Ask a Psychologist: Premarital Counseling, Secular and Religious

A guide to religious and non-religious options

When you get engaged, your focus is on planning the wedding. Which makes perfect sense. After all, APW would not be here if we didn’t love weddings. But thinking about the actual marriage tends to feel a little further away. A friend of mine told the story of calling her uncle to announce her engagement. “Congratulations!” He replied. “Your aunt and I wish you a long and happy marriage.” “Who said anything about marriage?” she asked. “I just got engaged!”

The fact is, it’s important to give the marriage thought and consideration—at least as much as we put into wedding planning. Premarital counseling is a unique opportunity to look further into the future, and to plan for what the wedding is actually celebrating: the beginning of a marriage.


Some religions require premarital counseling, so for some of you, it will already be part of your wedding prep (more on that later). But, even if you’re not getting married in a faith that requires it, or if you’re working with a secular officiant, premarital counseling can be useful for many reasons. Premarital counseling helps couples explore their strengths, in addition to areas for development. It helps partners begin to work through important issues together. So, even if your relationship has a lot of strengths (which it probably does), and you just have few concerns, it’s worth going (it’s actually ideal to go before a crisis hits). Think of it as preventative care, like going to the doctor for a well visit. When we’re feeling great, we still want to make sure that everything’s okay, and address any concerns that might come up.

Right now, you might be thinking, “But we’ve been together forever, and have lived with each other long enough to know what our partnership looks like.” Even if you’ve already lived together, or have been together for many years, a marriage creates a new chapter in a relationship. Premarital counseling gives couples a safe space to talk about what it will be like to establish a marriage together. A counselor helps couples to talk about general topics that may not have been discussed in your relationship, or simply to revisit them: things like values, personal and joint goals, finances, legal issues, kids, family, health, divorce (yes, this is important to talk about, and it is not bad luck), communication, faith, and sex, as well as how these topics will play out on a day to day basis, and how you can begin to address them. Each partner brings a history, personality, and culture to the relationship, and it’s important to begin to figure out how to navigate and combine different experiences to create a new family. By discussing differences before marriage, partners can learn to more effectively understand and support each other during marriage.

Importantly, the purpose of premarital counseling is not to Resolve All Issues before the wedding date. It’s just to begin the conversation. Every couple has areas of conflict, and it’s understandable to want Everything In Order by the wedding date. But it’s unrealistic to expect that everything will be totally resolved before the wedding. In November, I wrote about planning a wedding while becoming a stepparent, and about how relationships involve an ongoing, dynamic, fluid process. They get figured out and settled into over time. And, luckily, couples therapy remains an option, at any time in a relationship, to continue to work through difficult issues.

There are three ways to see a premarital counselor:

  • Work with your marriage officiant. (An easy option, if it feels comfortable.)
  • Find a couples therapist. (You also might check out the American Family Therapy Academy or the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.) Explain that you’re interested in attending a few counseling sessions before your wedding. Ask if the therapist does premarital and/or short-term counseling.
  • You can also pursue your own individual therapy along with premarital counseling or couples therapy. It often helps to do so, since it allows extra space for your individual needs and concerns.


Some religious communities require premarital counseling, and have for many generations. Even if you’re not excited about it, and you have to do it, there are definitely ways to make the most of it. For many couples, having a religious framework for a wedding and marriage provides guidance, meaning, comfort, and connection to history, culture, and community. Many clergy also incorporate secular approaches in their premarital counseling work. Some clergy are open to working with interfaith couples, or couples from different denominations within a religion, and some are not. If you’re in an interfaith or interdenominational relationship, it’s important to talk to clergy in advance about their views. And APW has many resources to help interfaith couples with wedding planning. That said, if the required premarital counseling offered by your religion is not in line with your values, or you don’t feel comfortable with the religious leaders of your venue (but still want to get married there), you can always round out your experience with secular premarital counseling in addition to your religious courses.

Here, I’ll talk a little bit about premarital counseling in three different religious communities.


The Pre-Cana tradition was developed by the Catholic Church to provide education for couples around issues like finances, sex, and parenting within a Catholic framework, but the specific requirements for marriage preparation vary from parish to parish. Options for couples can include counseling-style sessions with the priest, marriage preparation classes in a small group setting, an engaged couples’ retreat, and even online marriage preparation.

APW Copy Editor Kate and her husband Kevin completed a preparation program prior to their wedding by meeting with their priest several times, as well as attending a retreat. The priest facilitated a FOCCUS Pre-Marriage Inventory, a survey they found useful for targeting topics where they had very different values or points of view. Kate said, “We started seeing a therapist for premarital counseling when we first talked about getting married, which I can’t recommend enough. By the time we started meeting with our priest, we’d already had a lot of these conversations, but we still found it helpful and interesting, especially from a spiritual perspective. And Engaged Encounter was wonderful. The weekend-long retreat was like a relationship intensive, in the best way. Really grounding during hectic wedding planning.”

Liberal Protestant 

Rev. Paul Robeson Ford, Senior Pastor of the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, MA, has engaged couples complete four sessions of premarital counseling as a way to cultivate “an appropriate reverence” for the institution of marriage. He assigns couples a worksheet in advance, which helps to start a dialogue in a concrete and manageable way. Rev. Ford helps couples explore the biblical meaning and purpose of marriage, family trees and existing family relationships, expectations regarding the institution of marriage and how the couple’s life will be impacted by it, finances, health, children, and the role of faith in sustaining marriage. “Inevitably,” notes Rev. Ford, “other discussions emerge from these points of inquiry, and those discussions make for a rich conversation.”

