Therapist Becky Whetstone has seen hundreds of couples for pre-marital counseling through the years. If she thinks an engaged couple needs more time to work on their relationship before saying “I do,” she’s not one to hold back in telling them.
“Unfortunately, some people I see ignore the red warning flags waving in their face during the courting phase and plow straight into a marriage that seems doomed from the start — it’s really painful to watch,” the Little Rock, Arkansas-based therapist told The Huffington Post.
Below, Whetstone and seven other experts who specialize in pre-marriage counseling share some of the most glaring signs that an engaged couple doesn’t have what it takes to stay married.
Bonnie Ray Kennan’s go-to answer when people ask her for quick, bite-sized marriage advice is as straightforward as it comes: Marry a grown-up.
“Given that, when I work with individuals and couples who are preparing for marriage, I am most concerned about signs of extreme selfishness and immaturity,” the marriage and family therapist said. “Marriage is for adults who are willing to make difficult decisions, have hard conversations and in general, take the high road. It requires sacrifice and a certain amount of selflessness.”
It’s simple: Without trust, your marriage doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Whetstone has seen firsthand how damaging distrust can be in a relationship.
“If one of the partners I see has a confirmed history of being untrustworthy, things are not going to get any better after the vows are exchanged,” she said. “If one person is doesn’t trust the other when there is no evidence the person should not be trusted, then the partner will likely bring a grasping, needy and controlling energy to the union that will be its ultimate undoing.”
Some couples make pre-marriage counseling appointments with Abby Rodman because the stress of planning a wedding takes a toll. But the psychotherapist says it’s cause for alarm when a couple can’t stop bickering over the budget or meaningless planning details.
“What should be the focus — their future together — is eclipsed by a one-day event which has little or no bearing on what’s in store for them as a married couple,” she said. “If the details of the wedding are causing anger, resentment and distance, I try to look at what’s beneath it all. What is the couple really fighting about? Because whether the flower girl should wear pink or yellow shouldn’t bring any couple to emotional blows.”
There’s no place for contempt or name-calling in a marriage. When this happens during marriage counseling sessions, R. Scott Gornto said it suggests a couple may not be able to weather what lies ahead of them in marriage.
“[Name-calling can] erode the relationship to nothingness,” he said. “I hear these two phrases all the time in my practice: ‘You’re being ridiculous!’ or ‘You’re acting crazy!’ That’s not the same as directly calling a partner a choice epithet but it is still name-calling and the effect is similar. It puts another person down so the name-caller can feel superior. It’s a way to self-soothe rising anxiety during conflict and a method to absolve oneself of responsibility for the troubling issue.”
Conflict is inevitable. How the couple responds to conflict during pre-marriage counseling says a lot about how successful the marriage will be, said marriage therapist Michele Weiner-Davis.
“One of the most important things I have couples explore during counseling is whether a partner can stand the heat,” Weiner-David said. “Will s/he be willing to get help when the going gets tough? Is s/he willing to take a marriage education class to learn the necessary skills to get and keep the marriage on track? Solid couples are comfortable talking about the taboo, difficult subjects — infidelity, infertility, aging parents, job layoffs, unexpected illnesses or deaths. Couples on shaky ground often have trouble with that.”
After 40 yours in practice, marriage and family therapist Jim Walkup can tell a lot about a couple by the way they argue.
“I’ve seen how detrimental it can be if couples don’t take responsibility for their part in the argument or express remorse for any hurt they inflect on the other,” he said. “I’ve witnessed how not fighting and sweeping things under the carpet can lead to divorce later on, too. These couples run from exploring what hurts or upsets them; that can later result in running away from a marriage.”
Rabbi Mordecai Finley pays close attention to the roles fiancés play when he’s leading a pre-marriage counseling session. If one of the partners tries to parent the other, it usually spells trouble.
“It’s sure marker of eventual problems and oftentimes divorce,” he said. “With one couple I saw, the ‘parent’ was the woman, a highly intelligent therapist. The man was a reasonably smart, good guy who was very interested in inner exploration and growth. In their relationship, she was his guide and he was her student. The problem is, the S.O. that takes on the parent role is often impossible to please and a disciplinarian. The child type is often anxious to please — up until they’re tired of being corrected. In this relationship, it was the therapist wife who eventually ended the torture, er, relationship. I think she finally wanted a partner whom she saw as an adult.”
Getting married is not going to solve all your problems. Too many couples go into marriage believing just that, said psychotherapist Elisabeth Joy LaMotte.
“It’s the biggest red flag I’ve seen heading into a marriage,” she said. “You need to head into marriage with an awareness of the relationship’s strengths and weaknesses, but it’s so easy for couples to get caught up in a whirlwind of wedding planning and imagine that things will change after they marry. They think that a partner who says they don’t want children will change their mind once they become domesticated — or that a partner who drinks too much will change once they’re settled. These unrealistic fantasies prevent couples from addressing difficult issues and often become obstacles to intimacy and martial fulfillment.”
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