Divorce-proofing your marriage
by HCTG Staff Writer Patrick Totty, Illustrations by Michael Tse
She thinks: “He’s my soulmate. He listens to me, he’s passionate—but tender when I need him to be—and he’s so good-looking. My girlfriends adore him. There are a few small things I’d like him to change, but I’m sure that will happen once we’re married.”
He thinks: “She’s so beautiful that my heart stops every time she walks in the room. And she loves me! She even likes watching sports! We never argue about anything. Being married to her is going to be like living in paradise.”
A potent combination of love, desire and giddiness have inspired this pair—and many more like them—to envision a perfect future together. What else could they possibly need?
Well, it turns out there is one more thing: premarital counseling. Despite the elation of having found Mr. or Ms. Right, many couples are realizing that love is not always enough once the honeymoon is over and their marriage settles down into a long-haul partnership.
“Most people know somebody who’s been divorced, including members of their own family,” says Michelle Gannon, a San Francisco-based psychologist who has counseled pre-marrieds for 15 years. “They really want to make sure their relationship is going to last, and they see counseling sessions or workshops as a kind of marriage insurance.”
Gannon and her husband, Patrick Gannon, conduct private sessions as well as a weekend workshop for couples called Marriage Prep 101. The course teaches the same communication techniques that research says most happily married couples use to stay together.
Beyond concerns with divorce, says Patrick Gannon, “people realize that it’s not all about love and lust.” Those two elemental forces are fine for creating and sustaining a couple’s initial attraction, but for relationship longevity they have to be accompanied by something more. That “something,” says counselor Mary Pat “MP” Wylie, Ph.D., is a set of practical skills. Wylie, founder of Irvine-based Wylie Relationship Systems, says, “The more skills couples have going into a marriage, the better prepared they are for the hurdles that inevitably come up.”
Those hurdles often exist even before the wedding ceremony. “According to a Creighton University study, sex, money and time are the big three issues that surface during premarital sessions,” says Patrick Gannon. “With sex, the concern is maintaining a mutually satisfying sex life not just during year one, but throughout the entire marriage.”
“Money issues tend to come up after marriage,” he says. “That’s when the person who’s earning more may become possessive or controlling about where money goes.” Even so, says Michelle Gannon, many couples grapple with money concerns well before they tie the knot. “In much of California they have to face the high cost of supporting a household in an expensive urban area. And they often have to resolve the issue of credit card debt: do they share it or not? pay it off before the wedding or bring it into the marriage?” She also sees couples getting mired in debt even before they’ve begun married life by plunking down a small fortune on their wedding—often as much as $30,000 or $40,000.
The third most common issue, time, usually comes up around work, especially if one partner perceives the other is spending—or will be spending—too much time working. On the other hand, couples also have to determine what they think is enough time together and enough time apart to keep the relationship happy. Time also impinges on sex. “Is there as much lovemaking as both partners desire?” asks Michelle Gannon. She teaches that, as unromantic as it sounds, married couples eventually need to schedule sex. “That’s just the reality of married life once routines and responsibilities impose themselves.”
Otherwise, she warns, newlyweds can become part of a gloomy statistic: 20% of married couples make love 10 or fewer times per year. Or they may drift into affairs—current statistics show that 44% of married men and 25% of married women will have one. “We suggest that sex doesn’t always require fireworks, and it doesn’t always have to end in intercourse or orgasm. Simple affection is sometimes all you need at the moment.”
Other issues include in-laws, religion, interracial relationships and children. “Cultural or religious differences often emerge when planning a wedding,” says Patrick Gannon. “A common stumbling block is what faith to raise the kids in.” That leads to the question of how many kids to have or whether to have kids at all. “Engagements are rarely cancelled,” says Michelle Gannon, “but when they are, it’s usually over the issue of children.” She remembers one couple where the man had had a vasectomy at 19, yet his fiancée kept waiting for him to reverse it. She pressured him with the old “If you love me, you’ll do this for me,” and her tactic backfired—he called off the wedding.
Wylie often works on reconciling peoples’ inherited ideas about how to be a partner in marriage. “Many couples pattern their roles and expectations after those of their parents, so we’re talking about two separate—and sometimes conflicting—styles,” she says. These stylistic differences may not be problematic early on, when the couple is so much in love they believe they can work through anything together. But at some point the reality of their differences hits home. “Premarital counseling can help them develop a common set of skills to fall back on when trouble arises,” Wylie explains.
Currently, an estimated 60% of engaged couples are already living together, giving rise to an intriguing group that Patrick Gannon calls “the pre-engaged.” These are people who’ve been living together, sometimes for years, and are already past the honeymoon stage before they even get formally engaged. In fact, they’ve been together long enough for differences to crystallize—the kind of differences that can strain a relationship beyond repair.
“They’re at the ‘Seven Year Itch’ stage,” he says, “which in reality most often appears in the fifth year. People start asking themselves the question, ‘Did I make the right choice?’” Gannon says the question and what prompts it are normal in a long-term relationship. “The skill is in knowing what to do at this point. The worst thing to do is avoid issues. Couples can become strangers to each other as they tiptoe around problems.”
