The risk of self-delusion is ever-present in the days leading up to a wedding.
There you are, surrounded by parents, friends, caterers and florists, all vying for attention.
And as the big day approaches, everyone is caught up in the buildup of excitement, all of which leads some couples to mistake the celebration as the end of the process when it’s really anything but.
“Marriage can be a minefield that blows up without the proper navigation these days,” said Debbie Martinez, a Miami relationship coach.
That is why before saying “I Do,” some couples are also committing to premarital counseling sessions to refocus their attention on each other and the lives they will lead together.
Unlike the sort of counseling that can come years after a couple’s union, premarital counseling is less about rehashing issues that they faced on the way to becoming a couple and more about addressing the disconnect or unrealistic expectations of “happy, roses and rainbows,” said Jocelyn W. Charnas, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan who counsels engaged couples.
“The fundamental point about premarital counseling is to lay a foundation for empathy, communication and partnership,” Charnas said.
Marriage was once viewed as the springboard into family life, said Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. That has evolved.
“There is a basic view today that couples perceive the wedding as the signal that they have succeeded in landing someone,” Wilcox said.
This is especially true, he said: “for those couples in their 20s and 30s with good jobs and money saved. They view marriage as the capstone moment. They have arrived.”
As a result, some are unprepared for all that comes next, never mind how to deal with the letdown that comes after the excitement of the wedding day has worn off.
Charnas said she recently worked with a bride who expressed her fears of a crash after living the high of the wedding and honeymoon. So she encouraged the couple, “to look at the wedding as not the end, but rather the beginning.”
But counseling can be complicated. While some may believe they know everything about each other, one partner can be in such a state of bliss that the overemphasis on the good can minimize the bad, said Rabbi Jonathan Blake of the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York.
“What I have learned is that couples need to be pushed hard on the tough issues that they want to gloss over or avoid,” he said. “I ask them how they would react to infidelity, and most can’t imagine it happening to them.”
“I press harder by asking what each partner would do if a child got in serious trouble with the law, or if a child had special needs, or if a spouse lost a job,” the rabbi said. “When they say ‘Nothing could cause me to question my love for my partner,’ I give them hypotheses. Only then do they finally start thinking. Although I do it with humor, being tough has gotten them to focus on the realities of marriage.”
But how does one go about finding a counselor? Many seek suggestions from wedding planners and friends, or from a religious or spiritual leader they have known through their families.
Ellen DaSilva and David Eckstein, who were raised in the New York City area and now live in San Francisco, are in counseling with Blake, DaSilva’s family rabbi, before the couple’s wedding this August in New York.
“To step back and reflect on this important decision more broadly, aided by the vocabulary and advice of a close friend and confidant, has been the most eye-opening part of the process,” said DaSilva, 26, a member of Twitter’s business operations team in San Francisco.
“Counseling also helps us sort out pre-emptive issues like when can we go back to New York and raise kids,” she said. “I want to go sooner, David opts for later.”
Eckstein, 26, who is employed in cybersecurity with OpenDNS, also in San Francisco, thinks the sessions have been a catharsis because it has forced him to focus on serious issues he may not have thought pertained to him.
His big realization has not been a discovery about DaSilva, he said, but rather the importance of finding time to discuss the difficult areas that could arise while living together.
“Having a safe environment for conversation with Rabbi Blake has enabled us to progress much further in our relationship and understanding of each others’ needs and wants,” he said.
Citing the findings of a National Marriage Project, Wilcox said, “Couples who do premarital counseling fare better.”
The report published last summer, “Before I Do,” discussed the value of counseling. It concluded that the odds of having happy marriages were linked to how people conducted their romantic lives before they married.
Some have other names for what can occur after the wedding cake is cut and the presents opened: the “post-wedding blues” or “crash.” It is a common phenomenon that typically occurs as life returns to normal in the days and weeks that follow the wedding and the couple ceases to be the center of everyone’s attention.
In addition to the emotional letdown, said Charnas, the Manhattan psychologist, stressors can include an empty bank account (for couples who pay the wedding bill themselves), frayed or simply changed family relationships from any potential conflict or hurt feelings during wedding-planning, and the need to resume focus on other areas of life such as career uncertainty. These can contribute to the feeling that everything fun and exciting is behind rather than in front of the couple.
“There are things that can mitigate its impact, including talking about it in advance,” she said. “Anticipating issues that are of concern, such as if a bride is worried about going back to work after the wedding, or if a groom is worried about his parents putting pressure on the couple to become parents, voicing these concerns and strategizing about how to manage them can be tremendously helpful.”
She counsels couples to avoid debt and to not put other pressing matters on hold until the post-wedding period. Some may also benefit, she said, from waiting to take a honeymoon until a month or two after the wedding.
“If the couple’s primary focus is on the wedding day itself rather than the marriage, then a crash is inevitable,” Charnas said. “However, if the emotional investment can be shifted from the wedding to the marriage and the couple’s partnership, then the perspective changes and the wedding is cast in a new light.”
Couples counseling has its limitations, however, especially when one member won’t open up, or finds talking bluntly about problems to be too stressful. The couple may learn their issues are bigger than they thought, or in rare cases, they may postpone or cancel the wedding.
“I try to create a comfortable space where both will talk about their fears,” Charnas said. “We try to work through this.”
In general, Martinez, the relationship coach, wastes no time pushing couples to talk about unpleasant subjects like personal boundaries, jealousy, intimacy, work stress, even the interference of technology and a multitude of other distractions on romance.
“I tell couples that they must mull over our session’s conversations later that night, letting go of stressful wedding planning for a while,” Martinez said.
Couples who have invested time and energy into their relationships, counselors say, might choose to continue therapy after the wedding.
“You don’t drive a car 30,000 miles without a tuneup,” Blake said. “A relationship cannot exist on autopilot forever.”