Use Premarital Counseling Strategies to Strengthen Your Relationship

Premarital counseling is so important for couples getting married. It’s a positive, empowering experience that helps you get clarity about the strengths of your relationship and work through potential problems before they become serious relationship issues. Most importantly, going through meaningful, high-quality premarital counseling with a marriage and family therapist teaches you how to keep your relationship strong through thick and thin. While intentionally and proactively cultivating positive aspects of your partnership, instead of trying to fix relationship problems once things are feeling hard. 

But did you know that — no matter how long you’ve been with your partner, or whether you’re even getting married — you can still use the principles of great premarital counseling to strengthen your relationship? Couples married for decades can still use empowering, proactive, and productive strategies to make healthy, positive changes to their partnership… and you can too.

On today’s episode of the podcast, I’m speaking with my dear colleague Brenda Fahn. Brenda is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and she teaches our Lifetime of Love Premarital Program. She has provided private premarital counseling services to countless couples over the years, and today she’s here to share some premarital counseling strategies that you can start using in your relationship right now.

If you want to jump right in, tap here to listen to:

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You can also follow me (@drlisamariebobby) and Growing Self (@growing_self) on Instagram too, if you’d like to stay on top of all the latest pro-relationship info we have planned for you over the next few months. 

Lastly, you can listen to this episode on the player at the bottom of this page, or if you prefer a transcript of the episode we have that for you too (all the way at the bottom). 

I had a blast talking to Brenda (she’s as fun as she is smart) and I think you’ll get so much out of this interview. If you have additional premarital counseling questions you are welcome to leave them here for me/us in the comments section and I’ll respond to you ASAP.

Show notes are below — enjoy!

Xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

How Premarital Counseling Works: Podcast Episode Show Notes

Do you want to learn the secret to a long-lasting and happy married life? Then, tune in to this episode to discover some valuable insights into how premarital counseling works, and how you can start using expert premarital counseling strategies in your relationship — no matter how long you’ve been together!

In This Episode with Brenda, You Will…

  • Discover the benefits of premarital counseling.
  • Learn how premarital counseling can prepare you for married life.
  • Identify the common problems in married life and how to face them.
  • Find out why conflicts matter.
  • Know how to become more proactive and authentic in your relationship.
  • Understand the importance of honesty when answering premarital counseling questions.
  • Discover how long-term married couples can strengthen their connection.

Episode Highlights

The Problem With Most Premarital Counseling

Often, couples exploring premarital counseling don't fully understand the value of premarital counseling for the success of their relationship. On top of that, they're not seeking premarital counseling through a professionally trained couples and family therapist (to no fault of their own, they just don't know). Typically, when couples begin seeking out premarital counseling, they're turning to a religious or Christian premarital counseling service that usually consists of a couple of awkward conversations with a priest or pastor. It's not meaningful and doesn't teach them the important healthy relationship skills they get in real-deal premarital counseling.

These couples think they’ve done “premarital counseling” but they haven’t, really. It’s not authentic, or meaningful. They wind up getting superficial guidance, trite advice, and general instructions. Basically, an informational pamphlet on “How to be married” (which is not that helpful, let’s face it). Understanding the difference between religious vs. secular premarital counseling can prevent this problem.

The other problem with most premarital counseling is that many couples really do not understand the importance of good premarital counseling. They think that premarital counseling is simply a checkbox to tick off, like renting the tux, or ordering the cake. And when couples don’t address the questions they need to ask before marriage, they’re ill-prepared to weather the storms that come.

The Importance of Premarital Counseling

Premarital counseling helps couples envision and think about what life will be like when they are married. It also allows them to be more mindful and conscious of how they will make their relationship work. When done right, it’s a great marriage preparation course. Other benefits include:

  • preparing couples for the challenges of married life 
  • helping them differentiate normal experiences from problems to deal with
  • minimizing the risk of disconnection, separation, and divorce
  • normalizing counseling

Moreover, it helps couples catch a problem sooner before it becomes too late to fix. And because it happens when they are in a positive mood, therapy is more successful. As a result, premarital counseling can strengthen the foundations of their marriage. Effective, evidence-based, non-religious counseling can create positive changes in a relationship. 

These ideas can help all couples: As couples evolve throughout major life transitions, there are new and important things to discuss productively. We all grow and change as we move into different stages of life. If you’ve been married for a long time, it’s also worth knowing how to discuss the challenges that you face now — as well as the ones that might be coming down the pipeline. 

How are you staying connected now? How are you solving problems together now? Are the strategies and systems that worked for you at an earlier stage of your relationship still working now? 

These are positive, proactive conversations to have with each other throughout the course of your marriage — not just at the beginning. 

The Myth and Truth About Being in a Relationship

People sometimes believe that getting into a relationship is an endgame. So, they stop working on it. They don’t account for the changes that happen, especially when they get engaged. They fail to realize that they have to expand themselves to adapt to their partners. They also have to work on themselves so that they show up better in the relationship. 

