Psychological Reports, 1 9 6 1 , 8 , 333-338. @ Southern Universities Press 1961 A RATIONAL APPROACH T O PREMARITAL COUNSELING1 ALBERT ELLIS New York City People come for premarital counseling obviously because they have problems; and people with problems, as has been recently stressed by Ellis (1956), Harper ( 1953, 1955), Laidlaw ( 1950), and Lawton ( 1958), can often best be helped by some form of marriage counseling which not only presents a solution to their present circumstances but also goes to the root of their basic problem-creating disturbances. They need, in other words, some type of psychotherapy. Although I see a few clients for premarital counseling who have simple questions to be answered, which can sometimes be resolved in one or rwo sessions, the majority come for deeper and more complicaced reasons. Their typical presenting questions are: "Is my fiancee the right person for me?" "Should I be having premarital sex relations?" "How can I find a suitable mate?" and "How can I overcome my sexual incompetence or my homosexual leanings before I marry?" These and similar questions usually involve deepseated personality characteristics or long-standing emotional problems of the counselees. When put in more dynamic terms, the real questions most individuals who come for premarital counseling are asking themselves are: "Wouldn't it be terrible if I were sexually or amatively rejected? or made a mistake in my sex-love choice? or acted wrongly or wickedly in my premarital affairs?" And: "Isn't it horribly unfair that the girl or fellow in whom I am interested is unkind? or ununderstanding? or overly-demanding? or too selfish?" Stated differently, the vast majority of premarital counselees are needlessly anxious and/or angry. They are woefully afraid of rejection, incompetence, or wrongdoing during courtship or marriage; and they are exceptionally angry or hostile because general or specific members of the other sex do not behave exaccly as they would like them to behave. Since, according to the principles of rational psychotherapy which I and Dr. Robert A. Harper have been developing for the past several years, feelings of anxiety and resentment are almost always needlessly self-created, and inevitably do the individual who experiences them more harm than good, my psychotherapeutic approach to most premarital counselees is to show them, as quickly as possible, how to rid themselves of their fear and hostility and thereby to solve their present and future courtship and marital difficulties. 'Paper delivered at the Inrernational Conference on the Family at Teachers College, Columbia University, August 26, 1960. 334 A. ELLIS The main theoretical construct and counseling technique which I employ in extirpating a client's shame and anger is the A-B-C theory of personality, which has recently been outlined in several articles and books (Ellis, 1957, 1958, 1960a; Ellis & Harper, 1960a, 1960b; Harper, 1960). This theory holds that it is rarely the stimulus, A, which gives rise to a human emotional reaction, C; rather, it is almost always %the individual's system of beliefs regarding, attitudes toward, or interpretations of A-which actually leads to his reaction, C. Take, for example, premarital anxiety-which is usually the main presenting symptom of young people who come for counseling before marriage. I have recently been seeing a girl of 25 who, in spite of her keen desire to marry and have a family, has never been out on a date with a boy. She is reasonably goodlooking and very well educated and has had a good many opportunities to go with boys because her entire family is concerned about her being dateless and will arrange - dates for her on a moment's notice. But she always has found some excuse not to make appointments with boys; or else has made dates and then cancelled them at the last minute. At the very few social affairs she has attended, she has latched on to her mother or some girl-friend and has literally never left her side and never allowed herself to be alone with a male. Although it is easy to give the girl's problem an impressive "psychodynarnic" classification and to say that she is pregenitally fixated or has a severe dependency attachment to her mother, such labels, even if partially accurate, are incredibly unhelpful in getting her over her problem. Instead, she was simply helped to understand that her phobic reaction to males, at point C, could not possibly be caused by some noxious event or stimulus at point A (such as her once being rejected by a boy in whom she was interested); but that her own catastrophizing sentences at point B must be the real, current cause of her extreme fear of dating boys. "What," I asked this client, "are you telling yourself at point B that makes you react so fearfully at point C?" At first, as is the case with many of my clients, she insisted that she wasn't telling herself anything at point B; or that, if she was, she couldn't say what she was telling herself. In my now distant past as a psychoanalyst, I used to take this kind of denial seriously, tell myself some of my own nonsense at point B to the effect that the patient was not yet ready for deep interpretation, and spend the next several months helping her avoid the main issue by demonstrating to her that she had some kind of an Electra complex which she was repressing and that she now, by long-winded processes of free association and dream analysis, had to dig up and face. Being, at the present stage in the game, a less naive and wiser psychotherapist, I now refuse to take a simple no for an answer and keep insisting that the client must, on theoretical grounds, be telling herself something at point B. Now