“Why would you want to do premarital counseling?” I asked my fiancée. “People go to a counselor when they’re about to break up. We get along fine. I won’t know what to say.” The months-long argument, which began as a joke when we first started dating, was now serious.
In my independent American male mind, seeing a counselor implies some dysfunction, and I like to think that ours is not a dysfunctional relationship. So it was difficult for me to understand why we should invest a significant amount of time and money into talking to a complete stranger. And of course I was terrified of being forced to say to my friends, “Well, guys, enjoy the game; it’s time for my counseling appointment.” I eventually conceded by offering to pay for her to see a counselor if she really needed to see one.
Once we began planning for a life-long marriage, however, we realized that a major cause of marriage failure is that couples aren’t ready to adjust from single life and don’t spend adequate time preparing for this intense relationship. No major decision in life is settled without careful planning, arrangement and study, and the decision to marry should receive the same careful preparation and training. I took counsel from Sun Tzu in The Art of War: “The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources.” (Okay, so I made myself feel better about counseling by quoting a warrior … so what—it worked for me.)
[DIVORCE: THE DEFEAT OF A MARRIAGE]
Every couple is sure to encounter battles. Obviously, your spouse is not the enemy, but all relationships have a number of “enemies” or obstacles. The key to a successful relationship—one that not only avoids separation but also serves as a satisfying, central part of the individual’s life—is in identifying these obstacles and learning to overcome them.
Face it—if marriage is a battle, our national statistics indicate that Americans are losing. It was recently estimated that a full 10 percent of the American adult population is currently divorced. Studies conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that anywhere from 43 to 50 percent of recent marriages in this country will end in divorce. The divorce rate among professing Christians is virtually identical to that of “unsaved” individuals.
The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a national nonprofit group of family law attorneys working to improve the welfare of the family, cites the chief reasons marriages fail:
· Poor communication
· Financial problems
· A lack of commitment to the marriage
· A dramatic change in priorities
· Failed expectations or unmet needs
· Addictions and substance abuse
· Physical, sexual or emotional abuse
· Lack of conflict resolution skills
These pressure points, left unresolved, will destroy any relationship. Sadly, many couples are simply not prepared to work through these issues. Even if actual divorce never takes place, any one of these factors can lead to emotional divorce and marital torture.
[MARRIAGE PREPARATION: BATTLE STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS]
If love and marriage are so unstable, how can sane individuals reduce this risk? The answer is wise preparation before you and your partner marry. Premarital counseling can usually predict with 80 to 85 percent accuracy whether or not a couple will stay together. And as you work on improving communication and conflict resolution skills, you will root out the problems that create miserable marriages and will steadily improve the fulfillment your marriage brings.
The success of marriage preparation is well documented. Dozens of cities around the nation are implementing “Community Marriage Policies” designed to improve marriage and reduce divorce rates. Area clergy members require couples considering marriage to undergo certain minimums in premarital counseling. Additionally, counseling with clergy or with older mentoring couples is made available.
Marriage Savers, Inc., co-founded by Mike and Harriet McManus, is a ministry dedicated to implementing community marriage policies. Marriage Savers reports that since adopting the original marriage policy, the area divorce rate in Modesto, Calif., has dropped by more than 30 percent, while the national rate was only falling by 1.3 percent. After only two years of participating in the program, the Kansas City, Kan., rate has dropped by 35 percent. Similar trends are seen in other cities that have implemented marriage-friendly policies.
The goal of premarital counseling is to prevent small problems from developing and to equip couples with the tools to build successful and satisfying marriages.
[RESOURCES: THE TOOLS OF WAR]
What can you expect from your sessions? The main goals are learning effective communication styles, resolving conflict, identifying areas of agreement and disagreement, understanding personality differences and discussing expectations.
Resources for engaged couples are seemingly infinite. First, many area counselors, both secular and Christian-based, can be found in the yellow pages under "Marriage Counselors." The American Association of Christian Counselors is an excellent online referral network.
Most counselors use professionally administered personality assessments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or the Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis® (T-JTA). My fiancée and I were given the T-JTA, which measures personality traits (nervous/composed, depressive/light-hearted, active-social/quiet) and helps individuals better understand themselves and their perceptions of their partner. The test identifies differences in personalities and potential problems that could develop. A skilled counselor can use this tool to suggest aspects of the relationship that need strengthening.
Life Innovations, Inc. offers the PREPARE program, which is designed to help premarital couples identify relationship strengths and growth areas, develop assertiveness and active listening skills and resolve conflict. It provides discussion tools to explore family backgrounds and marriage expectations.
In addition to professional counseling services, many churches are recognizing the importance of marriage preparation and provide counseling with the pastor or older Christian couples. This is an excellent way to recognize common marriage pitfalls and specific areas of conflict.
Finally, a host of premarital and marriage books are designed for couples to work though together. We have spent many hours on the couch or at the coffee shop reading and working through relationship exercises.
Marriage is a huge commitment and preparing for it gives you a taste of how much work you will be required to invest. The payoff is in understanding your partner and working as a team to overcome the pressures that will challenge your marriage. And as Sun Tzu assures, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
Fighting For Your Marriage, by Howard J. Markman
The Mystery of Marriage, by Mike Mason
The Marriage Builder, Larry Crabb
The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman
Marriage Savers, Michael McManus
Saving Your Marriage Before it Starts, Les and Leslie Parrot
A Lasting Promise, Scott Stanley
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