So You’re Getting Married? What to Talk About Before the Wedding

By The Rev. Brant C. Piper, M.A., M.Div.; NC Certified-Based Practicing Pastoral Counselor

“…one must leave home in order to become married.” At first that doesn’t seem like such a profound statement, although in this day and age affording a place on your own seems to become more and more difficult. But what its authors, Herbert Anderson and Cotton Fite, in their book, Becoming Married, are saying is not about physically moving out, but about gaining some perspectives on the emotional dynamics one brings into the marriage. “One must become emotionally separated from one’s parents in order to become emotionally committed to another person in marriage.” Becoming Married, Anderson and Fite, pg. 3.

This idea is hinted to Genesis 2:24, where we are told, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings (cleaves, KJV) to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Though this is presented as the man’s work, both have the same work to do, leaving their homes and “clinging” to the other to create a new relationship. This is not as simple as it sounds. The word for leaving refers not to a clean break, i.e. the cutting of the apron strings, but like the ripping apart of a cloth where there are lots of loose and torn ends. It is a painful process that finds its eventual healing in the formation of the new relationship.

So what is this work of “leaving home,” of “becoming emotionally separated from one’s parents?” Anderson and Fite suggest that the first step is “identifying one’s family legacy,” best done through storytelling. In these stories each person shares the experiences, both the good and the bad, of growing up in one’s family. Through them each person explores the impact of one’s family of origin on the new family that is being formed. It is to tell of the experiences of growing up that brought growth and achievement, as well as pain, humiliation, and diminishment.

To do this Anderson and Fite propose two simple questions designed to facilitate the story telling and unearth those experiences:

  • What are the qualities/practices of one’s family that one wants to bring into the marriage? What do you think were the benefits of these?
  • What are the qualities/practices of one’s family that one doesn’t want to bring into the marriage? How do you think they negatively impacted the marriage and the family?

The process of leaving home and becoming married also has to spend time focusing on a major paradox of human life, that we are strongly driven by two contrasting needs, to be both separate, and to find togetherness. This is seen in the life of the couple through the needs to do things together as well as to find meaningful things for each to do apart from one another. It is also seen in the ability of the couple to be flexible in sharing the demands and responsibilities of running their household as they both deal with the changes of those demands and responsibilities. Each family deals with this tension differently, and what I find is that one family in the couple errs on the side of togetherness, while the other family errs on the side of separateness. When I do premarital counseling I often turn to an online survey service called “Prepare-Enrich,” (www.prepare-enrich.com) which includes two helpful pieces of information, a family map and a couple map. This map is a graph of two dimensions, one measuring connectedness and the other measuring flexibility. A family can run from disconnected to overly connected in an unhealthy  way, and from inflexible to overly flexible, which is also unhealthy for individuals. Healthy families, for the most part, find balance in both connectedness and flexibility. To explore this balance couples can share their stories of how their families celebrate holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries, as well as more ordinary family rituals like meals, religious practices, and parenting.

In his book, “Getting the Love You Want,” Harville Hendrix puts forth his understanding that couples are brought together on an unconscious level around this effort to find balance. Each recognizes in the other an opposite strength which can bring forth opportunities to heal the wounds which resulted from growing up in families that are out of balance. For Hendrix “becoming married,” is recognizing the unconscious processes that brings a couple together and then making a conscious effort to make it a mature relationship. For him this is foremost in the realization that “your love relationship has a hidden purpose—the healing of childhood wounds.”

The last resource that I think is helpful for couples is “The Eden Project: The Search for the Magical Other; A Jungian Perspective on Relationship,” by James Hollis. In this book he explores humanity’s search for the “Magical Other,” the one who will magically transform us into the person that we long to be. The experience of falling in love leads us to believe that we have found this other person, and this myth leads us into a place of anger as our dependency on this person for growth leads us to unfulfillment, envy, and fury. This is because there is no magical other. Our growth is solely dependent on our own willingness to do that hard work that brings forth growth. Our growth is dependent on our willingness to grieve what our childhood did not bring us so that we can move on to the work of growing ourselves. Marrying someone who possesses the qualities we want to possess will not lead us to magically develop those qualities, rather it is through our own dedication to develop those qualities within us.

Though the work of “leaving home,” and “becoming married,” may seem like simple work, it is instead one of the most difficult tasks before us. It requires that we take a true measure of who we are, of who we want to be, and how we go about getting there. It is really a life time of work, one which best takes place in a relationship of love in which each person lets go of unhelpful expectations and takes on the challenges of offering love to another.

Resources:

www.prepare-enrich.com

Becoming Married, by Herbert Anderson and Cotton Fite

Getting the Love You Want, by Harville Hendrix

The Eden Project: The Search for the Magical Other; A Jungian Perspective on Relationship, by James Hollis

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