Can Cohabiting Couples Benefit from Marital Therapy?

Can Cohabiting Couples Benefit from Marital Therapy?

One of the students asked if she and her cohabiting boyfriend would benefit from seeing a marriage counselor as she had previously thought there was no help available to them from traditional marriage therapists.  I assured her I would be happy to see them.  I’m sure most of colleagues would agree.

I empathize with many cohabiting couples as the most common factor driving them is they often grew up in broken families and don’t want to end up like their parents.  They think by checking out the other person first hand while living together gives them a heads-up on whether this is the right person or not.  I understand that fear, but the method doesn’t work, because cohabiting couples are much more likely to have more hurt than married couples.  By moving in together without marriage they are increasing the possibility they will break up in the future, because cohabiting relationships, by definition, are insecure and insecurity causes people to act in insecure ways (lashing out, freaking out, shutting down, withdrawing, feeling controlled, feeling ignored), none of which encourages people to relax and enjoy the roses.

Some couples may be reluctant to see a marital therapist, fearing the therapist will guilt trip the couple into doing something they don’t want to do or aren’t ready to do.  This was even the argument from one of my colleagues when I taught my Thriving Couples Model at a marriage and family conference.  He or she said my model was based on people who agreed with me, because only people who agreed with me would come to see me.  I based my model on years of marital therapy for thousands of couples, who came to see me long before I ever started blogging about marriage and cohabitation.  All people had before the blog (I started the blog in 2009) was my yellow page ad, which said that I was a marriage therapist and helped couples deal with various issues.  Actually, the blog has helped couples who totally disagree with me come to see me, married or not.  They like the fact I have an opinion and will tell it too them straight, that I’m not just going to sit there and say, “You poor thing.”  They also like I may give them a different point of view than they had considered before, which can be very beneficial.

I had one cohabiting couple who asked me to talk with them about sexuality, because of their problems in that area.  This had come up after several sessions on other topics.  I said, “You know I have a different point of view than both of you on that topic, right?”   “No, no,” he assured me, “that’s why we came to see you in the first place.  We wanted a different perspective.”  Good for them.

Cohabiting couples have the same issues as married couples, only worse!  For example, married people can have commitment issues, even though they are married, because one or the other or both make threats (sometime repeated threats!) to divorce.  It’ll be very hard for either of them to give their hearts to the other if they fear one or the other will be leaving!  In cohabiting couples, the fear of leaving is compounded, not only because there’s a threats of breaking up (a very common problem of cohabiting couples), but also because there’s no vow of staying!  It’s the same problem, but from an added whole different angle.  The cohabiting partners saying to each other they will be committed is not enough.  Saying marriage is just a piece of paper and our commitment and love will endure is not enough.  You can tell each other these kinds of things till you are blue in the face, and even have children with each other, but this doesn’t make you married until you willfully and publicly declare your vows to each other on your wedding day and a new family is born.  Otherwise you are just playing house and when it’s nap time your friend will have to go home for his nap.  It’s not your car till you pay for it and you sign on the dotted line.  It’s just a piece of paper, but now it’s your car.  To take the car without the piece of paper is stealing.  It’s not your car.  Cohabiting is stealing.  It’s not marriage till you sacrifice your very life, the rest of your life, for both of your sake.

This lack of a wedding date creates all kinds of problems and makes normal, everyday problems, critical and nearly anything can escalate into a fight or misunderstanding.  Cohabiting couples are much more insecure and impatient and testy and short with each other.  It’s one thing to test drive a car.  It’s another thing altogether to drive the car off the lot without paying for it and never come back!

Here’s another example:  You know how many times I’ve worried in 38 years of marriage that my wife is going to leave me?  Zero.  That’s right.  Zero.  You know how often cohabiting couple worry about that?  Most of them worry about it all the time.  How come you won’t marry me?  I’m not pretty enough or skinny enough or rich enough or good enough or whatever enough?  What’s the matter with me?  What’s the matter with you?  Why won’t you commit to me?  What’s holding you back?  Why are there all these issues?   Everything is an issue.  And you say you aren’t worried about it?  What’s the deal with that?  Are you just using me?  You too good for me?  You  judging me?  You see?  On either side of this problem there’s worries.  Worry, worry, worry.

One of the main reasons cohabiting couples have issues is because the commitment problem stares them in the face every day.  It’s pretty hard to do wise couple things, when insecurity is constantly unsettled.  So the couples fight or withdraw or one fights and the other withdraws or they both fight and they both withdraw.  Now they don’t want to marry because they fight or withdraw too much!  But the reason they are fighting and withdrawing is because they feel insecure about the future and on and on we go.  Nevertheless I’ve found many of these kinds of couples can benefit from learning how to handle their differences and to communicate in kinder ways.  And when we’ve gone through that material it often gives them the courage and confidence they need to get married.

That’s actually a pretty nice thing for me…when I get a wedding invitation from former clients who were cohabiting.  I take that as the most extreme form of thank you note!  Thank you, Dr. Wall, for helping us reach the confidence where we can give ourselves wholeheartedly to each other til death us do part.

