Wedding planning is a series of pretty pleasant rituals, right? The dress fittings, cake tasting and lots of cups of tea at the local church, if that’s your ceremony style of choice. But therapy? No, that’s generally what couples turn to when the marriage is on its crumbling last legs.
But sitting on the leather sofa awaiting my ‘shrink’, I was about to discuss the intimate details of my relationship, and also of relationships past, in a six-week intensive ‘pre-marital counselling’ course.
For an hour a week, at a cool £200 a pop, Dr Clement, a female psychologist with an incredible buzz cut and two decades of experience in relationship counselling, was going to help me ‘spring clean’ my mental health.
But here’s the thing – I’ve never suffered from depression. In fact, I had a very happy childhood and my relationship was going pretty well. In fact, we’d just got engaged at Sydney Opera House, while the Pixies played.
But, like most modern women, I’d had an extra decade’s worth of relationships – in contrast to my parents, who met each other at 15 and got married at 18. As a nation, we are getting married later and later. The average age for British brides is currently 30.8 years old.
And let’s be real, not many of us escape those lusty escapades of our twenties unscathed. I sure as hell didn’t. There have been plenty of serious and not-so-serious relationships. Three live-in lovers. And, well, plenty of pretty dud dates.
Dr Clement tells me getting married later in life, in my case at 31, has many benefits. We have a clear idea of what we expect of our partner and from a marriage, and we have the confidence to voice this.
But our downfall is that no matter how hard we try, most of us are still haunted by the ghosts of past relationships. Sooner or later, that has an impact on our marriage, unless we address the issues head-on.
Spilling secrets to a shrink has always been seen as terribly American and perhaps a little self-indulgent. But I’m not alone in engaging in this rather un-British approach to marriage – which perhaps makes sense when you realise that some 42% of marriages now end in divorce. It’s a trend that has also sparked the birth of new ‘wedding doulas’ to help you through the emotions of your big day.
London-based couples therapist Shirlee Kay says she’s seen a 25% increase in bookings in the last year. Her theory is that pre-emptive relationship counselling is being embraced by modern women wanting to get mentally match-fit before entering one of the biggest commitments of their life.
She says some women arrive alone, just like me. Others attend with their husbands-to-be. But each, she says, wants to cleanse themselves of past relationships and are often surprised by underlying scars.
‘It is important to understand and be compassionate to our own wounds before we can be conscious of how they impact our relationship,’ says Shirlee. ‘Couples are now no longer willing to marry without exploring this and working through it.’
Most respected psychologists in major cities around the country have started to offer pre-marital counselling. And each week at London’s School of Life, there’s a counselling workshop for those soon-to-be wed – and it’s always packed out.
Psychologist Charlotte Fox Weber, who runs the seminar, says, ‘The main preparation we need ahead of marriage is not practical, but psychological.’
My therapy came in two parts: a detailed look at my previous relationships, followed by how they affected my present relationship and learning some skills when I felt ‘triggered’.
My trigger, I am told after session number two, is that I catastrophise arguments. A simple barney about taking out the bins makes me itch and twitch that the romance is doomed. A few more of these trivial rows and I’m a serious flight risk.
Dr Clement lets me ugly cry (well, I was getting my £200 worth) as we break down a fear that I didn’t even know I had – a fear that all relationships have an expiry date. I learn that I self-sabotage once the first throes of love have dulled into a RL relationship; hence the hearty roster of former loves.
So, how was I going to honour the vow of spending the rest of my life with someone? Well, I had already made the first big step – identifying the problem. For the rest of my sessions, fitted in around make-up trials and personal training workouts, I learned some skills.
When I feel overwhelmed, I remove myself from the situation and take a few deep breaths. I’ve also found that writing down my emotions helps me to see them with more clarity. And with a calmer approach, I am able to communicate better with my partner.
I told my husband about the therapy a few days before we got hitched. It felt like the final step in becoming the best version of me before entering a lifetime with him. He was accepting but wondered why I hadn’t got him involved.
Perhaps I’m a slight traditionalist after all, but I didn’t want to trudge through the many loves and many heartbreaks in front of my soon-to-be husband. And I felt protective of my past as I picked it apart and tried to understand it. It was something I felt had to be done by me and me only.
I’m now three years into my marriage and it’s healthy and happy. It didn’t happen magically. It didn’t happen because I prepared for marriage by obsessing over flower arrangements, seating plans or fitting into a size 8 wedding dress.
It happened because I focused on arming myself with the psychological stamina needed for spending a lifetime with someone. And, really, for a total of six hours and £1,200, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than getting a divorce.