“We’re going on a three-month road trip. We’re so excited!”

                       “We’re going to get married. We’re so excited!”

Can you imagine the excitement? Definitely! Yet we have questions.  How much preparation will be given to each of these two life ventures? Which one is prepared for more carefully—the road trip or the relationship? Before you give your final answer, let’s take a few moments to consider the following scenarios and the insights they provide.
You’re planning the road trip of a lifetime, an extended journey of over 7,000 miles, in which you hope to visit and explore cities, settings, and scenes you’ve dreamed about for years. As you consider your journey, how much preparation are you making? What about your car’s readiness? Have you packed the right clothing and provisions? Did you make the correct reservations? Is the packet of roadmaps in the glove compartment? The questions continue as other issues arise. Hmmm…lots of work to get done before we ever even leave our driveway. That’s okay because we understand that “the bigger the trip, the bigger the preparation.” When the trip is important, our preparation is important.
Now, in contrast, consider another scenario. . .
The minister smiles at the bride and groom as he concludes the wedding ceremony.
           “I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss your bride.”
           A quick kiss amid the sound of clapping and cheering by the wedding guests.
           A short walk to the reception area for cake, greetings, and photographs. 
           A fast change into the “get-away” clothes.
           A mad dash for the limousine.
Finally, Jack and Jennifer were on their way. The wedding was completed; the honeymoon beckoned. Jennifer knew nothing about their honeymoon. Jack was the official honeymoon planner, and he had maintained the secret even from his bride. Months earlier he had said that he wanted to surprise her. Now her curiosity intensified. “Okay, Jack, where are we going? Tell me about our honeymoon.” 
Jack looked at his bride and, with a broad smile, announced, “Here’s the surprise. I did not plan anything for us. I thought that we’d just wait and be spontaneous. So, where would you like to go?”
Can you imagine the reaction a certain bride would have to such an announcement?  I would suspect strongly that more than curiosity intensified within Jennifer about Jack’s “planned spontaneity”! What a way to start a marriage! What in the world was Jack thinking? How could he be so thoughtless? Why would he not choose to plan carefully for such an important event?
Now, let’s slow things down a bit. Before we get too critical about Jack’s lack of honeymoon planning, perhaps we need to consider the fact that Jack is not that unusual, particularly when it comes to marriage preparations. I’ll grant that most of the “Jacks” in the world probably do plan well for their honeymoon, but that’s often where the planning stops and the spontaneity begins. Life beyond the honeymoon will be free-flowing:  “Oh, we’ll come up with something. We love each other, so everything has to work out fine. We’ll be happy forever!”
What about that prevalent approach to love? Is love enough? Can we just say “we love each other” and everything will magically work out fine? Will the future fit the fairy tale ending, “and they lived happily ever after”? Our excessively-high divorce rate provides the answer. While love may be a necessary perquisite to a happy marriage, love alone is never enough. This truth hits home years later as we hold the divorce papers in our hands and read the judge’s verdict of dissolution. One humorist quipped about marriage, “It started out as an ideal, then it became an ordeal, and now I want a new deal.” The fairy tale ended with “and they lived scrappily ever after.” The beautiful dream has become an ugly nightmare!
Most couples who are getting married usually spend a great deal of time, energy, and resources (especially money) into plans for a memorable wedding and an unforgettable honeymoon. If they were to exert the same level of attention to preparing for their life-long relationship, their marriage would have a greater chance for survival—and even happiness. The high divorce rate reflects a lack of meaningful preparation for this highly significant journey through life.
As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I continue to be baffled by the prevailing disregard in our culture for marriage preparation. In other areas of life not only do we prefer preparation—we require it! We prepare for our Driver’s License; we prepare for major exams; we prepare for college; we prepare for job interviews; we prepare for the military. Preparation could involve personal survival. Can you imagine being dropped behind enemy lines to achieve some military goal with no training or preparation? (Don’t misunderstand me, please. I’m not trying to equate marriage to military warfare. However, I do recall seeing the word “marital” misspelled to say “martial” in the context of a workshop dealing with the development of marital skills. Could that have been a Freudian slip? In real life does “marital” ever become “martial”?)
So, how do we improve in our preparation for our marriage journey? Actually, our preparation for marriage begins in our early years as we observe our parents’ marriage and learn from their interactions with each other. Our beliefs and attitudes about marriage continue to be affected by what we see in adult relationships in general. Cultural patterns have an impact; spiritual faith has an influence. By the time we reach adulthood we may have some very strong positive or negative attitudes about marriage, particularly in regard to roles and responsibilities. These attitudes create within us specific expectations which we hope our spouse will fulfill within the marriage relationship. Unfortunately, we may enter into a marriage without ever disclosing and discussing our attitudes, beliefs, and expectations with each other, even though our differences and our unrealistic expectations could cause tremendous stress and perhaps the eventual destruction of the relationship. In spite of romantic notions and wishful thinking, the truth is that love can grow quite thin when the stress grows too thick!
How could couples like Jack and Jennifer do a better job at preparing for the marriage journey? One solution is premarital counseling. In premarital counseling the couple meets with a marriage and family therapist to explore and resolve key issues and concerns. The therapist encourages the couple to identify their relationship strengths which provide a good foundation upon which the marriage can be anchored. The couple also identifies areas of work and uses the therapy sessions for negotiating out differences and for developing the skills necessary for effective communication and conflict resolution. The basic purpose of premarital counseling is two-fold:  to prevent a major mistake and to prepare for a meaningful marriage.