Also, it’s actually at the beginning of the relationship that couples benefit from counseling. This is because they are still happy and positive. Counselors can help them figure out what makes them feel that way. From here, they learn what they can continuously do to keep their relationship working. 

According to Brenda, this helps because “our brains are really good at remembering negative things. They’re not always great at remembering positive things unless you’re conscious about it.”

Premarital counseling helps couples get very clear about their strengths and all the things they love and appreciate about each other. It also helps them create strategies to help each other feel loved, respected, and emotionally connected. 

Focusing on these things can be an incredibly powerful way to strengthen your relationship no matter how long you’ve been together.

6 Common Premarital Counseling Topics 

There are six plus premarital counseling topics that couples work through during premarital counseling. These include things like:

  1. Communication
  2. Conflict resolution
  3. Marriage and money
  4. Sexual intimacy
  5. Creating agreements
  6. Maintaining emotional intimacy, and more

Often, it’s only during premarital counseling that couples have deep, productive conversations about how they’re feeling in these different aspects of their relationship and what they could each do to make their partnership feel even stronger and more satisfying. 

“Communication is the key to life, regardless of what subject that is,” – Brenda 

The key is that, in premarital counseling, couples are talking about these things before they become issues. Although marriage counseling and couples therapy can be extremely effective in helping couples resolve issues…couples are there to talk about the things that aren't working for them, and that are causing pain. 

Premarital counseling is, in contrast, all about discussing important things that we need to be talking about openly but that aren’t necessarily problems or issues. This is a great takeaway for all couples — premarital or not. Figure out a way to talk about important things without it being in the context of a conflict, or argument. 

Why Constructive Conflicts Matter

Sometimes, couples are afraid to speak up when things are not okay because they are avoiding conflict. But Brenda shares that “If you don’t have conflict, I think you might have a bad relationship because you’re not letting yourself be seen.” She also discusses that not only is it okay to have conflict, but it is normal.

The important thing is to learn how to bounce back when these things happen. You have to know how to become happier partners in your relationship despite the conflict. You must also learn how to express that you still love and care for each other.

Remember that conflict is simply an opportunity for couples to have a deeper and more authentic understanding of one another.

Why Are Some People Afraid of Going to Premarital Counseling?

While premarital counseling is good for marriage, not everyone does it happily. Some couples even dutifully attend a couple of premarital counseling sessions to check the box, but avoid talking about meaningful things with their premarital counselor. It is because these people fear that when they discuss these future problems, they are “rocking the boat” and creating problems where none exist.

As Brenda puts it, “Couples who talk about sex have better sex lives. Couples who talk about their finances are more successful. And couples who talk about their conflict learn how to get through it.”

It’s easy for couples to avoid talking about important things proactively. Premarital counseling teaches couples how to be brave and talk about their real feelings from the start. All couples can learn from this wisdom though: What have you been avoiding discussing in your relationship, and how can you be brave and authentic in order to have necessary conversations with your partner in a positive and productive way? 

What Pre-Marriage Counselors Want for Soon-to-be-Married Couples

Pre-marriage counselors help soon-to-wed couples prepare themselves for their future. The counselors want them to learn that conflict is not about playing the blame game. Instead, it is about how you can compromise to stay connected with your partner. This is just one of the many pieces of advice premarital counselors give to soon-to-be-married couples. 

Ultimately, premarital counselors want couples to learn how to enrich themselves. It begins with acknowledging that you and your partner are both growing and evolving humans with feelings and quirks that are unique. How do you love, respect, and appreciate each other for who you truly are? Pre-marriage counseling is also only the beginning of this conversation. Talking about each of your feelings, values, goals, hopes, and dreams should be something happening throughout your relationship — especially as you both continue to grow and evolve. 

Advice for Married Couples

Brenda believes that the concepts learned in premarital counseling still apply to married couples. She also adds that it is crucial to have an openness to learning when it comes to relationships. You also have to constantly be intentional in improving or maintaining your connection.

Long-term married couples can still attend premarital counseling courses. In doing so, they learn how to make their relationships work better. Healthy and happy couples are ones that are proactive. They put the effort into educating themselves and growing together. 

Brenda also adds that most of the time, when people say their relationship is getting boring, that’s not truly the case. What is happening is you are not allowing yourself to grow. And you have to do that and bring it to the relationship to make it better.

Premarital Counseling Resources

The info shared in this podcast is just the beginning. If you’re interested in learning more about premarital counseling here are a few links to learn more about:

Enjoy the Podcast?

Did you enjoy the podcast? Do you think you need to try pre-marriage counseling with your partner? How will neglecting counseling affect married life? Share your insights and questions — we want to hear from you!

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How Premarital Counseling Works

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: “I Do” by Derek Gust

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.

