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Clinical psychologist Myriel Rodriguez encourages newlyweds-to-be to head off problems later by engaging in couple's counseling before the wedding.

Premarital sex has pretty much become a modern more. Pre-nups are the stuff of celebrity tabloid fodder. But what about premarital counseling? We gleaned some tips for newlyweds-to-be from an expert.

Myriel Rodriguez, 39, is a bilingual clinical psychologist, with a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Rhode Island. Her undergraduate studies took place at Tufts, where she obtained her Bachelors in Psychology, minoring in child development. She’s also an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. 

The Connecticut Bride met up with Rodriguez in her downtown New Haven office recently, where she shared some of her experience guiding individuals and couples prior to their wedding day. 

TCB: Let’s start with a personal factoid: you’re married to a mental health professional. 

MR: [laughs] We don’t even talk about work, ever. When we first started dating, I said, “I hope you’re not analyzing me.” [laughs] Nope, off the clock.

TCB: Share a bit more about your background and education.

MR: I knew in 10th grade I wanted to be a psychologist, after I took a psych class as an elective. I grew up in Puerto Rico, and came to the U.S. for college. When I was at URI in 2003, I was leaning more toward research or a faculty position, and less clinical. A clinical internship and doctoral fellowship followed at Yale in 2009, and by that time I was already doing clinical work, in hospitals, prison, with kids, families, including at-risk families. I enjoyed direct clinical contact with people, which led me to focus on clinical work 

TCB: And couples as well?

MR: Yes, a smaller percentage of my caseload. Obviously individuals come to me with couples’ issues. Established clients who then ask for couples’ therapy, I refer. One of my unbreakable guidelines: you have to see me as a couple from the beginning. A lot of times couples have individual therapists, too.

TCB: You’re of Puerto Rican descent. Do you see common issues or patterns amongst or between certain ethnicities?

MR: Not so much. But I’ve made some intriguing observations about education vis-à-vis communication styles. The more educated, the more they may engage in a give-and-take discussion, but may be less confrontational and engage in some avoidance of topics that cause friction or tension. In any relationship, it’s how you communicate.

Knowledge about yourself is critical. When you have a willingness to learn, to be flexible, to compromise, the sky’s the limit. For example, urgency might be an issue; a partner may be saying, “We need to talk about it right now!” The other person may not be ready. That needs to be respected; it’s two different communication styles. One wants time and space to process. They start criticizing each other … “Stop pushing!” “Stop avoiding!” They should promise to come back and talk about it versus shutting up and shutting down. Bear in mind non-verbals too … tone, eye contact. It’s hard work! We’re not always taught all that.

TCB: What are the biggest pitfall topics? Finances, sex?

MR: Finances definitely No. 1. Again it goes back to behavior, values and beliefs. Let’s say with money. Your spending habits … do you save? Are you a planner? Do you think about the future? Family culture again comes into play. Some never learn how to use money. They are in-the-now, so forget about tomorrow! 

How do you sync up? Through compromise, finding that happy medium. Deciding together, do we join finances, or keep them separate? Have a joint account plus individual accounts? Frequently discovery happens after marriage. They go to buy a home and see their partner’s credit score. They do their taxes together. When they start living together, paying bills, all is revealed. What about income? There’s an expectation historically that the man pays more. What if the wife makes more than the husband? Is she going to contribute a higher percentage toward expenses? Or will things be kept 50/50? 

I always recommend taking pre-marital seminars and courses on these subjects. And they don’t necessarily have to be connected to a church. Even if you feel you’re in a good place, you can always learn more. Both have to be willing to grow. That’s the other piece. Remember, you get disconnected and reconnected over the span of a relationship. It’s impossible to stay connected 100 percent of the time. Recognize the disconnection and do something about it, instead of initiating actions to further disconnect.

Couples are so afraid of losing the relationship, they won’t talk. They forget sometimes they’re on the same team. Maintain the team mentality, especially when kids come along. The couple is the core. Beware of alliances; i.e., one child pairing off with a particular parent. One of the goals of my family counseling is balancing out that dynamic. We make the parents a team again, the siblings a team. Then the entire family comprises the whole team. Life events can test a marriage, strengthening and highlighting faults. Traditional vows are no joke! “For better or for worse.” Guess what? The worse WILL happen. That’s the best form of idealism — knowing the worse will come, and yet still be willing to stick it out. How wonderful is that? 

