Premarital Counseling Questions:
How Long Is Premarital Counseling?
One of the most common questions we get about premarital counseling is “how long does premarital counseling take?” As in, how many sessions? How far in advance of the wedding should we do premarital counseling? Also, understandably, couples want to know how many sessions of premarital counseling to expect, in order to know how much premarital counseling costs. All wise and appropriate questions.
Also, just to be transparent here, the length of premarital counseling is different depending on your intentions for it. We sometimes get calls from frantic premarital couples realizing that they’re getting married in three weeks and they need a premarital counseling certificate and they would like to know how fast can we do this?
These sweet couples are not looking for actual premarital counseling. They are not looking to have a meaningful growth experience that helps them learn about themselves and each other, work through potential problems, and develop healthy relationship skills that will set their marriage up for success. They want a certificate. Like, today.
In contrast, the couples that we seek to serve are here because they want to learn and grow together and create a lifetime of love. They come to us, specifically, because we offer nonreligious premarital counseling with marriage and family therapists — true relationship experts who help couples resolve issues and set expectations for their relationships using systemic, evidence based approaches to couples counseling and family therapy.
Our experts have a lot of insight and expertise into the kinds of problems that bring couples into marriage counseling, and the conversations you should be having before commitment. The goal of premarital counseling for us, is to help you proactively learn how to avoid these problems and develop healthy relationship skills that act as an insurance policy for a successful, enduring marriage.
As you can imagine, that type of premarital counseling goes deeper, and requires some time. The answer to the question of how long premarital counseling takes, however, varies. Different scenarios call for different timelines, and some couples need more help navigating the ways relationships change after getting engaged. In order to get an accurate picture of what you can expect to participate in during a premarital counseling program, and how long it might last, you first need to understand…
What Happens in Premarital Counseling?
Let’s start with a crash course on what to expect in premarital counseling.
Comprehensive premarital counseling, like the kind you’d do with a marriage and family therapist (as you would here at Growing Self) is carried out across six stages, and each takes some time to do thoughtfully and well:
- Understanding Strengths and Opportunities
- Building Practical Skills
- Creating Agreements
- Building New Systems
- Building a Toolbox
1. Premarital Assessment
Whether you do online premarital counseling or premarital counseling in Denver, it is an opportunity for you to learn new things about yourself and for your partner to learn more about themselves too. You’ll also learn more about how you and your partner function as a unit. In premarital counseling that works, you’ll also develop some important, healthy new relationships skills that you can use to strengthen your marriage from the very beginning. This stuff is important; premarital counseling can make or break a marriage.
During the first, assessment stage of premarital counseling questions, the counselor provides a comprehensive survey that you and your partner should respond to with absolute honesty. But the questionnaire should not be feared! It simply helps you identify what the strengths of your relationship are, as well as where growth opportunities are.
All couples have growth opportunities. No one teaches us how to have healthy relationships; most of us just sort of show up and maybe do what our parents did — typically with mixed results.
The primary reason for the assessment survey is that many premarital couples have not necessarily experienced certain obstacles yet. They have not had the chance to face some of the inevitable challenges that they will encounter: Things like communicating at a moment when they don’t agree, keeping passion alive for decades to come, managing money as a couple, or solving problems together.
The assessment questionnaire helps the counselor better understand you and your partner’s basic relationship skills, like how you stay emotionally connected, how you communicate in healthy ways, and how you show each other love and respect, and more. Finally, the assessment stage helps create practical conversations and formulate agreements on relationship elements like boundaries, responsibilities around the house, the handling of finances, etc.
2. Understanding Strengths and Growth Opportunities
The assessment questionnaire doesn’t spit out a score that quantifies how high-functioning of a unit you and your partner are, nor does it predict how well you will coexist. If only life was that easy!
Instead, the assessment stage and all that comprises it points counselors in the right direction, toward aspects of your relationship that should be focused on a little more closely during counseling sessions to set your marriage up for success.
Premarital couples have the opportunity in counseling programs to talk about topics that they never discussed before, allowing them to achieve a new or different understanding about each other and different facets of their relationship. These include their needs, wants, feelings, and much, much more.
Oftentimes in premarital counseling, people reveal things about themselves that haven’t created problems in the relationship yet, but could do so years down the road. Premarital counseling helps you avoid these problems, so your love can last a lifetime.
All in all, premarital counseling, but particularly this stage, is very positive and brims with non-judgemental compassion.
