Talking Marriage? How to Know If It's the Right Time

Boy meets girl. Girl likes boy. Boy really likes girl. Boy and girl are thinking marriage. But boy and girl want to be sure they know just what they're jumping into.

When the question goes pop and a wedding date is set, the majority of engaged couples find their way to pre-marital counseling. They talk with a minister or counselor about things like values and family history and sex. And they get training for how to work through arguments. But until the engagement is official, marriage education is traditionally limited to observation (which may or may not come from good examples) and random bits of advice from people (who may or may not know what they're talking about).

More and more, however, couples are deciding they want to be sure before that sparkly ring is on the all-important finger. They want to know they're making the right decision. They want to go into marriage with realistic expectations. So, many couples are asking professional counselors to help them sort things out pre-engagement. Call it unromantic if you want, but experts are calling it smart.

Ready or not?

Aside from the desire to steer a relationship into a successful marriage, the reasons people seek pre-engagement counseling are surprisingly varied.

Jan Harvey, a Nashville, Tennessee-based therapist, finds that couples today have witnessed enough broken marriages that they want to do everything they can to avoid becoming a statistic. She says the majority of couples who seek pre-engagement counseling "just want assurance that they are in a healthy relationship, that they can make it when the storms of life hit them, and that they have the skills necessary to do what is healthy."

And for couples who have previously experienced the pain of divorce themselves and are considering a second marriage, the desire to avoid the same mistakes is a primary motivation. Because of his limited pre-marital counseling and a subsequent first marriage that lasted six months before his wife walked out, Atlanta-based speaker and author Rob Eagar and his now-wife, Ashley, sought "intensive pre-engagement counseling with a trained Christian therapist."

The counseling Eagar received with his first wife did not address the issues that destroyed their marriage. "My pastor ... never really probed in our relationship to discover how healthy we were emotionally or spiritually or relationally," he admits. With Ashley, though, the experience was completely different. "That counselor really helped us examine our relationship to make sure we were approaching marriage for healthy reasons," he says.

If one or both individuals have been married before, couples may desire to negotiate the complex interactions they already have, according to Dr. Thomas L. Robinson, a minister in Manhattan. "How do they deal with children, past spouses? They want to figure out ‘Can our lives mix together?'"

No time like the present

In what many counselors refer to as pre-pre-marriage counseling, timing is key. "If you're with someone and trying to decide if your problems should keep you apart or if you should try to work through them, then why not get counseling before you get engaged?" asks Tabitha*, who did just that with her husband, David*.

According to Eagar, author of Dating With Pure Passion, it's crucial that couples seek counseling before the excitement and expectations of an engagement divert their attention away from the relationship and onto a wedding event. "Once the engagement ring sits on a woman's finger, the couple generally loses most of its objectivity about the relationship," he says. "Couples are a lot more willing to stop and deal with a problem prior to engagement because they haven't made that public commitment to friends and family."

That's one reason Tabitha and David sought counseling when they did. "We couldn't figure out why we fought so much and still wanted to be together," Tabitha says. "We said, ‘Let's go ahead and do it now because we don't want to get engaged, get all excited, get everyone else all excited, and then break it off.'"

Talk it out

Obviously even the healthiest of lovebirds have difficulty at times. According to Harvey, pre-engagement counseling is a way to learn communication skills and conflict resolution.

Eagar agrees, admitting that the differing ways he and Ashley viewed their free time was causing conflict in their dating relationship, and they didn't know why. "The counselor was able to help us appreciate where each other was coming from and allow us to respect each other rather than just saying, ‘You're wrong.'"

Pre-pre conversations also set a healthy precedent so that any difficulties that inevitably pop up are likely to be addressed more quickly. "Couples tend to remember how to apply the tools of conflict resolution," Harvey says. They also already have a relationship with a counselor if they need to "come in for a tune-up session."

Just the three of us

Harvey says couples should look for counselors with training, experience, and "values that are sympathetic to your concerns at the spiritual end of your relationship." She also suggests that they should find out how many sessions the counselor wants to have with them, but recommends that couples commit to at least eight sessions and be willing to come in for more if necessary.

Even eight sessions might sound like a lot to some, but couples need to develop a relationship with the therapist. "They [the therapists] have got to spend some time figuring you out. Just because they're therapists does not mean they can just meet you and know," Tabitha explains.

And regardless of personal history, each individual has to be able to recognize his or her own issues and be mature enough to take responsibility for them. According to Harvey, pre-engagement counseling becomes, "doing everything they [couples] know to do to ensure that this is going to be a happy relationship."

*Names have been changed.

LaCanas Tucker lives in New York City and applies all of the knowledge she has gained writing about relationships to her cat, Zoe.

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