[Intro Song: I Do by Derek Gust]

Dr. Lisa: That was “I Do” by the artist, Derek Gust, I thought a great introduction to our topic today. Today, we are talking about premarital counseling, pre-marriage counseling. Not just what it is, not just why, but I really want to empower you in understanding the purpose of premarital counseling and how you can use some of the principles of great premarital counseling to strengthen your relationship. No matter if you are about to be married or if you have been in a relationship or even a marriage for many years, you can still use these ideas to strengthen and heal and grow your relationship. That is what we are talking about on today's episode of the podcast. 

The Problem With Most Premarital Counseling 

Just to jump right in, pretty much everybody has gotten the memo, at this point, that premarital counseling is generally a good idea. It's something that people do typically, though, as part of the wedding planning process. Usually, when people do premarital counseling, it is, unfortunately, of the variety where it's two or three very awkward conversations with a priest or pastor who's going to marry you. Then people think, “Great. We have checked that box. We have gotten premarital counseling. We are good to go.” 

They haven't done real, effective, meaningful premarital counseling, to their detriment. That, in itself, is part of the reason why I am making this podcast today, my friends, is to help you understand that this is not a box-checking endeavor. This is actually really important. It would be a mistake to devalue real, authentic, and deep premarital counseling because of the impact it can have not just on your relationship but on the entire trajectory of your marriage and on your future together. 

When you do that superficial type of premarital counseling with a pastor, you get a worksheet. You get some general instructions: say please and thank you, have date nights, prioritize your relationship, all that trade advice. But they don't really get into the nuts and bolts of the actual, not even tools and strategies, but mindsets that you need in order to have a really amazing marriage. They don't go into helping you understand each other or why you do the things that you do. They certainly don't help you anticipate the drift that occurs in every relationship over time so that you can see it coming and make proactive changes to keep it from impacting your marriage negatively. 

Because people don't get that, you then, have these nice young couples or—who are we kidding, marriages these days, it's a couple of 38-year-olds—glide off into marriage, thinking that they've done premarital counseling, they're good to go. Then, life starts to happen. There are the curveballs, and the transitions, and the lost jobs, and moving from one state to another, or welcoming kids, or if you are coming into the marriage with children already, that's a whole other set of challenges. 

Every couple, even the cutest, happiest, healthiest, most in-love ones, over time, will have to figure out how to talk about very challenging things that are emotionally triggering to both people. There is always going to be unavoidable conflict. I say conflict somewhat loosely because I think of conflict as not an argument, necessarily, but people being in different positions, and having to talk through their thoughts and feelings, and get back on the same page, and resolve problems together, and problems that you may have different opinions about in terms of the solutions. 

That is simply the work of being in a relationship. Then, on top of that: how to stay emotionally connected, how to be good partners to each other, how to understand and unconditionally love and respect your partner even when they think, and feel, and behave differently than you would. This is the growth process. This is just normal and expected. When you go into really, truly meaningful and effective evidence-based premarital counseling, you get a lot of that information that you don't get when it's this superficial experience that so many couples get. 

Today, in this episode of the podcast, what we are doing is diving into the kinds of ideas, the kinds of growth moments, the kinds of information that you get in actual premarital counseling. I have invited my colleague Brenda, who teaches our Lifetime of Love premarital counseling class. She does a ton of individual private premarital counseling. She's a Prepare-Enrich-certified Premarital Counselor. Brenda knows what is going on. She's here today to share her wisdom with you. Brenda, thank you so much for joining me today.

Brenda Fahn: Thank you, Lisa. I love talking about premarital counseling. I tell my premarital couples, they're my favorite because they're coming to be proactive, usually. They're coming to learn. They’re coming to make sure that they have better knowledge. It also shows that they really care that they're saying their relationships are important. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I always appreciate my premarital clients.

Dr. Lisa: I know. Me, too. I'm so glad for that. One of the things that always comes into my mind when we talk about premarital counseling, or I feel like, at our practice here at Growing Self, we do a lot to try to educate people around the importance of premarital counseling. I think it's because both of us have had so many years of experience working with couples who've been married, 5 years, or 10 years, or even longer, and who come in when their relationships are absolutely on the brink. 

They have had years and years of not doing the things that we teach in premarital counseling. I don't know if you've had this experience, but I have personally sat with some couples that are pretty far gone and thought, “Oh, my gosh. If you guys had understood some of these things in the beginning and not had all of these damaging experiences with each other over the years, we would not even be sitting here right now.”

The Importance of Premarital Counseling

Brenda: No, exactly. And I think that's one of the most important gifts premarital counseling does is it normalizes and de-stigmatizes going to counseling for a lot, especially for certain couples who might be more hesitant to come and say, “Here's what it was like when we didn't have a lot of problems, but it actually was pretty good. We got a lot out of it. We got some knowledge. We got some understanding of our relationship. We got to know what's more normal, what to expect.” 