what, and let's have no nonsense about this, is it? PREMARITAL COUNSJXING 335 My persistent questioning soon paid off. The client, on urging, found that she was telling herself thac it would be perfectly awful if she went with boys and, like her two older sisters before her, was seduced sexually before marriage but (unlike these sisters) didn't actually marry her seducer. These internalized sentences, in their turn, were subheadings under her general philosophy, which held that marriage rather than sex was the only real good in life and that any girl who failed to achieve the marital state was thoroughly incompetent and worthless. Perversely enough, as happens in so many instances of neurosis, by overemphasizing the necessity of her marrying, my client literally drove herself into a state of panic which effectively prevented her from achieving the goal she most desired. What was to be done to help this client? In my psychoanalytic days I would have encouraged her to transfer her love and marital needs toward me and then, interspersed with a great deal more free associational and dream analysis evocation and interpretation, I would have tried to show her that because I accepted her, she could fully accept herself and then presumably feel free to go off and marry some other male. Maybe, after a few thousand hours of analysis, this would have worked. Or maybe she would have become just as parasitically attached to me as she now was to her mother and would have finally, at the age of 65, realized that I was not going to marry her and been pensioned off to a home for ex-analysands which I sometimes fondly think of organizing. Not being willing any longer to risk this dubiously fortuitous outcome of therapy, I very directly took this girl's major and minor irrational philosophies of life and directly challenged them until, after three months of counseling, she decided to give them up. More specifically, I vigorously attacked her notions that premarital sex relations are wicked and shameful; that marriage is the only good state of female existence; and that anyone who fails in a major goal, such as the goal of having a good relationship with a member of the other sex, is completely inept and valueless as a human being. I induced this client to believe, instead, that sex-love relations can be worthwhile in themselves, quite apart from marriage; that marrying may be a highly preferable but hardly a necessary goal for a female; and thac failing in a given purpose is a normal part of human living and proves nothing whatever about one's essential worth. In miracles or any other supernatural influences I passionately disbelieve. But the changes thac took place in this patient concomitant with her reorganizing her sex-love and general philosophies of life were almost miraculous. It needed relatively little urging on my part to get her to make several dates with young males; she thoroughly enjoyed petting to orgasm with some of these partners; a few months later she entered into a full sex-love relationship with 336 A. ELLIS one of them; and she is now engaged to be married to her lover. Moreover, although we rarely talked about some of the other important aspects of her life, she has also gone back to college, which she had Left in despair because of her poor social life there, and is intent on becoming a nursery school teacher. Quite a constructive change, all told! Let us consider another case of premarital counseling along rational psychotherapeutic lines. A 28-yr.-old male came for counseling because he kept becoming angry at his fiancee, ostensibly because she continually "unmanned" him by criticizing him in public. On questioning, he also admitted that he had never been fully potent with a female and had acute fears of whether he would succeed sexually with his fiancee after they were married. According to psychoanalytic interpretation, he was really not afraid of his fiancee unmanning him in public, but of unmanning himself when he finally got into bed with his bride; and her so-called attacks on him were acrually a projection of his own castration fears. So I would have interpreted in my psychoanalytic youth, Fortunately, however, I had the good sense to call in this client's fiancee; and I quickly found that she was a querulous, negativistic woman and that she did, figuratively speaking, often castrate my client in public. Whereupon I quickly set about doing two non-psychoanalytic and highly directive things. First, I talked the fiancee herself into becoming a counselee, even though she at first contended that there was nothing wrong with her, and that the entire problem was the result of her boy-friend's inconsiderateness and ineptitude. When I saw her for psychotherapy (in all, 48 sessions of individual and a year of group therapy, since she proved to be a rather difficult patient) I set about showing her that her anger, at p i n t C, stemmed not from her boy-friend's inept behavior, at point A, but from her prejudiced and grandiose interpretations of this behavior at point B. I showed this woman, in other words, that she kept saying to herself: ( a ) "John is doing these inept and inconsiderate things to me" and ( b ) "He shouldn't be acting that way and is a no-good sonofagun for doing so." Instead, I insisted, she would do much better by saying to herself: ( a ) "John is doing these things, which I consider to be inept and inconsiderate to me," and ( b ) "If I am correct (which I may or may not b e ) , then it would be much nicer if he could be induced to stop acting this way; and I should be doing everything in my power to help him see what he is doing, without blaming him for his behavior, so that he changes his actions for