Before tying the knot, a couple wants to make sure that they are right for each other. Do they possess the same values? Do they want the same things in life? Can they work out their problems, or do their differences always result in an argument? For some, the courtship is smooth sailing, and it’s not until the couple has been married for some time that problems rise to the surface.
These are many more issues are the purview of relationship counselors. They help couples break down communication barriers, get each person to see things from the other’s point of view, and create a safe-space where both people feel comfortable sharing their opinion.
Cheryl Bailey is a Fairfield-based therapist who has worked in the field of mental health counseling since 1968. Though she has experience in nearly every field of mental health counseling, she enjoys couple and family counseling the most because she loves helping couples solve communication and conflict resolution issues.
“The most important areas to address for any partnership are communication and how to resolve interpersonal problems — mutual respect is of the utmost importance,” Bailey said. “It’s also important for potential partners to determine if they share realistic goals and values. Other important areas are stress management, money management, and parenting skills if they are planning to have children.”
Bailey said that couples who recognize challenging issues in their relationship would be wise to reflect on them before marriage.
“Problematic issues won’t magically disappear — in most cases, troublesome issues will only increase,” she said.
When Bailey sits down with a married couple, she asks them if they saw any “red flags” in their partners while they were dating. The answer is usually “yes,” but the concerns were often brushed aside in the hopes the problem would work itself out on its own. Some of the most common red flags are substance abuse, disrespectful behavior, anger, trust and money management problems.
To ensure that couples can address these red flags before they sink a marriage, Bailey recommends that couples date at least a year, so they have enough time to get to know each other and can know for sure that the other person would make a good life partner.
“It’s easy to get carried away in the early romantic stages of any relationship but important to realize that when people are in love, the brain produces a cascade of chemicals designed biologically to bind and bond humans together. This basic human drive doesn’t originate from the ‘thinking’ part of our brains!” Bailey explained.
Bailey explained that high levels of dopamine and a related hormone called norepinephrine are released during attraction. Brain scans of people in love have shown that the primary reward centers of the brain are highly activated when people are shown a photo of someone they are intensely attracted to compared to when they are shown someone they feel neutral toward, such as an old high school acquaintance.
One of the keys in counseling is being able to share feelings with one another. Bailey said that doing so requires mutual trust.
“The inability to share feelings makes authentic communication and true intimacy difficult,” she said. “However, in most cases, people can learn to become better at sharing their feelings.”
Bailey said one benefit of pre-marriage counseling is that it gives couples the opportunity to work out potential problems before they snowball into big ones. At the same time, pre-marriage counseling can reveal differences between individuals that may prove irreconcilable and eventually lead to divorce.
The Union asked Bailey if she had cases where a couple delayed or even canceled their marriage because of issues that came up in counseling.
“This would be a wise outcome if a couple were to become aware of and pay attention to potential problems,” she said. “However more often than not, people will continue ahead with marriage plans hoping that any problems will eventually resolve themselves,” adding that this hope is usually misplaced because problems don’t go away on their own.
Bailey said counseling can often help people feel more solid in their relationships. At the same time, counselors often find that couples who seek counseling after being married for several years sometimes wait too long to get help, and by the time they do, they have experienced too many hurt feelings and disappointments to repair the relationship.
“This is why we strongly encourage couples to consider a few sessions of premarital counseling before they tie the knot,” she said.
Walter Carter is a mental health counseling intern with Ardent Counseling Center, and works in the firm’s Fairfield, Washington, Iowa City and Williamsburg offices. He mentioned that couples who start counseling before they’re married usually recognize its benefits, and continue with a counseling program after their wedding day. He said counseling can help couples better manage their emotions. It ensures that couples are identifying areas of improvement in their relationship, and working to fix them. If couples are not aware of their own problems, there’s a danger they could regress in their relationship.
“The goal of counseling is to create a safe space where both people can express their opinions,” Carter said. “We refer to that as developing a therapeutic working alliance. It’s basically just building trust between a therapist and their clients.”
Carter acknowledged that some clients are hesitant to divulge the most intimate parts of their life, sometimes even with their partner.
“It’s intimidating even for the toughest man,” he said. “It’s so important to help find a way to create a trustful dynamic where topics can be discussed openly without causing emotional harm or trauma for either party.”
Carter said that even apparently stable marriages of 30 years or more can break down if the couple does not address areas for improvement. He said sometimes one or both parties will assume a posture of “I’m never going to change, so accept me for who I am or move on.”
“That’s not good enough,” he said. “As humans, we have so much potential. We’re meant to adapt to grow and develop into our potential.”