When I have couples even come back, some of those premarital couples will come back for one or two sessions just to say, “Hey, we're stuck in this piece.” I think the premarital counseling really helped them be comfortable with that process and to realize it's okay. It's okay to catch it sooner because like you said, sometimes it's just too late. Dr. Gottman will say, “Catch the problem within a year.” But most couples wait up to six years before they address issues. Think of what's happened in those six years of disconnection or conflict that's been unresolved versus if you catch it within six months. There's a much better prognosis, like anything in life, if you catch it sooner.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. You bring up such a great point there. Also, I love what you're saying that in premarital counseling, it's a unique experience where couples will come into sessions with me, or you, or your class when they are in a good place. Because what we also know from research is that it is actually when your relationship is feeling fairly good, you both have positive regard for each other, things are going pretty well, that is actually the time when you can make positive changes in a relationship, where you can grow together or understand each other more deeply in a really powerful and effective way. That is the time to come and work on yourselves together. 

Whereas, in brink-of-divorce type of relationships, it is not emotionally safe. People are so defensive and mad at each other. That is not conducive to growth at all. It's a whole paradigm shift to come in while you still like each other. And Brenda what you’re saying is that you bring up a good point, too, is that when you have done premarital counseling and if it's a positive experience that felt good for both of you, it becomes that much easier to say, “Yeah, let's go see Brenda again for a couple of sessions,” at the first sign of trouble, so it doesn't even become a capital P problem. That is one of the primary benefits.

Brenda: I'm sure you know this, too. The more stress or the less safe a relationship feels, the harder it is to have empathy, the harder it is to hear actually, even physically. For some people, it's just hard to hear when they're really defensive. You're working against so many variables if you're already in a high-stress situation where you're feeling like the other person doesn't really have your back, maybe doesn't care versus premarital couples are coming in saying, “We really care about each other. We want to make sure.” A lot of them have come from divorced families, too, that will say, “We don't want to repeat. We didn't see great relationships. We saw how people did things poorly.” 

They're putting this as a priority because I think that adage gets used a lot of “Relationships are work.” It's the work of consciousness and mindfulness. There's a saying that even if you don't do anything wrong in a relationship if you don't do anything right, it will still die. But you have to be doing a lot of positive actions to keep the feelings going. It doesn't mean that the feelings have to go away. They can wax and wane, obviously, but to say, you don't let your emotions just take over like they did at the beginning of a relationship. You're saying, “What do I need to do? What actions do I need to keep taking to keep these emotions in a positive element in my relationship?”

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Oh, my goodness. You brought up such a great point because that was honestly one of my first questions for you: why is this so important? What do people not understand about premarital counseling? And why do it for real? So far, you've mentioned that just the act of doing, deeper work premarital counseling will make it so much easier to nip potential problems in the bud going down the road. 

Also, when you learn, specifically, what to do to stay in a good place with each other over the years, that is worth so much like exercising, and taking your vitamins, and eating your vegetables. In relationships, it's not waiting until you get sick. It's what you're doing all along. So many couples, when they're getting married, they are just awash in all kinds of love and positive things. They think, “This is just the way it feels because we love each other. It'll always feel this way.” 

They're not doing the relational equivalent of eating their vegetables or getting a good night's sleep. They're just coasting along on good feelings. When those feelings start to change because they will always, they don't have any tools to start to re-inject positive interactions and energy back in. Is that it?

The Myth and Truth About Being in a Relationship

Brenda: Yeah, definitely. I think part of it is to say maybe there's a myth of like, “Once I get into a relationship, I can relax.” So many people are so hard, like, “Let me get into a relationship.” But I tell all my couples, “That's when you get to expand.” This relationship will hopefully expand you, sometimes, in really uncomfortable ways. This is hoping to grow, what it means to learn how to love better, to learn how to be loved, to learn how to be the better version of yourself, and to give that to your partner. 

So if that was easy work, it wouldn’t actually be that rewarding. The thought that “This should be easy,” is actually a paradox of saying, “No,  because it's harder, it actually gives it a lot more value.” This is challenging you to step up in life, not to just relax and say, “I can do whatever I want now.”

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, definitely. In premarital counseling, for you, Brenda, to be delivering that message to people, while they're still really motivated by feelings of love and affection that they want to do everything that they can to have a great relationship between that and some of our couples that feel like they've been through a war, by the time they get into marriage counseling, they don't want to do the things. They don't feel like being generous to their partner, who has been so mean and unkind to them. It's so essential to be learning about this in the beginning.

Brenda: Yeah, no. Exactly. Because we both do emotion-focused therapy to say that people get into these dances like anything, and they become polarized in a dance of negativity. It's hard to start to convince someone to come back. When someone comes in already positive, they're saying, “How do we build this?” You probably have couples come in, sometimes, they go, “We don't have much to talk about this week. It's actually going well.” 

I'll say that's great because I love those weeks where you feel like things are going well because now we can look at what are you doing that's making this feel good. Our brains are really good at remembering negative things. They're not always great at remembering positive things unless you're conscious about it. Even a couple saying, “There's not much to talk about,” there's probably lots to talk about, but it's the good stuff. It's saying, “What are you both doing every day for yourself and for this relationship that's helping to be in this place?”

