We're engaged! Now let's get some premarital counseling: An interview with Dr. Rebekah Montgomery
by Dr. Rebekah Montgomery and the Zencare Team
1. There are a lot of misconceptions about couples counseling in general, but particularly premarital couples counseling. Who goes to premarital therapy, what does a typical session look like, and what can you expect to get out of it?
Who I most see in premarital therapy are couples who are proactive. They are confident in their relationship, they know marriage is challenging for everyone and want to give their relationship the best head start possible. I also see clients that are newly married and perhaps didn’t get the chance to learn to navigate conflict or complex family dynamics yet and want to jump in and learn before any significant problems occur. In early sessions, the goal is for me to get to know a couple, learn about their relationship and each of their individual stories. I love to hear about how couples met, who flirted with who and how they knew this was the person they wanted to build a life with--couples really enjoy this part--I do too! The overall style of the session is discussing a particular topic (marriage, conflict, money, sex, family), exploring each partner’s views, experiences, emotions, and how they want to build or shape that part of their life together. The overall goal is learning your strengths as a couple, connecting to the meaningful reasons you chose each other, and compassionately exploring your vulnerabilities as a couple so you can tackle the difficult parts of marriage together. Couples will get increased relationship knowledge, skills, and a deeper connection with one another.
2. What are some ways you might raise a discussion with your partner about trying premarital couples counseling? What if one partner wants to go and the other doesn’t?
I would share your desire to go pretty directly and more importantly, why. Start with your certainty about the relationship and your feelings (premarital counseling isn’t to decide if we should get married) and then express what your concerns are or what you are hoping to achieve together. i.e. -- “I really love you and want to learn how to have the strongest marriage we can--or-- I’m so excited to get married, and I’m also nervous about doing it right. I’m so excited for our life together and we still haven’t learned how to talk about money or sex.” If one partner is more reluctant, openly discuss their hesitation or concern. You can also identify what steps they feel open to--reading an article about pre-marriage conversations, a book about marriage, talking with someone who does premarital counseling to find out more about it etc.
3. ‘Sexual intelligence’ is one of the topics you address in premarital counseling. What does that mean, and are there any important values to agree upon or understand about each other when it comes to sex?
Dr. Marty Klein who wrote the book “Sexual Intelligence” writes that sexual intelligence has 3 components 1. information and knowledge, 2. emotional skills and 3. body awareness and comfort. Building these three components is a powerful foundation for navigating your sex life. Sex will inevitably change over time and over the course of a marriage, it’s essential to expect this and explore together ahead of time how you might want to approach those changes. The most important value to share is an openness to talk about sex and an openness to work at it. How are we going to compassionately and comfortably talk about sex, express our desires, needs, and fears. Those are the most important values I believe for any aspects of a relationship-- are we game to talk about it and are we committed to working at it.
4. Money is a loaded topic, and one that is suddenly a shared responsibility after marriage. What are some important things to know about your partner’s values around money before marriage?
Money represents a lot for us and knowing what it symbolizes for each partner is a meaningful start--does money represent power, freedom, independence, security, success. What is it that money means to each person and how do you create room that underlying value in the relationship. It’s also helpful to know what money dynamics each person experienced growing up--that can be pretty powerful in shaping our current responses. It will also help each partner have a deeper understanding and compassion for why certain money issues are so important to the person they love.
5. What would your recommendation be if in premarital counseling, you realize you and your partner have a different vision for the future: e.g. number of children, where to live, division of labor/role expectations etc.? How do you resolve a conflict like this?
It’s rare that a significant difference is discovered for the first time in premarital counseling. Couples have typically discussed many of these issues and are aware if it’s a place of agreement or a difference. The key is each partners effort to meet the need of the other. The problem solving or logistics of a difference- that’s typically a skill set couples have and use in various areas of their life (i.e.work). However, when navigating compromise in our most intimate relationship, it’s the deeper needs that matter and how we handle when they can and can’t be met. If my partner and I have different visions of where we want to live--we have lots of practical solutions-compromise--do a number of years in location than switch live in one place visit the other often etc., But what are those wishes really about quality of life, time with family, lifestyle and and how do we find ways to address those underlying needs and acknowledge how it might be hard when those needs can’t be met.
6. What is the one piece of advice you give to all couples in premarital counseling?
Consistently work to be vulnerable with each other and respond to one another’s vulnerability with compassionate curiosity.
Dr. Rebekah Montgomery is a clinical psychologist in downtown Boston specializing in couples therapy, premarital counseling, and relationship issues. Though the focus of her practice is currently on couples therapy, she also has expertise in trauma, grief, anxiety, and depression.