With South Africa having one of the highest divorce rates in the world, could premarital counselling help prepare a couple for marriage? We talk to relationships expert and marital counsellor Dr Mary Ovenstone about the dynamics of this form of counselling.
What exercises are done during premarital counselling sessions?
The first step in premarital counselling is to make a list of what each wants and expects in a relationship. Then they need to decide what are non-negotiable needs and expectations. If their lists clash, they should decide to separate. For example, if one wants kids and the other doesn't, or if one insists on raising the kids in a religion to which the other objects, those will be sources of conflict and heartache until they eventually split. After they take an honest look at their non-negotiables, they can begin to acknowledge and prioritise their negotiable needs and desires, and make strategies to deal with their differences. A good counsellor should help them with this. The more these things can be dealt with up-front, the fewer arguments and hurt feelings in the days to come. I like to see the couple together and also see each alone. That way I can help each individual get to the bottom of his or her issues about commitment, and feelings and fears about relationship.
What benefits does seeing a premarital counsellor bring to the relationship in the long run?
When a couple is clear about what they can realistically expect from their partner and from the relationship, they are more focused on working towards that and not on achieving the impossible and complaining about not getting it. Seeing a good relationship counsellor is essential. Their objectivity and knowledge can shed light on the couple's strengths and potential vulnerabilities. They can teach the couple good communication and conflict-resoution skills. And they can explain the real differences between men and women to cut through the couple's assumptions about each other.
When a partner in the relationship changes their mind about getting married often, what can this be attributed to and how can it be worked on?
When couples postpone their wedding, it usually indicates they are experiencing conflicts they haven't got the skills to solve on their own. They should seek a good counsellor to get to the root of their problems.
Wedding blues are sometimes experienced by one or both partners before the wedding. What should be done when this happens?
It's a common problem for one or the other party to threaten to leave when they feel angry, hurt or anxious beyond what they can resolve or when they feel out of control. What they're really trying to convey is how badly they feel and that they want the partner to hear them and to do what they ask, but they are using a threat that will only hurt, scare and anger the partner. It never is a good idea to threaten to leave, as the partner will go into a defensive, self-protective mode and will shut down. No one should threaten to leave until they really mean to go; it rips at the fabric of the commitment. How can a couple trust or believe in the power of their commitment to each other if they keep threatening to leave each other?
How far into a courtship or engagement should a couple undertake premarital counselling?
As soon as they are engaged or are starting to talk about marriage. They need to learn the skills necessary to build a healthy relationship as soon as they commit to each other and before they start to have problems that develop in to resentment and hurt. Knowledge and skills make all the difference in avoiding hurtful and ineffective behaviours.
What advice do you give couples who are having a tough time making important decisions regarding their wedding date, where they are going to live and other important decisions?
There are times that are difficult for all couples to handle and when they need counselling, such as when work/life balance is disrupted by workplace issues, when raising kids stimulates conflict, or when one of the partners is going through a life-stage transition. It's wiser to get the third party expert in soon, so as to avoid arguments, resentment, alienation and affairs.
Should counselling be an ongoing process even after marriage?
Once a couple has done pre-marital counselling with me, they have access to me in the future whenever they need to gain insight about an issue or to resolve difficult conflicts.
In your experience, do couples who undergo premarital counseling stay together for longer?
In my experience a couple who start out with conscious awareness of their previously unnamed expectations about relationships have a much better chance. Understanding the actual differences between men and women and how they think and make decisions, process feelings and relate differently is imperative. All couples need support in seeing themselves realistically as individuals, and in getting the support they need to understand the other. There are some simple communication and conflict-resolution skills they should start out using before they hurt and alienate each other. While there are very difficult transitions we all go through in life that can really put stress on a relationship, our partner and family can prove to be our greatest support during these times with the help of some good counselling.