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, definitely. That, too, they don't know yet what they should be talking about because it doesn't currently feel problematic. That's what I love so much about your approach, both in the Lifetime of Love class and with your individual premarital counseling. I know it's different in the class because you just walk through a number of topics. But with our Private Premarital Counseling, you always do an assessment, either it's our free in-house premarital counseling assessment or I know that since you're preparing for the fight, you do that assessment a lot of the times. Because it's like an X-ray. It can help couples be like, “Oh, yeah. We haven't actually talked about this.” 

And I'm curious. What are some of the things you see come out, either from that assessment or from the information that you present to couples in your premarital class that you find, isn't shocking, necessarily, but it is new information that premarital couples being like, “Oh, yeah. We haven't thought about that, or we haven't talked about this part, and we should.” Have you noticed any patterns around what seems to be most important and under-discussed, unless you create those?

Common Premarital Counseling Topics

Brenda: Yeah. That's a good question. I think that the major theme that comes out of married couples or premarital couples is communication. We feel like we don't communicate great. Communication and conflict resolution, which go hand-in-hand, usually come out the most if we don't know how to do this differently. I think what comes out, it's not like I wouldn't say it's one topic, because there are some couples who need to work on finances. There might be some couples who need to work on their sex life. I don't feel like there's one theme that I'm like, “Oh, we need to talk about this.” 

I think every couple comes in usually knowing that they have one or two things that they've either been avoiding, maybe mind-reading, or making assumptions, and maybe scared to talk about. It's trying to bring those things up in a gentle way that you… Communication is the key to life, regardless of what subject that is. Where do you guys get off track around communication about any topic? 

I think a lot of education goes with that, too. Seventy percent of conflict doesn't go away, according to Dr. Gottman. It's differences of personality, habits, opinions, lifestyle. How do we learn to live with this? How do we get away from trying to change pr control? What do I need to do to adapt, and accept, and understand who you are better and where you're coming from? I think if couples are on finances, we go deeper to say, “Where does this come from? What's the meaning of money? What are your habits you've had? What did you see, as a child around money? What are you still holding on to that, maybe, is giving them a way of you guys having a better communication about this?” That could be finances, sex, habits. 

Sometimes, couples have a really hard time saying, “You know, what? I really don't like that you”—I'm trying to think of a good one—“don't exercise more. I feel like you're not healthy. And that makes you unhappy. I'm worried about you, but I don't know how to say that in a way without making you feel bad.” Almost every topic comes back to how are we communicating with each other. Couples are going to two camps, a lot of times, either we're avoiding it and hoping that's going to go away, or we're saying it in a way that's pretty critical and attacking. We don't know how to come together, and show up, and be vulnerable in these issues, and really hear and see each other.

Dr. Lisa: Oh, my goodness. It’s so important just to develop those skills about how to talk about these issues that feel hard. Because if you have that, you can resolve any issues. I appreciate what you said that a lot of times there isn't a final solution. But resolve it in the sense of understanding each other and developing appreciation for each other, not even just despite the differences, but because of them towards acceptance and growth and unconditional love.

Why Conflicts Matter

Brenda: If we feel like they care, and I think the one thing that I like the most to tell couples is to say, “You may miss each other. You're going to miss each other in relationships. You're going to disappoint each other. You're going to hurt each other. How do you come back? You fall. How do you get back up?” That's a really important concept for what makes happier couples. But it goes away from what some people think. 

I have a lot of couples who will say, “If we have conflict that must mean we have a bad relationship.” That's not the case. Actually, if you don't have conflict, I think you might have a bad relationship because you're not letting yourself be seen. You're not letting yourself show up as much. You're not letting yourself have your partner look into the nooks and crannies of what makes you, you. 

If you're doing that, then you're going to have conflict, but that's okay. It's giving couples a lot of the times permission to have it, tried to have it in a healthy way, and to say, “Even when you miss each other, how are you coming back? How are you making those small movements to say, ‘We're still on the same team? We're still in this together. I still love you and care about you.’”

Dr. Lisa: Brenda, we need to think up a different word for conflict. As you're talking, I always and I try to teach couples this, but we need a new word. Because when I think “conflict,” and you do, too, clearly, you just said it, but here's an opportunity to understand each other more deeply and authentically. Whenever people are being authentic, they're going to find that they're not exactly the same as others. This opportunity for understanding, I'm gonna put that in the hopper, Brenda. We need to get a new word. 

Brenda: We’ll be like Shakespeare, come up with a new language around it. 

Dr. Lisa: That’s right. That is really a key core skill that you're always going to, in premarital work, is how to talk about things, how to be authentic and vulnerable, but also just setting expectations around the goals for communication. Through that, you cover a ton of topics. There's sex, which can be very difficult to talk about. Also, we do a lot of financial therapy for couples here in our practice, in general, but especially for premarital couples at the beginning of their relationship to get finances straightened out. I think that there are different mindsets for people who do reach out to us for premarital counseling. I think that people who come to us for premarital counseling are wanting a deeper experience. 

