I love doing premarital counseling. Couples are bright-eyed and bushy tailed. They are excited about the new adventure they are about to embark on. They hold their fiancé in high positive regard. They are willing to talk about communication styles and accept advice and new tools. They haven’t yet built up years of resentment or disappointment. And it’s mostly a time of joy, laughter, and casting a vision for their future life together. It is essential, however, that I challenge these couples to maintain healthy expectations for what is ahead. There will be bumps, there will be hard days, there will be unmet needs, there will be annoyances. But going into marriage with a balanced understanding is essential. Expect great things but prepare for and try to prevent the bad. Don’t get complacent. Fight against the monotony. And never stop being truly amazed and thankful that someone has chosen to spend every day with you.
Exercise based on TLC’s television show, Clean Sweep
One exercise I often have couples do in premarital counseling seems to be very effective for them as they later encounter some of life’s struggles. The assignment is roughly based on an old TV show on TLC called “Clean Sweep.” If you remember this show, an expert would come into a family’s disorganized home and force them to organize and purge. They would go through their stuff bit by bit and put things into different piles labeled “Keep”, “Toss”, or “Sell”. They would then decide what things they couldn’t live without, what things they wanted to throw away or donate, and what things they wanted to put in a garage sale to help make a few bucks.
Deciding what is best for marriage
Using this visual, I ask couples to sit down and discuss some specific categories in terms of what they want to keep, toss, and [instead of sell] add. As these two individuals are choosing to unite their lives in marriage, they are choosing to identify themselves as one unit, as a new family, and as their own entity. So it is important that they together decide what will be best for their marriage (not their parents, not their friends, theirs). They take time to look back on their own families of origin as well as their relationship history and decide what they would like their marriage to look like. The categories they discuss can include how conflicts were handled, how money was viewed, how kids were raised, how faith played a role, how romance was or wasn’t kept alive, how fights were resolved, who did what around the house, what unspoken family “rules” existed, and what traditions were important.
What should be kept, tossed or added
Couples walk through these topics and decide – do we keep this, do we toss it, or do we add something totally different? An example could be with communication. Let’s say the husband-to-be’s family swept conflict under the rug. They kept the peace and didn’t talk about real issues. Let’s say the wife’s family was very comfortable with conflict and that yelling was a normal part of their fighting style. But the fighting was always resolved and the family would move on and make up. So now they get to decide for their own marriage. Their conversation may sound something like this:
“Let’s keep the yelling out, let’s seek to have peaceful conflicts. But let’s always talk it out and never sweep things under the rug. Let’s make sure we don’t let the sun go down on our anger and be quick to apologize. I don’t remember ever hearing my parents apologize and I don’t want to be like that. So let’s make sure to be willing to say ‘I’m sorry’ even when we don’t want to and even if it means sucking up our pride.”
The future couple agrees to the above ideas and go into marriage actively seeking for this to be their norm. So that one day, when their kids are in premarital counseling, they can say, “I liked that our parents talked things out. I liked that they didn’t yell but that they didn’t avoid conflict either. And I liked that they said I’m sorry – even to us sometimes.” What a beautiful picture of how important the decisions this married couple makes are in the long run.
Keep, toss and add relevant for married couples too
But this is a marriage article – for married people, so how is this helpful? Well, in my mind, it’s never too late to have this talk. You may have more hurts, more bad habits, more unspoken rules by now; but the option to keep, toss, or add never goes out the window. This conversation could even be the first time you’ve talked about how your ways of operating stem from your family-of-origin. It may help explain why Christmas always turns into a fight because one person always valued spending time with extended family while the other always had a quiet morning with just their parents. It may help explain why one of you is very tight with money and the other finds comfort in spending. You’d be amazed at the disagreements that come, not from right or wrong, but from those things that we deemed right or wrong because we saw them modeled well or poorly from a young age.
So even if you’ve been married for 25 years, go home, sit down and have this talk. Decide what you want to keep – what things you feel like really work for you as a couple or worked for your parents or others whom you looked up to. Decide what to toss – what bad habits are getting in the way of your relationship growth or your ability to communicate well? And decide what to add – what tools haven’t you really tapped into yet or what things do you see working for other couples that you haven’t yet implemented?
You as a couple get to write the rules for your marriage. What a scary yet empowering thing. But starting this today will help you to feel more like those couples on the verge of marriage – who feel like nothing could ever make them love their partner any less and who are willing to do whatever it takes to make the relationship thrive. It gives hope for change and casts a map of how to get there.