Illustration of couple with bright future wondering, “what is premarital counseling?”

Premarital Counseling Questions:

What Is Premarital Counseling?

When you think about “counseling” there’s a good chance that you frame it in your mind as a reactive measure. You believe that those who engage in counseling do so because they hope it could help solve an already existing problem or address a series of concerns that have either been bubbling up or creating outright havoc for a while.  

It’s always a good thing when people who feel like they need help at a certain point actually go out and get it. However, counseling comes in many forms, and there’s one particular counseling category that is fundamentally positive and proactive: Premarital Counseling.  

Want to help prevent marriage struggles, major conflicts and disruptions before they begin? Looking to strengthen a relationship and build skills that will help you and your partner enjoy a happier, more frictionless marriage? 

That’s what a high-quality premarital program with a licensed marriage and family therapist can do for you. 

But not everyone understands what premarital counseling is. (Hint: having a couple of awkward conversations with your priest or rabbi is not actually premarital counseling, although it’s often presented as such). Good premarital counseling is an incredibly meaningful and valuable growth experience. It’s basically the very best kind of relationship therapy — for couples to learn and grow together so that they avoid problems down the road and have a great marriage. Premarital counseling for the benefit of your marriage is like what eating vegetables and exercising every day is for your health. It’s what healthy, happy couples do to make sure they stay healthy and happy.

I thought I’d answer your premarital questions, explain why premarital counseling is important, what couples can expect in premarital counseling, when premarital counseling should start and its different formats — including premarital counseling online — and expand a bit on the purpose of pre marital counselling.

Why Is Premarital Counseling Important?

Pre-marriage counseling is a growth experience. When your engagement period is progressing toward a wedding, there’s plenty of excitement to go around for you and your partner, and generally positive feelings as you’re both looking forward to starting a life together. You might not think there’s anything to work on…. Unless you pay close attention. 

But it’s also true that the wedding planning process will actually present interesting new awarenesses and potential growth opportunities. For example, a couple who hasn’t intentionally worked out how they’re going to manage their finances together might start experiencing friction around the wedding expenses. (Am I talking about fights over chicken cutlets vs. individual servings of organic quail? Yes. Yes, I am). 

Wedding planning can also lead to beautiful (and uncomfortable!) conversations about how one partner is going to enforce boundaries around their overbearing mother, who’s going to intervene when Danny gets drunk and starts saying inappropriate things, and who, specifically, is going to be responsible for managing the avalanche of details related to vendors, venues, and more. (Often a nice preview for subconscious expectations about household roles and family boundaries going forward.)

If you want to set your marriage up for success, you want to start talking about these things before the wedding. Before the actual wedding is the time to start working these things out. I literally once had a client who’s mother in law, while in her home babysitting her children, took it upon herself to rearrange her living room furniture. Her husband was of the opinion that this wasn’t a big deal, “You know how she is…” We did not ever have an explicit conversation about their wedding planning experience, but I will bet you a cookie that this was not a new dynamic. Conversations in premarital counseling about whether or not it was okay for his mom to be planning their catering menu for them would have been extremely helpful. 

So yes, planning a wedding is a busy time but it is also the perfect time to book sessions of premarital counseling — you’ll have a lot of highly relevant things to talk about.

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What Is the Purpose of Premarital Counseling?

Here’s some radically honest advice from an experienced marriage counselor: Relationship problems are much, much easier to prevent than they are to fix. If couples let unsettled conflict go on for too long, or do not address underlying tensions as they continue to fester, it can become extremely difficult to put a relationship back together again, the way it was before, back in the good old days. Ignoring problems until they grow out of control is how the path to divorce is paved.

High-quality premarital counseling helps you and your partner ask each other essential premarital questions, and understand the strengths and growth opportunities that exist within your relationship. In turn, this makes it more possible for you to develop skills and strategies that will keep your new marriage healthy and strong for years to come. 

Premarital counseling matters. Research shows premarital counseling helps marriages just work better, and there’s also proof that couples who do not attend premarital counseling are at a bigger risk of experiencing difficulties and divorce.

By getting on the same page with your partner in the very beginning of your lifelong partnership — or, technically, a little bit before it officially starts — you’ll be working to avoid an unhappy marriage in the future. This work is important: Premarital counseling can literally make or break a marriage.

Couples tend to go to marriage counseling when things have gone sour and have been for a long time. But at that point, it can be challenging to try and find those pockets of trust and goodwill, when they’ve been smashed to smithereens. 

Any relationship issue is much easier to effectively address and resolve while trust and goodwill remain intact, the passion is alive, and there is general positive regard for one another — in other words, when you still like each other. 

The primary goal of premarital counseling is to strengthen the relationship so that you are in a sense buffered against conflict, stress and tension, all of which is bound to turn up at some point because, as everyone knows, there’s no such thing as a perfect, relentlessly happy marriage.

Furthermore, relationships that are not tended to can experience entropy. Unless energy is injected into them, they will stagnate and become stale. The very act of engaging in premarital counseling means couples are injecting energy into their relationships from the outset, helping ensure their marriages last a lifetime.

What Does Premarital Counseling Consist Of?

