rituals of connection

Nine Questions to Ask Your Fiancé Before You Get Married

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 There are plenty of questions to ask yourselves when you’re engaged and preparing for a wedding.  When do we want to get married?  Who do we want to invite?  What type of cake do we want to eat?  But sometimes, in the hoopla of planning the big event, you miss the opportunities you have to prepare for what comes after the wedding.

Premarital counseling is often a prerequisite to have a religious officiant for your wedding.  Sometimes couples will attend premarital counseling with a therapist, but that practice is becoming more rare.  Yet once married couples come to my door for therapy, problems have been developing since the start of the relationship.

Why is premarital counseling necessary?  We seem to have a great relationship.

Preventative medicine is becoming a cost-saving trend in medicine.  If you can prevent problems from developing in the first place, you’re more likely to avoid the later costs of fixing it.  Similarly, in marriage, if you have a few intentional conversations before you get married, you’re more likely to avoid pitfalls of relational tension later.

Working your way out of entrenched problems in your relationship is much more difficult than addressing them head-on before they have a chance to start.  Premarital work gives you more awareness of the warning signs of a problem in your relationship.  Having practiced the skills of open communication gives you more confidence to have tough conversations early on in your marriage.

Here are some questions to consider asking as you prepare for marriage.

1. What was your parents’ marriage like?

We learn most about marriage from our families-of-origin.  Whether you have a positive relationship with your parents and trust them as role models or you are trying to be as different as you can from them, their modeling is often the most significant influence you’ll have in your marriage.

Your mother may have always taken care of the housework.  Your father might have been the person who drove the kids to all their activities.  But your fiancé’s father may have traveled during the week and their mother may have hired a cleaning service to take care of the house work.  Having discussions about the way things were in your family and how you’d like to emulate or differ from those standards can circumvent unspoken expectations you carry into the relationship.

2. How will we handle finances?

What is your spending style in comparison to your partner?  Is one of you a saver?  Is the other a spender?  What level of transparency do you want to have about finances?  Will one of you handle the budgeting and bill-paying, or will it be a joint effort?  Will you have a joint account and/or two separate accounts?

Money is one of the most common areas of disagreement and argument for couples.  Learn how you handle money through participating in a money management course, such as Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.  Start having conversations about money and spending before you’re married so you know how to talk about this sticky issue.

3. Do you want to have kids?  How many?  When?

Expectations about having children can differ widely.  Discussing your plans for children can facilitate discussions around career and dreams for the future.  For example, if you’re focused on finishing your PhD or making partner in your firm before having kids, that can be discussed.  If one of you wants to stay at home with the children, that is helpful to identify.  You may want to consider the financial cost of childcare needs.  Acknowledging the financial aspect paves the way for that important conversation to happen later.

4. What are your expectations around sexual intimacy?

Oftentimes couples assume that sex should feel easy and natural within marriage, but the truth is farther from this assumption.  What creates quality sexual intimacy within a marriage is the freedom to have open conversations about it.

These conversations can be as simple as discussing logistics such as how often you’ll be intimate, when you expect to be intimate, or even the (sometimes awkward!) conversation of what you like and don’t like sexually.  You might want to discuss how you’ll handle initiating sex and saying “no” if you’re not interested.  Consent is still important in marriage, and often unspoken expectations influence whether you feel comfortable refusing.

Also, think about how you’ve been influenced by culture, church, family, career, or other areas of your life with certain messages about sex or what it means to be a man or a woman.  Uncovering these narratives for yourself can have implications of which you’re not aware.

5. How will we handle changes in our relationship?

Are you the same person you were ten years ago?  Fifteen?  Twenty?  Or have you changed in significant ways?  The type of music you enjoyed when you were younger, for example, may be vastly different from what you like now.  Personality can change over time, so it’s important to know that the person you’re standing next to on your wedding day may change significantly over the course of your marriage.  Sometimes just recognizing this fact together can prepare you, and you can discuss how you’ll handle those changes as they come.

