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What to do before you say ‘I do’


Ask people who’ve been married for decades, who’ve remained together through the “in love” phase, the years of raising a family, and are now settling into their dotage, and they’ll no doubt agree with Nietzsche’s observation.

They are the fortunate ones, of course. South Africa has one of the world’s highest divorce rates, with Statistics SA showing that of the 150 852 people who wed in 2014, 24 689 got divorced (16percent), 3.4percent higher than the previous year.

Yet the terrible fallout of divorce - the emotional anguish, broken-up families and financial costs to both parties - could be largely avoided if people approached marriage the same way as they choose their insurance broker, by being cautious, asking a lot of questions and listening carefully to the answers.

Family Life Centre counsellor Claudia Abelheim says that in her divorce counselling, she finds that all too often, critical conversations that address expectations around gender roles, money, child rearing and cultural differences are overlooked. “Couples need to examine their relationships much more closely before taking the leap into marriage,” she says.

Premarital counselling can iron out many of these potential dealbreakers or expose them before you take the plunge, and if relationship counsellors and religious leaders had their way, it would probably be compulsory.

Officiants may insist couples attend premarital classes if they want their nuptials sanctified. At Joburg’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church, for example, marriage preparation is a diocesan requirement, and entails a two-night weekend course that the couple must attend three to six months before their wedding.

Civil marriages, however, make it easy for couples to evade having to address what are increasingly seen as the building blocks of a solid marriage: guided conversation about how to resolve differences, as well as learning how to clearly communicate with each other so you can navigate the inevitable rough seas ahead.

So what exactly is premarital counselling?

One of the most widely used relationship models used in premarital counselling is the internationally recognised Prepare/Enrich programmes, used by various religious organisations, social workers and psychologists.

Couples fill in an online questionnaire, which is customised for the couple, that is, the parties respond to items specifically chosen for them based on the stage and structure of their relationship.

A report is generated from this questionnaire and forms the basis of discussion with a counsellor, the goal being to create awareness of issues that need closer attention, including communication dynamics, personality differences and stressors in the relationship, as well as equipping the couple with conflict resolution tools.

At the Family Life Centre where this programme is offered, the counselling takes place over four sessions of one hour each. By the end of it, the couple should ideally be able to acknowledge and handle hostility in their partner, addressing it in a constructive way, and also be able to tolerate minor imperfections and differences.

“No two people are alike,” says Abelheim. “Learning to be understanding, accepting, and to view differences as a strength will enhance a relationship.”

Particular to cross-cultural marriages, which are common in South Africa, is exploring and understanding the expectations of the other person, and counselling should also cover this ground, forging a mutually tolerant partnership.

Most importantly, the unique communication style of the couple - often a stumbling block which can turn into unhappy isolation over time - is looked at, and the skills of listening with respect, and sharing thoughts and feelings openly, are taught. “No matter how much love there is in a relationship, it is not possible to mind-read,” says Abelheim. That said, it is imperative to also learn how to be assertive and honest, she adds.

Another popular premarital counselling technique is Imago therapy, which again teaches couples skills and tools to discover the root of conflicts and create win-win solutions. The term Imago is a Latin term that means “the idealised mental image of someone” and in Imago therapy, this is the composite image of all the positive and negative traits of our parents, re-found in the spouse-to-be.

Based on the premise that the couple is the source of their own healing, not the therapist, Imago counselling sessions are structured as a “couple’s dialogue”, in which the couple engages in a structured conversation facilitated by the therapist.

The focus is on collaboratively looking at childhood wounds, and helping each other to heal them while untangling unrealistic expectations, which ultimately creates confusion and disillusionment when these expectations aren’t met.

“The therapist helps to mirror the inner child in both parties, and the power dynamics at play as a result. So the Imago journey is from unconscious couplehood into conscious couplehood, recognising that marriage takes constant work,” says Louis Venter, a Pretoria-based pastor and Imago therapist who founded Couples Help, which offers private couples counselling as well as group workshops for engaged or married couples at Duck Country House in Henley on Klip.

The best time to start preparing for marriage is when you and your partner have started to think about marital commitment in your relationship, according to premarital counselling psychologist Cornelia Swart.

“Whether you are dating, soon-to-wed, engaged or just married, marriage preparation will help you and your partner to understand issues relating to marriage and be mentally and emotionally prepared for life together as husband and wife,” she says.

Some of the tough questions that come up in Swart’s premarital counselling include: What is marriage? Why are you getting married? Why are you getting married now? How do you know you love him/her? What fears do you have about marriage? Then you are required to address, among others, your emotional needs, frustration tolerance, strengths and weaknesses in the relationship, barriers to effective communication with your partner and expectations of the union in the future.

It’s all food for thought, but most importantly, it’s the beginning of the work you need to do to secure your marriage.

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