Considering that half of all divorces will occur within the first 7 years of marriage, premarital counseling seems like a no-brainer in today’s world. My practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist is focused on proactively transforming nearly newlyweds into competent love birds by teaching The Gottman Method: Drs. John and Julie Gottman’s key, research-based principles for making marriage long-lasting and harmonious. Here are a few of the skills I focus on with premarital couples in my own practice:
Building Love Maps
It does not seem to matter whether couples cohabited for a decade or are fresh-faced 20-somethings. They still manage to update their love maps by going through the Love Map Card Deck. I host a weekly small group of premarital couples and use the Love Map Card Deck to play the “Newlywed” game. Questions that stumped couples this week were: What is your partner’s social security number? and What is your partner’s secret ambition? Do you know the answers to these questions?
Practice good communication skills
From the very beginning, I start building on the necessary skills for good communication, leading up to mastery of the stress-reducing conversation. Key components to good communication are:
- Listen without offering advice or trying to solve your partner’s problems.
- Communicate empathy for the speaker. Ex: “That is stressful for you. I’m sorry you had a rough week at work.”
- Listen to your partner as well as you listen to your boss. Often we communicate more clearly with our c0-workers than our significant others. Remember to give your partner the same undivided attention you would give your boss. Turn off those cell phones, televisions, and laptops, and be sure to maintain eye contact. Let your partner know you are listening by nodding your head or giving verbal cues that indicate you are following.
- Communicate your feelings. I’m always surprised how often couples express their thoughts, desires, and wishes without expressing their emotions and feelings. Specifically, I observe many men that start statements with “I feel…” but skip right over the feeling into a thought. It can take quite a bit of coaching to bring men out of their heads and into their hearts, but once they are able to express the feelings behind their wants and desires, a deeper level of understanding will ensue. I have watched women melt as their male partners properly use “I feel” statements.
Start fresh with rituals for connection
One of the most exciting parts about starting a life together is starting new traditions. How will you celebrate your anniversary? Thanksgiving? What will dinner time be like in your household? What traditions did you enjoy in your family of origin and how would you like to implement them in your new family? I love the open-ended questions in the Rituals of Connection Card Deck.
Discussing problems or issues
Processing disagreements is stressful enough. When couples have a specific plan for processing disagreements and feel competent in the skills of communicating through conflict, the stress goes right out the window. When the stress is removed, couples are able to think logically through problem-solving.
As with any new skill, the more it is practiced, the easier it becomes. If the goal of premarital counseling is to thoughtfully prepare couples for a lifetime of partnership, Dr. John Gottman’s research and his “7 Principles for Making Marriage Work” provide a wonderful model for helping to create a firm foundation for a long-lasting and happy marriage.