Engaged couples can tell you almost anything about each other: Religious beliefs, political views, phobias, favorite foods and movies, even the location of birth marks or scars.
But do they know how their significant other would handle a financial crisis? An unplanned pregnancy? A long-term illness?
Probably not. Most people who are planning to wed spend more time thinking about the wedding menu than about the real life issues they will someday face as a couple. You have only to look at today's discouraging marriage statistics to see the results of the lack of partner- and self-knowledge.
You may have heard some say that their marriage ended because their spouse "changed" after marriage. So many of the values and expectations that can nurture or destroy a marriage are issues that most people simply don't talk about before they marry, so it would often be more accurate to say that they did not really know the person they married.
How can couples who are considering marriage know if they are compatible as marriage partners?
One choice in the right direction is to seek pre-marital counseling. This type of counseling is a positive discovery and learning experience that can help couples lead more fulfilling lives as individuals and as a committed couple.
Counseling is a "sorting" process. A trained counselor can teach couples to sort through their thoughts, their beliefs, and their feelings to determine what they truly want and what is most important to them. This is essential to personal and relationship growth; too many lives have been wasted or damaged by blind acceptance of what society has traditionally specified.
In pre-marital counseling, couples learn to talk about their values and expectations — what they truly want from a marital relationship.
Do they want a spouse who is a best friend, a constant companion, an unquestioning supporter?
Or, do they already have a best friend, want some separate interests, and believe in "telling it like it is"? Do they agree on what it takes to nurture a relation ship and are they willing to make the necessary time, energy, and communication commitments?
What are their feelings about career issues? Is a career simply a means to provide financial income to pay bills or is it a dedicated vocation?
Attitudes toward careers — should both partners work outside the home? Should one partner leave their career position to move across the country if their spouse is offered a special opportunity? Should one spouse stay at home to rear children? These are major marital issues needing much discussion because they deeply affect time, finances and possibly where you build a home life.
Couples need to be very specific about the lifestyle they want to lead. If one person dreams of a lavish home and the other wants to live simply and save money, some negotiation will be necessary. Pre-marital counseling can teach the couple how to truly listen to each other's desires and help them learn how to process what they hear in a loving negotiation that balances the needs and desires of each.
Marriage is probably the most meaningful and impactful decision one can make — it is a lifetime commitment to a relationship challenged with managing profound issues: degrees and types of companionship, the arrangement and distribution of finances, the rearing of children, sexuality, career issues, social activities, family and in-laws, and others.
Pre-marital counseling can help two individuals get a clear view and develop the communication skills necessary to deal with those issues in ways that are productive and meaningful for both.
People who want to marry are complete individuals. They may have very different personalities and yet share a strong marriage as long as their life values and goals are very similar and they are willing to negotiate lovingly.
Pre-marital counseling can reveal to couples what is similar, and how they are different, and how to bridge the gap.
It is my deeply held belief after 30 years of working with damaged relationships that pre-marital counseling is an important resource toward developing a sustained, enduring and emotionally rich marriage, and can help prevent much pain and distress.
Based in Rockport, life and relationship coach Susan Britt, M.Ed., a psychotherapist and former university director of career and counseling services, teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflict, achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments may be addressed to her at firstname.lastname@example.org and by telephone 978 546-9431.