Deciding to get married is exciting, but marriage also brings challenges, such as learning to manage finances, sharing a household, and making major decisions together.
Even if your life partner has most things in common with you, you may find that there are differences between you two that need to be discussed. Pre-marriage counseling can help you to work out these differences and develop the tools for a stronger marriage.
Here, learn all about what is pre-marriage counseling, including its purposes and benefits.
What is pre marriage counseling
When it comes to understanding what is pre-marriage counseling, one must know that it is a form of therapy that couples complete before getting married to set themselves up for a more successful marriage.
In pre-marital counseling, couples identify issues that might create problems in their marriage down the road and then learn the skills to deal with these issues.
The idea behind pre-marriage counseling is that if couples are able to foresee potential problems that may come up down the road, they can plan ahead and be prepared to address such problems before they begin to negatively impact the marriage.
The reality is that each of us comes into a marriage with our own ideas about family, relationships, and communication. Even couples who are compatible with each other may have differences in their ideas about marriage and family, and if not discussed, these differences can drive a wedge between two people.
When differences are worked out prior to a marriage with the help of a professional marriage and family therapist, marriages are stronger and healthier.
Why pre marriage counseling is done
Once people understand what pre-marriage counseling is, they like to reap its benefits that can help them in the long term in their relationship. So, people engage in counseling before marriage because of the benefits of premarital counseling.
This type of counseling can solidify a relationship before marriage so that two people have the skills to stay together through the ups and downs of life and cope with any issues that they encounter through the course of their marriage.
Fortunately, research has supported the benefits of premarital counseling.
A 2017 study found that a premarital counseling intervention, which addressed problem-solving skills, communication, and sexual functioning, was effective for improving marital satisfaction.
Topics covered in premarital counseling
If you’re interested in learning strategies for healthy marriage from premarital counseling, you may be wondering about the topics that are covered in this form of therapy. Since the purpose of premarital counseling is to strengthen a couple’s relationship, it can include a variety of pre-marriage counseling topics that come up in a long-term relationship:
Expectations for the marriage, including roles each spouse will fulfill
Sexual needs and preferences
Whether or not (and when) to have children
How to handle extended family
Expectations regarding time spent together and time spent socializing
Premarital counseling programs can come in a variety of styles and formats, depending upon the couple’s preferences, as well as their family and religious background the requirements of the church or facility that is completing the marriage ceremony.
Some common styles are as follows:
Religious premarital counseling
When couples get married at a church, the pastor at the church is likely to provide premarital counseling sessions before agreeing to marry the couple.
A pastor may administer personality tests to the couple, discuss differences between them, and provide education on how the couple can have a marriage that aligns with their religious values.
One-on-one pre-marriage counseling
A couple may choose to engage in pre-marriage counseling by seeking out a licensed marriage and family therapist who has experience in providing couples counseling to people prior to marriage.
This type of counseling involves one-on-one sessions, in which couples work with the therapist to discuss issues like communication and expectations for the marriage.
Premarital counseling groups
Some counseling centers may offer group sessions for couples who are about to get married.
Premarital counseling groups are likely to offer multiple sessions. Each session provides training and education on one of the pre-marriage counseling topics, such as sex, family values, and conflict resolution.
Online Premarital Services
Premarital counseling online can occur via one-on-one video conferencing sessions with a therapist, or some couples may complete an online premarital course, in which they learn skills for a healthy marriage by working through sessions on their computer.
Pre Marriage Assessments
For those who prefer a “do it yourself” method, there are pre-marriage assessments, such as personality tests and compatibility tests, that can be purchased and/or completed online to help you and your partner to learn more about each other prior to getting married.
Strategies for making premarital counseling successful
Premarital counseling can be beneficial, but challenges can also arise during counseling, so it is important to prepare yourself for success. Consider the following strategies:
Accept that it may be difficult
Getting married is generally a happy experience, but you may encounter some difficult topics during pre-marriage counseling, such as differences of opinion or some areas of conflict between you and your partner.
If you go into counseling knowing that you are likely to encounter some difficult topics, you are less likely to be surprised when they come up during sessions.
Don’t expect the therapist or pastor providing premarital counseling to “fix” your partner
It takes two people to make a successful relationship, so premarital counseling doesn’t involve handing your partner over to a therapist and asking them to “fix” the person. Both members of the relationship will work on themselves during premarital counseling.
