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Dating Maze #251 -Pre-Marital Counseling

May 8, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

They've been arguing the past six years, and now their wedding is coming up. Help!

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I am 27 and am engaged to a man that I have been dating for six years. We talked about getting engaged for a long time, but he seemed very uncertain due to our many ups and downs. About a year and a half ago we had a very bad "down" period when we were arguing almost daily. I was considering breaking up, and when I told him, he suggested couple's counseling and it was initially successful. Before we finished our treatment, he proposed. I was hesitant because things weren't yet fully worked out, but he assured me he was "going to change." Things stayed pretty good and we got our arguments down to weekly minor disagreements. We had clearly not worked everything out, but my fiance decided he had enough of therapy and ended the treatment prematurely.

Last month I went on a 10-day vacation without him. I thought about our problems constantly, and I didn't miss him at all! When I returned, instead of feeling happy to be back I felt a strong sense of tension. My trip gave me the space to mull everything over. I realized how different we are. He doesn't open up to me -- I feel like I know very little about his opinions and perspectives. Lastly, the trip reminded me that I am still young and don't need to settle for something I am unsure of.

And then there is the recurring issue that we've had since the start of our relationship. We are constantly at each other's throats because he has a quick temper and is very insecure. He often feels like I am criticizing him when I am not. When I do have a genuine complaint about how something is being handled, rather than addressing my feelings, he screams at me for "complaining" about him. I've tried staying calm, giving him space to cool down, biting my tongue -- nothing works. It escalates into a long argument and, usually, a screaming match. Then he cools off, feels terrible, and apologizes. But again, my initial feelings about what was bothering me are rarely addressed. It's very frustrating. He refuses to seek additional counseling.

All this said, I responded, "yes," when he proposed because he is one of the most honest, trustworthy, trusting, and loyal people I have ever met. He is sweet and kind and incredibly generous with his time, attention, and help. He may not share or understand my passions, but he respects them and allows me the space to pursue my professional and personal goals. We also make each other laugh as loud and hard as we make each other scream.

I am obviously in a quagmire. I am not sure if I should go through with the wedding which is only four months away. I need to make a decision quickly before we invest any more financial and emotional resources into the event. Help!


Dear Sharon,

It's not uncommon for engaged people to feel somewhat apprehensive about their upcoming marriage and to occasionally wonder if they have made the right decision about whom to marry. Most of these people are experiencing pre-wedding jitters that are the result of anxiety about the overwhelming preparations for the wedding day, setting up a new home, and making a major change in the way they will be living their lives. When they have an opportunity to review the essence of their relationship, they gain clarity about whether or not they are marrying the right person.

In many cases, concerns about an upcoming marriage are justified. A person may realize that the one they plan to marry is really not right for them, and that they became engaged in response to pressure or because they were carried away by the moment. They may realize that they didn't know the other person as well as they should and are now discovering character traits or relationship dynamics that they may never be able to come to terms with. And they may realize that even though they care very much for each other, there are unresolved issues that may derail their efforts to build a good life together.

When this happens, as in your case, you need to take the time to gain the clarity to help decide what to do. There are typically three choices:

1) You decide that you can come to accept what you are now learning about your future spouse or the relationship.

2) You decide that you would like to work on relationship dynamics or unresolved issues with the person you plan to marry.

3) You come to understand that the best decision is to end the engagement.

Any of these choices can be the right one, but choice #2 requires that the couple must share their desire to improve the relationship and be willing to address issues that arise between them. Relationship dynamics and unresolved issues arise from the differences between two people, and they can only be resolved by changes that those two people can make. There's no such thing as coming to pre-marriage counseling and saying the other person has to be fixed.

It seems to us that you are having a problem with the following issues:

He doesn't share many of your passions. In fact, that isn't necessary for a healthy relationship. You could love music, and he can love baseball. What is important is that you respect each other's passions, find a balance between your personal interests and the ones you share together, and are willing to occasionally make compromises for the other person's interests -- such as one sometimes accompanying the other to a ball game or concert, or alternating choices for vacations and trips.

He doesn't open up to you in conversations. Good communication is an important element in a marriage. Most married people don't need to know their spouse's every idea and perspective, or agree with them. However, there are many times that each partner must be able to open up to the other and share thoughts, feelings and opinions. This is one way to develop and sustain emotional intimacy -- the feeling of connectedness that married people should have. If your fiance tends to have difficulty opening up, he can best address this on a one-to-one basis. Some people can learn to do this on their own, often with the help of a friend or a self-help book. Others find that a therapist can be the most helpful.

On the other hand, your fiance may be reluctant to open up to you, even though he is capable of doing so. His reluctance can be part of the general dynamic you've described. His often feeling that you are critical, and his losing his temper, and your reaction to this, are all part of an unhealthy way of interacting. This is not going to go away by itself, without the help of a third party.

We have never been fans of pre-marital counseling to "create a relationship" where none exists. It won't make people like each other or create a feeling of connectivity. It won't unite two people whose goals, values and worldviews are vastly different. However, counseling can help a couple who has compatible values and goals and cares about each other develop the skills that can vastly improve their style of communicating and interacting with each other.

In fact, it would be helpful for all engaged couples -- even those who feel that their relationship is proceeding smoothly -- to attend a pre-marital counseling/preparation program. These help couples begin their marriages with basic skills that other couples only acquire through painful trial and error, and that less-fortunate couples never acquire at all. Since building a good marriage is a work in progress, many of these programs have a second component for couples in their first years of marriage, to enable them to fine-tune the skills they have learned.

These pre-marital workshops are usually offered to a small group of couples. However, we would recommend that you go instead for private counseling, since you care very much for each other but already recognize that the way you are interacting is making you miserable. You can each learn optimal ways to express your needs, thoughts and feelings, and become more sensitized to your partner. Counseling will also help you learn why you push each other's buttons and how to change the dynamic that you have unwittingly created. You can learn more productive ways to react to each other, to conduct an argument, to resolve disputes, and to come to terms with those differences in opinion, taste, and style of doing things that always exist when two people are in a relationship.

We can't emphasize enough: For this counseling to succeed, both partners have to understand that each of them plays a role in the dynamic they wish to change, and that they each have things to learn and changes to make. That means it isn't just an issue of his perception of being criticized, or his losing his temper, or you unsuccessfully trying to control your anger. Each partner should realize that the fact you need help isn't a sign that there is something "wrong" with either of you, or that you are not right for each other, or that your marriage is not meant to succeed.

We don't believe that the issues you have raised in your letter will resolve themselves without the guidance of another person. You and your fiance have already seen that counseling was helpful to your relationship. However, because you've been together a long time, changing many of the unproductive ways you interact with each other may take a while. If each of you is willing to return to counseling, invest the time and effort, open yourselves up to change, and consider counseling an ongoing effort that will probably continue during your early marriage, you could be on the way to building an enduring, fulfilling life together.

Our sense is that without this, you are headed for even more intense arguments after your marriage. We believe that premarital counseling is the optimal choice for the two of you, but ultimately you and your fiance have to decide if you want to make a firm commitment to counseling, take your chances by marrying without getting help to improve the dynamic between you, or ending your engagement. So we suggest that you share with him -- as soon as possible -- some the ideas we've outlined here.

Wishing you the best,

Rosie & Sherry


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