A Guide to Premarital Counseling

So you’re getting married! Welcome to the wonderful world of making major future life decisions while planning the largest party you could ever imagine while trying to maintain a financial budget, family expectations, societal norms, cultural/religious traditions, fashion trends and tastes, all while establishing a new level of commitment and intimacy in your relationship and divorce-proofing your future marriage. Mazel tov!

Seriously, no matter if you have a large scale wedding or an intimate courthouse signing of papers, getting married marks a moment in your relationship that has a life long impact. Why? I have dating and engaged couples often remark, “I can’t see how getting married is going to change us at all.” True, you will stay the same people, and for the most part you can bet that your relationship won’t exactly change, but I will say professionally and personally that I always see that marriage makes an impact on the relationship. Let’s consider an illustration. If it were a possibility, would you have ever considered purchasing an apartment or house that you were renting? You had committed only to take care of the place while you were residing there, to follow the code or rules set for it’s occupants, and to give plenty of notice when you were ready to vacate the home. But what if you were to purchase it for yourself? Would you take different care and better upkeep to the home if you knew you were there for the long haul? Would you establish a plan for maintaining the care of the home so that your investment would be protected and would increase in value? If something bad happened to the home, would you walk away easily or fight to protect what you had been working hard to establish?

Preparing for a marriage needs both partners to look at their relationship and ready themselves for a deeper level of commitment, as if moving from renting a space to purchasing it. The relationship needs to be strong enough to hold the load of this risk. Yes, risk! It’s a risky investment these days to get married, isn’t it?!? I bet you can name at least three friends/family members/co-workers that are currently going through a divorce (for many many different reasons that we won’t go into now.) These days it is a risk to walk down the aisle and pledge before everyone you know that you will promise to stay together no matter what happens, until you die. Sounds like to me one of the biggest, riskiest bets ever. I’m betting that the two of us can withstand life’s inevitable stresses and our marriage will last. Seems a bit more important to be sure of this than whether we should invite Aunt Deedee’s side of the family.

So what can you do to protect your investment? Pre-wedding day counseling can be one of the best ways to help your pre-marriage get off on the right track. Premarital counseling can look a few different ways based on whom you choose to provide this service. Some churches or religious officiants may require you as a couple to do a few sessions of premarital counseling (basically to determine if both people involved meet the requirements of the church or religious body to get married under that affiliation.) Churches who do this really well will typically use a platform like Prepare and Enrich, Ready-to-Wed, or SYMBIS as a guide. These compatibility comparison-type tools can highlight a variety of important topics for couples to consider including financial management, conflict resolution styles, and family planning. I myself utilize Prepare and Enrich to help couples take a hard look at their current relationship, the strengths and weaknesses as a couple, and help predict and diffuse potential conflicts and struggles before they get married.

Whether or not you are obligated to meet with a pastor or officiant for counseling prior to marriage, perhaps you should also consider doing premarital counseling with a professional relationship therapist. Again, I believe that any premarital counseling is the best way to take a good look and have hard discussions to verify your commitment level to your marriage and to validate good habits of communication before your big day. Meeting with a licensed therapist, though, can take you one important step further. Let me explain.

I’ve been doing couples counseling for many years. I see couples who are still connected and very much in love who know they need to come in to learn some better communication techniques. I also see couples who are no longer connected at all and who are in my office a little too late possibly to prove to each other and themselves “we did all that we could. This is our last resort.” While I admire all of my couples’ strength to enter into counseling, I have more hope for couples in therapy who haven’t waited until one or both of them have a foot out door of their relationship. We have more time, energy, motivation and connection to work hard to save their marriage. I think part of the reason why it takes so long for couples to get into couples counseling is the stigma of saying to your partner “I think we need counseling.” That’s really hard to admit, isn’t it? Possibly it’s even harder to hear from your partner.

What premarital counseling does for your marriage before it even starts is to take away that stigma. Instead of “oh no, I think we may need couples counseling. Dun…dun….dunnnnnnnnnn!” the message can be “what do you think about making a few sessions with our therapist again, just to address this new stuff?” Totally a different feel with less pressure and much less severity. Either partner will be quicker to utilize a few sessions with their therapist whom they know and have established a relationship with. Couples, I promise, your therapist will remember you, will consult their notes and will work to continue upon the foundation of therapy that’s already been built.

To me, that’s why premarital counseling is so vital! I have several couples who saw me once a month during their engagement and who now make a standing 6 month or even annual appointment. We spend one hour catching up on their lives, addressing issues we have processed together in the past and comment on their progress, and they ask my thoughts on new chapters of their relationship. It’s their “annual marriage checkup” and it is a habit that promotes a consistent and realistic look at their marriage and it works! These couples are happy, healthy and connected. When life’s stressors come into their relationship, they will be able to utilize couples counseling as a tool in their toolbox. I bet on them to make their marriage last for the long haul!


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