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What to Consider Before Tying the Knot: An LGBT Primer Courtesy of Marriage Counselor Pamela Milam

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2012-03-18-PremaritalCounselingCover.jpgAs the tide of marriage equality begins to turn, with same-gender nuptials becoming a reality for increasing numbers of couples, along comes a perfectly timed guide to provide insight into what elements to consider before taking such a step. Pamela Milam, M.A., L.P.C., a counselor in Dallas, has just released an essential primer for any LGBT individual considering matrimony, Premarital Counseling for Gays and Lesbians. Drawing from her many years of experience as a therapist, Milam lays out common areas of potential discord that couples may experience, and she shares scenarios, gleaned from her patients, that demonstrate how such issues have played out for others.

While targeted toward those considering marriage, the issues she discusses are equally applicable for anyone interested in bettering their relationships, as the book touches on such considerations as religion, sex, monogamy, open relationships, degrees of "outness," having children, and much more. Recently, Milam graciously sat down with me to discuss the book, her personal journey, and issues within the LGBT community.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk.

And you, as well. I am a big fan of your novel, Songs for the New Depression, so getting the chance to chat is an added bonus!

I really appreciate that. Thank you! But I want to talk about your book. After many years spent counseling individuals and couples, what prompted you to write a book, and why this one?

In my career, I've done plenty of premarital counseling with straight couples. I've listened to straight couples discuss their dating situations, their feelings about commitment, and eventually their plans for marriage. I've helped them understand each other better and move toward their weddings feeling stronger and more prepared for what marriage entails.

During much of that time, I was an unmarried lesbian. It was not lost on me that while I was spending many of my waking hours helping to launch and/or save heterosexual unions, I could not legally marry the person I loved most in the world.

Then, laws started changing.

Exactly. And as they did, I began receiving more and more phone calls and emails from gay and lesbian couples who were planning weddings and requesting premarital counseling. It's a relatively new phenomenon.

That's great that they're seeking that out.

Yes, it is. But I knew that for me to recommend a book to a gay couple, that resource needed to be tailored specifically to their situation, as there are particular issues gay couples routinely face which straight couples do not.

I was so glad to see you touching on issues specific to the LGBT community.

When I began researching the topic, it became clear that there was a need for a book of this kind. I found information about navigating the legal system and discovered an inordinate number of opinion pieces about whether gay people should be allowed to marry at all, but I did not find many materials specifically created to help gays and lesbians as they prepared to make a lifelong commitment.

I knew this book was needed, and I knew I could write it.

Out of all of the topics you touch on in your book, what stands out for you as the number-one thing that most people don't consider before getting married?

Most of the premarital couples in my practice love each other and want a life together, but they don't always make enough room for individual differences. When those differences inevitably crop up, it can be disruptive and unsettling. I try to help couples manage and create space for variations in style, opinion, or thought processes.

Has writing the book changed your own relationship?

Yes, writing this book has strengthened my marriage. I've spent a great deal of time focusing on how to help couples ask clarifying questions rather than making assumptions. Because of that, those questions and answers are in the forefront of my mind.

I'm more mindful about checking in with my spouse and making sure I consider who she is and what she needs on a daily basis. I try not to assume I know what she's thinking or how she feels. I've also gotten to know myself better in the process.

We all have our own issues we carry with us. Whether as individuals or couples, if someone wants to better their life, what steps would you recommend they take?

For a better life, be honest and kind with yourself and others. That's the best place to start.

If someone is looking for a simple tool, I always recommend the "T-chart." Make a list of what is good/happy/healthy in your life on one side of the page, and write down what is bad/sad/unhealthy in your life on the other side of the page. Put the list in order on each side of the chart, from most important to least important. Then take practical steps to increase the top five items on the good side and decrease or eliminate the top five items on the bad side. It sounds simple, and it is.

So, no long hours on your couch? Just a simple chart?

Great news, right? Sometimes you don't have to dig deep into your own psyche or spend countless hours examining how you feel about your mother in order to improve your life.

As a therapist, with all the LGBT folks you counsel, what do you see as the biggest issues our community is struggling with today?

In the gay community, people strive to find a feeling of belongingness. Many LGBT folks spend so much time trying to fit in that they forget who they are as individuals. There is a real danger of becoming "a gay cliché" instead of one's actual self. I've seen plenty of gays and lesbians lose sight of what makes them different, apart from being gay, and that's something that needs to change. Gayness is an identifier, but it doesn't have to be the identifier.

I can't say that's the biggest issue, but it's the one that comes to mind. The issues that loom larger, in fact, are the more political ones. As a group, we're striving to gain rights that should, at birth, already be recognized. My hope is that we can all move forward with self-respect and commitment to the cause, remaining undaunted by the barriers and frustrations we face as we claim those rights.

I've often felt that, after coming out, many LGBT folks stop growing emotionally. It's almost as if, because that event can be so traumatic, they feel like they've done the "hard stuff." But growth is a continual process, right?

It's ongoing, yes, and at the same time, I salute anyone who takes the time to rest after doing the hard work of coming out. If someone wants to relax for a while, pat himself or herself on the back, well, that person has my respect. Self-improvement opportunities will always be available, and each person should be allowed to take advantage of those opportunities at his or her own pace.

That's probably not the party line of most therapists, and it certainly doesn't ensure my job security, but it's very true.

If you were to chart growth and development on a graph over time, for most people there are spikes and dips, indicating times of extreme expansion and then periods of dormancy. I think that's normal and healthy.

Even being happily partnered for many years, I got a lot of helpful tips from reading your book. For those of us who have been in relationships for many years, are there common mistakes longtime couples make? What advice do you have on keeping relationships strong?

Before marriage, assumptions are the problem. After marriage, attitudes are the problem. It is a myth that communication is the main issue between long-term couples. Many times, couples come in for their counseling sessions communicating just fine. They are communicating bitter, resentful attitudes with crystal clarity.

It's not about changing how people communicate, the nuts and bolts of sentence structure or timing. It's about changing the way they think about each other and themselves, teaching them that it's OK to drop those defenses and be willing to love each other. When a loving attitude is conveyed, even in the midst of hard conversations, the relationship improves. The technical adjustments in communication only work when the underlying attitudes are positive and caring.

So it's all in the attitude?

Yep. And here is a tip that could possibly save many couples the cost of prolonged counseling sessions. A friend once told me that she knew four words that would save any marriage in the midst of an argument. Here they are: "You may be right."

Pamela Milam, M.A., L.P.C., practices in Dallas. Her new book, Premarital Counseling for Gays and Lesbians (ASD Publishing), is available now at Amazon. She is currently at work on her next book, What Your Therapist Thinks About You, which will be released in the upcoming year.

This piece originally appeared on Bilerico Project and KerganEdwards-Stout.com.