June 29, 2013 8:00:11 AM
Hours add up to days, weeks and months -- precious time spent planning the details of a perfect wedding -- but how much time do couples spend planning a happy, lasting marriage?
Cassandra Kirkland, family life specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said couples of all ages, socioeconomic groups, religions and cultural backgrounds can benefit from premarital counseling.
"Research shows that couples who participate in premarital counseling tend to have higher levels of satisfaction and commitment in marriage," Kirkland said. "These couples also tend to experience lower levels of conflict in marriage and decreased odds of divorce."
Many churches require couples to participate in premarital counseling in order to marry on site. Some religious groups reserve counseling services for their members, while others are open to serving nonmembers, Kirkland said.
But couples can find premarital counseling services offered by secular organizations.
"Couples have many options, including the services of a marriage and family therapist, a licensed clinical psychologist, a social worker or a licensed professional counselor," she said.
For couples who prefer to learn in a group setting, many family resource centers and nonprofit organizations offer premarital education classes.
Kirkland said couples often see premarital counseling as just one more task to cross off the list before heading down the aisle. She would like to see couples make it one of the first things they do when their relationship gets serious.
"Many couples wait to schedule premarital counseling after the wedding facility has been booked and wedding attire purchased," she said. "It's important for couples who are thinking about marriage to consider pre-engagement and premarital counseling well before wedding details are set.
"This will provide an opportunity to consider objectively whether or not the couple is ready and willing to take the relationship to the next level," she said.
Premarital counseling addresses common challenges in marriage and attempts to strengthen specific skills that can reduce clashes in the years ahead. Topics may include communication, conflict resolution, financial planning and budgeting, stress management, parenting styles, household chores and family backgrounds.
Talking about sensitive topics gives couples an opportunity to troubleshoot and create a plan for handling issues that all marriages face.
"It gives couples a more realistic view of what marriage entails and an opportunity to share marital expectations," Kirkland said. "People often view love as something spontaneous that shouldn't require work. Truly successful marriages require preparation, planning and work."
Branden Henry is a marriage and family therapist at The Shepherd's Staff Counseling Center in Flowood.
"My goal is to give engaged couples what I did not receive or ask for as a young man engaged at the age of 20," Henry said. "Eleven years and four children later, there seems to be no end to what would have been helpful. For me, healthy marriage comes down to one core thing, which is being known."
Henry said a lack of knowing -- a lack of intimacy -- is at the root of many marital problems. Trustworthiness is the foundation of intimacy.
"I seek to help couples develop intimacy, which involves learning to see those areas which are hidden, and moving towards a safe relationship in which each person feels comfortable revealing themselves -- physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally and sexually," he said.
Typically, one or more of these areas remains hidden throughout marriage, which is one reason premarital counseling is crucial, Henry said.
"The difficulty at the beginning of marriage comes by believing you are experiencing each of these areas to the fullest, which can lead to marital stagnation," he said. "The beautiful reality is that intimacy can be nurtured and deepened throughout the entirety of marriage. Premarital counseling at its best seeks to equip couples to experience a deep sense of intimacy now and throughout their lives together."