I speculate sometimes that the reason why people shy away from the type of growth opportunity, that say, working with you would offer, is that they have this even subconscious fear that “if we start talking about some of these things, we're going to realize that our differences are too great, or that we're not compatible somehow, or we're going to discover things about each other. I love this person so much. I would be crushed if our marriage got derailed. I would almost rather leave the lid on it. We'll just deal with that after we are securely married because it's almost like this threatening feeling.” 

Have you heard that expressed at all in couples counseling? Or the people who come to see you they're like, “We want to bring it on.”

Why Are Some People Afraid of Going to Premarital Counseling?

Brenda: There's probably been some of both. I think there's sometimes… I definitely noticed some couples who are really hesitant to admit to any issues going on. Because if Prepare-Enrich testers gauge that, they’ll say if you're trying to make yourself look too good, we're also going to catch that. We can see it's hard for you to admit things like, “I will always be happy with my partner.” If someone says, “Yes, I'm 100% of the time happy,” then we talk about that. What's going on that you think you might not ever doubt this relationship or that you might not ever wonder if you married the wrong person? 

I really want to normalize that those are the moments, usually, that we want to run. You could say there's a different language that we use in psychology around that. But to say when things are tough, sometimes, we want to run, but you would run to another relationship where you’re going to feel the exact same way, most of the time. So, I want to normalize those feelings that it's okay to be afraid. All of us are afraid to look inside, but what's the cost of not looking inside? 

Our brains are not good at avoidance. We think they are, but they're really not. There's a lot of energy and, sometimes, shame and power that goes into trying to avoid these things. That's why research would say couples who talk about sex have better sex lives. Couples who talk about their finances are more successful. Couples who talk about their conflict learn how to get through it. I think it's trying to just give people permission to say, “No. There's light when you bring it out. There's darkness, actually, when you're trying to keep it at bay.”

Dr. Lisa: The way that you framed that, Brenda, was so profound because I think I even understood something differently about premarital couples feeling hesitant to do premarital counseling because of what the possible consequences could be. You're saying that that in itself is an indication of an avoidant tendency when it comes to addressing relational issues. That in itself is a really strong indicator that you should because it's like retraining you to move towards authenticity and manage that anxiety of talking about things openly as opposed to indulging that avoidance reaction that we know will always, ultimately, cause harm in the end, even if in the moment it feels protective.

What Marriage Counselors Want for Soon-to-be-Married Couples

Brenda: I think there are, obviously, we see couples after years where they want to blame the other person to say, “He's the bad guy.” “She's the bad guy.” We want to help couples not get there to say we're not playing a blame game. We want you guys to see that you interact with each other, sometimes, in ways that trigger each other. We should come up with another word besides trigger because I use that word too much. But we want you to both see how you play your own role and that there's no bad guy or good guy. This is both of us struggling. We're all really imperfect people. We're trying to find a way to still stay connected. 

That disconnection equals loneliness for a lot of people. That's the most painful thing in relationships. So, how can we stay connected even in the moments where we see parts of ourselves we don't love, parts of our partner we don't love? How do we get back to our better selves versus trying to pretend they're not there or stay away from them? It really does give them more power if you try to avoid. Using mind-reading and making assumptions is really dangerous for couples. 

That's why I tell couples all the time in the class, “This is just the beginning of your conversation. I want you to continue these conversations. I want to make it less scary so that you guys know you can go here. It doesn't overwhelm anyone. It doesn't scare anybody. You can get through this.”

Dr. Lisa: Oh, my goodness. That in itself, Brenda, you're modeling exactly the type of emotional safety that we hope that couples can create, really. I just love what you said that the goal here isn't some imaginary, perfect ideal that is impossible to attain. The goal here is acceptance of who we each really are and how to stay connected and loving in the midst of that. That's so important.

Brenda: I will say most premarital couples come away feeling grateful that they have the opportunity to talk about things that would have been hard on their own that we did facilitate. Most couples who come in for premarital counseling don't have 10 issues they need to deal with. They have one or two that they're stuck on. They just don't know how to get through those. So they come in with pretty solid relationships, but they have a few issues that they just haven't known how to navigate. Again, I think going to the scary places makes it less scary. That's my hope, is that then when they go there, they can do it again in the future with or without a therapist.

Understanding Premarital Counseling Questions

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, definitely. Then, another question for you on that note, and I know we've talked about this a little bit, but assessments can be a very important part of the premarital counseling process. Again, we have our free 200-question premarital assessment that we can give to clients. I know that people on the team like you who are Prepare-Enrich-certified, there's a whole other assessment process that you do that is also really valuable. 

Why would you say it's so important for couples to be open to doing this assessment, as opposed to just popping in and telling you about the two things that they want to work on? Why would you do that assessment with a premarital couple, anyway? What information do you think it can generate that they may not be consciously aware of?