By the way…I don’t go to those weddings!  I’m thrilled for them, but I figure it’d be weird to have them introduce me as their therapist.

Still…it’s a very nice thing.

Dating Ideas Fall: Boone, Iowa, the Scenic Railway and Ledges State Park

Dating Ideas Fall: Boone, Iowa, the Scenic Railway and Ledges State Park

Last Saturday I had a few appointments scheduled in the morning and before I left Mary Sue said to me, “Hey, it’s really nice out and the leaves are turning.  We should take the motorcycle out to Ledges and check it out.”  Cool.  What a great idea.

We have two old motorcycles: a 1995 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 and a 1986 Honda Shadow 500.  One of my sons had the 500 back when he was in high school and when he moved away, I bought it from him.  When I bought the Vulcan a couple of years later, I decided to keep the 500 because I could only get $1500 for it and it’s nice having an extra one in case one of the kids is home and wants to go with us for a ride.  We also bought a 8 X 10 trailer, big enough to haul them both, so we can take them when we go camping.

Here’s an earlier picture of the two motorcycles when we went camping along Green Lake in Spicer, Minnesota. Our daughter, had just passed her motorcycle permit so we were exploring the back roads NE of there. Lots of little lakes and towns dot the landscape.

I’m amazed at how many couples tell me they don’t have anything they do for hobbies together.  And then they wonder why they drift away from each other.  Hey, let’s find some things we both enjoy!  Fortunately, for me, my wife loves to ride motorcycle with me (on the back.  She’s not interested in riding it alone!), something we did when we were dating over 37 years ago!  I wish I had that bike still.  It was a 1965 Honda Dream 150.  It’s a classic today.  Can’t hardly even find them on the internet.  I bought it from my uncle, who had bought it new.

Here’s a picture of a Honda 150 Dream like the one I had, complete with the red seat. I sold it for $175. It’d be worth thousands today.

So I’m hanging on to these two.  Neither of them costs hardly anything to run.  The Honda 500 gets 60 miles per gallon and the Kaw gets 40-45.  I change oil every year.  Insurance is less than $100 per year per bike.  The Honda is nearing vintage status being nearly 30 years old and is still in great shape. The Kawasaki was the last year for the Vulcan with carburetors.  It’s a bygone era and only 18 years ago!

We’re not die-hard motorcyclists.  We don’t have full leathers.  We don’t ride 300 plus miles per day.  We’re lucky to ever do more than 100.  We mostly lollygag around Central Iowa going out for breakfast early on a Saturday and then hitting some of the antique shops in the small towns along the Iowa countryside.  Sometimes we just take one the two miles to the Dairy Queen or to HyVee for breakfast.  It’s just nice to have the wind in our hair.  Many times we’ll just ride around area neighborhoods for 15-20 minutes and putz around at 15-20 mph.

This is the street to the south of our house. If you look closely the trees alternate between purple and gold. Somebody was planning ahead.

Our favorite is riding in the fall.  It’s crispy out.  We have to dress warm, but the air smells so fresh and invigorating.  Seeing the farmers out harvesting in the fields, it’s easy to see how gracious the Lord is to us.

We usually do the Boone/Ledges State Park trip several times each year.  Boone is about 15 miles west of Ames.  We take the back roads to Boone from the North end of Ames and then cut through Boone from County E26 on Story Street.  Story Street is the main drag going north and south through Boone.  The county roads are closer to the scenery and crops than Highway 30 with it’s wide, four lanes.

Boone originally began as a coal mining town, heavily dependent on the railroads that went through town both north and south and east and west. Boone’s claim to fame today is the original home of Dwight Eisenhower’s wife Mamie Geneva Doud (The only wife of a president so honored with a historical site other than Abigail Adams.  I’m sorry, I couldn’t find a website for it.), the Boone Speedway with races every Saturday night (We can hear the racers when camping at Ledges State Park 3 miles away as the crow flies.), Ledges State Park (see also here), the Scenic Valley Railroad and Museum, Redekers’ Furniture Store, and the home of Fareway Grocery Stores (the first Fareway opened there in 1938 with  T-Bones at 25 cents per pound!).  There’s a Boone Visitor’s Center along Story Street near Redekers where they have more information on these items and other highlights.

One of our favorite stops is the Whistle Stop Cafe.  You can see our pic below and comments.

Story Street goes right through town north and south, passes through downtown and then along a residential area with grand homes from Boone’s historic past.  After the beautiful homes you’ll come to Redeker’s on the south end of Story Street on the East side.  Redekers is a regional furniture store, in business since 1930.  We’ve lived in Iowa since 1985 and nearly all of our furniture has been bought there, including the furniture at the Ames office.

Here’s some highlights of our motorcycle trip:

We go out to Ledges quite often in the evening at dusk to see and count the deer.  The most we’ve ever counted is 54.  That was a few years ago.  Lately we’re lucky to see 20.  Not sure why the drop in numbers.

Ledges State Park is a great place to camp or day-hike, to sit and chill, grill a lunch or just to drive through.  Put it on your list.