No matter how perfect you are as a couple — regardless of the fact that you want to spend every waking moment together, share similar life goals and can finish each other's sentences — you are bound to differ from your partner in at least a few important ways over the course of a long marriage. Instead of waiting for potential problems to pop up, couples therapy provides an outlet — an education, if you will — and helps people who are in love get to know themselves and their partners better so they can maintain their connection over time, no matter what obstacles are thrown their way.
"There is a pervasive myth that somehow happy couples just agree on everything automatically all the time," said Dr. Tina Tessina, Ph.D. (aka "Dr. Romance") psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. "Believing this myth, we enter relationships convinced that whatever problems or differences we have with our partners will be easy to solve. But, in reality, the individuals who make up a partnership will disagree frequently, and often struggle over even minor issues."
Here are seven crucial issues that can be addressed in newlywed or pre-marital couples counseling.
Seems easy enough to say you want to commit to one person for the rest of your life, right? But the word "commitment" has different meanings for different people and it's important you're on the same page with your partner. "Whether you know it or not, you and your partner will define your relationship," Tessina said. "If you don't know what your relationship means to both of you, you risk repeating past mistakes, getting stuck in uncomfortable roles, or fighting about what a healthy relationship is. Talk about what you mean by words such as relationship, commitment, love, and faithfulness. You'll be amazed by what you learn."
After sex, money is the biggest generator of problems in marriage, Tessina said — which isn't a huge surprise, is it? When we get married, a lot of us assume we should pool our money and share and share alike — if only it were that simple. "A disparity in income can mean struggling about who pays for what, or whose income determines your lifestyle," Tessina said. "Different financial habits (one likes to save, the other spends more, or doesn't keep track) can become a source of argument. For many couples, separating your money makes things run smoother; you don't wind up struggling for control. You can split expenses evenly, or work out a percentage share if your incomes are different." Financial matters become a lot easier to solve when you have the help of an objective third party.
Let's face it: Unless you've been blessed with extraordinary in-laws, it can be difficult to learn how to marry an entire family — which is kind of what you do when you marry any one person. Tessina explains family issues that can be addressed in therapy: "If one of you has a lot of family or friends, and the other does not, you can find out what those relationships mean. Where will you spend holidays? If there are family members who have problems, such as addiction or mental illness, how much will that impact your relationship?"
Many newlyweds, who can barely keep their hands off of each other, would laugh their heads off at the idea that they could use help in the sex department. But a marriage is for life (we hope) and Dr. Robert Jaffe at Open Horizons Therapy reminds us that many people have unaddressed sexual insecurities and fantasies they don't feel comfortable bringing up. Instead of crossing your fingers that they go away, therapy helps make the couple feel comfortable discussing sex and resolving potential issues.
In my opinion, one of the worst parts about being married, especially if you're an introvert who prefers to bottle up her feelings, is that you simply don't have the luxury of skipping town for a few days when the going gets rough. "We all get upset from time to time," Tessina said. "If you are usually good at diffusing each other's anger, and being supportive through times of grief or pain, your emotional bond will deepen as time goes on. If your tendency is to react to each other and make the situation more volatile and destructive, you need to correct that problem."
"No one is trained to know what the important questions are to ask a prospective mate," Jaffe said. "Usually, the only training we get about intimate relationships comes from observing the interaction between our parents, and the parents of a few of our friends. The selection of a mate is often done without thoroughly thinking through many of the issues that will surface in the relationship."
Therapy allows new couples to ask each other questions they might not have previously thought were important. "We may ask our prospective mate how many children he/she wants, but not what child rearing practices they favor," Jaffe said. "Is one person messy, and the other neat, and how will they handle the difference? Do you like my friends, and do I like yours? Is one person outgoing and the other introverted? How will the two of you handle that? Then there is the issue of the style of communication. Generally, we interpret information in three different ways: audio, visual, and kinesthetic (feelings). If one partner uses visual processing (I see what you're saying) and the other partner uses kinesthetic (this doesn't feel right to me), the potential for miscommunication is heightened."
Even if things are mostly roses and chocolate right now, if a couple is open enough to seek counseling as newlyweds, it speaks volumes about how much they value their relationship and the steps they'll be open to taking later on, should bigger problems ever surface. "While nothing can insure that a couple will stay married for a specific length of time, if both people have had a positive experience with pre-marital counseling, their chances of resolving their difficulties are significantly increased by their willingness to seek professional help later on," Jaffe said.
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