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Neil Weissman, PsyD

Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Preparing To Build A Bayit Ne’eman – with Mirrors, Ladders and Windows: A Premarital Counseling Experience

Shetivnu bayit neeman b’yisrael.” We bless our children that they “should build a secure and reliable home in Israel.” A “secure and reliable” Jewish family home requires a strong and sturdy marital foundation based on genuine love, mutual respect, acceptance and dedicated effort that is contextualized within a clear, committed and shared religious framework. But, how well prepared are our young men and women to undertake this most essential of roles and tasks? Does our community have an effective approach to teaching and inculcating the necessary relationship and communication skills? A more thoughtful consideration of how to prepare our children can only improve the shalom bayis in each and every home. Chazal state, “Ein kedusha bli hachana” – there is no holiness without preparation. What could be holier – and thus need more preparation – than a couple about to enter into their personal kiddushin?

It is often noted wistfully that during the period of engagement, more time, expense and attention are devoted to preparing for the wedding than preparing for the marriage. Yet even the most beautiful, joyful, exhilarated dance-fest of a wedding does not necessarily translate into a successful, lifelong marriage. As the couples and their respective families invest in wedding planning, it is equally critical that time and expense be set aside for guidance to ready the couple to build their own bayit ne’eman. Pre-marital counseling must be part of every couple’s engagement experience. This essay will open the curtain on the counseling experience, presenting one approach to premarital counseling along with the essential issues worthy of the attention of every newly engaged couple.

The first phone call a therapist receives typically involves a version of the kallah calling and stating, “We recently got engaged and even though our relationship is, Baruch Hashem, 100% fine, our Rav still recommended we get counseling before our wedding. I am not sure why. Can you tell me what we will discuss so I can inform my chassan?”

Not surprisingly, most couples are naïve about what a counseling experience is like and often nervous about the encounter. They perceive the therapist as a “relationship judge” who will either stamp their marriage as “approved” or “rejected.” Others may be concerned that the therapist will ask personal questions that will be awkward and uncomfortable and that may “rock the boat.” Some couples will simply go through the motions – showing up at the counseling sessions merely to check off “attend premarital counseling” from the long list of pre-wedding tasks. But there are also couples who are eager to learn about themselves and their partner, who seek to sharpen their relationship skills and have a positive shared experience with their betrothed.

Regardless of the initial attitude of the participants, the therapist’s goal for each couple is to provide a designated and emotionally safe time during which they can focus without distraction on their precious relationship and prepare together for their shared, lifelong journey.

The Relationship Toolkit

The tools necessary to prepare a solid marital structure include “mirrors,” “windows” and “ladders.” Mirrors are needed to reflect on one’s own true, inner feelings, needs, concerns and behaviors. Ladders provide a higher perspective from which to observe the relationship, and each partner’s contribution to that relationship. Using a well-placed ladder, the couple may also perceive the family context that frames each marital partner’s sensitivities and expectations. And windows allow marital partners to “look into” the lives and hearts of their spouse.

The First Session: Polishing Mirrors

A well-polished mirror provides the clearest picture of oneself. In this initial session, the couple is encouraged to appreciate the value of honest self-reflection. Each individual is directed to notice and consider their own pertinent thoughts and feelings. The couple is enjoined to consider, and to articulate, who they are and whom they want to be as a couple.

In the initial moments of the first session, it is important that the couple be presented with the ground rules of counseling – in particular, the commitment of the therapist to protect their confidentiality. To allay the anxiety born of uncertainty, the therapist also explains the process and typical goals for the counseling. Most importantly, the therapist asks the couple what they hope to get out of the sessions, thereby engaging them in the collaborative component of the experience. Counseling of any type is a partnership between the attendees and the therapist, and not something done to someone.

The couple is then invited to tell their “story,” including the shidduch process, their dates, how they reached their decision to commit to one another (and, of course, the details of the proposal). Typically, by this time the couple begins to feel more relaxed. The therapist will then make a direct inquiry, asking the couple to describe what attracted them to one another. This question provides an opportunity to express aloud, and to one another, what each values about the other. If physical attraction is not mentioned, the therapist will ask whether that is also one of the reasons for attraction. The goal of this rather personal inquiry is to highlight to the couple that it cannot be assumed that your partner knows what you value in them. Moreover, this particular question indicates that physical aspects of a relationship can and should be discussed openly, albeit sensitively and respectfully, since the absence of physical attraction is cause for concern, as it can compromise marital satisfaction.

The couple is then asked to identify their “relationship strengths.” The implication of this inquiry, which is explicitly stated, is that couples benefit from thinking of their relationship as an entity in itself that requires attention and consideration, and which is the synergistic result of both of their contributions. Marriage, the couple is reminded, is a partnership, and each partner has the duty, the privilege, and the  ability to shoulder responsibility to make it work.

Having established a positive framework, the therapist asks what stressors the couple has contended with, what their individual styles of coping may be, and how have they coped together as a couple. The couple is also asked to consider how they handle differences of opinion and conflict. This last topic allows the therapist to note whether there are imbalances of power and control in the relationship.

The gentle, respectful and curious attitude of the therapist allows the couple to reflect more consciously (and sometimes self consciously) on themselves and each other – in other words, to “polish the mirrors” and “open the windows.” As noted, the interactions in the session also provide the therapist with insight into how effectively the chassan and kallah can express their views, feelings and needs to each other, and how skilled they are at listening and attending to the views of their partner.

