Thursday 22 February 2018

Another distraction en route to altar

Patricia Casey

Therapy for unmarried couples en route to marriage is apparently increasing in the United States and Britain.

This is not another version of the marriage preparation courses recommended by the Catholic Church for couples wishing to marry and which many of us have had to endure, depending on who delivered it.

No, what is occurring now is that co-habiting couples, even if they are only together a short while, are voluntarily requesting counselling. According to some reports the actress Jennifer Aniston and her new partner Justin Theroux have allegedly sought couple therapy.

Many of these couples are in co-habiting relationships of varying durations. However they may still be ambivalent, anxious or angry with their partner.

Some have sexual problems, some are bored. The usual scenario is that one is willing to commit to marriage but the other is not.

Others feel they are the victims of their partner's personal baggage and this may include anger problems, gambling or unsettling tendencies such as addiction to alcohol, pornography or infidelity.

I have at times referred couples planning to marry to a therapist to examine issues in the relationship, most commonly related to uncertainty about permanent commitment or to tackle the impact on various addictions.

At this point there is no scientific data to detail the frequency of such counselling requests. What is emerging anecdotally is that the driving force for many such requests is the impact of parental divorce on one or other of the parties.


They have witnessed the acrimony, heartache and disruption associated with marital breakdown, and they are wisely striving to avoid such an outcome in their lives. This first-hand experience has made them determined to seek a pre-nuptial insurance policy, in so far as this is possible.

But wasn't living together prior to marriage supposed to be just such a guarantee? The thinking was that while together one could spot potential problems and act on them to avoid the later misery of a broken marriage.

Co-habitation has been common in most of Europe and America for over 30 years now, yet until recently there was no indication that relationship difficulties identified during that time were being dealt with in therapy.

It seems that relationships either ended or resulted in marriage and there is now strong data to support the temporary nature of co-habitation, with the average being two years. Only around four per cent continue to co-habit for 10 years.

So, some would argue that seeking professional help prior to marriage is a positive development when couples are struggling.

After all, the likelihood that marriage will change everything is minuscule -- a slob before marriage will still be one afterwards, a dependent individual before will not be transformed into a tower of emotional strength afterwards.

The other explanation for the growth of pre-marital couple counselling may be that they are simply unable to break up.

When couples are locked into a relationship that is quasi-marital in terms of financial and living arrangements, as co-habiting most certainly is, decoupling from this is particularly difficult.

The problem is not just emptying the shared wardrobe and dividing the crockery but also the emotional wrench and loss of no longer being seen as a couple.


The break-up of any intimate relationship, whether marital, co-habiting or otherwise, is always difficult but those who eschew co-habitation have at least maintained some vestige of independence that arguably makes the transition less traumatic.

The question that can only be definitively answered when there is research evidence is whether pre-marital couple therapy works. The passage from single life via courtship and co-habitation, even sometimes parenthood, to marriage is increasingly complex.

Will those who have identified problems during the time together before marriage resolve their difficulties and have marriages that are stable?

Or is couple therapy during co-habitation just another diversion en route to the altar and ultimately to the divorce court. Is it ultimately an expensive distraction for those who are unable to break up? Time will tell.

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