Many of you (including one Team Practical member who works at the magazine) emailed me this week about the New York Times Magazine cover article yesterday “Married (Happily) With Issues.” If you haven’t read the article, go do that now. In a way, there is not much to say about this piece of writing. Elizabeth Weil crafted a funny, honest, intimate portrait of her marriage, and trials of trying to use your type-A skills to work on something so ephemeral yet so centrally important as marriage. But the essay reminded me that I’d never talked about premarital counseling, why we did it, and why I think it’s important. So, it’s high time.
First the facts. We did our premarital counseling with the rabbi of the congregation we are members of, the rabbi who was officiating at our wedding. It was ‘free,’ by which I mean we pay thousands of dollars a year in support of our congregation, and there is no extra charge for life cycle events, though we did make an additional donation in thanks. (Suddenly paying for it doesn’t sound so bad, huh?) And because I know I’m going to be asked: our rabbi is phenomenal, but she only marries and counsels members of her congregation, because she is so swamped I think she never sleeps.
Additional facts: David and I had been together for five years when we got married, lived together for two, and been friends for fourteen, and YES I still think it was the best part of wedding planning. So, NO, I don’t think it’s just for couples who haven’t been together for ages.
In my head, what we’d do in premarital counseling is talk about our issues as a couple (everyone has some, right? I figured yes.) and work on them, and then enter marriage with a clean slate. Or something. I was wrong. What we did talk about in premarital counseling was really practical things, and really important things, such as:
- Living wills, and how each of us wanted to be treated as we were dying.
- Regular wills. Had we made them? Could we go ahead and do that already?
- What values we wanted to instill in our children (we made lists), or alternatively what values we wanted to make central to our lives together.
- Inspired by the values exercise, David and I also made lists of our life goals, and them compared them. Interestingly, lots of them were the same. Of those goals that were the same, we figured we would go ahead and get started… and our honeymoon ended up being the very first shared goal on that list. Awwww….
- How we felt about monogamy, and what our attitudes and approaches would be if one of us slipped up.
- What we would do if we felt our marriage was in crisis.
- Would we agree upfront that we would both attend marriage counseling if the other partner requested it, even if our marriage was not in crisis?
- Kids. Did we want them? Had we discussed a time line? Had we thought about what we would do if we discovered we were infertile? How did we feel about adoption?
- Money. Had we thoroughly discussed our attitudes about it with each other? Had we talked about budgeting and debt?
- What our relationship meant to each of us. Our rabbi asked us to go home, and each write a statement privately about our relationship. When we came back, she had us read the statements out loud to each other. Let me just say, they were more similar than I could have guessed, and while they were both very unsentimental, we cried.
And divorce. We talked about divorce. Because here is the thing: I don’t think you have any business getting married unless you have sat down and had a long frank talk with your partner about divorce. How do you feel about it? Has it happened to anyone in your family? How do you feel about that? Do you feel like it is an option in your life? If so why, when, how? And when you talk about divorce, I’d really suggest that you have a professional sitting across the table from you, challenging you to think even harder, because divorce is a huge and difficult subject.
When it came up in our sessions, I said something like, “DIVORCE IS NOT AN OPTION EVER IT IS TOTALLY OFF THE TABLE PERIOD.” And then there was a pause, and our rabbi said, “Meg. Divorce is written into the Jewish Ketubah. (editors note: The traditional Ketubah language dates back thousands of years, and was one of the first marriage documents to give woman specific and protected rights. Among these rights is the right that, under certain conditions, a woman will be granted a religious divorce, and that her husband will be required to financially provide for her.) Our rabbi then went on to talk about cases that she’d seen in which divorce was actually a mitzvah (a good deed). This was challenging. This was confusing. This was thought provoking. This is a conversation I’m really glad we had before we walked down the aisle. I do not think you should get married until you’ve talked about divorce. I mean it.
There are as many kinds of marriage counseling as there are people who do it. There is helpful counseling, and there is… less than helpful counseling. (We had friends who’s counseling consisted of a pastor giving them a Myers-Briggs Personality Test to see if they were a good match. As our friend said at the time, “We’re getting married next month. Isn’t it a little late to be taking a compatibility quiz?”) But here is what I really think: Wedding planning is fraught with stupid questions. Chairs, for example, or what length your gown should be. Marriage is fraught with things that really do matter. Taking some time in the middle of the planning to talk about the reality of your lives together, and to ask yourselves hard questions? Well, that’s a gift. So if you can, go find someone, and talk. It will be worth every penny, even if you think you already have everything figured out.
The day of our last counseling session I showed up frazzled. I’d just gotten a quote for getting my hair and makeup done that was, I swear to god, $700. I’d just had a silly conversation with my mom where she tried to talk me into outfitting a table full of toys for the kids at the wedding (as if all they wanted to do wasn’t to eat cake and run around after each other and hide in flower beds that were totally off limits). I was at my wit’s end. And then our rabbi asked us to go into the hall outside her office and practice walking down the aisle, and circling each other. We giggled like little kids, we got teary, we felt ridiculous, and we gasped at how huge this thing was that we were about to do. And I realized once and for all that the other sh*t? Well, it just didn’t matter.