The chassan and kallah are then asked to articulate their “vision” of marriage and the values they hope will guide them. This allows for the therapist to identify whether they share a vision, or whether there is discordance between them. It also provides an opportunity to educate the couple about the central need to create a “secure attachment” to each other – meaning, that each partner should feel that the other is always there for them and will care for them. Counseling thus serves as an essential teaching moment that can provide the skills and attitudes that can help fulfill these aspirations.

To assess the quality of their connection, the couple is given a questionnaire designed to reflect their feeling of being heard and responded to by their fiancé. The first session concludes with the notion that many of their expectations regarding the roles and responsibilities in marriage are actually unstated and assumed, and are often rooted in their upbringing. Before they leave, the couple is given a second questionnaire to complete prior to the next session, to help clarify their assumptions about these roles and responsibilities.

Session Two: Climbing the Ladder

An essential skill for maintaining a healthy relationship is the ability to know when and how to seek a more informed  perspective on a dynamic in the relationship, as if  climbing a ladder to get a better view of what is really happening. This higher view can provide information and insight that are obfuscated when individuals are mired in the complexity or emotional intensity of the moment. In the second session, the couple begins to ascend the perspective ladder, considering  the past experiences and influences that shape their current sensitivities and future expectations.

This session picks up on the topic of expectations in roles and responsibilities, exploring the influences on each individual of their family and upbringing. In a non-judgmental manner, the couple is asked to consider the infrastructure of their parents’ homes – who managed the money, who managed the household, who cooked, cleaned, planned vacations, disciplined, nurtured, was the breadwinner, helped with homework.

On a deeper level, the couple is encouraged to describe their parent’s models of expression (or lack of expression) of affection, respect, anger, etc.. How did their parents manage conflict? How did they express and manage emotions? Even more personally, the chassan and kallah are asked to consider how secure they felt in their home. Who could they turn to for support and attention? This discussion may reveal significant areas of concern such as abuse, addictions, psychiatric problems, marital infidelities or disappointments and emotional injuries in their relationship with parents or significant others.

The couple is also asked to consider what their roles were – and currently are – in their families. Were they the peacemaker, the caregiver, the only child whose needs were always prioritized, the troublemaker, or perhaps the quiet one who was often ignored? The couple is asked how they expect their background to influence their expectations – whether positively or negatively – and to reflect on how their earlier experiences may impact on potential or current sensitivities, needs and vulnerabilities. Once these feelings and  potential sensitivities are revealed, the partners are encouraged to turn to their fiancé and convey these sentiments to them directly. Such moments are often deeply emotional. The couple learns how to communicate with each other more intensely, often resulting in a unique bonding moment. Indeed, actualizing this type of vulnerable communication fosters a deeper and more resilient connection.

Final Session: Opening the Windows

The benefits of accurate self-reflection and gaining a more informed perspective are most valuable for those who are able to share openly and clearly with one another. As the couple opens their respective windows, allowing their partner to enter into their hearts and minds, they take their first steps toward true emotional intimacy. The final session focuses on the often emotionally-laden issues relevant to marriage and addresses the communication (window-opening) skills necessary for successful connection.

This session is set aside for “special topics,” such as religion, lifestyle expectations, income and money management, shared activities, in-laws and extended family relationships and the couple’s physical intimate relationship. Of course, all of these topics can be complex and worthy of extensive conversation, and often are. As in the prior session, many of these issues will take more time to address and to resolve. The couple is advised that the intent of the session is to chart a course and to bring to their attention the important areas worthy of further discussion and consideration.

In this session, the role of therapist is to not only address the content of the discussion but, more importantly, to facilitate and shape “a way,” a process and model of interacting such that each partner feels heard and understood. Hopefully, the views of each partner will tend to be congruent with the other, but there certainly will be times when their views do not align, and this session seeks to provide guidance in managing these discussions successfully.

The couple is given a crash course on essential communication skills, including those of expressing concerns openly and tactfully. The value of listening attentively, actively and empathically is reinforced. The couple is guided to address their differences patiently, carefully and compassionately, with respect for the views and feelings of the other. They are reminded that the primary value in marital discussion is connection – not winning the argument. The counseling session provides the opportunity to exercise some of these skills, enabling the couple to feel more confident in their partnership and/or to become aware of the need for more practice and guidance. Often, the therapist will suggest selected, well-regarded readings on marriage for future reference.

The couple is then asked to revisit their vision of their marriage, based on the discussions that took place in these sessions. Hopefully, they will be able to raise their mirrors and recognize themselves more fully, pull out their ladders to gain perspective, and have open windows for their partner to see in.

Other useful tools which can summarize key ideas from the sessions are offered, such as the “watering can” to nurture the relationship and to attend to its continuous growth, a whistle, for calling “time-out” when tensions flare and arguments escalate, and a “safety box,” where cherished memories and loving moments are kept such that these true gems of marriage can be held, admired and protected.

Some people discover that there is more to discuss with the therapist and decide to continue with additional sessions. All are encouraged to meet with the therapist a month or so after the wedding to review their experiences once their life together is no longer theoretical. All are also encouraged to continue to reflect on their relationship, their patterns of interacting, their expression of needs and their responsiveness to one another. Couples are encouraged to tend to their connection always and – with G-d’s help and chessed, and with their newly refined skills – to build and maintain a “bayit neeman b’yisrael” – a home of security, mutual interdependence and love.

Neil Weissman, PsyD, a Clinical Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at the University of Maryland, is a licensed psychologist with a private practice specializing in couples’ therapy.

To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.

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