6. What traditions for connection do we want to establish?

John Gottman, in discussing the aspects that make up healthy marriages, outlines the importance of creating shared meaning through establishing rituals of connection.  These can be everyday points of connection, like returning home from work or having dinner together.  They can also be larger traditions, such as what you do for holidays or how you celebrate birthdays.  Discuss how your family handled major holidays and what you’ll want, especially if you’ll be splitting time between two families.  Identify the aspects of your family’s moments of everyday connection you’d like to continue.

Regardless of what your family-of-origin does for holidays, I suggest that you identify some new holiday traditions you’d like to establish in your new family with your partner. Having these special traditions you develop together help to keep connection going through more stressful or trying times.

7. What will we do when we’re attracted to other people?

One of the biggest setups for finding yourself entangled in an extramarital affair is believing that it will never happen to you.  Esther Perel, a clinician and researcher on marital issues, discusses affairs in her TED talk.  She points out that problems arise when one spouse is too ashamed of the attraction they feel to discuss it with their spouse.  They instead turn to the person to whom they’re attracted and tell them in an attempt to resolve it.  But instead, this makes the attraction more intense, as the other party may reciprocate and they share a secret.

Affair-proofing your marriage involves talking about the moments when you’re feeling attracted to someone else and asking for accountability from your spouse.  If you walk into marriage expecting this to happen to one or the both of you, it will come as less of a surprise.  Fostering a safe environment by being honest with one another is the most crucial part of keeping your marriage intact. 

8. How do we want to argue?  What are the rules for fighting fair?

Arguments are another inevitability in marriage.  Even if you didn’t fight often before you were married, there are many more opportunities for arguments to arise when you’re living your lives together.  In fact, if you aren’t arguing at all, I might be concerned about how you might be avoiding or ignoring issues that come up.

Disagreements are an open door to intimacy when they involve fighting fair.  Setting ground rules for communication, which can be aided by a therapist, helps you to be able to maintain connection even when you disagree.  Learn how to communicate your emotions effectively and listen with empathy and compassion to your partner’s perspective.  Learn about why you or your partner are more sensitive to certain interactions due to triggers or how they remind you of your family of origin. Identify what you’re really desiring underneath the conflict and problem-solve for how to create that together.

9. How will you and I become a “we”?

One issue that often arises in marriages is leaving behind the loyalty felt toward your family-of-origin to focus on loyalty to the marriage.  This is necessarily painful, as change can require leaving behind some past traditions and activities that you love with your family in service of creating a new future with your spouse.  Identifying rituals of connection (see question 6) can help create this connection by establishing new traditions together.

If you’ve been single for a long time, you may have a different problem: leaving behind the independence of single life to connect with your spouse.  As a single person, you were able to come and go as you pleased and make decisions without thought for how they would affect others in your household.  In marriage, those behaviors are more difficult to maintain.  Learning how to let go of some independence is part of a healthy process in creating a “we.”

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Are you preparing for an upcoming marriage?  Have you had a hard time making space to answer some of these questions? Are you already married wish you’d had these conversations beforehand?  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling to couples in every stage of their relationship, with a goal of teaching tools to help create a healthy marriage.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to find out how to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.

Surviving the Holidays With Your Spouse

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Christmas trees are going up, holiday lights are twinkling, and peace and love are filling the air everywhere…well, everywhere except in your home.  The holidays are notorious for being fraught with conflict and stress, which can wreak havoc on our relationships.  Marriages are particularly under fire.  You’ve likely experienced arguments about which family traditions to uphold, where the holidays will be spent, and stress that comes with in-laws and shopping.  Research shows that divorces are shown to increase in the months following the holidays. I believe that relates to the conflict and strife that arises out of this season of the year.

How can you actively work to combat the potential devastation the holidays can bring to your marriage?

Discuss and plan traditions in your family.

As John Gottman likes to say, regardless of where we were born, we each bring our own cultures into the marriage: the culture of our family growing up.  We raised with traditions around the holidays, and you have likely tried to implement some of these within your current marriage.  However, some of these rituals can clash.

