Mar 30, 2016

thoughts on pre-marital counseling


One of the top recommendations I have whenever I chat with newly engaged friends is to look into pre-marital counseling with a pastor they know and trust. Although this can seem a bit scary, awkward, or uncomfortable  (and others may have negative, snarky remarks like "Oh? You're already needing counseling?"),  I wholeheartedly believe in the benefits of pre-marital counseling. As a bit of a disclaimer, this post focuses on Christian pre-marital counseling since that is my own experience as well as the experience of many gals who shared their opinions about pre-marital counseling in this post. When I say pre-marital counseling, I am referring to an engaged couple meeting in-person with an older individual (most commonly done with a pastor,  deacon, or counselor from the church the couple attend) with wisdom on marriage. Sometimes it is led by a married couple rather than just one person. The sessions are typically well-defined and focus on common topics in marriage, including encouragement, Biblically-sound advice, and experiences from the person leading the counseling, as well plenty of opportunities for the couple to discuss and work through things together. Some churches require pre-marital counseling before a couple can be married in their church, while other churches recommend (but do not strictly require). Furthermore, pre-marital counseling can look well-defined with meetings in a church office, or can look a lot more casual and unstructured, depending on the couple and the person leading the sessions. All of this to say that pre-marital counseling can fit a lot of different personalities and situations (such as long-distance dating, which was our case). 

WHY PRE-MARITAL COUNSELING?
A lot of people who are averse to pre-marital counseling may say that they've known their fiancé  for years and know pretty much everything about one another. This may be true (and hurrah for you, if you've already dealt with a lot of issues together!) but pre-marital counseling can still be a benefit, because there will likely be topics that were not discussed as deeply while dating.  Areas such as family upbringing, ways you deal (or don't deal well) with conflict, your ideas and expectations about marriage roles, your personality differences, how you each view spending vs saving, and a plethora of different topics are commonly discussed during pre-marital counseling. Though your relationship may be very strong in certain areas and you may have already discussed many of these topics, it can be very useful to re-visit these topics. Addressing specific topics you may have vastly different opinions on and finding ways to work through them while engaged will lay a strong foundation for your marriage. Hearing about these topics from a trusted pastor or counselor can help you both work through your differences. I love how one gal sums it up: "I would MOST DEFINITELY recommend pre-marital counseling with a trusted pastor, mentor, or advisor because they offer insight, guidance, direction, and experience from a new perspective!"


Some couples may also think that reading a marriage book together is the same as pre-marital counseling. While there are a lot of exceptional marriage books out there, pre-marital counseling happens with a real person who is sitting right in front of you. You get personal encouragement and advice that is individualized to you two as a couple, which a book cannot fully do. While reading and discussing marriage books are a great tool while you are dating, engaged, and married (and often pre-marital counseling includes reading a marriage book outside of class together) , I do not believe it should replace or negate the need for pre-marital counseling.

Greg and I felt our pre-marital counseling, which was led by one of our wedding officiants (who is the pastor of the college and singles ministry at church and just an all-around awesome guy) was a huge blessing to our relationship. We were long-distance, so we had to cram the hour-long sessions to two sessions per meeting (when I would visit him while we were engaged), but we made it work and were so glad we made this a priority during our engagement. I still have the worksheets we went through and plan on referring to them for years to come. Through the counseling, one of the most valuable things we took away was learning ways to work through conflict in loving and respectful manner. I tend to avoid conflict like the plague and often would (and sometimes still do) harbor hurt or bitterness because I wasn't willing to enter the vulnerability of opening up to Greg about hard things. Realizing this as an unhealthy conflict strategy helped me be more aware when I was sinking back to this negative method of dealing with conflict and helped me to choose healthier ways.  