Brenda: One is it covers topics, sometimes, topics they haven't even thought about. I hear that quite a bit. We're not even sure what we're supposed to be talking about, or maybe what we're missing. The Prepare goes over about 12 different topics. Some of them are just topics that couples haven't thought about in that they haven't framed it in that way—everything from talking about sex to finances, to roles, to responsibilities, to partner’s style and habits, to leisure activities, to how are their family and friends influencing their relationship, the communication, and conflict. It's a structured way to look at their relationship and to also see their strengths. 

I want to go over their strengths to say, “Hey, these are the areas you guys are getting along really well.” Now, there's sometimes still one or two questions where you say, “Hey, let's talk through that and see how you both are feeling about this one piece of communication,” let’s say. But I think it just brings up, in a structured way, topics that they maybe haven't thought about, but they've been issues that maybe have been bothering them, but they might not bring them up organically. This helps give them, one, some template to look at. And two, it helps them, then, identify things that, maybe, were bothering them that they hadn't articulated or put into language yet.

Dr. Lisa: That's such a good point right there because especially with premarital couples, many times, they're getting along well. There's not Problems with a capital P. Even if there are little annoyances, or they haven't quite elevated to the point where there has to be the talk about the problem. And so they’re like, “Ah. It's not that big of a deal.” But you're saying that the assessment will provide a safe, structured way for them to talk about those things that maybe haven't reached that level of importance yet. But it’s still so important to discuss so that they don't turn into a big, hurtful problem. 

Brenda: Some of the questions are even like, “I can see this becoming a problem versus it is a problem.” But anticipating events around the preparative parenting expectations and marriage expectations. So it's saying, “I think this might happen. I’m afraid this might happen.” 

We're also talking about future fortune-telling of where they see the future going that it's not there yet, but there is some fear or hesitation. It is a feeling of like, “Well, should I bring it up now? Or do I bring it up after it's happened?” “Your mom said something that was so offensive. I couldn't handle it.” Or instead, we’re saying, “Hey, what do we do if that situation comes up? How can I support you in those moments?” Again, it's proactive. I can't think of a better word just to try to anticipate or sometimes avoid certain situations.

Second Marriages and Premarital Counseling

Dr. Lisa: Proactive is the perfect word. You're getting out in front of it before… Well, that's super helpful. Then, another question that I had for you. I think that there can also be a thing with premarital couples who are that kind of stereotypical: they're young-ish, or it's their first marriage for both of them. Those are often the couples who are doing all the things. They are the wedding planners, and the color-coordinated flowers and bridesmaid dresses and doing the premarital counseling, and everything. 

Then, there's this other thing that happens, I think of it as your first baby. When you're pregnant, you have the shower, and you have the photo shoot with your belly bump. Then, by the time you have your second or third kid, you might have a friend drop off a trash bag of old clothes on your front porch, that kind of thing. 

Brenda: You’ve done this.

Dr. Lisa: Right? It’s like, why? I think that there can, sometimes, be that difference in energy with somebody who’s getting remarried after having been to that rodeo once before. I'm wondering if you have seen any differences, or differences in importance, even, with couples who may be getting married for the second time and thinking, “Eh. Why should we even do premarital counseling,” or having different needs in a premarital counseling environment? What would you say to them if that were the circumstance?

Brenda: Their case? The couples who end up coming are usually the ones who just say, “We want to do it differently.” Because, one hypothesis, there might be more of why our divorce rate’s higher in second marriages and third marriages. There's one hypothesis that said you didn't learn what to do differently. You just jumped into another relationship without becoming, sometimes, more educated or self-aware. If you want to lower your rate of divorce, I'd say the need to have more self-awareness is really important, especially because it's usually more complicated. You, a lot of times, are dealing with an ex or exes and dealing with children involved. So there's more stress. The honeymoon period doesn't last, always as long or very long at all. 

The couples who come in to me are just saying, “We want to make sure that what we learned from this last relationship, we're going to do it differently, and how to navigate those relationships.” If you think of someone who's coming in and adopting, maybe, really hard ex with their partner, “Okay, how do we deal with this? How do we be on the same team because that can create a lot of conflict and division? How do we parent each other's kids?” 

The Prepare-Enrich test does do step-parenting expectations, what role might the ex play in the relationship that could be an issue. Then, we're, again, talking about that and bringing it to the light to manage thoughts, feelings, hopes, and expectations to hopefully have a better chance of fighting together and being on the same team.

Dr. Lisa: That's so important because that is so hard, just the circumstances and dynamics. We also do a fair amount of blended family therapy here. But again, it's that importance of premarital counseling, to be talking about these things proactively before it becomes a yucky-feeling issue, not just in your relationship, but potentially, having kids who've decided that they hate your new husband or whatever. Let's not do that because that's just so hard to unwind. 

Brenda: Talking through, I think, for a lot of times, that still comes up in certain areas—finances, sex, conflict—to say, “Hey, I'm really scared to trust you with money because my last spouse ran up our credit card bill to $30,000.” You're bringing in, sometimes, some of those fears to talk through it to say, “Okay, what do you need from my support? I know that there are moments you're not reacting to me. You might be reacting to an ex. And how can we not create some disconnection for us?” And to own that and to see that for what it is versus pretending it's not there.

