Since my divorce I've been the beneficiary of fascinating advice. These bits of knowledge range from, "Don't go getting inseminated or something rash like that. At least finish college first!" to "Premarital counseling really helped us. You should do that next time. I mean, you know, if there is a next time."
But we did go to premarital counseling.
I recently discussed this at length with a peer who eventually raised both hands and said, "I can't believe you didn't see all the red flags," his eyes growing wider and wider, "Why did you even go through with it?"
Perhaps my experience is exclusive to the fact that it wasn't secular. Honestly I think the pressure of adhering to a specific type of religious counseling essentially hindered my personal growth. In fact it did quite the opposite and the entire thing was awfully oppressive, unnatural, and uncomfortable.
Having been for almost a year now in cognitive therapy, hindsight can clearly point her manicured nail to a list of ways premarital counseling let us both down. The sessions were more about our ability to believe in a higher power, and produce children who felt similarly, than about strengthening and solidifying our relationship. There was little to no focus on the fundamental things that allow a relationship to thrive--independence, communication, compromise, and understanding--but rather an abundance of unrelated religious rules and restrictions.
It all began when we started discussing who would marry us. I was mentally working my way through our lists of friends, á la Joey Tribbiani and Barney Stinson, when my fiancé said he was interested in consulting a specific pastor. Never having met this man and although he sounded pleasant, I had already expressed I wasn't interested in getting married in a church. Eventually we agreed to compromise--or what at least appeared to be compromise--and decided we wouldn't get married in a church but we would go to the required counseling, thus securing this man as the officiate of our outdoor wedding.
With that we were scheduled to go to premarital counseling for an hour once a week--sometimes twice a week--every week, until the week before the wedding. I felt uneasy about the process and decided to seek advice from a few co-workers. I walked around with a cup of tea or propped myself against the water cooler while I learned from premarital counseling alumni.
A blonde I consulted first enjoyed having her husband tie her legs to the bed, but she quickly explained that they "stopped doing things like that" while going to premarital counseling at the church her parents attended. She said she felt the experience helped her marriage immensely. They were about to celebrate their five-year anniversary--rope included. Another co-worker explained that his wife's family is Catholic and they were required to attend premarital counseling as to not upset her grandparents. "We said we weren't living together," he laughed, "But come on." They had been married a year at this point and he expressed that premarital counseling neither strengthened nor weakened the foundation of their relationship, although the counselor was "a riot." He took a long drink from the beer at his desk and said he was happy to appease grandma and grandpa.
I didn't exactly feel confident about the data obtained from my predecessors and I was still biting the skin around my fingernails when my fiancé and I embarked on our first session. Almost immediately upon arriving, an extremely kind older couple told us to sign a purity contract. It stated something along the lines of, "If you're having sex don't you dare keep having sex! I mean it! But if you aren't having sex, nice job, and keep up the good work." If we wanted to move forward with the session we were required to fill out the contract, followed by a brief discussion about how many sexual partners we've had.
I hesitated as I looked at our counselors. Their kitchen was cozy and had a lot of roosters in it. I considered making a joke about cocks. Regardless of their warm smiles and plaid chair cushions, I didn't want to discuss my extensive sexual history with these people.
My fiancé was already penning his name on the paper.
We were then handed two small books with a couple cuddling on the front. They looked bored. The books detailed what to do and what not to do--the what-not-to-do section was fairly lengthy--laced with little jokes and quizzes throughout so it all felt relatable, cautious, and inspirational. Unfortunately, there weren't any sections titled:
Congratulations! You want to go to graduate school! Your fiancé appears to be supportive, right? Shucks. The thing is, he really isn't. Inevitably your marriage will fall apart because you don't want the same things--not in the slightest--and you will grow to resent each other for pretending a situation such as that would just work itself out. Now what?
Would you look at that! You're only 24 and your sex life has shriveled up and died. Don't immediately blame yourself, there's probably more to the issue.
Yes, those would've been extremely informative sections for everyone involved.
As the first session progressed, I was told God would forgive me for my sexual wrongdoings--there was still hope for me after all!--I shouldn't invite ungodly people (especially the gays) to the wedding, and the only reason to have children is to mold them into God-fearing individuals that will later mold their children into God-fearing individuals. When I opposed these things, I was told to pray on it and reconsider my egregious way of thinking. It simply wasn't acceptable.
I felt that possibly I was in the wrong. Normally I am quite vocal about my thoughts and concerns, but this was proving to be met with extreme resistance. Maybe I wasn't a good person after all.
You need to change your ways, Cindy!
As our sessions became more frequent I found myself often leaving their home feeling scolded and apprehensive. I was going to be a terrible wife. I didn't want there to be something wrong with me. Was it my sexual deviance? I didn't want to raise unhappy children. Was it because I came from a broken home? I would stay awake into the early morning hours paging through the book they gave me, madly highlighting sections, and marking chapters with Post-its. I purchased self-help and marriage how-to books, consulted my fiancé's Bible, and filled journals with questions and thoughts.
When my wedding day arrived, I put off getting into my dress for a considerable amount of time. One of my bridesmaids expressed that people had been seated almost 45 minutes. I responded with a sentence that at the time carried far more weight than I realized, "I'm not ready." Ultimately, I exited the room trying to remember the things I learned in premarital counseling. What had I learned, exactly? My knuckles were white against my bouquet as I made my way through the grass. In an attempt to not trip over my dress I kicked my feet out awkwardly and when I noticed my fiancé's stepmother mouthing that I should smile, making a big upward gesture with her hands, I grimaced.
The ceremony itself lasted roughly ten minutes and I remember very little of it. When we were able to sit at our sweetheart table--eating quickly our cold food before greeting everyone--my new husband said we were going to be just fine, the counseling would benefit us tremendously, and today would be the start of something fantastic.
Several months later, I can reflect on the experience and ask myself the same question my peer did, "How did I not see the red flags?" At the time I was unhappy and it hadn't occurred to me that my unhappiness derived from assuming I needed to fix myself and this was the only way to do so. I questioned that maybe I wasn't good enough, saintly enough, or worthy enough. I wrongfully muted my apprehension and anxiety.
Prior to the divorce, and since then, my experience with cognitive therapy has been invaluable. Although religion-based premarital counseling didn't do much in the way of benefiting or impairing my marriage, it was absolutely a catalyst to discovering that it wasn't at all the life I wanted.