Getting to Know Your Partner While You Get to Know Yourself
When I was a graduate student, I had a professor who would often remind us of a very important phrase: "How you start determines how you finish." Her purpose was to help us plan our work with clients – to be conscious of how we as therapists brought others into the therapy process to help them work toward their goals. It also had the added effect of helping me think about the couples that would come to therapy at the end of their ropes with each other. They had moved beyond any desire to heal their relationship pains, opting instead to use the therapy room as a battleground.
I wondered how these couples started.
If the premise that how you start is how you finish is true, then what was the origin story of these couples? While we can't change history, is it possible to work backwards from the end and determine if there was a better way to begin? When we make the decision to commit long-term to a relationship with another person, we want it to work out. These sorts of relationships are important to us and to our well-being. In order to give ourselves the best shot at seeing this through, it's important that we make an effort to start well.
I believe that premarital counseling gives us the opportunity to start well. It allows us to learn about our partners and each other in a safe, nurturing environment while learning the fundamental skills that we need in order to handle the more difficult conversations that are bound to come up. Working with a skilled premarital counselor, you can learn how to communicate in a way that is true to your own experience but also honors that your partner has a different set of expectations than you do. It will help you see the areas where you're strong as a team as well as the areas where you will need to be a little more intentional.
There are a lot of conversations where skills like these will become important. How are we going to raise our children? What role will faith play in our family? What are our expectations about sex? What are our financial goals? What is appropriate when it comes to nurturing friendships outside of our relationship?
If we don't start by having these conversations well, how do you think they'll finish?
There are a few things that we all do very well but that can challenge our ability to have healthy conversation. For example, we're all going to make assumptions and jump to conclusions in our relationships. We humans do this naturally and frequently because there are parts of our brains that are tuned to provide us with exactly those services. Since the brain's job is to keep us alive, it wants to have a complete picture of our surroundings. If there happen to be pieces of information missing, our brain will search through its own collection of memories and ideas in order to fill in the blanks. This worked really well when we lived in the jungle and had to determine if the stick breaking in the trees meant a threat was on the way. However, those same skills can get in the way when a simple text that reads "What would you like to do for dinner?" turns into a day-long silent treatment.
The idea that we make assumptions is not all bad. In fact, an important part of love is our basic acceptance of certain things, like that our partner loves us and wants to be on our team. But we need to be able to make these assumptions well. We need to make sure that what we understand about our partner is actually what our partner understands about themselves. We also need to make sure that we frequently and actively check in to update these ideas about our partner's world to make sure that our information is in sync with theirs. Without these kinds of assumptions, our attempts to have meaningful conversation would look less like a love note and more like a legal document.
We want love notes. Legal documents too often mean the end of something good.
It's important to start our relationships on a foundation of understanding. Understanding flows from a place of interest and curiosity. If you've ever said about your partner that you know everything there is to know about them, then it's time to take a step back. People are fluid and dynamic and ever-changing. When we say things like this, it often means we've got blinders on and are at risk of missing something important. Premarital counseling helps you become curious about each other and to avoid these sorts of dangers in your relationship.
By staying curious, we avoid the complacency that can set in when couples stop learning about each other. Maybe they were never taught to keep this part of their relationship alive and thriving. Maybe they genuinely think that they know everything there is to know. On the other hand, maybe there is an opportunity to wake up to the infinite depth of your loved one's soul.
Now, that would be a great way to start.