Pre-nuptial counselling allows a couple to consider their preferred way of being together before they hit a crisis. It is a way for them to contemplate their ‘contract’ of being together and how they might prepare themselves if the relationship gets strained – as it inevitably will do. Although it might seem out of context with modern life – it can save a lot of heartache and might be more realistically looked at as a ‘negotiating or renegotiating our contract’.
The publicity given to pre-nuptial financial packages is making more couples aware of the good sense of considering the emotional and practical aspects of their relationship contract – and understanding that looking at the realities of a shared life does not undermine romance or love.
History of pre-nuptial counselling
Traditionally pre-nuptial counselling was undertaken by many couples with their church or in groups as a step towards considering life together. Demand declined from the 1970’s when the traditional stages of courtship and marriage broke down as contraception and financial freedom changed how young people viewed marriage and relationships.
Pre-nuptial counselling has enjoyed a recent revival and is back in vogue following the endorsement given to it by Prince William and Kate Middleton in the months before their wedding.
It is now as likely to be undertaken by a young couple considering marriage or a couple embarking on their second or third relationships in a bid to avoid problems encountered in previous relationships. This becomes more important when there are children from the earlier relationships and the investment in success is high because of the potential disruption and its impact on all members.
Many contemporary couples meet and cohabit within a short length of time without considering the long-term implications. Realities are unlikely to emerge in the heady euphoric period at the beginning when love makes us blind to each others faults and shortcomings. For many young couples the negotiation of their contract of being together is done in the hectic period after the birth of their first child when the realities of being together are rather pressing and might be overwhelming.
Formerly the process was more measured. A couple courted, announced an engagement and planned a family wedding. Each stage might uncover more of their expectations - culturally, emotionally and financially. For many what appeared to be disagreements over the wedding plans in reality revealed the couple thrashing out their shared values in the face of both family and friends.
Contraception, financial independence and the later age at which people marry means that process has been to some extent abandoned and many embark on life together with fewer expectations and less understanding.
- Children – do you want children, how would they be brought up?
- Finance – who will be responsible for what, is there a financial plan?
- Religion – what part might it play as life unfolds – are there conflicts now?
- Misunderstandings – how might they be resolved?
- Conflict – how will it be dealt with?
- Loyalties – what part will each other’s family play? How much emphasis will be placed on work, friends, hobbies?
- How will housework and other chores be divided? Will those be altered if working patterns change?
- Sex – what will happen if problems arise?
- Work – what priority is placed on this by each partner?
Symptoms of marriage breakdown
Cultural problems can arise without being noticed by each other as life’s pressures build up and this can cause a couple to disconnect – whether the problems relate to religion, childcare, finance, work or football teams. All families have inbuilt cultural attitudes – they don’t necessarily have to be from different religions or races – for many couples the differences are much more subtle but still powerful.
A couple is made up of two people from two different tribes who bring their values, often taken for granted, with them. Which set of values will predominate or will the couple establish a new set for themselves? A little forethought can save a lot of heartache.
- divided loyalties
- constant conflict
When is the right time for pre-nuptial counselling?
Ideally a couple might consider such counselling before they set up home together, whether they choose to marry or not. At this time they can take a less-pressured view of how they would like their relationship to be. Once the stresses of daily living are underway there is a temptation to revert to the blueprints of the family we grew up in – or to reverse them. Pregnancy is another good time for a couple to reflect realistically about how they want to live together.
How can counselling help?
A certificated couples counsellor should have an understanding of the major stages of development in a relationship and be aware of the common stressors in each phase and their impact on the relationship. For example the birth of the first child is often considered the most stressful point in a relationship, with the period of children leaving home a close second. In both these situations the couples contract of being together, whether conscious or unconscious, may need to be thought about or reconsidered to accommodate the enormous changes as they take place. In that way the relationship can be more realistic about the changing expectations and situations of both partners.
A couples counsellor can offer an impartial, non-judgemental position to allow the couple to think out their own position, while remaining realistic about the pressures that each partner is under. When the crisis is over the couple can continue to strengthen their bond without fear they have been undermined by family or friends taking sides or casting value-judgements on one partner or another.
Relationships are continually evolving as people change, develop or encounter set-backs. Considering the ‘contract’ means that such changes can be adapted to without one partner being left behind. Undertaking pre-nuptial counselling, or relationship renegotiation later on, can establish a healthy way to let each other know how changes might be contemplated and tackled. The alternative is to ‘learn the hard way’ and deal with the problems as the symptoms develop, which can be depleting and frightening in stressful times.
Many religious organisations offer in-house pre-marital counselling which offers guidance in line with its beliefs and practices. Other organisations like Relate and London Marriage Guidance offer non-affiliated support.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
Whilst there are no official rules and regulations in position which stipulate what level of training and experience a couple’s counsellor, marriage guidance counsellor or relationship counsellor needs, we do recommend that you check your therapist is experienced in the area for which you are seeking help.
A Diploma level qualification (or equivalent) in relationship counselling or a related topic will provide assurance and peace of mind that your counsellor has developed the necessary skills.
Another way to assure they have undergone specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation that represents couples counsellors.