Why All Couples Benefit from Premarital Counseling

Earlier this year, a group in Colorado proposed a ballot measure that would require pre-marital education classes. It even stipulated “course requirements,” calling for 10 hours of pre-wedding education for those marrying for the first time, 20 hours for people contemplating marriage #2, and third timers needing a minimum of 30 hours of premarital instruction/counseling before proceeding down the aisle.

Although this proposal didn’t have enough support to make the ballot in the November election, it was far from a horrible idea. The irony is that while couples balk at investing the time and money to better know their chosen life partner (either through educational classes or pre-marital counseling), they will often freely spend countless more hours and dollars agonizing over wedding day details.

There are, of course, those exceptions when couples do attend pre-marital counseling. Sometimes for religious or faith-based reasons, premarital counseling is required. Otherwise, most couples don’t typically even consider it, and that’s unfortunate. Even when partners think they know each other well, the truth is that all too often, they really aren’t clear on what their significant other expects from a marriage.

I recommend couples counseling prior to marriage for the following reasons:

1. To face your issues; address and not overlook areas of incompatibility with your partner. During the early period of your relationship (known as the Romantic Stage), it’s easy to see each other through “rose-colored glasses,” and ignore or not recognize problems that may severely undermine the relationship in the future (if no discussion or understanding exists in advance).

2. Working with an experienced counselor can help expose potential vulnerabilities or weaknesses in the relationship, and force you to deal with the reality of your particular situation.

3. Premarital counseling can clarify your compatibility regarding important topics such as religious preference, having kids, career and life goals.

4. Discussing and disclosing individual attitudes/spending habits regarding money is such an important and often avoided issue, it deserves its own category. Financial disagreements are overall the biggest issue couples struggle with.

5. Sexual preferences/beliefs/attitudes also stand alone, and definitely merit attention. New (usually young) couples tend to believe that sexual issues will magically go away, when, in reality, they actually tend to get worse.

6. The therapist’s office is a safe place to address concerns that either partner has, that need to be hashed out (such as how much time together/apart is acceptable, or is having opposite sex friends okay).

7. Couples counseling can help you learn together how to successfully resolve conflict and communicate. If you can accomplish this before marriage, you’ll be way ahead of the game! Acquiring these two skills is vital to maintaining a healthy relationship.

8. And last, but definitely not least on the reason list, is divorce prevention. Counseling prior to marriage can help maximize your chances of a successful future together.

What to Expect in Premarital Counseling?

Once couples decide to seek premarital counseling, there are often many questions regarding the actual process. In addition to covering the issues discussed above (finances, career, kids, sex-life, extended family dynamics, communication & conflict-resolution skills), you can expect premarital counseling to address the specific concerns you and your partner have about your relationship.

I would recommend committing to four or five premarital counseling sessions, if there are no obvious problems. If specific issues need to be addressed, then more time might be required.

Remember that the goal of premarital counseling is not just to avoid the mistake of marrying the wrong person, it’s also about highlighting areas in your relationship that need attention. More times than not, shining a spotlight on your relationship and investigating any differences will maximize your satisfaction and happiness together. In many ways, premarital counseling might end up being one of the best investments in your lifetime.

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Prevent Unnecessary Breakups by Understanding Relationship Stages

Unfortunately, many couples evaluate the health and compatibility of their relationship based on romances depicted in Hollywood. However, the “romantic period” is just one of several developmental stages that couples will go through as their relationship progresses, and (hopefully) deepens. The key is not to get stuck in any one stage, which is often what has happened when a couple decides to break up.

According to research conducted by Dr. Susan Campbell (discussed here), there are five relationship stages that couples cycle through, during the course of their relationship. Below are brief descriptions of each one:

1. The Hollywood or Romantic Stage. This phase is akin almost to a drug addiction, as the same feel-good hormones, oxytocin and dopamine, are released in the brain when we’re “high on love.” While it’s a humorous comparison (the main difference being that the love is legal), new partners do tend to see each other through rose-colored glasses. They disregard and dismiss the negatives, if they are even noticed, and focus on hopes and dreams of the future.

