Fall/ Winter 2008: The Experts

The Therapist

Marriage therapy before the marriage? It exists—and it works. One local counselor shares her tips on marriage shock, feuding parents, and cold feet.

By Terri Trespicio

The question’s been popped, the date is set. The planning period should be blissful, right? “It’s exciting—until the moment when you come home with $300 bridesmaid gifts, or he picks out a 54-inch plasma for the bedroom,” says Brookline-based prenuptial therapist Mimi Licht. “That’s when you realize there are compromises to make.” But even if a couple is screaming bloody murder over their cake tasting, they’re not destined to fail as a Mr. and Mrs., she says. You can head into the fray together—and come out safely on the other side.

What happens right after the engagement to create problems in the relationship? I’ve seen it many times: A couple gets engaged, and the bride immediately gets on the phone—and the calls just don’t stop. She becomes completely immersed in wedding plans, while he falls by the wayside. They lose their connection, and he can begin to feel resentful, even angry. I’ve had couples come to me on this issue alone. Most couples grossly underestimate how stressful this period can be.

What if a couple’s been dating, perhaps living together, for years? Is the post-engagement time really that different? You could spend years living together, but once you’re engaged, suddenly the relationship becomes this public thing. Friends and family start weighing in on where you should hold the wedding, what kind of ceremony to have, maybe even your decision to get married. Preconceived notions about the role of husband and wife start to kick in, stirring up all kinds of doubts about careers, kids, and money. It can throw people into “marriage shock,” and deeper anxieties can surface. Maybe the bride’s father used to control the money and give her mother a hard time about purchases, and so the bride is afraid of losing her autonomy. You have to realize that you’re not doomed—you are in control of how your marriage will turn out. But you must bring those issues up early on in the engagement. Don’t quietly hope that things will turn out perfect.

What’s the cardinal sin of wedding planning?
Without a doubt, it’s letting the mother of the bride hijack the wedding preparations. The bride must put her foot down. The other big stumbling block happens when the bride or groom makes a large financial commitment—about the wedding or otherwise—without consulting the other person. This can be particularly difficult for the bride, who may have an image of her wedding in her mind that may not match what they can afford. I encourage couples to think about a realistic budget, and make sure they talk through major financial decisions together—anything over a certain amount must be a joint decision.

What if someone gets cold feet? It happens. Some panic that once they’re married, they’ll fall off the face of the planet, that their old lives will vanish. I ask my clients, What are you really afraid of: Not seeing your friends, or that if you do, your husband will disapprove or get jealous? Or are you nervous about him being out without you? Sometimes I’ll meet someone one-on-one to get at the issues that really scare them. If it’s daily habits and lifestyle changes that trouble you, my advice is to set forth a trial and error period, where you test out different kinds of routines and schedules. It may seem businesslike, but this is what makes things work out. Whatever issues you’re worried about won’t go away just b
ecause you get married. But rather than assume the worst will happen, you have to look not just to your parents but to couples you admire, whose relationships you want to model. You can’t guarantee a marriage will work, but you can commit to being self-aware about the issues that bother you.

How should a couple deal with divorced or feuding parents at the wedding?
First, talk to someone, together or separately, about your own fears and feelings about this. Because this is such a sensitive issue, I advise involving another friend or family member, or even a member of the clergy, to deal with the parents directly and communicate those concerns. And you want to set up a plan for how to handle the logistics. As to whether the father’s girlfriend should be in the family pictures—a photographer told me that she just takes photos of everyone. This way the bride and groom can choose later which pictures to buy (or not buy), while avoiding any awkward situations at the event.

Honesty sounds like a good policy, but should you air all your dirty laundry before the wedding? I never suggest dumping everything out on the table at once. You have to feel ready to talk about issues that are painful—whether they’re hurtful memories, or things you’re not quite sure your partner will accept. And that happens on your own time. I encourage people to share something serious beforehand, if it makes sense to do that. My goal is to help people develop their own sense of judgment. Often there are already red flags about a serious issue (an addiction or major debt, for instance), and on some level the partner knows an issue exists. It’s going to come up one way or another. Better to discuss it—at least lightly—before the wedding than afterward.

If you’re still friends, is it acceptable to invite your ex to the wedding? There’s no set rule. You should make your decision based on how your partner feels about that particular guest being there. If one of you is upset by it, then forget it. You don’t want anyone there who may distract from the focus. If the ex is part of a larger group of friends and can blend in and everyone’s fine with it, then it’s probably okay.

Any advice on how to handle wedding-day nerves?
I liken a wedding to a musical performance: Once you’ve rehearsed the music and know it cold, you can forget about everything else when you’re onstage and play from the heart. Because once things are in motion you can’t control whatever else is going to happen. The mantra is not to worry. Instead, let go and focus on what’s going on between the two of you. The wedding goes by so fast. Your priority should be to come prepared and enjoy the moment.

Wisely Wed, 344 Harvard St., Brookline, 508-358-5706, wiselywed.com.


Licht’s tips for keeping the wedding beast on a leash—and your relationship intact.

Stay Close

Make time for at least one romantic (and uninterrupted) date each week. No phones or BlackBerrys allowed.

Call a Meeting

It’s easy to let wedding plans seep into every discussion or interaction. Try to contain the chaos by devoting one hour a week to go over the details.

Designate a Plan-Free Zone

Licht advises keeping all wedding talk out of the bedroom, especially after 10 p.m.

Don’t Go It Alone

Cultivate a network of people you trust to discuss plans and ask for help, even just for moral support, so that you don’t let the logistics drain you. –T.T.