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Before 'I do'

Couples say "we will" most often in December, so wedding therapists now have lots of work

Mimi Licht with Lindsay Haddad, an employee at Yolanda's Bridal Salon in Waltham. Mimi Licht with Lindsay Haddad, an employee at Yolanda's Bridal Salon in Waltham. (David Kamerman/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Andreae Downs
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2007

No two ways about it: When it comes to love and marriage, spring gets the good press. Always has, always will. Then and now, it's the birds, the bees, the flowers.

But December is the real month for thinking about love, says Mimi Licht. She's a licensed clinical social worker, who this fall began marketing a counseling service in Greater Boston for the newly engaged. And this month kicks off her busy season.

Indeed, the month of big presents, says a Conde Nast Bridal Group study, is also the most popular one for popping The Question. The ring comes as a holiday gift.

"It's true," said Kyle Brown, executive director of the 500-member Bridal Association of America. "I guess men are cheap."

If the answer to the proposal is "Yes," in steps Licht, who advises loving couples to face up quickly to the hazards that can wreck a wedding or the marriage afterward.

She's seen it all: the Boston bride who feared walking down the aisle, the alcoholic Brighton mom who threatened to ruin the reception, the overcritical Brookline groom whom the bride eventually dumped (she's now married to a "real sweetheart," Licht says).

Couples are also regularly building bridges between religions and cultures. "You see that just walking around Coolidge Corner," says Licht, of the couples she observes there.

Licht, who has been practicing in Brookline for 18 years, says she regularly encounters betrothed people who dread the changes that marriage will bring.

"This is a complete shift in how they think of themselves," she says. Many Brookline singles are older and independent before taking the plunge into marriage, she says. They have their own careers, finances, and condos.

"People find it hard to talk about negative thoughts at a time when they are expected to be gloriously happy," Licht says. But the period right after engagement, she counsels, is the perfect time to start laying the foundation for a happy marriage.

"I encourage couples to think about more than their fabulous wedding - to think about how they are going to be as a couple," she says.

Though Licht, who earned her master's from Boston University, is hardly alone in offering prenuptial therapy, her focus is distinctive.

Of 300 clinical social workers in Massachusetts listed in the Social Work Therapy Referral Service, a free database provided by the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, only three - including Licht - specifically mention premarital counseling or therapy, says Barbara Burka, director of the service.

"It's unusual that she has such a specialty in it," Burka says of Licht. "It's taking it to a new level."

The American Psychological Association doesn't have a category for prenuptial counseling, says spokeswoman Pam Willenz. But others in the industry had heard of similar services.

"As an educated guess, I'd say less than 5 percent of weddings get that kind of counseling," says the bridal association's Brown. He recalls at least one ordained minister in his area, near Bakersfield, Calif., who offered couples counseling in preparation for weddings. "It should be bigger, but it's not," he says.

Licht says that in the past, clergy or family elders would provide the kinds of advice that she does today. But as Americans have become more mobile, many have lost the deep community connections that both aid the vetting of future spouses and support couples once they are wed, she says. This rootlessness contributes to the dismaying statistic that the number of divorces has been about half the number of weddings since roughly 1975, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics.

"I've observed and thought a lot about how disconnected people feel because we don't stay in one community or one job for 35 years anymore," Licht says. "People get isolated and feel they have to deal with every issue on their own."

Many successful couples build their own communities of friends or family, join a church or synagogue, or create a group of professionals to guide them: therapists, lawyers, doctors - or even manicurists and beauticians, she says.

Licht's specialty "is a fabulous idea," says Ronny Sydney, a practicing divorce lawyer in Brookline. "There's a huge need. . . . To grab it early like that is wonderful."

Licht, who has been in private practice as a social worker for 25 years, became interested in couples therapy a few years ago after a stint as a board member of the Divorce Center Inc., a Framingham-based nonprofit that provides a state-required course for couples with young children who are applying for divorce.

That work got Licht thinking about couples as they marry, and how little attention they pay to preparing for married life. "Teaching that class, I felt how sad it was," she says. "Divorce is so painful, it would have been better to put that effort into thinking about marriage and children at the beginning."

Some of the tensions that a couple will face throughout their time together, Licht says, get exposed shortly after the engagement announcement: ethnic differences, for example, parental opposition to the marriage, or shaky finances. Or as dates are set for high-end weddings and planning commences - often with the help of dozens of professionals, says Licht - stress erupts.

Licht's services include helping bridal shops deal with stressed-out brides - or mother-daughter dynamics. "Clerks tell me that the real story comes out in the dressing room," where daughters reveal their battles with Mom over control, says Licht.

These issues crop up often enough that Licht was invited to give a talk about "The Challenging Bride" to a conference of wedding industry professionals this fall.

But her real focus is on the couple and their future.

That approach was helpful to Melissa Nunes-Harwitt of Rochester, who is now married with a young son. Roughly six years ago, when she lived in Brookline, she worked with Licht both before and after her engagement.

"Wedding planning is its own phenomenon," Nunes-Harwitt says. "It brought up issues of communication and control: who makes the decisions, who does the work."

Nunes-Harwitt says Licht helped her see the wedding as the first project she and her future husband would work on together. Figuring out early communication and control difficulties made later ones easier to resolve.

Licht agrees. "I tell people, 'Think about what you are doing as you are planning the wedding: You are learning to compromise, to make decisions together, to share space.' "

Licht's work also extends to same-sex couples, who, she says, have the same kinds of pre- and post-wedding issues.

Most commonly, Licht says, wedding difficulties revolve around divorced parents, finances, who should be involved in the ceremony, how to deal with a parent's new spouse, and how to arrange group photos or seating. Another point of friction can be the wedding budget. According to the Bridal Association of America, the average wedding today costs nearly $30,000.

"There's pressure to keep up with what others are doing: the unique invitation, the service, the reception - it's very competitive," Licht says. "It's complex, and this all goes on between the engaged people and their parents."

After the wedding, the focus shifts to communication between spouses.

"With a life partner, you will be sharing parts of your life that were formerly private," Licht says.

Some areas, now secret, will need to be divulged or abandoned. The stash of Internet porn. The hope of a reunion with an ex. That pile of credit card debt. The coke habit. The Swiss bank account . . .

"Secretiveness undermines a relationship," Licht says. "Trust is the most important foundation."

Andreae Downs can be reached at andreaedowns@yahoo.com.

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