I do's & don'ts: More couples look to pre-marriage prep to give unions a better chance

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Couples increasingly are seeking premarital relationship advice.

Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette
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They're taking courses through a church or meeting with a counselor or therapist. They're learning how to avoid potential relationship pitfalls and determining whether they're on the same page about major issues, such as money and children.

"Nobody 'teaches' you to be married, as a rule," says Denise Norris, spokeswoman for Saturday's Marriage Resource Fair sponsored by the Greater Pittsburgh Healthy Marriage Coalition at the Westin Convention Center Hotel. "Everyone has issues in their marriage."

Most people learn about marriage from watching their parents' marriages or long-term relationships, modeling their behaviors, good and bad.

"The whole purpose of the resource fair is to educate people, to let them know there are ways to work through marriages ... [and] to educate, enlighten and empower, even before you get to the point of considering, 'I do.' "

A marriage resource fair isn't the only sign people are yearning for relationship advice.

"Questions Couples Should Ask (Or Wish They Had) Before Marrying," a Dec. 17, 2006, New York Times list of 15 key questions, was the second most e-mailed story at NYTimes.com last year and the third most read article on its Web site for 2006. Even earlier this week, it was still among the top 10 most e-mailed stories of the past 30 days.

Here comes the bridal show

The season's newest wedding gowns and 150 other exhibits displaying the latest in bridal products and services will be featured at Pittsburgh's Bridal Showcase on Sunday at the ExpoMart in Monroeville.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., models will show off gowns by Anne Barge, Amsale, Venus Couture, Lynn Lugo, Van Lear and others. Designer Lora Van Lear will be there to discuss her newest dresses. Local vendors will include florists, caterers, ice carvers, photographers, limousine and tuxedo providers and many more.

Admission is $7 and parking is free. Information: pghbridalshowcase.com.


The questions cover many of the hot-button topics in relationships, including sex, money, religion, household chores, children, job relocation, in-laws and commitment to the marriage.

More people are seeking premarital counseling, and it's beneficial for couples to determine what their goals and desires are and to learn what qualities are important to them, says Michele Weiner-Davis, a social worker, author, relationship expert and founder of www.DivorceBusting.com in Boulder, Colo.

However, pre-planning can carry a couple only so far.

"You can plan and collaborate in the early years of marriage until the cows come home," says Ms. Weiner-Davis, who counsels seriously dating, engaged and married couples. "You have no idea what you're going to be like when you're 30 or 40 or 50."

People change, and what they think the rules of a relationship are can change. Their dreams and goals can change, too.

"People can't be sure they're going to change in the same way," says Larry E. Davis, Ph.D., dean of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work and director of the Center on Racial and Social Problems. "Most of us, if we think of the person we were with at 21, we would not want to be with them today."

Change may be the big culprit in the downfall of a lot of relationships.

"It's just a lot to assume that even if they agree on these questions at one point that nothing will change," says Dr. Davis, a speaker at this weekend's resource fair and author of several books including "Black and Single: Finding and Choosing a Partner Who Is Right for You."

Dr. Larry E. Davis: "Most
fights have to do with
money or sex."

Click photo for larger image.

"There are just unforeseen changes, in society, in people's expectations and people's growth," he said.

Two people may agree upfront they want children and want plenty of money to live a comfortable lifestyle. However, the devil may come in the details. One partner might resent the other making more money or one partner may not like the fact that his or her beloved has to travel and be away from home a lot for his or her high-earning job.

Maintaining relationships is difficult. More women work outside the home and have some financial independence. So, they can leave if they're unhappy, he says. Today, there also is less stigma for people who leave their families than there was in the past.

Roughly 45 percent to 50 percent of first-time marriages in the United States end in divorce, says Ms. Weiner-Davis, author of "Divorce Busting: A Step-by-Step Approach to Making Your Marriage Loving Again."

"If you think about that and the impact that has on children and families, we could do better," she says.

Also, a significant number of married people fall into the category of the un-divorced -- those in stable-but-unsatisfactory marriages who remain married for the children's sake or because they fear losing their standard of living or some other reason, Dr. Davis says.

Despite all this, people still do want companionship.

The good news is the skills necessary to develop healthy, happy relationships can be taught and learned, Ms. Weiner-Davis says.

Fairness is a huge issue in relationships.

"Men often are trading resources for affection and women sometimes are trading affection for resources," Dr. Davis says. "Most fights have to do with money or sex."

Couples should try to find ways to keep equity -- each partner doing his or her fair share -- in the relationship.

People also should remember they can't make someone else happy -- either someone is happy on their own or they're not.

"Find someone who has a good, positive attitude and someone who fundamentally likes who you are," Dr. Davis says.

Women's looks are important to men, as are regular intimate relations.

"Never underestimate a man's desire for sex," he says. "Just assume he wants it."

A breakdown in intimate relations can lead to breakdowns in other aspects of the relationship. People will get their needs met one way or another. Someone who strays "only for sex" could end up developing feelings for that other person.

"It's hard not to like somebody who is good to you," he says. "So many people are running around [really] to supplement intimacy."

Dr. Davis also stresses people should seek out mates who are like them.

"If you had to pick one attribute, it's somebody who is similar to you. Similarity builds attraction."

When people have large differences -- whether they're racial, religious, economic or generational -- there can be more problems because there simply are more potential areas of discord. When people say a couple are opposites, that's rarely true.

"They're just reciprocal," Dr. Davis says. "One person is probably quiet and one boisterous, but they're both saying the same thing. They're opposites in style, but not substance."

However, research shows people who are in long-term, happy, healthy marriages aren't necessarily perfectly matched clones of each other, Ms. Weiner-Davis says.

"No matter how well people have screened for their values or goals or dreams being in sync, they will hit major bumps in the road, and the key for me is, how will you handle that?" she says.

When things get really heated, when you've hit a major conflict because life happens and there's illness or ailing parents or wayward kids or a wayward spouse, what's the level of commitment to working things out with your beloved?

"What people who make a go of it have is the ability to successfully manage their conflicts," she says.

That's why couples should take stock of their relationship every so often, to revisit their goals and desires, and review or renew their vows.

"Falling in love is easy," Ms. Weiner-Davis says. "Staying in love is another matter."

L.A. Johnson can be reached at ljohnson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3903.


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