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Premarital Counseling: Conversations for Commitment
What to Know Before Marriage
Imagine you and your partner want to go on a big trip together, you know you want to do this together, but what else do you plan for? Are you going somewhere sunny and beachy? Or somewhere where you can go skiing? What does your budget look like for this trip? Do you want to go big on where you’re staying or on food and experiences? Does one of you organize the activities or do you decide on them together?
These questions might come naturally to some, and maybe to others they’d rather point to a place on the map, throw caution to the wind, and have an adventure. They all have something in common though; they highlight beliefs and expectations we each bring into big decisions about our future and what we would like it to look like. What’s even crazier, we might not even be aware of certain expectations until you catch yourself feeling disappointed or frustrated over something that didn’t cross your mind to talk about ahead of time.
For example, you get to your warm and sunny beach vacation and your partner DID NOT pack the sunscreen. You might think, “Why wouldn’t they think to do that, we’re going to the beach!” A question to ask yourself in this situation might be, why did you expect them to pack the sunscreen?
We each have lenses through which we view the world that have been shaped by our own subjective experiences, messages we get from families, teachers, and society that lead us to having certain beliefs and expectations. Sometimes we can forget that and get caught thinking, “well I would’ve definitely remembered putting the sunscreen in the suitcase first because we’re going to the beach,” but our partner might not have that thought due to their unique beliefs and expectations.
Premarital Counseling: The Road Map to a Successful Marriage
Expectations, both conscious and unconscious ones, can be really important to discuss ahead of making big life decisions, like deciding to get married. This is where premarital counseling can be so helpful. Talking about these expectations ahead of time, before you find yourself wondering why the heck your partner didn’t pack the sunscreen, can be helpful in understanding more of what to expect from each other in marriage.
What is helpful to me when working with premarital couples is having a sort of roadmap ahead of starting our work together, another way I’ve described this to couples is “let’s do a relationship check-up”. Maybe you’re a really strong couple, or maybe there are areas you are both struggling, a check-up can be helpful in both scenarios.
In order to stay healthy, we don’t just go to the doctor when something is really hurting or broken, we go in annually to make sure everything is working the way it should. This is how I like to view premarital counseling as well as counseling or therapy in general.
Topics of Discussion in Premarital Counseling
So, what does this “check-up” look like? We can assess common areas that couples may have mismatched expectations, such as managing family relationships, finances, sex, deciding whether or not you want to have children, etc. These are great topics to go into to give each partner time to describe their beliefs, expectations, and meanings of these topics in their future together.
A few examples of questions that might come up are shown below.
- When we get married will we merge our finances? What will that look like – will we share access to all accounts or just some?
- What are beliefs about money that impact the way you spend, save, or invest? Where did those beliefs come from?
- What are our shared financial goals? How can we come up with a plan to reach those goals? What does that timeline look like?
Extended Family Examples
- How involved do we want each side of our families to have in our decisions as a couple? How involved would we want them in the lives of our children if/when we have them?
- What boundaries already exist between your partner and their family, are they healthy?
- What is the meaning of family to each of you? Is it different? How might that impact your expectations around spending time with or making decisions about family in the future?
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Exploring Relationship Strengths and Weaknesses in Premarital Counseling
In addition to exploring expectations and beliefs around topics such as these, part of our “check-up” is assessing areas of strength and weakness in your relationship.
Maybe you both have an incredible friendship and agree on a lot of things, but a disagreement ends in yelling, defensiveness, and anger. Or maybe you find it hard to talk openly about certain topics and might need more tools to feel confident in having that conversation and feeling heard by your partner.
These seemingly “small” things might feel like things you’ll both just figure out in time or things that don’t matter as much because you both really love each other, but why not have a place to explore them with someone who could give you tools, help you both gain clarity, or even just share a different perspective?
Things we might “check-up” on in your relationship include:
- What does your friendship look like? How well do you know and attempt to learn about your partner’s world?
- What does trust and commitment look like in your relationship?
- How are you both supporting each other's goals and dreams?
- How is your communication with your partner? Do you feel heard and validated? Are there often misunderstandings?
- Do you see your partner in a generally positive way? Or do you catch yourself seeing your partner more negatively, maybe in the form of past mistakes?
- What does conflict look like in your relationship? What does resolution look like?
- Are there past hurts from previous relationships that keep coming up in your relationship and causing stress or conflict?
As you’re reading this you might be thinking, “My partner and I have such a strong relationship and we’ve talked about so much ahead of this decision, I don’t think we need to consider something like this.” Maybe you’re right and your relationship is super solid, AND I bet there are still things you might uncover in this work that you didn’t even know to ask or didn’t know about your partner.
Preparing to Go the Distance
I think of premarital counseling more like training ahead of a race. Maybe I feel confident that I’ve taken the necessary steps in preparing, but I haven’t run this race before so I might get some training tips from someone who coaches or who has expertise in how to get me ready for something like this. Regardless of the state of your relationship, premarital counseling or this relationship check-up, can help celebrate and bolster the strengths you already possess, give assistance and tools in areas of weakness, and give space to conversations that might have layers of beliefs, expectations, and meanings associated with them.
What to Expect in Premarital Counseling
A couple of questions might still be coming up for you as you read this. I think a common question I hear when a couple starts premarital counseling is, “so how long do you think this will take?” and I love this question. I think it really depends on the couple.
Generally, going through this work together can take time, so I like to understand what expectations my clients are coming into premarital counseling with. Are there time or budget restrictions that I should be aware of that might impact how long we are able to work together?
I like to start with an assessment of the relationship that covers a lot of the topics and areas mentioned above, to have an idea of what we’re needing to make space for in session. Then I bring this to the couple and highlight areas of strength and areas and topics that might need further discussion. If there are restrictions on our time together, maybe we prioritize the most important topics or areas for you, and I get you connected to supplementary resources that could help outside of session for the topics we don’t get to. It’s possible to spend a few sessions on a topic, or discuss it in one, it all depends on what you both need out of it and if there is clarity at the conclusion of that topic.
Another question that typically comes up after this is, “well what if we work together and find that we have some deeper issues going on somewhere in the relationship?” There is no shame in this. You’re actually in the perfect place to process deeper issues if they do come up.
If we assess areas of strengths and areas for growth, and during our work, come across something that needs more time and processing, we can work together to reexamine our goals to accommodate what is most pressing at that time.
Premarital counseling is beneficial to any couple wanting to get a relationship check-up ahead of a big decision such as marriage. It doesn’t have to be reserved for religion or couples that are struggling, it can be a helpful space for assessing strengths and weaknesses and identifying topics and expectations that could use more discussion.
Wishing you all the best,
Kara Castells M.S., MFTC is a couples counselor, life coach, and individual therapist who creates an accepting and supportive environment for you to find clarity in your personal life and relationships. She is skillful at applying systemic and evidence-based approaches to create lasting change. Kara can help you and your partner prepare for a happy life together through premarital counseling and couples therapy.
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