Premarital Counseling: Seeking Help Before Saying ‘I Do’
Growing Number of Couples Turn to Therapy for Marriage Success
Few couples walk down the aisle expecting to face each other in divorce court at some future date. For around 50 percent of newlyweds, however, that is exactly where they will end up.
Michael, 35, was madly in love with his fiancee, Sara, 33, but he had witnessed his parents’ marriage end in divorce and wanted to make sure his own went the distance. Premarital counseling appealed to Michael as the best way to deal with any issues that could become obstacles to a long and happy union.
Four years after their wedding, Michael and Sara — whose names have been changed to protect the couple’s privacy — are happy. They both credit premarital counseling with teaching them valuable lessons about making a marriage last.
Communication Is Key
All therapists approach premarital counseling in different ways and from different perspectives. Some take an in-depth look at the backgrounds and life experiences of each individual, while others adopt a more practical approach designed to provide couples with information on issues such as sex and finances in the context of a positive relationship.
Whichever techniques a therapist uses, at the heart of the process is one key element: communication.
“Within the confines of such an intimate relationship, it is virtually impossible to be the ideal talker and listener,” said Dr. Rob Dobrenski, a New York psychologist and author of “Crazy: Notes On and Off the Couch.” “For couples who are not experiencing extreme hardships such as domestic abuse, financial issues, substance abuse or extreme child-rearing problems, communication style is usually the focus of the therapeutic work.”
By talking about such issues before they spiral out of control, Dobrenski said, couples are more likely to maintain the intimacy that is so important in a marriage.
Keeping an Open Mind
The success of premarital counseling depends on more than the complexity of the problems couples face. Their willingness to remain open to the possibility of change and compromise, and to do the work required to sort out their issues is another crucial ingredient.
In Michael’s case, premarital counseling forced him to re-examine the expectations he had of his future spouse. “It really reset my thinking, and this has allowed me to enjoy Sara for who she is instead of who I — selfishly or arrogantly — would have her to be.”
A Question of Faith
Premarital counseling is common within many religions, including Christianity, where a pastor, minister or priest might insist on a certain number of counseling sessions with a couple before he or she agrees to conduct the marriage ceremony. These meetings focus on the religious aspects of marriage, but the same problems exist regardless of whether the couple has a strong faith.
Any underlying issues of trust, intimacy and respect can be addressed in therapy. Again, listening to each other is a fundamental step forward.
“If couples have very different ideas or expectations, the marriage is in trouble before it begins,” said the Rev. Ryan Dalgliesh, pastor at Higher Rock Ministries in San Angelo, Texas. “Most people I work with have no idea what a marriage is supposed to look like.”
In It for the Long Haul
Some couples require several months of therapy, while others resolve issues in only a few sessions.
“Sometimes a couple is just not seeing the forest for the trees,” said Dr. Lee Bowers, a psychologist based in the Philadelphia area. “My offering a fresh perspective is all they really need to be able to move forward.”
Couples who benefit from a short course of therapy often return to it periodically during their marriage, knowing that it worked previously, Bowers said. Far from being a “quick fix,” a few sessions of counseling can remind couples of the tools they need to work through tough situations in their relationship.
For Better, For Worse
Most psychologists agree that more couples should undergo counseling before they take their wedding vows rather than find reasons to avoid it.
Undeniably, therapy is expensive. According to the National Directory of Family & Marriage Counseling, the average cost of one counseling session is around $100. In the long run, however, it is a small investment to make in a relationship that you hope will last for several decades.
Having faith in premarital counseling may involve re-examining preconceptions of therapy to see it as a preventive measure rather than the last resort before consulting a divorce attorney.
“Remember that your marriage is the most important adult relationship you will have,” Dobrenski said. “It needs time and effort. If the issue is money, consider the following costs: divorce lawyer, divorce filing fees, alimony/palimony, child support, dual mortgages/rents, multiple cars, divorce therapy and possibly even anti-depressants.
“Premarital therapy doesn’t sound so expensive now, does it?”
Is Premarital Counseling for You?
How to Decide for Your Relationship ?
- Is your partner acting out of character?
- Are you and your partner arguing more than you used to?
- Is there an obvious problem to be addressed — for example, sex or money?
Sex and finances are among the top reasons for divorce, says the Rev. Ryan Dalgliesh.
According to the American Counseling Association, therapists are treating a growing number of clients with sexual addiction; the Internet makes “virtual infidelity” a constant temptation. Such issues should be addressed before marriage to give the couple the tools they need to rebuild trust and move forward.
Dr. Taffy Wagner, owner of Money Talk Matters LLC, provides premarital financial counseling to help couples work through financial difficulties.
“If your partner is reluctant to talk about finances, or if you find out they are secretly spending money, they may be trying to cover up a much deeper problem,” Wagner said.
A counselor can help couples deal with sensitive financial situations such as deciding who will be responsible for the household finances.
Effectively, couples need to create a financial “blueprint” that sets out their expectations and responsibilities, which can be tweaked when circumstances change — if one partner returns to school, for example, or a child is born.