Talk with your spouse and ask about their favorite holiday traditions.  Pay attention to traditions they love now, favorite traditions of childhood, and what they wish you’d do together.  Talk about your best and worst experiences of the holidays growing up as a way of identifying common factors to implement and avoid.  Talk about your favorite holiday memories together as a couple and seek to put into practice similar moments.

If you come from families that didn’t have a lot of traditions, it might be helpful to implement some new practices, or rituals of connection, with your family.  Rituals of connection are practices infused with meaning that family members do in order to create connection, intimacy, and security in who you are as a family unit.  These rituals are an important factor in creating a new sense of family within your marriage.

Identify your own triggers and those of your spouse during the holidays.

While the holidays often carry special and joyful memories, they can also be overshadowed by trauma or pain.  If a loved one who has recently passed away played a major role in holiday festivities, the signs of the season may bring on fresh waves of grief.  Sit down with your spouse and children and talk about ways to honor the memory of those who won’t be celebrating with you this year.

Holidays also often involve time with family, which can sometimes be distressing.  Family dynamics can be their worst at the holidays, as stress makes our negative qualities more prominent.  Have a plan ahead of time for how to navigate those triggers together as a couple.

Sometimes even just lowering your expectations for the holidays can help.  It’s often the moments when you’re most trying to make the holiday perfect for someone else that you end up steamrolling over your spouse’s emotions.

Practice damage control when (not if) you fight.

If you know you and your spouse have the same argument every holiday season, take some time to plan ahead and talk through the potential fight earlier.  Use Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight discussion as a tool to process past fights, identify sensitivities or triggers you may have, and plan for how to approach those arguments in the future.

And when you inevitably find yourself in the argument, try to understand your spouse’s perspective and practice empathy.  Look for an opportunity to come to a place of compromise so that you can have a win-win situation, rather than trying to come out on top.

Inject some fun into your holiday celebrations.

Holidays are stressful.  (Have I said that enough?)  There are a multitude of events and schedules to juggle, between children’s schooling, work parties, and travel to visit family.  Take some time aside with your spouse to slow down and just have fun together.

Go see the Christmas lights at Greenfield Village.  Spend a day cuddled up under the blankets with hot cocoa having a Christmas movie marathon.  Drive around your neighborhood to see the lights and choose a favorite house.  If you have a hard time thinking of something, or you worry about having fun on a budget, Google some ideas and pick one or two that sound fun or inexpensive!

Budget together for Christmas shopping.

Finances are one of the top areas that couples tend to fight over, and the holidays are the season when it's easiest to overspend.  Buying gifts for friends and family, shopping the hot Black Friday deals, or going out for celebratory holiday meals can lead to greater spending than anticipated.

As a couple, set some limits on spending for the holidays.  Talk through how much you’d like to spend on your children, family members, and friends.  If this means you have to have hard conversations with your children or your extended family about your financial limits, seek to do so united as a couple.

Volunteer together.

The old adage about Christmas says that we ought to be more cheerful about giving than receiving.  However, that sentiment can easily get lost in all of the hustle and bustle.  Slowing down to notice opportunities to give back this time of year can help your family to connect to gratitude for the blessings you have and a larger purpose for the season.

Find an activity you can do with just your spouse, or bring your children into it as well.  Donate your time at a food kitchen.  Hand out blankets, food, and hygiene kits to the homeless.  Help out at a children’s Christmas party in an impoverished part of the city.  Ring a bell for the Salvation Army.

 

I believe taking one of the items above and putting in into practice could radically transform your marriage this holiday season.  Give it a try – you never know how one little shift could change your Christmas.

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Are you looking forward to the holiday season with a sense of dread rather than joy?  Do you promise to scale back during next year’s holidays every year, just to forget that promise?  Are you tired of always fighting about money during the Christmas season?  At Restored Hope, I know this time of year can take a major toll on marriages, family, and stress levels.  I’d love to support you through one-on-one or marriage counseling services at my Ann Arbor location.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 today or fill out my form here to find out more about how I can help you thrive during the holidays.