For a marriage that lasts, consider seriously evaluating your relationship before the invitations go out
Thinking of walking down the aisle for that wedding you’ve dreamed about since you were 5? Have in your mind everything you’ve ever wanted to include on that special day? Before you order the wedding cake and have the invitations engraved, plan for something you never see on TV or read about in romance novels: Counseling.
If you plan to marry in a church or synagogue, all faiths require it — there’s no Britney Spears 24-hour marriage and divorce for local pastors. These days, no rabbi, priest or minister will perform a wedding ceremony without some sort of sit-down session.
Deborah Beckman, a counselor in private practice at Uptown Psychotherapy Associates, agrees that pre-marital counseling is a good idea. She works with many couples considering tying the knot.
"Unfortunately, many come when they are already having problems," she says, admonishing that it’s best to catch issues early and seek counselors sooner than later.
When couples come to Beckman’s office, the participants often have different expectations — for example, one wants the union more than the other, or believed that after the wedding, things they thought that were supposed to happen just didn’t. She says many partners come to counseling because they want the other person to change.
So she begins with a couple’s contract, which each must sign, where they take another kind of vow: "I will do whatever it takes to accept my partner exactly as they are (as long as it doesn’t put me at risk)." That’s often the key to deciding whether there’s a commitment in the long term.
For a religious ceremony, pastors normally require couples to sit down for a serious talk about their relationship before they agree to perform a weeding.
To marry at Cathedral of Hope, the first stop is Steven Horelica’s office. He makes sure the couple has a copy of the church’s marriage packet (which is available online) and matches them with one of the pastors. The church requires the couple to have been together for a year and that they have attended at least three counseling sessions before they will perform a ceremony.
"So many couples come in that in-love, euphoria state," Horelica says. But counseling can reveal a list of issues.
The process usually follows a pattern. The first meeting with the pastor is a get-to-know-you session: Share your story, talk about how you grew up, your families and how you met. The next deals with communication and conflict. Being in love is fine, but how will you deal with problems when they arise? The third time together with your pastor you’ll talk about expectations in the relationship that may not have come up before: Do you both want children or not? How will you handle money? Do you have religious differences?
While many couples deal with these issues in three sessions, "sometimes they realize there really are things they should talk about," and schedule additional meetings, Horelica says.
Pastor Jon Haack at Promise Metropolitan Community Church in Oak Cliff says there’s no rule about how many times he meets with a couple, but he likes at least four get-togethers. Like the Cathedral of Hope, he breaks the sessions into general categories.
The first time is spent getting to know the couple. He especially is interested in their family and support structures. The second time they talk about how the couple resolves disputes and they explore individual values. Financial problems and how to spend holidays Haack cites as two of the biggest sources of conflict.
In the third session, Haack talks to the couple about the history of the commitment ceremony. If the couple is not a member of the church he asks, "Why would you be seeking that to be done by a member of the clergy?"
The final meeting is to plan logistics. Haack says he asks what symbols would the couple like included in the ceremony, and they begin to write vows.
"It’s about how can we design a ceremony to be meaningful to you?" Haack puts it.
Does he ever turn a couple down after four sessions and simply tell them that he’s not comfortable performing the ceremony?
"My biggest red flag is when they go into it with blinders on. When they’re head over heels, it’s not going to work."
*But Haack says he has never gotten to the point where he has had to tell a couple he simply won’t do the ceremony. He steers the conversation toward problems he sees and lets the couple realize for themselves that they’re not ready for long-term commitment.
Rabbi Jeffrey Leynor of Congregation Beth El Binah gets right to the point.
"I want to see how a couple fights," Leynor says. "What kinds of things are being said? It’s like being drunk. Things are said that you mean."
But Leynor is not looking for the couple to simply pick fights. He says arguing is part of every healthy relationship.
"Is there anger? Unresolved grief? Lost opportunities?" he asks. He wants to learn about the different relationships they have with their parents. If they’re an interfaith couple, how do they deal with differences coming from two different cultures? Although all couples argue, constructive versus destructive arguments can be essential.
The number of sessions Leynor requires is less structured than others. If the couple interacts well and there are not a lot of issues, one to two would be plenty. He cites two men he married last year on their 18th anniversary of meeting. At the ceremony he told them that their partnership was already a marriage in the truest sense of the word. But some couples go through 10 to 12 sessions before he feels they’re ready to be married.
While lesbian and gay couples deal with many of the same problems as straight couples, Leynor says, "Same-sex couples deal with a whole range of issues, especially with having children. I’ve had a number of lesbian couples dealing with issues of poverty, or with one bringing children from a previous marriage."
"Two people sign a lease and no one blinks," Beckman adds. "People can couple-up pretty easily. The whole thing about unions is you stop and make a transition. Something declarative has happened."
She finds that the more people around that support a relationship, the better the chance for success.
"If people take their relationship to the church, they have an additional level of support. More possibilities for comfort. It has things that can contribute to the relationship."
Leynor says premarital counseling is about getting a couple to understand what having a partnership is all about.
It’s important "that you’re not running behind the other with a checklist," he says. He believes in looking beyond the stereotypes of what marriage should be and make sure things work for that couple. He cites his own marriage to his wife, Karen, who passed away several years ago: "I did the shopping and cooking; she did things with power tools."
Beckman says younger gay and lesbian couples have similar expectations to younger straight couples. Often families are more likely to be accepting, but since most gays and lesbians have been raised in straight families, finding role models is difficult. She likes to refer couples to the group Couples Metro Dallas so they can see what healthy long-term gay and lesbian relationships look like.
"We can’t predict happily ever after, but we can celebrate that they are taking a chance," Beckman says.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 9, 2008.
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