and pornography? Is sex only penetrative? There are a myriad of nuances to this important issue within the couple dynamic.

I suppose this all leads to the question, should we get prenuptial counselling? If most of the questions or issues listed above are new ideas to you as a couple, then you may want to find someone to help you think through your views and help your each understand what obstacles or traps may lie ahead – alongside with the hopes and positive dreams of your future married/committed life together.

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