Myths About Premarital Counseling

Once, I was at a wedding-expo type event (one of those deals where engaged couples get to walk around and sample cake and look at different styles of flower arrangements). I’d been invited by the event to provide a brief, “Premarital Counseling 101” presentation with some takeaways for premarital couples

After I did my presentation, some couples came up to ask questions. One in particular stood out to me: The couple who wanted to know how much premarital counseling cost, and then took a flyer…. Then it got weird. The husband-to-be laughed nervously at the idea and said, “I don’t know, sounds like it might open a big can of worms!” His future bride agreed enthusiastically and added with a laugh of her own: “Yes, we better not! What if it makes us decide not to get married after all?!” 

They then wandered off, arm in arm, to go try some cake. After our exchange, I thought two things to myself. 

First I thought: “Holy Avoidance!” 

My second thought was: “Whatever it is you’re both not wanting to talk about right now must be pretty important, and I really hope that you get help with it before it destroys your relationship.”

To some, thought number two might sound a bit dramatic. But to the experienced, licensed marriage counselor who’s seen her share of unfortunately bitter couples, I know how trouble that you can’t recover from fifteen years down the road starts. (If things were so great between them, why would there be any question to the viability of their marriage, and why would something like premarital counseling be a threat, right?)

Premarital counseling doesn’t take long, but it can nip so much in the bud before getting to a devastatingly difficult stage, and it looks nothing like what that soon-to-be-betrothed couple may have envisioned. It felt like they were worried that premarital counseling was going to be a torturous experience where couples discuss “the bad things” happening in their relationship, or where they try to figure out the ways in which they might be foundationally incompatible. 

It is not. There you go. (And thank you for allowing me to clear up any misperceptions about premarital counseling that you may have, because frankly, those assumptions are kind of dangerous.)

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What Good Premarital Counseling Actually Consists Of

Evidence-based premarital counseling is a positive experience that begins with an assessment with a licensed premarital counselor. What is talked about in premarital counseling are the strengths of a couple’s relationship, their growth opportunities, and their expectations for the relationship. Hey, let’s face it: Nobody gets a “healthy relationship class.” We just show up, wing it, and hope for the best (with mixed results). I too had a lot of things to learn about relationships when I got married, well before I ever went to marriage counseling school. Consequently, my husband and I spent a good chunk of the late 90’s trying to knock the corners off each other before we wound up in marriage counseling and figured some things out.

I know now that it doesn’t need to be that hard. We could have been much more proactive. That’s truly the beauty of good premarital counseling: It helps you identify the issues that you’re eventually going to be reckoning with as a couple — but proactively and effectively, before they become a problem. Some couples know that they have problems with communication or other areas, but for many couples, the assessment is a time for honest, safe exploration of potential trouble spots in a positive and constructive way.

Typically, premarital counseling (at Growing Self, anyway) starts with a survey that will provide a report on elements of the relationship that they think they may want to work on. Then, there’s an informational interview with a premarital counselor to help him or her understand how the pair operate together, how they communicate, and what strengths already exist in the relationship. 

From there, premarital counseling dives into some of the important, baseline skills in building a marriage to last a lifetime, like how to communicate, stay emotionally connected, and speak in love languages. There’s also guidance for couples in creating agreements about what each should do around the house, who should take on each of the more general responsibilities (like grocery shopping, for example), how to manage finances as a couple, and set goals for the future. And, yes, how to keep your sex life fun and fulfilling comes up, too. 

There’s also an examination of unique pain points and structures in the relationship, which can be especially important for couples in cross-cultural relationships.

In the end, the couple emerges with a toolbox of skills, helping them navigate situations that could be a source of strain but fail to get to that point, as long as the willing couple engages with what they learned in premarital counseling and rely on the structures put in place during the sessions.

Who Should Go to Premarital Counseling?

Any couple — no matter their orientation, lifestyle or makeup, including and especially blended-family couples, which come with an assortment of unique circumstances — can benefit from the process, which is proven to prevent conflict and promote happiness. 

All this is why we at Growing Self tend to view the process more as “Premarital Coaching” than counseling.

How Do Couples Prepare For Premarital Counseling?

The best thing a couple can do to prepare for premarital counseling is to select a high-quality, professional premarital counselor or premarital program. Many couples enroll in perfunctory “premarital counseling sessions” with a religious official; however, such arrangements do not tend to provide the depth of understanding, nor the growth experience needed to truly set your relationship up for success. Selecting a comprehensive non-religious premarital counseling option, ideally facilitated by a licensed marriage and family therapist, will help couples get the most out of the experience.

Before your first meeting with their counselor, I would suggest that you and your partner think about how you view the strengths of your relationship, and what growth opportunities you believe that the two of you could benefit from working on together. That’s about it! The counselor will offer you great guidance once you get started.

How Much Does Premarital Counseling Cost?

While you can’t use insurance for premarital counseling (sorry) it’s affordable anyway. The cost of premarital counseling can vary depending on who you see, how many sessions you require, and the format you choose. 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 are also online premarital counseling options, which are terrific for long-distance couples, couples who travel often for professional reasons, or who live in rural areas. 

All these options, as well as some others, are affordable and effective. If you like this idea, heck, you can even try pre-engagement counseling and, believe it or not, you can gift premarital counseling to your partner or a couple you care about, too.

I sincerely hope that you take advantage of this learning opportunity, and that it helps you create the healthy relationship, happy family, and the lifetime of love you both deserve!

I hope this advice was helpful to you.

Your partner in growth,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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