Nancy Landrum, a pastoral counselor based in Anaheim Hills, leads classes with her husband, Jim, and conducts personal sessions by herself. “The first thing I do is take a ‘relationship inventory’ of a couple’s attitudes,” she says. “It will often reveal assumptions that may not be mutual, such as having children.”
She and her husband are very directive, even to the point of assigning homework, including reading, exercises and basic skills to practice. At their workshops, the Landrums team up to present skits based on their personal experiences. “When others see the foibles and problems we’re illustrating, it puts them at ease and gives them hope that their own problems are solvable,” says Landrum.
Rebecca Herrero, at Creative Transformation in San Anselmo, offers counseling over 10 one-hour sessions. At the beginning, she and the couple create a plan that covers topics of interest to them. “I like to take a complete family history and learn what family roles and myths each person experienced,” she says. “A typical question I might ask is, ‘How did your parents argue or fight? Did they shout or shut down and sulk?’ This invariably has an impact on the marital relationship.”
Herrero’s approach, which she calls Conjoint Couples Therapy, takes a slightly different direction than other counseling strategies. “I work mostly with one person in the couple, while their partner is present and listening. This process often allows the listening partner to hear new things while in a non-defensive mode.” She also offers Passionate Partner seminars, where she helps couples do away with their fear that marriage will mean the end of romance. “I teach that the opposite is quite possible.”
Counselors agree that one of the most gratifying parts of their work is when couples come back and thank them for their help. “They say that the premarital process we shared deepened their appreciation of marriage and equipped them with tools which enhanced the skills they already had,” says Herrero.
In general, women tend to drive a couple’s decision to attend premarital counseling. “Women are more intuitive than men in sensing the need to discuss and prepare for marriage,” says Patrick Gannon. “Many men approach marriage without a lot of thought about what it takes to keep a relationship going.”
But lest anybody start imagining scenes where women harangue their stubborn mates and drag them off to workshops, Gannon says the truth of the matter is a pleasant surprise. “Engaged men are the most receptive of all to premarital counseling because they feel so close to their fiancées. This is the time when they especially want to please their partner and will go along with the idea.”
Still, he points out that many men are initially reluctant because they don’t see the need for or value of premarital counseling. “And they worry that it’s going to be a touchy-feely experience.” Gannon says counseling is nothing like that. “Our approach is a lot more fun and entertaining. Michelle and I talk about and demonstrate our own relationship to illustrate the dynamics between a man and a woman.” By making themselves the examples, and not directing the spotlight onto anyone else, Gannon says they’re able to get men to relax. “Once they see that what we’re doing makes sense and that we offer many practical ideas, the guys loosen up and enjoy it. They identify with me.”
The hardest part of premarital counseling is deciding to get it. The second hardest part is finding a compatible counselor. Landrum advises looking for a professional who not only has training in communication skills and conflict resolution, but who can articulate a plan of action for you. She also cautions that counselors who focus on “why” questions, such as, “Why do you think you do this or that?” are not as helpful as ones who focus on “how.”
Landrum also warns against counselors who take sides or who offer only one solution to a problem. She recalls dealing with a couple that had been sleeping in separate bedrooms for 18 months. At issue was the wife’s emotional affair with a man at her workplace, which hadn’t yet crossed over into a physical relationship. “The counselor they had been seeing said that the affair was okay, and she advised the couple that divorce was not a shameful option. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that, but the problem was that divorce was the only option the counselor proposed. The husband was hanging in there by his fingertips, getting no help at all, and dreading every session with this counselor.”
The elephant in the living room of premarital counseling is, “Can counseling lead to the breaking off of an engagement?” Landrum says it certainly can. “One of my clients recently called off his wedding because he knew he wasn’t willing to do the work necessary to address the issues that had emerged during our sessions.” The possibility of running into engagement-busting concerns is one reason why Wylie says couples should start premarital counseling at least six months before their wedding date. “If you wait until you’re too close, it’s like dealing with a freight train that has built up so much momentum it can’t be stopped. By then, people feel compelled to marry rather than lose face.”
Whatever perils counseling might pose, Herrero says the good news is that engagements seldom fall apart because of it. “There’s always a risk that a couple will discover they’re not compatible. However, it’s really rare for an incompatibility to surface that cannot be worked through. I can only think of two couples out of over 500 that I have counseled that decided their marriage would be an unwise choice.”
“Success in marriage—like career, children, and all good things in life—requires work,” says Michelle Gannon. “You have to keep working at it. Conflict is inevitable; how you deal with it is what’s important.
Her husband Patrick laments that “for many people, their wedding is the highlight of their marriage. Then it’s downhill from there. They should be looking at their wedding as the foundation, not the finished structure.”
The experts all agree that if couples put as much effort into preparing for their marriage as they put into selecting a reception site, table linens and flowers, they’d be much more likely to live happily ever after. The Big Day is just that—a big day. If you really want to nurture and sustain your marriage over the long term, developing solid relationship skills is the most important investment you can make.