2. The Power Struggle Stage. Also referred to as the hangover stage, this era begins when the romance fades away, usually anywhere from a few months to a few years down the road. Now reality kicks in and partners question their compatibility, while clearly seeing each other’s deficiencies and flaws. When couples don’t reach this stage before marriage, they may be more likely to break up.

3. The Stability Stage. If your relationship makes it past Stage #2, and you have learned to work through your issues, love comes back in the picture. It’s a more mature love this time around, as you’ve decided to stay together in spite of your differences. Most couples at this point have given up the desire to change their partner, and have mastered the art of compromise.

4. The Commitment Stage. When you reach this level, you not only love, but typically also like each other, and freely choose to be together without needing to be together. You are committed to your relationship, and realize as humans that we all have inadequacies. This is actually the stage when couples should marry – not in the infatuation period of early romance, as is most common in our society.

5. The Bliss or Co-creation Stage. Although some couples think reaching stage #4 means their work is done, the bliss stage takes things one step further. Here, the couple “team” moves beyond their personal relationship and their focus extends into the world, where they may create a family, a business, or some other project together. It is important to remember during this stage to continue to nurture, and not neglect, your intimate relationship while focusing outward.

Although these stages might seem progressive, they don’t necessarily occur in a particular order. In addition to having a unique pattern for each couple, the stages are cyclical and may revert to a different level at any time. All it takes is another power struggle, and you’re back at Stage #2. Or perhaps you started a family right after the romantic stage, then have to learn about dealing with conflict, reaching compromise, and finding bliss at a later date. Each relationship will move through its own cycle, at its own pace.

Couples who find themselves arguing over and over about the same old issues obviously haven’t worked through the power struggle stage. They may avoid each other, sleep in different rooms, or blow up from time to time, but never fully resolve the conflict. The power struggle stage is the most common stage for couples to get stuck. Often not having the tools to resolve conflict, many couples decide to part ways at this stage, or their relationship just limps along (sometimes miserably). Most likely, everyone knows an example of this unhappy dynamic, as it is so often that couples get stuck here. If you keep getting caught in this vicious cycle, it’s important to not wait before seeking out professional support with a couples counselor, in order to overcome the impasse.

Establishing independence and connection, while also respecting each other’s differences, may seem like a tall order to achieve. Although maintaining a blissful state might not be possible for all couples, the continued effort to grow and improve life together is what’s important, regardless of the current relationship stage we’re cycling through.

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3 Easy Ways to Improve your Relationship: Identify Your Love Languages

Many have likely heard about the five love languages, first described in the 1995 book for couples written by Gary Chapman, Ph.D., with later books applying the concept to children and also to singles.

In summary, he describes the following five ways of expressing and experiencing love with your partner:

1. Receiving gifts. In this language, a tangible expression from his or her significant other is what makes this mate feel special, appreciated and loved.

2. Spending quality time together. Just the two of you, focused on each other, is deemed most valuable here.

3. Words of affirmation. Verbal or written expressions of love, consideration, understanding, and praise from an intimate partner speak volumes.

4. Acts of service. Helping with needed tasks or chores (especially without having to be asked!) is a much appreciated, valued expression of love.

5. Physical touch. Not necessarily a sexual act; perhaps holding hands or getting a foot massage is more meaningful.

According to Chapman, we not only express emotional love in one of the above five ways, but we each tend to have a primary or preferred method. There is a quiz on his website that can help you determine your primary love language, and it ranks the strength of each of the others, according to your cumulative answers. However, some people may not find one clear preference standing above the rest, but perhaps two or three love expressions of equal or closely ranked importance.

Chapman further points out that everyone needs to receive emotional love, but the major key to how well this is accomplished is in how it’s delivered. We should not use the love languages that we like the most, but rather the love languages that are most important to our loved ones.

