Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Learning Marriage Skills: An Approach to Premarital and Marital Counseling



Learning Marriage Skills: An Approach to Premarital and Marital Counseling


"Dr. Phillips!" exclaimed the soon-to-be groom during a session in my office, "This is a whole new skill set we have to learn!" He was right. Although they were graduate students in erudite and highly technical fields, they were neophytes when it came to the skills necessary to build a strong marriage. Attractive, intelligent, poised young people, holding hands, clearly in love -- they were beginning to realize their lack of preparation for their next major life challenge, their marriage partnership. They were starting to understand that their marital relationship could be more important to their future health and happiness than their academic and vocational success. I was teaching them skills they would need to learn and practice for an emotionally intelligent marriage.


Few young couples realize that the statistics are so dire: a one in four chance of a long and happy marriage. Half of new marriages end in divorce, and only half of the surviving marriages can be described as happy.  Realizing this sad fact, let's take a look at successful long-term marriages. "Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts" (Wallerstein and Blakeslee, Houghton Mifflin, 1995) found that long-term marriage partners create a strong foundation for the relationship and continue to reinforce their commitment to the marriage despite inevitable problems. These authors describe the tasks which must be mastered during the marriage: separation from one's own parents; building togetherness while allowing each partner's autonomy;  preserving the spousal relationship during parenting; confronting adversity and managing stress; expressing anger and conflict productively; maintaining a loving intimate relationship; sharing pleasure, interests and humor; providing nurturance and comfort to each other; keeping love alive while facing the challenges of time. These are the happy marriages that research tells us will produce demonstrably better, longer and happier lives.


Parents and friends: please advise prospective marriage partners about the need to acquire this new set of life skills (but realize they probably won't believe you.) Even when told the dire statistics, the starry eyed lovers don't believe the data actually apply to them. Fortified with their new love and enthusiasm, they predict only a 10% chance of their own divorce!


While premarital counseling is a good investment for all, there are some situations in which therapy is critically important.  A family history of domestic violence or abuse or difficult relationships with parents are often red flag indicators of need for therapeutic intervention. A second marriage for either partner will fall in the same category when step children are involved.  The issues in these prospective marriages are often so complicated that an experienced therapist can be a more productive investment than a fistful of stocks and bonds.


Just married? Premarital counseling has the best chance of success during the year before but also can be very effective during the year after the nuptials. Ongoing marriage tensions?   Many couples benefit from skill-based relationship counseling. But of course it will be too late when you begin to drain your bank accounts to hire lawyers, fight over custody and divide your remaining assets.


"The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work" (Gottman and Silver, Crown, 1999) contains information about the skill set necessary for a successful marriage but also describes, in painful detail, the steps leading to a failed marriage. Using this approach John Gottman claims to be able to predict divorce with 91% accuracy! You can use the information in this book by yourselves or work with an experienced therapist to individualize the skills to your particular situation.


Premarital or preventive counseling should teach and build two types of skills. First and vitally important are the skills that reinforce the couple’s love bank and friendship. In the throes of romantic love, this seems so simple and natural that positive marriage practices are often ignored. Over time the marital relationship moves from the foreground to the background, while love, unfortunately, erodes. Most couples don't take the time to develop and practice the positive relationship skills that keep a marriage alive. Daily communication, family rituals and fun times together deepen fondness and admiration. The seconds skill set involves problem solving and conflict management, and these skills are easier to learn and apply when love and tolerance predominate over hurt and anger. It's important to realize that the best conflict management skills will be empty exercises unless the couple has a substantial positive balance in their love bank.


Now it's humor time. If you've been reading these columns you know I promote humor to balance our lives. Southern Neighbor readers are requesting that I continue ending my columns with a joke. I had to give up looking for positive marriage humor  because most of these "jokes" draw a laugh with hostile comments about either husbands or wives. So let's try a doctor joke:


Completing the evaluation, the Doctor stated, "I can't find a cause for your complaint. Frankly I think it's due to drinking." Patient: "In that case, Doctor, I'll come back when you're sober!"