On pre-marriage counselling

It’s been over a year since our wedding, and I’m happy to say the good times have outweighed the bad. I’ve heard rather discouraging stories from friends who have said that the first year of marriage is the HARDEST. I expected it to be tough. You’re learning to let go of your ‘self’, and accommodate someone else’s ‘self’ into your everyday life. This has of course been an ongoing process since the dating phase, but now it’s official! There’s no turning back – this union is meant to be for a lifetime. With the ‘lifetime’ commitment, things have changed – become more serious perhaps? Perhaps given us both a bit more security to really be ourselves, discuss our thoughts, and plan things together as a team? I know this has been the case for me.

One of the best things I think we budgeted into our wedding prep was going to pre-marriage counselling. It’s a more popular concept in certain countries; in my city, it’s 50/50. Some social circles really believe in it and encourage their friends and family to go, while in other circles it’s more a taboo subject. I say taboo, because any type of counselling here may risk being frowned upon. You must be seriously mentally ill to need any sort of counselling, right? There’s still the lingering stigma, especially in the older generation, that counselling or psychological help is reserved for the crazies. “Better to suffer in silence than to let Mrs Lee next door know you need help from a counsellor” kind of thinking. I don’t think it’s as popular here as say, the States, where quite a few people I know have a personal counsellor and have a resource to reach out to if encountering a tricky life situation; there’s no shame in discussing it either.

What do you talk about in pre-marriage counselling? Stuff that you would probably read from a marriage prep book – but there’s something comforting about being in a room, discussing topics that might be a bit unsettling to talk about. The counsellor (if he/she is any good) acts as an impartial referee.

For us I think one touchy topic was finances. I dare say that for a lot of people, talking money isn’t easy – I mean like really talking money: how much each person owns, what are his/her debts, how money is going to be spent, contribution break down, what’s considered a luxury purchase, what is each person’s spending and saving habit, how much will be contributed to the parents/siblings of each spouse, how much should be budgeted for unforeseen events, etc.

This is an example of a tricky subject because of the starkly different value system that each spouse might have been brought up under. In some households, the wife and husband share everything – joint accounts, joint names in real estate, finances can be discussed openly, the couple seeing and believing themselves as collectively owning the family wealth. In others, and I find this the more popular model especially for modern families where both husband and wife earn similar incomes, the husband and wife’s wealth is completely separate. Contributions are roughly divided 50/50. Should some unexpected event arise, both will contribute to the required funds equally. There’s the third popular model, where the husband earns all and his wife (who, in the older generation, was often a stay at home mom) is in charge of managing (and sometimes) growing household wealth. And of course there are the many variations in between.

I don’t want to go into detail about our original families’ household finance arrangements, because I risk divulging something very close to heart that isn’t completely mine to divulge, be it my own original family or my husband’s. The thing is, with discussing finances, you ultimately broach into other even touchier topics such as priorities, gender roles, favouritism, value systems, and perhaps, even unravel a source of a lot of hurt and conflict. For us, going to counselling to begin the process of discussing finances, and to obtain some tools on how to effectively map it out, was a good decision. But that was just the start – the practising in everyday life is where the real lessons are learnt.

I’m always curious as to how other families work finances out. I think every model has its merits, and I have friends and family who were raised relatively happily out of different models. I do feel this is one of the topics that we are in desperate need of guidance on, but which gets little attention. Best to be prepared than to be grasping at straws when we find out about our spouse’s secret Ferrari purchase or multiple maxed-out Brand related credit cards!