Is Premarital Counseling or Education for You?

The short answer is a resounding yes. Getting married without pre-marriage prep is like starting a business or any important venture without preparing. Half of all marriages end in divorce and only half of those that endure are truly happy in the long run. Many happy engaged couples assume that they won't be contributing to these statistics. But, if you just wing it and count on your luck to make your marriage a success, your odds are only one in four. There is another way.

Most couples just don't realize that good, skill-based pre-marriage counseling or classes can reduce the risk of divorce by up to thirty percent and lead to a significantly happier marriage, according to marriage research. It can also reduce the stress of the pre-wedding period. Just a little effort now can make your odds a whole lot better over the long run. You want to do everything you can to ensure that your dreams of a great marriage and a great life are realized.

Pre-marriage preparation is based on the reality that it's important to strengthen your relationship and prepare constructively for future challenges and conflicts that everyone will inevitably face at some point in their marriage, now while you have so much fresh positive energy in your relationship. Don't stick your head in the sand. The research shows that there is a window of opportunity during the year before the wedding and the six months or so after when couples get the optimum benefit from marriage preparation. Later, under stress, negative habits and relationship patterns may become established and be much harder to resolve.

Couples now face more demands and have fewer supports than ever before. The typical complex marriage - managing two careers while rearing children - really requires that couples have very strong, well-established abilities to communicate, resolve issues, maintain mutuality and set goals. Without this foundation, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by stress and time pressures. Problems can intrude much more easily than most couples realize. As much as it's important to come to terms with unrealistically positive expectations, those who grew up with divorced or unhappily married parents may find that they have unacknowledged and unexplored expectations that their marriage, too, may become unhappy. Marriage preparation functions as an immunization that boosts your capacity to handle potential difficulties. Couples need every advantage to succeed in today's marriages.

What Is Pre-Marriage Preparation and Counseling?

Most commonly, those couples who do receive some premarital counseling get it from their religious adviser. This can range from one or two meetings to an extended series of sessions. Sometimes an assessment inventory and skills training are included, often they are not. Non-religious professional counselors also provide premarital counseling services. Again, the content and amount of service depends on the orientation of the counselor and what you ask for. Often it doesn't cover all the preparation that couples need.

Marriage preparation classes or workshops are an alternative or supplementary approach to educating engaged couples and newlyweds in the skills, habits, attitudes, and enrichment techniques that research shows lead to happy, enduring marriages. Such marriage preparation programs, are education, not therapy. Like premarital counseling, some of these classes have religious sponsors while others are secular. You might consider them in many ways analogous to career counseling. They address the normal issues and challenges that all couples face in the course of their marriage. Some people think that marriage preparation is well on the way to becoming as commonplace as driver's training or test preparation.

Not all marriage preparation is the same. While the benefits of premarital education are beginning to become more widely known, most couples don’t yet understand the need to attend a program that focuses on specific factors that research has shown will boost a couple’s ability to succeed in today's demanding marriages. Research shows that couples who have skill-based marriage preparation are much happier and more successful in the long run.
Don't make the mistake of thinking of counseling and marriage prep as alternatives to each other. They can be very complimentary in getting a new marriage on the right track. Counseling, while helpful in its own way, usually doesn't provide the same kind of intensive skill-building and education. (Just as marriage prep doesn't provide the more extensive exploration of individual problems and underlying issues that longer-term counseling can.) The skill-building and education are the key factors in long-term divorce prevention and marriage success. Today's marriages need all the help they can get.

Susan Piver's, The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say I Do is on the bestseller list. A marriage prep program can give couples the benefit of a supportive environment and framework in which to ask these questions and some skills to deal with the answers.

Whatever marriage prep couples choose - religion-based or religion-neutral, counseling or class - should include activities to give them real skills, real expectations and real knowledge of self and partner to face the inevitable challenges of a committed relationship.

What to Look For in Pre-Marriage Programs and Counselors

Here's a concise list of seven relationship skill and knowledge areas that research has shown to contribute to the success and endurance of marriage:

  • Compatibility
  • Expectations
  • Personalities and families-of-origin
  • Communication
  • Conflict resolution
  • Intimacy and sexuality
  • Long-term goals

Make sure that the pre-marriage counseling or prep you choose covers all of these. Here are some questions to help you select the pre-marriage prep that's right for you:

  • Does it include an assessment inventory to help you understand your areas of compatibility and strength, as well as areas you may need to address?
  • How many couples will attend the class or workshop? A small group setting is higher quality, more engaging and individualized than large classes. On the other hand, it can also be more comprehensive, systematic and skill-based than most pastoral or couples counseling. A group experience can also be more involving and stimulating than individual counseling.
  • Does the program focus specifically on the needs of engaged couples and newlyweds? Some marriage skills programs mix troubled couples from later stages of marriage in the same class. This can detract from the experience for engaged couples and newlyweds.
  • Is the class or counseling approach flexible enough to allow for your relationship and learning style or is it a one-size-fits-all program? It's best to practice specific communication, conflict resolution and goal-setting skills and strategies, and then select those skills and strategies that are most congruent with your relationship style and best meet your needs.
  • Is the content based on marriage research?
  • Will the counseling or class help you and your partner agree on goals and strategies for managing and continuing to work on your most important unresolved issues?

The answers to these questions will help you approach selecting your premarital classes and counseling as an educated consumer.

If a couple's premarital counseling with a religious advisor or lay professional does not address some important areas, the couple should think about supplementing with a program that does. Many couples use marriage prep and counseling in combination, covering the foundation issues and skills in a class or workshop, then focusing on religious or other special issues in their counseling.

How to Find Pre-Marriage Programs and Counselors

Many religious organizations, colleges, and other community organizations now recommend or offer skill-based marriage preparation classes. If you can't find a good program through these sources:

  • Smart Marriages - one of the best places to find marriage prep programs. This organization provides a wealth of relationship information to couples and a directory that includes providers of marriage prep services.
  • Marriage Success Training - religion-neutral, skill-based premarital education seminars for the general public.
  • American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy - professionals who can provide pre-marital counseling.