the better." When I convinced this client that, as I contended at an American Psychological Association symposium last year (Ellis, 1960b), no one is logically ever to blame for anything, and that people's errors and mistakes are to be accepted and condoned rather than excoriated if we are truly to be of help to PREMARITAL COUNSELING 337 them, she not only stopped berating her boy-friend in public but became a generally kinder and less d~sturbedindividual in her own right. Meanwhile, to flashback to my original client in this pair, whom we left gnashing his teeth at his fiancee and shivering in his pajamas abouc the spectre of his sexual impotence, he proved to be a relatively easy convert to the cause of rational thinking. Afcer 16 sessions of highly directive counseling he was able to see thac, whatever the verbal harshness of his intended bride, her words -at point A--could only hurt and anger him-at point C-if he kept telling himself sufficient nonsense abouc these words at point B. Instead of what he had been telling himself at point B-namely, "That bitch is castrating me by her horrible public criticism and she has no right to do that to poor weakly me"-he was induced to question the rationality of these internal verbalizations. Afcer actively challenging his own unthinking assumptions-particularly, the assumptions ( a ) that his fiancee's critical words were necessarily horribly hurtful; ( b ) that she should not keep repeating her criticism of him; and ( c ) that he was too weak to hear this criticism and not be able to take it in his strid-chis client began to believe in and tell himself a radically different philosophy of sex-love relationships, namely: "There goes my poor darling again, making cracks at me because of her own disturbance. Now let me see if any of her points about me are correct; and, if so, let me try to change myself in those respects. But let me also try, in so far as she is mistaken about her estimates of me, to help her with her own problems, so thac she doesn'c need to keep being nasty to me in public." When this change in his internalized sentences was made, my client improved remarkably in his ability to take his fiancee's criticism; and his hostility toward her largely vanished. H e was then also able to face the matter of his own impotence-which proved co be, as it so often does, a result of his worrying so greatly over the possibility of his failing thac he accually tended to fail. When he was able to acquire a new sexual and general philosophy about failing, he became more than adequately potent. In his new philosophy, instead of saying to himself: "If I fail sexually, it will be terrible and I will be totally unmanned," he began to say: "It is highly desirable, though not necessary, thac I succeed in being potent; and in the event that I am impotent for the present, there are various extravaginal ways of satisfying my partner; so what's the great hassle?'' Losing his acute fear of sex failure, he easily succeeded; and losing his terrible fear of his fianee's publicly criticizing him, he helped her to be much less critical. The main aspects of rational therapy which are usually applied to premarital counseling, then, include the counselee's being taught that it is not horrible for him to fail in his sex-love ventures; that there is no reason why 338 A. ELLIS his love partner shozdd act the way he would like her to act; and that any intense unhappiness that he may experience in his premarital (or, later, marital) affairs almost invariably stems from his own self-repeated nonsense rather than his partner's attitudes or actions. Rational therapy, in these respects, directly forces the patient to accept reality, particularly in his relations with his sexlove partner. SUMMARY The theory and practice of rational psychotherapy are applied to rwo cases of individuals who were seen for premarital counseling. In both cases, rhe clients were significantly helped when they were induced to accept the fact that it was not the behavior of their prospective mates which upset them, but their irrational, unrealistic expectations about and reactions to this behavior. When these premarital counseling clients were shown how to question and challenge their own self-defeating internalized sentences, their problems with themselves and their prospective mates were appreciably ameliorated. REFERENCES ELLIS,A. A critical evaluation of marriage counseling. Marriage Fam. Luing, 1956, 18, 65-71. ELLIS,A. Outcome of employing three techniques of psychotherapy. I . clin. Psychol., 1957,. 13.. 344-350. ELLIS,A. Neurotic interaction between marital partners. J. counsel. Psychol., 1958, 5, 24-28. ( a ) ELLIS,A. Rational psychotherapy. 1. gen. Psychol., 1958, 59, 35-49. ( b ) ELLIS,A. Marriage counseling with demasculinizing wives and demasculinized husbands. Marriage Fam. Living, 1960, 22, 13-21. ( a ) ELLIS,A . There is no place for the concept of sin in psychotherapy. 1. counsel. Psychol., 1960, 7, 188-192. (b) ELLIS,A., ELLIS, A., & HARPER, R. & J~ARPER, R. A. Creative marriage. New York: Lyle Sruart, 1961. ( a ) A. A guide to rational living. Englewmd Cliffs, N. J.: Prencice-Hall, 1961. (b) HARPER,R. A. Should marriage counseling become a full-fledged specialty? Marriage Fam. Living, 1953, 15, 338-340. HARPER,R. A. Failure in marriage counseling. Marriage Fan. Living, 1955, 17, 359-362. HARPER,R. A. A rational process-oriented approach to marriage counseling. J. Fam. Welfare, 1960,6 (4), 1-10. LAIDLAW, R. W. The psychiatrist as marriage counselor. Amer. I . Psychiut., 1950, 106, 732-736. LAWTON, G . Neurotic interaction between counselor and counselee. J. counsel. Psychol., 1958, 5, 28-33. Accepted March 4, 1961.