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3. Building Practical Skills
During this phase of premarital counseling, couples can discuss those moments where perhaps they felt frustrated with one another, or they believed they were communicating with each other as a unit in a way that felt comfortable. But this conversation leads to the first real teaching component of the premarital counseling program.
With an understanding of the assessment and the background information of when and how problems might arise, with the guidance of your counselor you can now build practical skills that will help you and your partner navigate issues in your relationship that are sure to crop up from the challenges you mentioned to the premarital counselor, or perhaps more underlying concerns.
Across this phase, you’ll both learn communication skills, how to handle certain challenging moments that are existing in your relationship currently, address pain points, and much more. Considering an emphasis on the plurality of “skills,” you and your partner will have the chance to utilize multiple strategies to combat your most concerning situations. If one doesn’t quite work, try another.
This is all very helpful to any couple, even those who believe they are — and might well actually be — very happy and high functioning. Still, challenges will come up, even for those couples, who sometimes have a tendency to be a little avoidant of issues because they don’t want to rock the boat. Believe me: avoiding premarital counseling for this reason would be a huge mistake.
When seemingly minor speed bumps turn up, they disregard them, and do their best to focus only on what they believe are the positive aspects of their relationship. But truthfully, literally all couples have things to work through. What happens in a marriage when those ups and downs turn into the edge of a cliff? That well-intentioned strategy of “not talking about it if it’s not yet a problem” is not a good plan, in retrospect. Smart, successful couples are proactive in addressing things before they become a capital-P Problem. That is what good premarital counseling is for.
4. Creating Agreements
KIDS: Are you and your partner totally on the same page about kids? How many do you want? When said kids arrive into this world, who is going to be caring for them? Mom? Dad? (Or other Mom?) Grandma? Mary Poppins? The cat? We need to figure this out. Kid questions are even more pressing when you’re blending families, or about to do a step-parent thing. Divorce rates are much higher for second marriages involving kids, usually because of disagreements about parenting. Take heed.
MONEY: How will you handle money, particularly if one part of the unit out-earns the other? Will you be combining finances? How much will you put away for retirement, vacations, property purchases? Who will be in charge of paying the bills or maintaining the hypothetical budget spreadsheet that doesn’t yet exist? What if someone wants a motorcycle? What is a reasonable amount of money to spend on skin care products, anyway? So. Much. To. Discuss.
RELATIONSHIP GOALS: What do you both value? Are those values aligned and what are your hopes and dreams for the future? People grow and change over time. You have a dream of buying a lavender farm. He wants to be a digital nomad living in an RV. How do we build a bridge to the center?
TEAMWORK: What are your expectations for who should be doing what around the house? His mom was an enthusiastic housekeeper who meticulously did everything inside, except water the flowers. His dad did everything outside including car maintenance and snow shoveling, except he came in every afternoon at 4pm to take out the trash. HER mom was a diagnosed hoarder who got a prize from Dominos for ordering 100 pizzas in a year. This couple may have different expectations about what running a household together involves, don’t you think? Worth discussing.
In addition to gaining insight into yourselves and each other, and developing healthy communication and relationship skills, premarital counseling invites you to get into alignment about many, many things. In this stage of premarital counseling, the counselor works with you to establish more long-term goals and agreements that perhaps have not yet been established — but need to be.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this stage, from both the counselor’s perspective and, oftentimes, the couple’s as well, is when previously unsaid expectations arise. Maybe one person just never had the chance to talk about some down-the-road vision for their shared life together, but now they have the opportunity to discuss it in a collaborative, productive and positive way.
Then, once that expectation is out in the open and addressed in counseling, it won’t turn up as a demand years down the road and cause a conflict seemingly from out of nowhere. (“But, my lavender farm!”) This type of alignment generates a kind of inoculation around the possibilities that come with circumstances of a marriage dramatically changing.
Going through this exercise now, not only sets up long-lasting agreements and cohesive understanding of expectations, but the building of bridges to a happy middle ground, and practice for the creation of agreements about new wants and needs that might turn up.
5. Building New Systems
This stage is similar to the creating agreements stage, but it’s a time when you and your partner come to agreements on how you will handle various operational aspects of a marriage. For example: creating a budget, establishing boundaries, and doling out household chores and other responsibilities. Slightly boring? Yes. (Unless maybe if you are a spreadsheet warrior who loves org-charts.) But these practical systems are vital to create. Especially if you are a spreadsheet warrior who’s about to marry someone who has no idea what day the trash truck comes.