As I provide premarital counseling, I picture myself as a relationship travel guide. I encourage couples to think of marriage as a life-long journey, a “road trip” that deserves the highest level of preparation and planning. For that journey they need to develop a “roadmap” which involves a clear sense of ultimate destination and the directions for reaching that goal. In therapy they define the “rules of the road” which will guide them in their interaction with each other. Further, they determine their resources in the form of personal strengths and practical support system assistance. All of these activities in therapy are designed to enable and equip the couple for safe and successful travel in their relationship journey.
In working with premarital couples I recommend the use a well-known relationship inventory called PREPARE, one component in the PREPARE/ENRICH series developed by David Olson, Ph.D. and his associates. PREPARE is not a psychological test but is a relationship inventory designed to identify and measure specific areas of strength and areas of work. Several of the assessment scales have been correlated to predicting marital success. Because of its user-friendliness and its useful benefits I like to incorporate the PREPARE inventory into the premarital counseling work I do with couples.
If you’re considering the use of premarital counseling, you have several options or choices. Many ministers have training and/or certification for providing some level of premarital counseling. The presence of deeper issues or bigger conflicts could warrant the usage of a professional Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). One excellent online resource for finding a good therapist is the therapist locator service provided by AAMFT, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Couples who value their spiritual faith would do well to work with a minister or a professional therapist who will welcome their spirituality as a vital part of the therapy process. 
In summary, marriage is not designed to be a brief “side trip” along the highway of life but rather a lifelong journey, a relationship “road trip” that merits careful preparation and wise planning. No amount of planning can automatically guarantee ultimate success; however, premarital preparation (including premarital counseling) can provide reasonable assurances that the marriage partners will know how to move safely and effectively toward their relationship destination. Without a doubt the truth remains:  it pays to be prepared!
I wish you the very best as you prepare for your marriage journey.

(Marriage and Family #301)

Online resources referenced in this article are provided below. 
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy: 
                       To locate a therapist:
PREPARE/ENRICH inventories:

VIDEO:  To view a three-minute television video clip in which Dr. Baker was interviewed about “The Importance of Premarital Counseling,” click here.

PREMARITAL EXPECTATIONS:  Dr. Baker has developed a worksheet to assist engaged couples as they try to identify, discuss, and negotiate their expectations of each other as a vital part of preparation for marriage. To view this document in PDF format click on the title below.The document can be printed for your usage.

                        "Premarital Preparation:  Exploring Expectations"

RELATED ARTICLE:  Dr. Baker has written a related article entitled "Marriage:  When Are We Ready?" To read this article please click on the title below or click on the image to the right.

                    "Marriage:  When Are We Ready?"                                                                                                              

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)

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