Back in November, I sent out a survey to women who have been married 10 years or less. One of the questions asked if they had pre-marital counseling and whether they would recommend it. Here are some of the responses I received:
  •  I absolutely recommend pre-marital counseling! If not for anything else, just for the sake of opening lines of communication that some couples may shy away from talking about because of it being awkward"
  • "Honestly I believe that premarital counseling saved our marriage before it even began. I strongly recommend it."
  • "I believe all couples should go through some sort of premarital counseling. What's to hurt?! If you're with the right person, hen it can only strengthen your relationship. On the other hand, it may bring to light some issues/give some perspective, if you're not with the right person."
  • "I have to admit, it was awkward at times to discuss such personal issues before we were married. It also brought a depth to our relationship and helped us raise questions that we wouldn't have come up with on our own, it was very rewarding even with it being difficult to discuss sometimes. These conversations were SO beneficial. You talk about things that you don't even think to bring up and realize your own values that you had within you that are important to bring to the table before you get married. I really value communication and that is a BIG foundation of my husband and my relationship, it isn't easy but he isn't a mind-reader and neither am I. We try not to expect the other to know how we feel and instead discuss everything. I think counseling opens up doors for that and helps people see who they are and how that will work together. I know not everyone has the opportunity for pre-engagement counseling but I would recommend pre-marital counseling as well. It is a great way to start understanding one another more even if you have been dating for 5 years or 5 months, there are things you don't know... trust me, no one knows everything about another person. You learn a lot about yourself and your relationship together and it will be a great base going into marriage."

This is not to say that I believe that anyone who did not complete pre-marital counseling is doomed to a failed or miserable marriage. Plenty of marriages are healthy and loving without having had any counseling. That said, since it is an option typically available for most engaged couples at no extra cost, it is an awesome opportunity to focus on your marriage during your engagement rather than only on wedding planning, so my recommendation is to grab hold of premarital counseling if you have a chance to! 

WHAT IS TYPICALLY DISCUSSED IN PRE-MARITAL COUNSELING?
These married ladies were all very pleased with their pre-marital counseling experiences. They saw it as a great tool for helping them communicate with their soon-to-be husbands and to build a strong foundation for their marriage. Some of the areas that many of the women from the survey were particularly happy they discussed in premarital counseling included the following:
  • Communication. "We were guided through life-giving ways to communicate and also asked to share in the counseling process any major concerns that we had going into marriage . . . It laid the foundation for our communication going into our marriage." We all communicate differently and this will eventually cause conflict in your marriage, if it has not already done so in your dating relationship (spoiler alert!). Learning the differences of how you each communicate as well as how to respectfully communicate every day as well as during conflict, will greatly bless your future marriage. Greg and I are learning this every day in our marriage and some days are harder than others (I am a stubborn one), but a lot of the things we learned in pre-marital counseling has helped us as we build upon that knowledge now in our marriage.
    • Further Study: The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. This was recommended by many of the gals in the survey as well as wholeheartedly recommended by Greg and I. Learning our own and each other's love languages helps us communicate in ways that shows love and respect for one another in very personalized ways.
  • Conflict. I like that this gal puts it bluntly: "Get a good counselor who knows their stuff and isn't afraid to call you on your B.S. Luckily our counselor knows a lot about the psychology of counseling so he could talk us through fight-or-flight responses and why we needed to do simply things like breathe". Yes! This was the topic that I felt was most practical and helpful. We learned that conflict is not bad, BAD conflict is bad! We learned healthier ways to deal with conflict that would help us both feel heard and respected even during difficult conversations. 
  • Sex. "I think it was important to talk about sexual expectations especially regarding the first night". An important topic probably best discussed the last week(s) before the wedding rather than too early in the engagement. The couple may each have preconceived notions about what sex will look like once they are married that need to be clarified so they don't end up feeling disillusioned if it turns out to be different than romance novels or Hollywood pictures it. (Spoiler alert: it usually is, but that Hollywood trash is never realistic and stupid anyway). This may also be a good time to discuss family planning (birth control, natural forms such as tracking your ovulation schedule, or if desired, no family planning at all). It can cause some surprises if one of you wants to be a parent right away and the other is hoping for a few years before that happens, so it is a great topic to discuss.
  • Family upbringing/origin. "It was most beneficial to learn about how our family of origin did and would (and continues to) impact our relationship." You both grew up differently, regardless if you are from the same nationality or even the same neighborhood! It is helpful to discuss what you loved about your upbringing, what you'd like to bring into your future family with your fiancé, what you didn't like and would not like to repeat. 
  • Expectations. "It allowed us to discuss topics that we otherwise wouldn't have thought to discuss. Practical things like chores, finances." You may have a certain way of doing things around the house that are vastly different than your fiancé. You will have things you expect form him that may not be realistic or fair. Talking through your expectations of your roles in your marriage will be important to decrease misunderstandings. Conversations about who does what (house-cleaning, budgeting, staying home with the kids when that time comes, etc). Your expectations about how often you'll hang out with friends can also be constructive, especially if one is an introvert and the other is an introvert (which will likely cause differing opinions). One married woman said, "Some of the expectations for each other that we outlined in counseling we still go by today. We got it out in the beginning and stuck to it."
  • Goals. "I think the most beneficial was putting together a goal we set together: both a 5 and 10 year plan. This in turn helped us get on a path together in order to reach the goals." Several ladies mentioned they loved talking about their goals during pre-marital counseling. It is sometimes good for the couple to discuss what they each want their lives to look like in the next 5 or 10 years. For some people, they'd like it all mapped out (Spoiler alert: it likely won't happen the way you plan. Sorry!) and others prefer to have a very open, unplanned "map". I like the meticulously-planned goals while my wise husband prefers to leave room for spontaneity, for example, so this was something we had to work through. 
  • Finances. How do you each manage money? Is one of you a spender and the other a saver? Do you have debt and school loans you need to pay off? Finances are one of the top reasons for marriage problems and divorce, so it is great to start conversations about how you each view money. This was an important topic for Greg and I since finances are kinda scary for me and I felt guilty that I was entering a marriage while I had a lot of school loans on my shoulders. Hearing Greg encourage me through this process and seeing the ways he manages his money with so much wisdom and frugality helped put away a lot of those fears. 


