The Taconic Counseling Group
Elisha S. Fisch, Ph.D.The Case for Premarital Relationship Training
I work a lot with couples having trouble. At some time during the work someone invariably says: "I wish we had done this years ago, before all the damage." They're right. It most likely would have made a difference. It is often noted that we are trained for all the important things in life except marriage and child rearing.
All our years in school are simply a long program training us to use our minds and accumulate the necessary knowledge to make it in life, yet we are taught very little about love relationships. No one would hire us for a job of any complexity without adequate training, yet we take on the jobs of spouse and parent, tasks of enormous complexity, without anything other than meager bystander experience. We assume that knowledge about how to make a relationship work is absorbed from the atmosphere.
In fact, that assumption is partly correct. Most of what we know about being human has been absorbed from the atmosphere of our families. We learn from observing, and we observe and acquire information without being aware we are doing so. From living in the presence of our parents, we learn how to have relationships.
The relationship of marriage can be thought of as comprised of a set of functions. If we are very lucky, our parents did most of these functions well and, as a result, what we have absorbed is functional, that is, works well. If we are moderately lucky, our parents did some of these functions well, and what we have absorbed is a mixed bag. If we are unlucky, our parents did few of these functions well, and what we have absorbed could be, well.., improved upon; but we often do not know how to make these improvements.
There is yet another challenge in marriage. Even if what we have learned from our parents is functional, and what our spouse learned from her parents is functional; they will most often be different functional patterns. There is more than one good way to do things. The making of a marriage involves the creation of something new, something that will blend the family culture and patterns of both spouses. Creating that 'something new', as we coordinate the styles, aesthetics, patterns, rituals, and idiosyncratic preferences of both marital partners, is one of the challenging tasks of marriage.
My mother-in-law says that it is easier to bend a young sapling than a grown tree. The same can be said of relationships. The relatively supple quality of the young, courtship stage of a relationship, is frequently filled with generosity and wonder, and is a benign and perfect time to discover differences and similarities, and to begin to address them. Crafting mutually satisfying relationship patterns can be more easily done at this point, before irritations mount, complaints accumulate, and positions harden.
Some religious institutions offer premarital programs, which can often be very useful, especially when they give significant attention to relationship building. In addition to offering some training in relationship skills, these programs can also serve as a diagnostic occasion, alerting partners to the pitfalls they may face in their marriage and how best to manage them. One can apply here the well-worn adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
It is with these goals of training, diagnosis, and prevention, that Taconic Counseling Group offers an 11 session structured program, a personalized experiential survey of marriage that teaches critical ideas as well as providing actual practice in interactional skills. Each session is devoted to one of the functions, or issues, of marriage.
Outline of Sessions
1. Introduction and Assessment Session
2. Getting Better at Intimacy
3 & 4. Improving Your Communication and Listening
5. Learning to Make Decisions and Solve Problems Together
6. Working With Your Anger and Learning to Fight Constructively
7. Appreciating the Families You Come From (the in-law question) and Your Own Differences
8. Clarifying Re-enactment Scenarios - Discovering Tendencies to Play Certain Emotional Roles
9. Who Does What and Who's Responsible For What - Role Definition and Clarification
10. Building For the Future: Your Plans and Your Dreams
11. Concluding Session
Each session includes instructional elements, as well as focused exercises that give participants a chance to practice the skills that are being taught. There are also opportunities to make specific decisions connected to the areas covered. Two examples should illustrate this combination of elements.
Sessions #3 & 4 are devoted to communication, the keystone of all relationships. After presenting and discussing the core elements of successful marital communication, partners are taught an extremely effective, structured communications technique for couples. The partners then practice this technique in the session while discussing questions or concerns that they have about each other or the relationship. To be able to discuss touchy topics successfully, in the very safe and caring environment created by this technique, produces closeness, and is usually a new experience for most couples.
Session #6 focuses on anger. It explores the naturalness of angry feelings as an instant reaction to being hurt; it helps partners develop ways to discover what there is to be learned from their partner's or their own anger; and helps partners see how different ways of expressing anger have dramatically different effects on one's partner and on the relationship. Then, after discussing the ways each partner's family handled anger, partners begin to identify their own sensitivities to the way anger is expressed to them. From this point, both partners can begin to develop their own ground rules which define which expressions of anger are OK, and which are unacceptable, so that discussions which include the expression of anger can remain safe.
While valuable and effective, this is an introductory course, and partners should not expect to know it all at the end. It is also true that as a marriage develops over time, the strains and changes of life require updating skills and changing perspectives. Partners will, however, have a solid foundation upon which to build their marriage, and a set of touchstones to which they can return each time the relationship needs re-centering.