There are three ways to help discover your primary love language:

1. Observe how you naturally express your love to others. If you’re inclined to hug, then physical touch is a preference. Do you tend to verbalize your feelings, or show them through other actions? This can clue you in as to which of the five languages you favor.

2. Notice what you complain about to your partner. “You never give me gifts/never compliment me/never touch me unless I initiate it” may reveal your primary love language. Even if it’s not necessarily your main one, if you’re complaining, it’s up there.

3. Similar to #2, but stated more positively: Think about what you ask for the most. Do you need more cuddle time, more date nights, more verbal affirmations, or tokens of love from your partner? This determination can also help in discovering your primary expression.

It’s important to realize that knowing your own favorite love language(s) is only half the battle; you want to know your partner’s preferences as well. I recommend that couples take Chapman’s quiz individually, explore the three ways described above to help each identify his or her primary love language, and then compare the results. In order for each partner to feel loved, it’s important to make efforts that matter most to one another. In other words, direct most of your efforts at speaking your partner’s top one or two love languages.

Suggested steps to improve your relationship using the five love languages:

1. Take the quiz twice, answering once for you and once as you think your partner would, and have him or her do the same. (Answering for your partner will provide valuable information as to how far off, or close, you were to knowing what your partner prefers.) This could also provide interesting and beneficial info for future conversations, depending on the state of your connection. Remember that in addition to the quiz, some couples may need to reflect on the three ways discussed above, to help pinpoint their primary love language(s).

2. Discuss with your partner the specifics and details of speaking their primary love language. For example: What types of gifts are appreciated? Which acts of service really matter? What words of affirmation are most important? What kind of physical touch does your partner value the most?

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The Surprising Way Relationship Apps Can Make a Big Difference

Apps of all kinds are out there for almost anything you can dream up. Relationship apps are yet another technology advancement that have the potential to enhance and improve your life; specifically, your intimate relationship. All are designed to strengthen and maintain your connection with your partner. There are apps that keep track of your finances, create budgets, and help you save for your future together. There’s another that establishes lists for a couple to share, such as a grocery store list, where items can be added or deleted for your partner’s immediate viewing in order to avoid duplicate purchases.

Not surprisingly, the most popular relationship apps focus on one’s sex life, where the goal is to enhance the intimacy in your relationship. These apps create a social network just for the two of you. Some are designed to help you share and store memories. You can document your entire relationship together, updating as needed. “Love Maps” is an app developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, who are famous relationship researchers who founded the Gottman Institute. This app assists you and your partner in learning more about each other’s inner world, from daily life experiences to personal hopes and dreams for the future. Knowing and understanding more about your significant other, and his or her preferences, is an important way to strengthen your relationship.

Another example of how apps can improve relationships is by acting as a buffer between partners in conflict. One app called “Fix a Fight” has a “self-soother” feature that is invaluable. It can help couples take a step back and regain their composure, before returning to a heated or controversial issue they may be struggling with at the time. Fix a Fight also uses humor to help diffuse anger, which can be another invaluable tool to help couples calm themselves when in conflict.

Other apps can even help you decide where to go on a date, or recommend conversation starters, and suggest ideas or options you might not otherwise consider. Apps may assist partners in identifying their feelings, deepen their intimate connection, restore calm, and work through conflict. They can encourage thoughtful and meaningful communication.

In my experience, couples who are motivated to try these apps show they are willing and want to make the all-important effort at improving their relationship. This motivation to work on their relationship may, in fact, be much more valuable than any one relationship app. In my practice, I’ve continually seen how a couple’s motivation level can easily become the difference between a largely stagnant and dissatisfying relationship that is “going through the motions,” and one that is flourishing, or at least one in which a couple is continuously striving to enhance their relationship.

