Pre-Marriage Counseling: Why You Shouldn’t Skip This Step

Posted August 31st, 2017 in Couples Counseling, Featured, Premarital Counseling, Relationship Issues by

It was December 10, 1993. I was on break from school and was heading up to Whitworth College in order to propose to my then girlfriend, Michelle. It was Christmas-time … and being the hopeless romantic that I am, I’d put the diamond ring that I’d secretly bought for her in the bottom of a stocking that I’d filled with other choice goodies.

When Michelle finally found the ring, I’ll never forget the look of pleased astonishment on her face. I got down on one knee, asking her, “Michelle, will you marry me?” to which she responded with stunned joy by nodding and smiling.

And just like that, we were engaged. It was a truly wonderful time in our lives, as we seemingly leaped together from cloud to cloud with visions of what our lives were going be like together. Like many college-aged guys, I had absolutely zero idea of what marriage was all about and what was actually going to be required of me in order to make it work.

The only thing I truly knew was, “Hey, this woman is amazingly beautiful and I just want to be with her for the rest of my life.” She was really cute and I loved her. Honestly, that was the essence of the depth of my knowledge about Michelle … and about all I knew about marriage at that point in time of my life.

I’ll never forget meeting with the pastor who ended up marrying us. He was the pastor of Michelle’s church growing up, so I guess you could say he felt like he knew her fairly well. Me, on the other hand, he didn’t know from Adam, but I guess I probably struck him as a nice young man who seemed to have it all together when it came to the idea of what a biblical model of a husband was supposed to be.

Actually, most of the “pre-marriage counseling” we had consisted in reading through books on how to prepare for the wedding ceremony. The day after we got engaged, Michelle produced a book she’d gotten that was a massive checklist of all the “To Do’s” and necessary preparations, when we should be completing each step, and so on.

As anyone who has had a wedding will tell you, it is a LOT of work getting prepared for that day. In the movie, Father of the Bride , Steve Martin (who plays the Father of the Bride) has an excellent line that I’ve found to be completely true. He says, “I used to think a wedding was a simple affair. Boy and girl meet, they fall in love, they say ‘I do.’ I was wrong. That’s getting married; a wedding is an entirely different proposition.” He’s right – the wedding itself and the ensuing marriage are two entirely different things.

The Wedding Day is a special day like no other, especially for a young woman. In many countries around the globe, many families save up for years, spending thousands of dollars and investing countless hours in order to make that event a celebration to be treasured for years to come. I’ve always found it interesting how much time and energy is often spent on an event that lasts but one day … and how very little is often invested in solidifying a relationship that’s supposed to last a lifetime.

They say that the first few years are the hardest and that was certainly true in our case as well. After I said, “I do” on June 24, 1995, I learned a whole lot, not only about my new bride, but also about myself that quite frankly, I hadn’t known before. A little pre-marriage counseling would have helped a lot to smooth some of the rough waters of those early years.

Allow me to lift the lid a bit and elaborate on just a few of the issues that led to conflict between my wife and me, especially in those early years. I’ve since learned that these same issues are common to many couples.

Personality Differences

They say that opposites attract, and that was true in our case. The only thing that Michelle and I honestly had in common was our faith in Christ. That’s it. Even though Michelle and I had dated for nearly 2 ½ years before we got married, I guess I didn’t understand how wide the divide truly was between us.

They also say that love is blind, and I most certainly was blind (or chose to be blind) to the fact that my wife is a very different person than I am. She is detail-oriented – me, not so much. I tend to be spontaneous – my wife is a planner. I tend to be more laid back – she is organized and on top of things. I tend to care very little about fashion – she, on the other hand, is very conscious about how people look. I love school and learning – she absolutely can’t stand education and thinks school is a waste of time.

As a young counselor, I would say that I came into marriage with the mistaken notion that I could somehow change my wife into the perfect woman I knew God had created her to be for me. My belief came to an abrupt end on our honeymoon.

Michelle had planned for us to go to Disneyland on a Monday in order to avoid the crowds. Brilliant … except for the fact that she hadn’t realized it was July 3rd.  There must have been 500,000 people shoulder to shoulder on Main Street, USA that day.

After learning we were standing in the wrong line, Michelle’s anxiety, in combination with the heat and the crowds, suddenly kicked in. She got upset, flipped out, and went running away from me in a huff through the crowds. I remember standing there thinking to myself, “What the heck did I just get myself into? How in the world do I handle a woman like this?”

It sure would have been nice to sit down with a wise counselor beforehand to learn some effective coping skills in order to deal with our personality differences.

Role Expectations

When Michelle and I got married, I’d read Ephesians 5:21-37 and all of the New Testament passages related to marriage. Heck, I had a BA in theology after all, so I knew what a biblical husband and wife relationship was supposed to look like.  Or so I thought. Sure I loved Michelle, but how is that supposed to be lived out on a daily basis? The truth of the matter was that I had very little idea how to be a husband.

Children inevitably form their opinions about what husbands and wives are supposed to look like by watching their parents and the adults around them.  Michelle and I were no exception. Michelle’s father is the classic Mr. Fix-It Man.  As a former shop teacher, he is highly skilled in construction and working with his hands. He is diligent about taking care of his yard, matters related to his house, and the family’s finances. Her mother, on the other hand, is in charge of the kitchen, the family’s meals, and tending to the household, and cares a great deal about being an excellent hostess.