6. Building a Toolbox
In this stage of premarital counseling you’ll develop particular skill sets that you can rely on when their relationship gears need a little greasing to help it all run smoothly again. The counselor examines the ways in which you and your partner can check in with each other about your feelings, how they can communicate effectively to avoid issues growing into conflict, things like that.
The best premarital counselors don’t use a cookie-cutter approach. For every couple, their toolbox will be a little different, curated to their particular communication skills, level of emotional intelligence, mutual understanding, and other aspects.
In this stage, the couple also learns how to anticipate possible problems arising and say things like: “Remember how in the past I said that when you’re stressed you seem to shut down? This is one of those times and I just wanted to check in and see if we can have an open conversation about how you’re feeling right now.”
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Back to Our Question: How Many Sessions Will Premarital Counseling Take?
For premarital counseling to be a true success, you and your partner must engage in all of these stages in a meaningful way. You have to be open about your feelings and it will take some time for you to practice what you’ve learned, then report back to the counselor about your progress, and then make tweaks and adjustments along the way.
When Premarital Counseling is Fast
Sometimes, couples enter premarital counseling with the intention of having it be a basic, perfunctory experience. (These are often very young couples who might need to show a “premarital certificate” in order to get married in their church, for example.) So they show up and go through the motions, check the boxes, but aren’t taking it seriously. They don’t engage with it to the best of their abilities, not openly discuss their feelings, and not admit to any issues they truly want to discuss.
In these situations, premarital counseling is over quickly. They’ll finish premarital counseling in just a few sessions, say three to five at the most.
However, that scenario is something I would strongly urge a couple to avoid. They’ll get their certificate, perhaps intended for a religious official or for their own sense of security, but it won’t be worth much.
Sure, there are couples out there that are deeply in love and have had the opportunities to develop these skills listed above. Perhaps they’ve done work on their relationship through couples therapy, relationship coaching or pre-marriage counseling … and there’s just nothing left to discuss.
That’s amazing stuff, but also not terribly common.
Average Length of Premarital Counseling
If a couple takes the work in premarital counseling seriously, does their “homework,” asks questions, talks about their feelings eagerly, and generally engages with the counseling sessions at a high level, they will get a lot out of a high quality premarital program. On average, it will take eight to 12 sessions, roughly, for them to finish.
When Premarital Counseling Takes a Long Time
Some couples who enter premarital counseling have the wisdom and humility to know they are facing issues that need attending to, and that they have things to resolve in order to ensure a healthy and satisfying marriage together. All of the stages listed above will still be in play, but there will likely be added work and time spent addressing the specific areas that the couple want to deal with.
These couples are in premarital counseling to resolve their problems and feel confident they can move forward. Their pre marriage counseling (or sometimes pre-engagement counseling), in essence, may look more like couples or marriage counseling, but will nonetheless help them grow together, understand each other better, and change unwanted behaviors. There will be healing, and a restoration of trust in the idea that they are compatible and can get married and have a future together.
Such a couple should probably explore all this over the course of 12 to 16 sessions, something I’d particularly recommend to couples who are in a blended family situation. Even the happiest of such couples have added layers to contend with — like parenting skills, feelings about each other’s children and the other parents, etc. — and that takes time. Blended families are very challenging and there are reasons why divorce rates are higher for marriages where kids are involved from prior relationships, but premarital counseling can surely help mitigate those prospective problems.
How Can We Register for Premarital Counseling?
In all likelihood, there is a licensed premarital counselor relatively close by. However, you should also be aware that there are effective online pre-marriage counseling programs available as well, which are great for couples who live in rural areas, or in instances where one or both members of the couple travel often or are engaged in a long-distance relationship.
If you’re on a budget and looking for basic instruction on communication skills, getting on the same page around finances, priorities, etc., you may consider a premarital class format. There’s also pre-engagement counseling that I would recommend and, believe it or not, you can gift premarital counseling, too.
If you would like to do premarital counseling with one of the experts here at Growing Self, the first step is to request a free consultation meeting with the counselor of your choice. In that first session you’ll get to know them to make sure it feels like a good fit for you, and you’ll discuss your hopes and goals for premarital counseling. Then, you’ll get to work!
I hope that this article provided you with some clarity about how long premarital counseling takes when you’re seeking a meaningful growth experience from it. It’s such a great experience for couples, when you do premarital counseling with intention. I hope you do!
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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