Nancie Potter tells young engaged couples a hard fact — their brains are not yet fully developed.
It sounds insulting at first, but Potter, who prepares couples for marriage at Northwest Catholic Counseling Center, wants these 20-somethings to know exactly what they're in for. That's the best way to make marriages thrive and last, she says.
"We do this not to scare them, but to educate them," says Potter, who counsels couples singly or during six-hour weekend retreats. "We like to give people a realistic idea of the journey."
Many parish priests refer couples to Northwest Catholic Counseling for required pre-marriage preparation.
During weekend sessions, Potter teams up with counselor Graham Sterling. They complement each other. She's a woman whose children are grown. He's a man with youngsters still in the house.
Potter and Sterling share a solid core belief: A strong marriage can develop when two people grow in knowledge of themselves and of each other and when they allow themselves to be vulnerable and open-hearted enough to repair the inevitable problems.
"You have to know yourself before you can really be vulnerable to your partner," Potter explains. "And you can't be intimate if you are not brave enough to be vulnerable."
The counselors are not afraid to use language of belief. Couples discuss their "covenants" to each other, even writing down their personal principles and promises. Potter helps Catholic couples explore the idea of sacrament — God's gifts become real and active in the world.
The program also employs science, especially about the brain. Researchers now say the brain's parts don't work together fully until a person reaches the mid to late 20s. Even then, we may take conscious or unconscious memories of childhood and project them unfairly onto a partner. For example, we may see a spouse as that sibling who gave us trouble as children; that creates an emotional mess that's not even based on reality.
Couples also learn about self-care. It's difficult to have a relationship work well without enough sleep, exercise and healthy food. They learn skills of conflict resolution, learning to beware the dangers of criticism, defensiveness, blaming, stonewalling and contempt. Everyone engages in these acts at some time or another; the idea is to learn ways to defuse and divert them.
"At the end of the day what matters is, 'Can you repair?'" Potter says.
Potter and Sterling advise couples to work on building their connection continually, so that when unavoidable storms come, the fix can be faster and easier. The counselors say that at least four times a day — upon waking, parting for work, reuniting and going to sleep — couples should affirm each other with affection words, hugs or kisses. That will help couples see that tough times are temporary things, not the totality of the marriage.
Counseling also takes up sometimes tricky topics like sex, parenting, finances and religious traditions.
Young couples in love are sometimes stunned, but almost always grateful for the learning.
"The class was great and brought awareness to my ideas, skills, etc. that will be helpful in marriage," one groom-to-be wrote in an evaluation. One future bride summed up her favorite lesson like this: "How to grow healthy together. Healthy conflict." Many who went on the most recent weekend were glad to learn that relationships don't just happen, but take work and planning.
"The fantasies are fun but that's not reality," Potter says. "Life is long. It takes faith and commitment."
For more information and weekend dates go to nwcounseling.org/content/premarriage-program.