The Couples’ Coach: Therapist Samantha Burns
You said yes—now the real work begins. As a licensed mental health counselor, Samantha Burns has dedicated her career to working with couples on everything from improving communication skills to spicing up their sex lives, before and after the wedding day. “A happy, stable relationship makes your entire life better,” says Burns, who has private practices in the Back Bay and Harvard Square. “Research shows that couples in good relationships not only live longer, they’re more creative and productive in their individual lives.” Sounds good, right? Ahead, Burns lays the groundwork for a lifetime of happiness.
What are some things couples should discuss before they say “I do”?
They should talk about their core values. These are the things that you care most about in life and that you don’t want to compromise on, such as whether or not you want to have children and, going even deeper, how you envision raising them. Another big one that can cause a lot of conflict early on in marriages is finances. It’s important to be clear about how you want to manage your money. For example, do you want to have a joint bank account, or keep your paychecks separate? There’s no right or wrong, but you have to be on the same page. Work-life balance can also be a source of tension. Sometimes couples end up fighting because one partner is working a lot and the other wants more quality time together. So talking about that is important, too.
Are there benefits to living together before marriage?
Yes, absolutely. You can see how you really manage day-to-day life. Especially in the honeymoon phase or early on in dating, you’re swept away and it’s all kittens and rainbows. But when you actually move in with someone, you see what they’re like when they come home grumpy from work. You learn how to compromise on how you like to keep the kitchen, or who’s cooking dinner that night, or what TV shows you’re watching. That’s a real relationship: being able to work through the daily grind together and making sure you still like each other after that.
Do you recommend premarital counseling?
I do. It’s not about highlighting everything wrong with your relationship; it’s about setting you up for a happily ever after. What we know from research is that two-thirds of couples’ problems are perpetual, which means that they’re going to deal with the same issues over and over for the rest of their lives. Most of the time, these are lifestyle issues. Maybe one partner is really messy, and the other is really clean. This becomes a relationship problem because there’s conflict with how each partner wants to live. Marital counseling is important to figure out how to better manage those issues so they become a discussion or a conversation instead of a blowout fight.
Speaking of blowout fights, wedding planning can get pretty stressful. Any tips for keeping the peace?
People get so obsessed with planning the wedding that they grow distant because they’re on edge or aren’t taking the time to talk and connect. It’s important to continue courting each other rather than getting caught up in the stress. Put in the effort to make your partner feel special and carve out time to go out on dates. Especially when couples are living together, it’s easy to fall into that comfortable, complacent mindset. Not everything in the engagement phase has to be about the wedding. Set aside time for wedding planning, but don’t forget that you need time to talk about everything else going on in your lives, too.
What are some of the ways relationships change after marriage?
Over time in your relationship, things become more familiar, predictable, and consistent. Security and stability and reliability are really essential in creating a strong foundation in your relationship, but they kill desire, which is comprised of mystery and the unknown. Stability can feel really boring, and boredom is a silent relationship killer.
So how do you keep the spark alive?
A lot of couples struggle with this. The things that keep the spark alive are emotional intimacy and novelty, which activate the reward center in your brain and cause the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gives you that giddy, loving feeling. I suggest couples do things together that activate that reward center, such as going to a concert and listening to loud music or laughing at a comedy show or a funny movie. Exercise also releases dopamine, so train for a race together or go to a gym class. During those activities, dopamine makes you feel excited, and talking and sharing a new experience create that emotional intimacy. And the more emotionally intimate you feel, the more physical intimacy you’ll experience, too.
Samantha Burns shares four rules for achieving wedded bliss.
- Speak your partner’s “love language.” Ensure that the way you show love is the way your partner likes to receive it. The five love languages are words of affirmation, gifts, physical touch, quality time, and acts of service—doing things for your partner to relieve stress, like cooking dinner or gassing up the car.
- Express gratitude. Each night, tell your partner one thing he or she did that day that you’re grateful for. You’ll notice yourself becoming more aware of your own actions, and you’ll treat your partner in a kinder, sweeter, or more thoughtful way.
- Focus on the positives. Embrace the things you love and cherish about your significant other. When you focus on the one negative thing that bothers you, you lose all perspective on how great your relationship is.
- Remember that you’re on the same team. It’s not about winning or losing or proving yourself right. You have to function as a unit.
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