Be prepared to admit that you aren’t perfect
Just as premarital counseling won’t “fix” your partner, you cannot expect to enter counseling without acknowledging some of your own flaws and weaknesses.
Don’t hold anything back
Remember, no one is perfect. So, there is no need to put up a front and pretend there are no problems in your relationship. If there is a source of conflict between the two of you, now is the time to address it.
Commit to, “What happens in counseling, stays in counseling”
Premarital counseling programs should offer a safe space for you and your partner to work through weaknesses between the two of you and develop the skills for a strong marriage.
This means that, at times, you may discuss topics that are difficult to approach and potentially personal. Information shared during sessions should stay in those sessions and should not be shared with friends or family members.
You also should not use things said during premarital counseling against your partner during future arguments.
Benefits of premarital counseling
Premarital counseling may be challenging, but it certainly has its benefits. As mentioned previously, it improves marriage satisfaction. Consider the other benefits of pre-marriage counseling below:
Reducing unrealistic expectations within the marriage
Better relationships with extended family members
Spouses becoming more familiar with each other’s needs, preferences, and desires within the marriage
Reduced likelihood of surprises or unexpected conflict within the marriage
Spouses growing closer to each other
Another study showed that premarital counseling is so beneficial that couples who participate in it are more likely to return to counseling when they encounter problems throughout the course of the marriage.
It is reasonable to conclude that couples find premarital counseling to be helpful, and they are therefore likely to reach out to a counselor for help in the future.
Importance of premarital counseling
According to data from the United States Census Bureau, in 2019, there were 7.6 new divorces in the country for every 1,000 women. It is no secret that divorce has negative impacts on children and families, so it is critical to prevent a divorce, if possible.
This is why premarital counseling is so important. By helping couples to improve their communication and relationship skills, premarital counseling addresses potential issues between couples before they become so problematic that they lead to separation and divorce.
Who offers premarital counseling
Many churches, especially if they are going to be performing your marriage ceremony, offer premarital counseling. The pastor, priest, or religious official who is conducting the marriage ceremony may offer premarital counseling.
Counseling centers, whether they are public agencies, community mental health centers, or private counseling practices, also offer premarital counseling. Some marriage and family therapists, psychologists, or clinical social workers may operate their own practices and specialize in premarital counseling.
You can also find premarital counseling programs online. These may be in the form of self-help programs, training modules, online assessments, or one-on-one therapy conducted via the exchange of messages or video conferencing sessions.
How to prepare for couples counseling
If you’re making plans to attend premarital counseling, you need to prepare yourself.
Maybe your church has referred you to a specific program, or you are working one-on-one with your pastor for premarital sessions, but if not, it is important to prepare by selecting a premarital counselor that is a good fit for you.
It is beneficial to research various counselors and explore their backgrounds and credentials. You will likely benefit most from working with a marriage and family therapist or a psychologist, professional counselor, or social worker who has training or experience in couples counseling.
You might also consider finding a counselor who is able to address the needs of specific couples, such as those who already have children, couples who are in their second marriage, or couples who identify as LGBTQ.
In addition, it is important to explore the cost of counseling, whether or not your insurance provider will cover some costs, and how long you can expect premarital counseling to last.
For instance, some churches may only require a session or two with the pastor, whereas marriage and family therapists may work with couples for a longer period of time.
What to expect from premarital counseling
At the beginning of a premarital counseling program, you and your partner are likely to both complete questionnaires about your background and your likes/dislikes in the relationship.
This information will be used to allow your counselor to complete a thorough assessment of each of you and your relationship, so you can work together to create goals.
You might decide upon mutual goals or areas of weakness you’d both like to address and work toward improving those areas to strengthen the relationship and set the marriage off on the right foot.
You might also receive education and skills training in areas of communication, social skills, and marital expectations.
For instance, many people go into marriage with expectations regarding what their partner will do, but the marriage ends up going sour when their partner fails to meet these expectations.
Oftentimes, the expectations might be unrealistic, but in counseling, partners can learn how to set realistic expectations, as well as how to communicate their expectations to each other to avoid future conflict.
How long does premarital counseling last?
People often wonder, “How long is premarital counseling?”
