Andrew Cherlin (The Marriage-Go-Round, 2009) highlights problems inherent in our cultural ideology that lead to divorce. For example, we prize and promote individualism in the US (e.g. self-expression, self-seeking), which undermines a readiness to sacrifice, compromise, and collaborate, which is so necessary for marriages to succeed. Common problems include equating sex with love, and judging the relationship based on how much attention you receive from your partner, rather than on your own efforts to be kind and giving. Marriage is a complex relationship. Napier has succinctly stated, “Marriage involves learning to be both separate and together, learning to allocate power, learning to play and to work together, and [for some] perhaps the greatest challenge of all, learning to rear another generation.”1
Choosing your marriage partner is possibly the most important decision impacting your ability to thrive in so many areas (e.g. work, community, child-rearing). Premarital counseling helps to identify potential problems, and solidify long-term commitments by managing distress in constructive versus debilitating ways. Some states promote premarital counseling or education (Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Minnesota, West Virginia). Debates are ongoing about the number of hours necessary and the type of premarital preparation most effective, as well as who should provide the services (e.g. pastors/clergy, licensed counselors, social workers, psychologists, etc.).
Premarital programs generally cover such areas as developmental stages of marriage, the division of tasks, communication skills, conflict management, intimacy, financial responsibilities, children, parenting and more. A number of associations offer invaluable information on this topic (e.g. the National Resource Center for Healthy Marriage and Families, the National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education). James Ponsetti compiled a current systematic assessment of the ways couples can learn specific skills to improve and maintain their relationships in Evidence-based Approaches to Relationship and Marriage Education (2016).
The first year of marriage is usually the most difficult when couples discover how they differ from each other in key areas. Much of the deterioration in the relationship occurs during the first five years. The couple may lack important communication skills to resolve differences. They can become emotionally reactive, repeat the same arguments, frequently criticize each other, and become increasingly defensive and resentful. Disappointments and emotional reactivity are also impacted by each partner’s “attachment style,” which is determined by the quality of bonds in primary relationships with parents or other caregivers.
The customary process for premarital counseling involves exploring the couple’s experience together, and choosing one or more compatibility assessments.2 Two sessions are devoted to meeting with each partner individually to understand the impact of family-of-origin dynamics on the couple’s perceptions and behaviors. Couples tend to resurrect unresolved dilemmas and patterns from their family of origins in their relationship. After developing increased awareness, they then learn important communication and conflict resolution skills. A final session is devoted to discussing ongoing recommendations.
The wedding itself will last only a few hours. The marriage is intended to last a lifetime. If you plan to marry this year, please invest some time in premarital preparation to maximize your chances of success.
1(Napier, A. Y. (2000). Making a marriage. In W. C. Nichols, M. A. Pace-Nichols, D. S. Becvar, & A. Y. Napier (Eds.), Handbook of family development and intervention (pp. 145–170). New York: Wiley.)
2e.g. PREPARE, RELATE, FOCCUS, PAIRS, Myers-Briggs, Gottman Relationship Check-Up, Fraley’s Attachment Survey, etc.