Pre-Marriage Counselling: One Couple’s Experience
Warner and Melia have been dating for over a year and are in their mid 30s. Melia is divorced and has two children – Jessica and Albert. Albert thinks Warner is a cool guy, but Jessica does not like Warner. She wishes that her mom and dad would get back together and remarry. Warner has never been married before, but is trying hard to be a good sport about the kids and their mixed messages toward him. Jessica’s resentment of Warner and her desire for the reconciliation of her biological parents are common emotional responses to a new, blended family. In these circumstances, children need to be aided to bring their expectations into alignment with reality, and the adults in a blended family are essential to this process (1).
Melia suggested going to a pre-marriage counsellor because of the conflict she felt coming from Jessica. She is eager to find a better way to deal with her torn feelings between her love for Warner and her desire and intention to marry him, and her love for her daughter and her desire to honour her daughter’s feelings. Warner readily agrees – he is confident that a pre-marriage counsellor will be able to help him develop a more positive relationship with Jessica, and he also has concerns about Melia’s previous marriage and how her past experiences might influence their own marriage.
Padma is their pre-marriage counsellor and has extensive experience helping couples who are planning to marry work through issues regarding blended families and past history. She also has a special interest in cultural issues and differences that may arise between couples as a result.
When Warner and Melia went to their first appointment, they were already anxious. Melia and Jessica had an argument that afternoon and Melia was already upset and agitated, as was Warner. Padma recognised their upset from their body language and made an effort to put them at ease while talking to them initially about legal issues and confidentiality.
She started by asking them to complete a short questionnaire in order to gather some relevant background information. The questionnaire contained questions about their cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs, relationship history and values about money, family and sex. Padma then asked Warner and Melia to briefly talk about their problems with Jessica and also asked about Melia’s previous marriage and how the children had reacted to her divorce.
In following sessions, Melia and Warner were surprised and relieved at Padma’s calm approach to their issues with Jessica and Melia’s concerns about her ability to accept the marriage. They were also happy to discover that Padma has some specific communication techniques to teach them designed to help them talk to Jessica in a manner she might be more receptive to, and they were able to practice these during the session with role plays and examples. Padma was also able to talk to them about maintaining boundaries around parental and adult roles. Padma provided them with some literature to educate them about how children can react to a parent’s divorce, particularly girls, who often hold desires that their mother will remarry their biological father.
Padma also suggested that several family sessions might be helpful for Jessica where they would talk about family member roles and help her understand that Warner was not replacing her father, but that he would be an adult friend for her.
Warner and Melia’s pre-marriage counselling sessions also uncovered another issue of difference in their relationship – that of cultural difference. Research on intercultural couples shows that a strong predictor of marital satisfaction is the ability to communicate effectively during religion-based disputes (2). Melia’s family is Maori and during her New Zealand childhood she regularly attended Maori cultural events. Warner was unfamiliar with Maori traditions other than facial tattoos, which he associated only with movies or with Maori men still living in New Zealand. However, it was clear that Melia wanted to integrate several Maori traditions into their wedding ceremony and Warner was surprised to find he was slightly uncomfortable going outside of his own religious traditions.
Interestingly, this point of difference came of some surprise to Warner and Melia, who hadn’t previously considered the importance of their own or each other’s cultural heritage, and how these might come together. They were grateful that the issue had come up now and that they were able to talk openly and calmly about the issue with the aid of Padma’s professional intervention.
Padma’s approach to this issue was to encourage Melia and Warner to talk about their feelings and to educate each other about their personal history and cultural values. Melia was encouraged to use active listening and role-playing assignments as an opportunity to talk to Warner about why it was important to her to include her cultural traditions in their wedding. The more Warner understood, the more empathy he was able to muster, and he gradually became comfortable with Melia’s desires.
During the family sessions with Jessica and Albert, Padma encouraged Melia and Warner to talk about what they had learned about blended families from her. They used an activity in which the kids were encouraged to talk about their feelings about the wedding and marriage without being interrupted or being restrained from anything that they needed or wanted to say. Over the course of three family sessions, that integrated artwork, communication exercises and open communication about their feelings, the children were able to better understand why their mother was remarrying. Most importantly, Jessica was able to properly express her fears on how the marriage might impact her and her mother was able to clearly understand and respect these fears (which is often all a child needs to feel safe). Although Jessica was still not totally thrilled with her mother’s impending marriage, she was able to gradually accept that her parents were not going to suddenly become her dream family again.
HOW DID PRE-MARRIAGE COUNSELLING HELP?
Melia and Warner came from differing backgrounds in terms of their marriage experience, parental experience and cultural backgrounds. By working with a pre-marriage counsellor, they were not only able to improve their communication skills, but also to improve their relationship with Melia’s children, by utilising role playing, family sessions and open communication exercises.
Although Warner and Melia did not initially consider the differences in their cultural background to be an issue, as they continued planning the wedding, it soon became apparent that their differences were a larger problem than they had first realised. Padma was able to encourage them to talk to each other about these differences openly and clearly, and educate each other about their backgrounds. With greater understanding Warner became more comfortable with the idea of integrating what were previously foreign ethnic traditions into his wedding ceremony.
With the help of their pre-marriage counsellor, Melia and Warner were able to identify what their cultural differences really meant to them, and find a way towards understanding and a workable compromise prior to marriage.
WHERE DO WE FIND A PROFESSIONAL PRE-MARRIAGE COUNSELLOR?
If you are getting married or planning on a commitment ceremony and would like to talk to a professionally qualified relationship counsellor for pre-marriage counselling, contact Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors Sydney to schedule a consultation with a counsellor, psychologist or therapist or for more advice.
Martin-Uzzi, Michele & Duval-Tsioles, Denise (2013). The Experience of Remarried Couples in Blended Families. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage January 2013, 54(1), 43-57.
Golish, Tamara (2003). Stepfamily Communication Strengths: Understanding the Ties That Bind. Human Communication Research 2003, 29(1), 41-80.