The answer isn’t cut and dry. In some cases, the pastor at the church where a couple is marrying may require one or two sessions prior to marriage. In other situations, a marriage and family therapist may work with a couple on an ongoing basis, providing sessions over a longer duration.
The length of premarital counseling can depend upon factors unique to each relationship, such as how strong the relationship is and how much work the couple needs to do before marriage.
Some couples may come to counseling with a strong relationship and effective communication skills, whereas others may arrive at counseling with deeper problems, such as trust issues or longstanding resentments that need to be addressed, which can lead them to need more sessions.
Similar to wondering how long premarital counseling lasts, some people may wonder when to start premarital counseling. Again, the answer to this depends upon each couple’s unique needs and situation.
Couples with deeper problems may need to start premarital counseling sooner, whereas those who have a stronger relationship with few lingering problems may benefit from one or two sessions in the months leading up to the marriage.
Ethical and legal considerations in premarital counseling
Another factor to consider when undergoing premarital counseling is the legal and ethical implications that can arise. Here are some issues you may encounter:
Counselors are bound by confidentiality laws, meaning that they cannot share information with anyone else without your permission. That being said, things are not so black and white with premarital counseling.
For instance, your partner may have an individual session or conversation with the therapist and ask the therapist to keep something private from you. You will need to discuss with your counselor up front whether they are able to keep “secrets” or whether anything you share in confidence will also be shared with your partner.
Scope of practice
Perhaps one of you is working with a counselor individually, and you want your therapist to begin seeing you and your partner for premarital counseling. While this may seem ideal, it is important to ensure that your therapist is qualified to provide premarital counseling services.
Some therapists may not have training or knowledge in working with couples, even if they counsel individuals.
Challenges of premarital counseling
Despite its benefits, premarital counseling can come with challenges.
For instance, some people may have fear and anxiety surrounding premarital counseling. They may have to confront difficult topics, such as concerns they have regarding the relationship or differences of opinion between them and their partner.
For some couples, a premarital counseling session may be the first time they talk about issues with the relationship, or they may learn of a problem their partner perceives in the relationship for the first time. This can be difficult and may even lead some people to question the relationship.
Premarital counseling also comes with a cost in terms of financial costs and the time commitment involved. Those who cannot devote the time and money to ongoing counseling sessions might consider working through online self-help programs to reduce costs.
The costs of premarital counseling depend upon multiple factors, such as the fees your counselor charges, whether insurance covers any of your costs, and how many sessions you attend.
The style of premarital counseling you choose may alter the cost as well. For example, an online self-help program may require a one-time fee and be cheaper than ongoing sessions with a one-on-one premarital counselor.
Unfortunately, insurance may not cover the cost of premarital counseling, since insurance programs are designed to cover medical services that treat a specific health condition.
While insurances are likely to cover counseling services for a condition like depression, they may not view premarital counseling as a needed medical service. Your individual insurance provider can answer any questions you may have regarding whether or not your plan covers couples counseling and can offset the premarital counseling cost.
Questions that may come up in premarital counseling
Your counselor is likely to ask a variety of questions in order to determine strengths and weaknesses in the relationship, differences between you and your partner, and issues that need to be addressed throughout your time together.
Some premarital counseling questions that may arise during your sessions are as follows:
Do you intend to have children?
Do both of you desire children?
What are your monthly bills?
How will you divide bills? Will you have a shared bank account?
What debts and income do you both bring to the relationship?
Are you satisfied with the status of your sex life, or would you like to see things change?
How can you express to each other that you’d like more sex?
Do you have shared religious beliefs?
If your religious beliefs are different, do you plan to combine them or retain your separate beliefs?
What are your thoughts about each of you needing alone time? Time to socialize with friends?
What are your expectations surrounding meal preparation? Will you take turns? Will one of you handle meals?
How often will we see our parents and extended family members?
Who will we see on major holidays, and how will we divide our time between both of our families?
How often would you like to have date nights? Go on vacation?
Check out this video below by Andrea Cairella where she discusses 8 pre-marital questions that couples should discuss:
Premarital counseling allows couples an opportunity to explore their expectations surrounding the marriage and develop the skills for a strong, healthy marriage.
During pre marriage counseling, couples can identify differences between each other and address underlying issues before they become so problematic that they weaken the relationship or result in divorce.
There are a variety of premarital counseling styles available, but the goal of each is to help couples strengthen their bond so they can stay together for the long haul.
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Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.