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posted: 9/22/2012 10:30 AM

Successful marriage takes combination of optimism, realism

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One of the best parts of my job is the work I do with couples planning to be married. In "premarital counseling" we talk about such things as why people get married, what makes for a long-term, healthy marriage, and how to deal with the inevitable conflict that occurs in all relationships. We also take time to enjoy each couple's own unique story: their ups and downs, their successes and failures, their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears.

Most couples I meet with are optimistic about their chances for marital bliss. Even those who have been divorced remain convinced that this time it will work out.

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That's good. If we don't go into our marriage with such a positive attitude, we'd better think twice about our decision to get married in the first place. A tentative commitment to marriage too often means a tentative, and usually brief, marriage.

On the other hand, many of these couples are somewhat surprised that we talk so much about the time and effort that goes into building a growing, fulfilling relationship. Marriage starts to sound like hard work. And when we are "in love," caught up in enjoying each other's specialness and in the uniqueness of our life together, it seems almost silly to be talking about change, adaptation, struggle, conflict, disappointment and work as part of marriage.

Even people who have tried and failed sometimes assume that the "chemistry" in their new relationship will somehow save them from the work they found in their previous marriage.

I often feel like the "Grinch Who Stole Christmas" as I try to prepare these couples for the realities of married life. It is a delicate operation: removing a bit of naiveté, adding a bit of realism, but without destroying the optimism they still need to succeed.

Sometimes I fail. It is clear to me that some of the couples I work with simply do not want to know the truth. They wave aside my cautionary tales with their insistence, "That could never happen to us." "This is different." Or when I suggest that knowing how to deal with conflict is an essential marital skill, they smile and point out that they have never had a fight yet, and see no reason while they will start later. "We just get along too well to argue." "We're too much alike to ever disagree on anything important."

I worry about these couples. They have a rude awakening ahead of them. And it is sometimes an awakening that threatens the very survival of their marriage. About 10 percent of the couples I see in premarital counseling come back to me later for marriage counseling. More often than not, part of their problem is simply that they have found out just how tough marriage can be.

I also, however, get calls from couples who went into their marriages with their eyes open. Sometimes they want to chat a bit over the phone about a particular issue they are struggling with. Other times they decide they want to come in and do more focused work on the problems that confront their marriage. Occasionally they are simply calling to just share with me that marriage is indeed tough work and that they have appreciated the dose of pragmatism administered in our premarital counseling.

Marriage is tough work. And, as is often the case, tough work can be incredibly rewarding work. Few relationships offer the potential for intimacy, for fulfillment that marriage does. I guess it's worth the work.

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