Dr. Lisa: Absolutely. The awareness about your old trauma triggers from past relationships. We’ll encourage my listeners if you haven't already, and if you just had a moment of recognition from what Brenda said, did a podcast not too long ago about trust issues in relationships. You might want to check that one out because I think that what Brenda is saying is that's a really common experience. If you've had a traumatic relationship, there's no other way to say it. How do you go from having those reactions and projecting those things onto your new partner? I'm glad you brought that up. 

I know we don't have a ton of time here, and I'll let you go. But before we do, I wanted to ask you one last question, which is, unfortunately, and I wish it were different, I'm still trying to figure out how to help change this zeitgeist, but in the kinds of conversations and the work that we do and that we're talking about right now, Brenda, is around premarital couples to be proactive, talking about important things before they become a problem. 

Is there any thoughts that you have for somebody listening to this podcast, who's 10 years into a marriage, nobody is doing premarital anything, that boat has sailed, but to still be able to use some of these ideas or concepts in order to be able to strengthen and support their existing marriage? If you were to apply the power of premarital work during the marriage, do you have any thoughts?

Advice for Married Couples

Brenda: I think, to be honest, the application and the understanding of a lot of the concepts that I teach to premarital couples are relevant to any couple, regardless of how long they've been together. I frequently have one couple within a group that has been married for a while. They do want to do a checkup or be more intentional about the relationship. Those people do still come along fairly often.

I would say there's a thought that every long-term relationship is going to have two or three different kinds of relationships. Sometimes, you're at the end of one, and you can start another one. I think that these concepts have been what really makes relationships work with couples who've been together, who are both open to having a new relationship, and getting away from the past to say, “What do we need to do differently?” I think those couples, if they're both open to it, then it can be a great tool for them. I've seen that happen with couples where they've said basically, “Let's start over it. That worked for a while, but it's not working anymore.”

Dr. Lisa: I think this openness to learning “What do we now have to do to have a good relationship?” I can't even tell you how happy I am, right now, to hear that married, long-term couples come to your premarital class. That's the best thing I've ever heard. 

Brenda: Glad I made your day, Lisa. That’s awesome.

Dr. Lisa: Well, good. I left you this message. It's never too late for premarital counseling. Even if you're well into a marriage, that it's not too late to say, “You know, what? What could we be doing better or differently?” Come and even show up for couples counseling and say, “We don’t really want a premarital experience. We don't have many specific things, but we just want somebody to get a sense of what we're currently doing. What are our strengths? What are our growth opportunities?” And help coach them on how to be better partners for each other and just have that be the intention of relational growth work.

Brenda: I think, hopefully, again, it gives couples a lot of education. I do some attachment work in, even, the class to say, “Okay, if someone's anxiously attached and someone's avoidantly attached, what's that look like?” That doesn't matter if they've been together 2 years or 10 years. They still start to see patterns. I think it takes away some of the shame to say, “It wasn't us. This is how this relationship looks like. Now, we know how to do things differently. We don't have to keep doing that.” 

Dr. Lisa: I love it. But that's always the truth. The healthiest, happiest couples are the ones who are proactive and really putting effort into educating themselves about how to grow, how to increase their understanding about the attachment styles just throughout the process, as opposed to the ones who are like, “Nope, we're fine. It's not that bad.” Then, by the time they show up, it's so bad. 

Brenda: When I tell couples if you feel like things get boring, it's probably not the relationship. You're probably holding back parts of yourself that you're not sure if the relationship can handle. We're always changing. We're evolving organisms. As people, we’re always looking to learn ourselves, and create ourselves, and recreate ourselves. Are you bringing that to the relationship? If you're not, if you're trying to keep it really contained, it's going to feel flat. Most people don't want that. 

Esther Perel would say, “People don't want more sex, they want better sex.” People want better relationships, but that means you have to, sometimes, go to scary places within yourself to bring that into the relationship: what you feel, think, and who you are.

Dr. Lisa: I love it. What a wonderful note to end on, Brenda. Then, a takeaway for every couple: no matter what stage of relationship you're in, think about what you aren't currently talking about that maybe you should be. I love that. 

While you’re saying that, Brenda, made me think of a little tool that we have for free on the website of growingself.com is our How Healthy Is Your Relationship? quiz that anybody can just come and take. It's not a ton of questions, probably 20 questions, but a little assessment that can help you be like, “Oh, are we talking about this? Should we be talking about this?” This is a little roadmap but to be thinking about what the growth opportunities are in your relationship and being proactive about it, whether or not you're already married. I love it. 

This has been so good. Thank you so much, Brenda, for spending this time with me today and just for sharing your wisdom with my listeners. So good.

Brenda: Thank you. I do love these couples. I hope it helps marriages be long, and happy, and successful. This would be my hope. 

Dr. Lisa: Me, too. Thank you, again.

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