The reality is that apps are an inexpensive (and often free) way to work on improving a relationship, and are significantly cheaper than attending couples counseling. While I think they can assist with some of the basic issues couples may be experiencing, using apps is not a substitute for professional counseling.

So, is utilizing relationship apps a good way for a couple to spend their (sometimes limited) quality time together? In my opinion, relationship apps can serve as helpful tools and are a decent choice for motivated couples in some situations. However, they certainly do have limitations. Apps are not able to guide partners in gaining insight into their underlying relationship dynamics, or help examine the feelings behind those emotional buttons that are repeatedly pushed. The use of certain apps (such as Love Maps) can be helpful for partners to use between therapy sessions. Their couples counselor could utilize specific apps and incorporate them as homework assignments.

Overall, experimenting with relationship apps is certainly worth a try. If you find one that helps, keep using it! If not, it may be important to seek professional help, to ensure you’re taking all possible steps to maximize the quality of your relationship.

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How Sex Dates Can Save Your Relationship

In our busy society, we schedule almost everything important in our lives. We set aside specific times for business meetings, doctor appointments, parent/teacher conferences, gym class, lunch dates, vacations, pedicures—the list goes on. So why not schedule intimacy with our significant other? The very short answer is that if you consider your sex life important, there’s NO reason not to schedule it!

Although some people may cringe at the idea of a sex date because it lacks spontaneity, I challenge that belief. I have found that most of the partners who cling to the notion that sex must be spontaneous are often using it as an excuse for why they aren’t interested in being intimate. They may be avoiding other relationship issues that are preventing connection and intimacy.

The truth is that good sex does NOT have to be spontaneous. In fact, the idea that sex needs to be spontaneous is a myth; it’s really not based in reality. Think back to the earlier stages in your relationship, perhaps after you’d been a couple for a while, but were still living apart. When planning the next time you’d get together, sex might not have been “scheduled,” but wasn’t it implicitly understood to be part of the date? You may never have said to your partner that “we’re having passionate sex at 2:15,” but BOTH of you knew that activity was absolutely on the agenda (and more than likely near the top)!

Here are some of the benefits of scheduling your sexual intimacy:

1. It won’t happen otherwise! Unfortunately, for many couples, sex just won’t happen if it’s not scheduled, or it happens too infrequently. This reason should be convincing enough!

2. Making a date allows a couple to revitalize their romance, sustain intimacy, and stay connected.

3. The saying “anticipation is half the fun” definitely rings true here! Planning the encounter can actually be the beginning of foreplay.

Tips for Reigniting the Passion:

1. Start slowly! Scheduling intimacy might not always be a good idea in the beginning, particularly if your sex life is not currently active. Plan time together at first to work solely on increasing affection, and agree on reaching a certain intimacy level before proceeding. To bring back the affection, go here.

2. Discuss with your partner how frequently to schedule a sex date. This may ultimately not be based on desire, but on what’s practical and doable with your other life commitments. Be realistic with your scheduling.

3. When planning your first sex date, stay open-minded, be patient, and be prepared to be flexible. It’s important to keep a sense of humor, remembering the whole purpose of this reserved time is to reconnect and have fun together.

4. Pick a timeframe when both partners feel energetic. Mornings instead of evenings may be better for some, while a certain day of the week may be the less hectic choice for others. Perhaps Saturdays at 5:00 am is best for early risers with kids. If that’s your window, it works! Be creative. Varying your date helps keep it interesting.

5. Be prepared for trial and error. It won’t be perfect in the beginning, but when you find what’s working for you and your partner, make a commitment and stick with it. Life can get in the way sometimes, but making your sexual intimacy a priority in your relationship will make it easier to get back on track.

While some people might be turned off by the thought of scheduling sexual intimacy at first, it’s often a knee-jerk reaction. Sex doesn’t just magically happen. Not all couples need to schedule it, but those with a less active than ideal sex life can really benefit from some advance planning — rather than rely on that chance, spontaneous encounter which rarely ever occurs.

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