Many people think premarital counseling is only for certain couples. That includes engaged couples who have relationship issues or who are required by their congregation to attend, said Meredith Hansen, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in premarital, newlywed and couples counseling.
However, any couple can benefit from premarital counseling. It can help couples who are about to get married, have been married for five years or fewer, are living together or will have a domestic partnership, said Victoria Brodersen, LMFTA, a psychotherapist who specializes in premarital counseling.
She suggested thinking of your relationship “as a piece of machinery” — “[E]ven those that run well require regular maintenance.”
The Benefits of Premarital Counseling
The goal of premarital counseling is to help couples navigate important questions about their lives together, said Hansen, who has a private practice in Newport Beach, Calif. Her premarital program consists of five sessions. Couples talk about the importance of marriage in their lives and what they’d like their marriage to look like.
Hansen often asks couples to describe in detail what they want their life to look like one year and five years after they’re married.
They also learn how to communicate and resolve conflict. They discuss hot button topics, such as money, sex, in-laws, parenting and religion, she said.
“By the end of the program, couples should have a more in-depth understanding of their partner and feel like they are starting their life and marriage on the same page.”
Premarital counseling helps couples better understand their own motivations for getting married, which might include building their own family, increasing their commitment to each other and creating a future together, Hansen said.
It also helps them recognize what they want from a partnership and identify their own needs, she said. For instance, a couple might realize that their needs are “to feel loved, valued, validated, heard, to have someone who is always there for them, to work together in life.”
Brodersen, who practices at Marriage and Family Therapy Services in Hickory, N.C., places a special emphasis on showing couples how unspoken expectations can get them into trouble. She helps them create an environment of understanding and safety. They define what sex means to them along with what they view as infidelity.
She also asks couples to consider their roles and division of labor in their household. She discusses getting enough sleep and rest. “One-third of their life will be spent in sleep so it is worth working on to help give the other two-thirds a firm foundation to start from.”
Reasons Couples Skip Counseling
Money is a big reason couples pass on premarital counseling (especially because of wedding costs). However, Hansen encourages couples to think of the long-term benefits. “The wedding is one day, but their marriage should be forever.”
Brodersen suggested couples call around, and ask about the costs before making any assumptions. She also suggested finding out if you can use your insurance benefits, or if therapists offer sliding fee scales or reduced rates.
The most affordable option, she said, is to get counseling from student therapists at a university clinic, which has a Marriage and Family Therapy program. “It also allows you to glean the knowledge of multiple therapists as those students are supervised by therapist professors that have years of experience and stay up-to-date on the most recent research.”
Another barrier is time. However, according to Hansen, “The key is to find a program or option that will work for you.” Today, she said, there are many options to choose from, including weekend retreats, programs with five 50-minute sessions and even home study programs that guide you through specific questions.
Probably the biggest obstacle is fear, Hansen said. This is twofold. Couples worry that going to counseling means there’s something wrong with their relationship. Hansen suggested reframing this perspective. “[R]emember that working on your relationship in the early phases will help keep it strong and healthy as you grow together.”
Hansen reminds couples about the benefits of focusing on what is and isn’t working in your relationship and learning helpful tools. Plus, going to counseling shows your commitment to your relationship, she said.
Couples also fear that talking about tough topics and exploring their relationship will create or trigger serious conflict. According to Hansen, “it is better to delve into these issues in counseling so that you have a professional who can help you make sense of any issues and learn how to work through them.”
The conversations or conflicts you avoid will only creep up later and might cause bigger problems, she said.
Hansen likens it to catching an illness in its early stages and getting it treated right away, while it’s still mild. If you ignore the illness, you’ll likely need more intensive or invasive treatment later on, she said.
Picking a Therapist
To find a good premarital counseling program, Hansen suggested asking your friends or the person marrying you for referrals. “Often officiants and clergy offer these services, but it can still be beneficial to receive these services with a psychologist or someone trained in marital dynamics.”
Brodersen suggested searching online for marriage and family therapists in your area who discuss premarital counseling on their websites. Hansen also noted that you want premarital counseling to be a regular part of the therapist’s practice. This helps “to ensure that they recognize and understand what you and your fiancé are going through and what you need to discuss to start your marriage off right.”
“If your religion is central to the relationship, call and ask if the therapist can incorporate that into the sessions,” Brodersen said. “Most are happy to do this, regardless of their own religious orientations.”
Pick a therapist that both of you feel comfortable working with, she said. Also, make sure they’re staying in the community.
“Establishing a relationship with this therapist should be like selecting your family physician,” Brodersen said. “You will initially see them for premarital therapy, but as issues come up you want to be able to get in again and pick up where you left off.”
Seeing the same therapist as your marriage and family grows and changes provides you with stability, she said. It also leads you to seek help at the first sign of trouble instead of waiting until things may get worse.
Premarital counseling offers many benefits. As Hansen said, “Every engaged couple wants to have a long, healthy, happy marriage and starting it out by having important conversations about the life you are going to build together, learning how to improve your communication skills, and working together to create your ideal marriage is a great thing.”