TCB: What about making your own rules? 

MR: Whatever is good for one relationship might not be for another. Do you have similar values and core beliefs? You have to figure out as a couple what works for you. Don’t look to other relationships as models or ideals. A friend of mine works with her husband. They drive to the office together every day. That dynamic isn’t for me, but it’s perfect for them. Know yourself, know your partner, know who you are together. Do it through communication. You may have different tastes in music. As long as you don’t impose that taste, you’ll be fine. Compromise, accept, support.

TCB: Does moving in together before marriage reduce or increase the odds of a long-term happy union?

MR: Some research shows if engaged for many years or living together, the chance of success isn’t so great. Look at the back story. Sometimes people end up living together out of practicality — OK, my lease was going to expire, instead of we really love each other and we really want to live together. It needs to be a conscious choice. What are the underlying reasons for wanting to get married? Pressure after living together awhile? Why did it take 10 years, doubts? Not in the same place? Different goals? Not able to compromise enough to take that step together? 

TCB: Did you ever say to a married couple, “Yes, I think you should get divorced?”

MR: I would never say maybe you should get a divorce. With most couples, I’m about instilling hope — you’re here, that’s a good thing. But if one is already checked out, it’s hard coming back from that. Or if one or both start with ultimatums, that’s a very treacherous playing field. If I can catch them early enough, when they’re both still committed, and they both still want to put the work in, great. It’s difficult to get them reconnected without both really wanting it. 

“We’ve tried everything and nothing works.” Try it again, give it another chance. You have to give something. This takes effort. Sometimes it takes years. You have to make the commitment: “This is what I want to do,” then put in the work. The important thing is giving 100 percent. A pitfall is thinking you can change the other person — not possible. Be accepting, let them grow. Imposing change is never helpful. And don’t be afraid to ask yourself, is this what I want for the rest of my life? 

TCB: Do you teach couples how to fight? 

MR: [laughs] I have a “fair fighting rules” worksheet. I don’t actually call it fighting, but how to discuss heated topics without taking low blows. Things like no name-calling. Making “I” statements, “I feel _____” instead of “You’re the worst, you never do anything right!” Research from the Gottman Institute warns against “The Four Horsemen”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling (shutting down, withdrawing). Character assassination — a red flag and a big no-no.

TCB: Let’s do a pitfalls and before-the-big-day advice recap.

MR: 1) Money for sure. 

2) Emotional fidelity; not necessarily sex, but confiding in another outside of the marriage on big issues, instead of your partner. Be careful about that kind of sharing, it can get in the way and foster disconnection. When you express emotion, you’re creating intimacy. 

3) Taking each other for granted. Express appreciation at every opportunity. People get into routines, over-concentrate on careers. Recognize the see-saw. 

4) Family influence. If you have very supportive families, it helps a lot. It’s amazing. A mother-in-law that’s not so great can be problematic. Remember who you’re married to. Your wife, your husband: this is your immediate family. Make decisions as a WE — WE decided this together. On the flip side, both must understand priorities. If one family member is in trouble and needs help, a partner has to support that. With boundaries, of course. “This is so important to me, can we do this for a month?” You won’t always be happy about every decision. Someone has to budge. That’s the other misconception — the other person ALWAYS has to meet my needs, and I theirs. No. It’s too much and not possible. That’s why we have family, friendships. You can’t be co-dependent. 

5) Talk about sex. Two separate couples: “We’re not having that much sex, only three times a week.” Couple No. 2: “We’re having SO much sex, three times a week!” Both facts, radically opposed perspectives. 

6) Lastly, when you’re totally open and honest, you can be so free in a relationship, without fear of consequences. It’s an incredible place to be, it really is.

Robert DiGioia is the creative director for Hearst Connecticut Media Group, and an arts/society writer for its varied titles. A former Manhattanite and magazine publisher, he’s thrilled to be back in his birthplace, New Haven.