After we got married, Michelle naturally assumed that I would be just like her father. Well, guess what? I wasn’t, and I’m still not. Growing up, my father was the breadwinner for our family. As a former electronics technician for the phone company, he worked hard, but when he came home, he was generally exhausted.  He did help out my mother some around the house, but in general, she was the one who took care of my sister and me.

My mother was in charge of cooking, cleaning, doing the dishes, paying the bills, etc. My parents didn’t really put a huge emphasis on making my sister or me help out much with chores around the house (which meant my mother ended up doing the lion’s share of things by herself). This ended up becoming a huge breeding ground for all kinds of conflict related to role expectations when Michelle and I got married. It would take years for both of us to begin to figure out how I could be the husband Michelle needed and how she could be the wife I needed.

Love and Intimacy

Like a lot of guys, I got married with the fantasy that marriage was about one thing – sex. I got married with the unshakable delusion that my wife had the same insatiable, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week desire for physical intimacy as I had. I believed that things would somehow be steamy every single second of the day and that I would have to constantly fight to keep her hands off me. After all, women think, feel, and act exactly like men, right?

That illusion that I tightly held onto would be the source of unbelievable frustration for many years. I needed Michelle to desire to be with me. Why didn’t she seem interested in me? She must not love me after all. I felt cheated, tricked, and that somehow God had lied to me.

It took a long time for me to realize that Michelle did in fact love me … she just tended to express love and expected to receive it in a far different way than I was used to. In his book, The 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman contends that people tend to give and expect to receive love primarily in five different ways. While my primary love language tends to be touch, Michelle’s primary love language tends to be expressed in and through acts of service.

Michelle is both an amazing cook and hostess. She knows how to make holidays and birthdays occasions to remember. She is thoughtful and makes people feel special by remembering things that they like and doing those things for them.  This includes things such as making people their favorite meals, getting them particularly meaningful gifts, and serving them and looking to meet their needs.  What says “love” to Michelle is when I do things such as take care of the kids for her, do their baths, or gladly wash the dishes without being asked.

It sure would have been nice to have had a Christian counselor to help us understand and teach us how to better meet each others’ needs before we got married.

Beliefs and Family Values

As you can already begin to see, our families were and are very different. We are a case of City Mouse vs. Country Mouse. Michelle grew up in Southern California near L.A. I grew up in rural Central Washington. Her family valued material status highly and took meticulous care of their things. My family fixed seemingly everything with duct tape and didn’t emphasize what the yard or house looked like.

Michelle had barely seen a tent before she and I got married. My family camped all the time.

Birthdays and holidays were huge celebrations in Michelle’s family, where they went to great lengths to decorate and make things perfect. In my family, we had Safeway bakery-made cakes, were often buying gifts at the eleventh hour, and wrapping them sometimes minutes before they were unwrapped.

These differences ended up leading to all kinds of conflicts in our marriage, especially during those first few years.

Communication Issues and Handling Conflict

Speaking of conflict, even how we handled that was a huge difference between Michelle and me. Over the years, I have learned that conflict is a normal (and in fact, expected) part of marriage. Growing up, I don’t remember seeing a single fight between my parents. There were issues … they just never got dealt with. If there was a particular difficult subject or issue, the general rule was to ignore it.  Sweep problems under the rug. Don’t rock the boat. That’s how my family handled conflict. In other words, we didn’t.

Michelle’s family, on the other hand, was the opposite. They engaged in conflict, sometimes quite forcibly. I entered our marriage under the mistaken impression that Michelle and I should never fight. Michelle came into our marriage believing that fighting was a normal part of life, to the dismay of her young, shell-shocked husband, who had little to no experience with how to deal with a sometimes animated spouse.

Over time, we came to realize that one of the main factors behind our disagreements was our difference in communication styles. Michelle believed that if I loved her, I would automatically notice when things needed to be done around the house. Since I grew up differently, I usually didn’t. She would eventually get frustrated and tended to make requests in a more indirect, subtle way, dropping a hint or a passing comment here or there. My feeling was, “If you need me to do something, tell me straight out. Don’t beat around the bush.”

Why You Should Seek Out a Christian Counselor BEFORE You Get Married

Although there were a lot of laughs and fun times, it’s nearly impossible for me to express in writing the amount of sheer frustration and turmoil that also marked the early years of our marriage. Countless (often heated) arguments were caused by these and other differences I’ve discussed above that neither of us had any idea how to reconcile or live with.

It’s a well known fact that 50% of all marriages (Christian and non-Christian alike) will end in divorce. We could have so easily become a part of that statistic. The word “divorce” crossed our lips during several arguments years ago. There were many times in the past that I was ready to leave.

We haven’t gotten divorced because of three fundamental reasons:

  1. We love God and each other. Love is a choice and we choose to love each other everyday.
  2. We affirm marriage was instituted by God and is a lifelong commitment.
  3. When we got married, we made a promise to each other that divorce was never going to be an option.

I can gladly say that after 22 years of marriage, our relationship is stronger and we are happier than ever before. Though the pastor who married us was right in saying that we’d be fine in the end, he was very wrong in saying that we didn’t need premarital counseling.

A seasoned counselor who could have helped us better understand one another and given us tools to be able to deal with our differences would have gone a long way toward smoothing out some of those early rough seas. As a counselor who has personally undergone marital strife, I implore couples who are considering getting married not to skip this step. Isn’t a lifelong relationship worth such an investment?

 

Photos
“Todd and Michelle’s engagement picture,” courtesy of Todd Webb, used with permission; “I Do,” courtesy of Petr Ovralov, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Happily Ever After,” courtesy of Ben Rosett, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Todd and Michelle today,” courtesy of Todd Webb, used with permission

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