Premarital counseling, a specialized type of therapy usually provided by marriage and family therapists, is believed to offer benefit to all couples who are considering a long-term commitment such as marriage. Typically, the goal of premarital counseling is to identify and address any potential areas of conflict in a relationship early on, before those issues become serious concerns, and teach partners effective strategies for discussing and resolving conflict.
Partners seeking counseling before marriage may also find that premarital counseling can help them better understand their expectations about marriage and address any significant differences in a safe and neutral environment.
Benefits of Premarital Counseling
Couples counseling can help intimate partners address concerns that arise in the course of their relationship, but premarital counseling can help partners identify areas likely to cause conflict later on—finances, child-rearing methods, career goals, and family dynamics, among others—and either work through these issues in the early stages of the relationship, if possible, or develop a plan to address them in the years to come. A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, which was conducted via radom telephone survey, showed couples who had participated in some type of premarital counseling program were 31% less likely to divorce.
According to Drs. John and Julie Gottman, well-known couples therapists who co-founded the Gottman Institute, couples workshops and other premarital counseling can help partners form and develop a healthy relationship from the beginning. Research from the Institute shows that couples experiencing difficulty wait an average of six years before seeking professional help. Premarital counseling is generally recommended for all couples, even those with a relationship untroubled by significant issues. Beginning a commitment such as marriage with couples counseling is not only helpful because it can help each partner address their thoughts, concerns, and expectations for the partnership, but also because it can help couples feel more at ease with therapy if they experience difficulty later on.
In premarital counseling sessions, couples have the chance to explore topics like finances, children, and intimacy—three areas where many couples experience challenges. Partners can also develop communication and conflict resolution skills and address any fears they might have about marriage, whether these concerns result from one’s personal relationship history, family background, or otherwise.
Who Offers Premarital Counseling?
Seeing a couples counselor can help partners prepare for marriage or other long-term commitment, and many licensed marriage and family therapists provide premarital counseling as a part of their practice. Intimate partners seeking premarital counseling may choose to seek counseling with a therapist, attend a workshop or group therapy session, or participate in a community program. Self-help books, DVDs, and other resource materials are also available to those who do not wish to attend therapy sessions and/or who do not have access to premarital counseling.
Some religions require or strongly encourage engaged couples to participate in premarital counseling before marrying. This type of premarital counseling is generally faith-based, and religious leaders may act as counselors, whether or not they are trained as therapists.
Challenges of Premarital Counseling
Premarital counseling may pose challenges for some individuals, and couples may initially avoid or dread counseling out of fear or anxiety over what issues may be revealed. Difficult topics or areas of significant concern may be raised in counseling sessions. Some couples may be discussing their individual values and beliefs or ideal partnership roles for the first time. While bringing differences of opinion up for discussion may help some address and successfully resolve them in therapy, others may decide certain issues are irreconcilable and choose not to marry.
Therapy offers participants a safe space to discuss concerns, but hearing a partner raise issues or express thoughts about the relationship and the role of both partners in that relationship may lead to hurt feelings or generate conflict. Being truthful about relationship doubts, expectations, or goals for the future may lead to short-term conflict between partners, but many partners are able to work through this, with the help of a therapist, and begin their partnership with a strong foundation.
Not every couple may be able to access premarital counseling. Some LMFTs may accept insurance; others may not. Some community centers or hospitals may offer low-cost counseling services. Doctors or other health care professionals may also be able to provide information about low-cost counseling resources. Premarital counseling also requires a time commitment, and busy couples may find it difficult to make the time for counseling. Some therapists may offer flexible scheduling.
When both time and money are constraints, many self-help books, DVDs, and audio materials can also serve as a form of premarital counseling. Many of these resources are authored by mental health professionals, though they are not intended to replace professional counseling.
What to Expect in a Premarital Counseling Session
Premarital counseling may differ by therapist. Some therapists may choose to see each partner individually for a session or two, while others may work with the couple as a unit throughout the length of therapy. These individual sessions offer the therapist the chance to work with each partner to identify and address any concerns, strengths, and weaknesses in the relationship. Doing so individually in the beginning may help each partner be able to speak more realistically and openly about their goals for their partnership.
Each partner will also have the chance to describe their ideal marriage and any steps they have taken toward that goal or any challenges they see barring its achievement. In joint sessions, partners can discuss these issues together and, with the help of the therapist, explore ways to cope with these and any other challenges that may develop over the course of the marriage.
Some counselors help couples develop what is known as a Couples Resource Map. This helps each partner identify resources to turn to when faced with challenges, both as individuals and as a couple. In therapy, couples may also discuss warning signs of concerns and develop a plan of action to utilize if these concerns arise. This plan may include steps such as turning to individual resources, seeking counseling, or seeking spiritual guidance.
The act of participating in premarital counseling can be a positive beginning to a partnership such as marriage because of the commitment each partner has to counseling and improving and strengthening a relationship.
- Ceren, S. L. (2008). Essentials of premarital counseling: Creating compatible couples. Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.
- Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (n.d.). Premarital preparation. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/couples/workshops/art-science-of-love/premarital-preparation
- Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (n.d.). The Gottman Method for healthy relationships. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/about/the-gottman-method
- Jayson, S. (2006, June 22). Premarital education could cut divorce rate, survey finds. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2006-06-21-premarital-education_x.htm
- Naylor, S. (2014, February 22). Everything you need to know about premarital counseling. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/22/pre-marital-counseling_n_4784568.html
- Premarital counseling. (2014, November 25). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/premarital-counseling/basics/what-you-can-expect/prc-20013242