HOW TO FIND PRE-MARITAL COUNSELING THAT WORKS FOR YOU
Finding a pastor or counselor who you and your fiancé both trust and like is an important decision.  "I found our pre-marital counseling was beneficial because we have a good relationship with our pastor and he knows us well. I believe that is what made our counseling so beneficial. When the counselor personally knows the couple and can address specific needs, pre-marital counseling can be very beneficial."  If you do not have someone in mind and if your officiating pastor is not able to do it, then ask the pastor or any other church leaders for recommendations to hopefully avoid being paired up with a random person who you and your fiancé may not click with. Or, ask married friends from your church community for recommendations. 

It may also be helpful to ask about the curriculum used for pre-marital counseling if you are not sure about the format or wonder if it will be useful. The pastor or counselor should hopefully be open to tailoring the counseling sessions to fit the needs of the couple and possibly spend more time on certain topics you feel deserve deeper attention.


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Further Reading:
Making Marriage Work (on 'selfish expectations) via Every Season Woman
Weaving Christian Community In Your Marriage via She Is Joyful (guest post by Victapolis)
I Argue Because I Love You via For The Love Of Tuna
An Intentional Engagement series (lots of great posts!!!) via The Speckled Goat

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I would love to hear your thoughts about pre-marital counseling. Have you done it and was it helpful? Any other recommendations you would offer to engaged couples who are looking into pre-marital counseling?



4 comments:

  1. We did pre marital 'counselling' and loved it! I use that term loosely because it was very unstructured and much like a conversation-style. We did the assessments and have all those hard discussion about sex, conflict, etc but it was done is such an empowering, reflective way. I recommend everyone do it before they tie the knot!

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    1. I am glad you mentioned "unstructured" counseling because I think my post only focused on the more structured style and we had a more conversation-style as well, so I added a few sentences to explain that counseling can look different for various couples. Thank you for your thoughts!

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  2. We didn't really do counseling, as in, we didn't have the conversations with a pastor or counselor, just between the two of us, we followed a book about pre-marriage conversations. We were long distance, so all conversations were over the phone, too, and that actually worked very well for us. I think pre-marriage counseling is great...but sometimes can be overstressed. We have friends who want to get married who have a church that requires one full year of pre-marriage counseling before they can get married in their church--and the woman can't get a long-term visa to live in this country until they are married, which means she constantly has to be coming in and out of the country on a tourist visa for a year of counseling when they could just be married already. Granted, my husband and I weren't even together for a whole year before we got married, let along engaged, and that was good for us, so I'm sure my views on long-term pre-marriage counseling are a little biased.

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    1. You have excellent points! I agree that it can get stressful in certain circumstances (especially long-distance dating) and if there is a strict length that makes it hard for the couple to complete the counseling. I am sorry that was the case for your friend! I would have been stressed too! We had a really understanding pastor who let us double-up on our sessions since we were long-distance and I only visited twice during our 5 month engagement, so we'd have long sessions where we discussed a few topics. But I am biased, I suppose, by our great experience, and didn't really think how much of an extra stress it can be for some couples when the rules for counseling can be more strict. Thank you for sharing!

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I love to hear your thoughts!

Elle Alice