Liberal Jewish

Alex Weissman, a rabbinical student at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside of Philadelphia, PA, has worked with couples in premarital counseling to “co-create wedding rituals that make sense for them, are meaningful for them, and serve as a model for the relationship.” “In premarital counseling with clergy,” explains Weissman, “you’re able to talk about the relationship as a spiritual journey. How can Judaism serve as a framework to help strengthen the relationship? What do we want our home to look like spiritually? Do we want to keep kosher or give tzedakah (charity)? Judaism also has a lot to say about what to do in difficult circumstances. What are we going to do as our parents get older? What do we do when loved ones die? Even if you don’t agree with the lines that the religion provides, they serve as a starting point for a conversation.”

Weissman also has expertise working with queer engaged couples. He explains that it’s often helpful to begin premarital counseling by exploring the wedding day itself. If a traditional wedding ritual can’t be used exactly as is, adaptations to the liturgy or new rituals can be created that feel meaningful to the couple. When thinking about a queer wedding, says Weissman, “It’s important to understand that there’s more likelihood of resistance from family members, and some family members might even not come. What’s that going to be like? What support do you need leading up to the wedding and on the day of?” Weissman also encourages queer couples to consider not only their Family of Origin, but also what Family of Choice looks like, and how to bring those people into the celebration. Weissman adds that, although it’s important for all couples to consider whether they’ll have children, which ways of becoming parents they’re open to, and how religion factors in, queer couples may have additional, complex logistical struggles to navigate in family building. This is also very important to begin to talk about in premarital counseling. Last, Weissman does not assume that all couples will choose to be monogamous, and for some couples, it makes sense to discuss open marriage, and how to address those issues.

APW readers, what have your experiences been with premarital counseling? If you haven’t gone yet, what are your thoughts and concerns?

The information provided in Ask a Psychologist is intended by Dr. Brofman and APW to serve as general advice and guidance for all readers. The advice herein does not constitute a clinical recommendation or relationship, and Dr. Brofman and quoted mental health professionals do not take clinical responsibility for this information. Ask a Psychologist does not take the place of a confidential clinical consultation with a trained mental health professional. 

Featured Sponsored Content

  • TravelerK

    I absolutely loved our pre-marital counseling. We had three sessions with the minister who was marrying us. He was wonderful (even with the fact that I’m kinda-spititual and my now-husband is an athiest). His advice was fantastic. We still quote some of the things he told us to this day, including the mantra, “Love is not a feeling. It is a commitment, an action and a verb. When you’re not feeling “in love” you’re still commited to the marriage and the vows.”

    Honestly, I couldn’t recommend it more highly. It gave us a safe space to explore some scary thoughts and feelings, and gave me a much better understanding of my now-husband’s hopes, fears and wishes about what he wanted our marriage to be like.

  • lady brett

    this may vary too much to get an answer on, but does anyone know if couples counseling can be covered by insurance? i know individual therapy generally is, but i wasn’t sure about that. we have a friend-couple who is having a hard time and, frankly, looking to us for more guidance than we really have to give (we’re glad to help, i just feel like we’re not really qualified) – but i know they’re really scraping by, also. just wondering if this was something we could point them towards.

    • macrain

      When we did it, it was covered by insurance, and I even see a therapist on my own. It should be one copay for two people, per session.

      • Lauren from NH

        Really? The premarital or couples counseling sites that I have perused have all said some version of, “we don’t have any insurance networks etc, because to have these sessions covered we would have to diagnose you with something.” Maybe that a bunch of bs to cover for the fact that they are over priced thus insurance companies won’t work with them, I really don’t know.

        • Meg Keene

          It really just totally depends on your insurance. My insurance (which I actually think is great!) limits coverage of mental health to when there are serious issues at play. And they do a great job when that happens. But for run of the mill therapy, it’s out of pocket. However! You can usually find people that will work on a sliding scale for you. What I’ve seen on the (expensive) west coast is rates from about $100-$200 an hour, and that’s without much of a sliding scale. So yeah, look for places that will work with various income levels! They totally exist.

          • Caroline

            And for people scared by those numbers, I know there are here (on the west coast), clinics which have low income sliding scale therapy which goes down to $20 an hour (maybe less in some cases, I don’t know) for really low income folks. It’s often with someone in training, but a friend with basically no money has had great experiences with therapists at some of the local clinics, with individual and couples counseling.

        • Laura

          If you’re looking for more affordable options, check whether there is a clinical psychology or counseling program at a local university. I’m in a Ph.D. program in clinical psych, and we offer a sliding fee scale that goes down to $10/hour. Although your therapist will be a student, he or she will (or should) be getting consistent supervision from a licensed professional. Details vary by program and region, but it’s an affordable way to get good quality mental health services….just ask questions to make sure you’re comfortable with the program’s training model, students’ supervision by licensed therapists, etc.

        • M.

          It’s possible the diagnosis part might have to do with working with a psychologist/psychiatrist vs. a counselor (Licensed Clinical Social Worker, for example). Our insurance happens to cover all options, but I see a LCSW for weekly therapy, whom I just love. An LCSW can’t diagnose, so that wouldn’t be part of the qualification for coverage. I really searched to find a good match that took my insurance when I was limiting myself to Psy.Ds, and found that widening the search to LCSWs opened up a lot of (more affordable) options, that ultimately found me a great match that has helped immensely. Something to think about!

          I used the Psychology Today listings to find my therapist, and there you can filter by type of therapy, location, etc, and see what their degree is. Also by insurance but always double check with your provide bc they aren’t always up to date.

          • neighborhoodmap

            This might vary state by state, but: as I understand it, an LCSW is a Licensed Practitioner of the Healing Arts (or LPHA), which allows them to bill to third party payers (ie insurance companies) for mental health services, same as any other LPHA (which includes psychiatrists, psychologists, LCPCs, etc). As I understand it (as an LCSW myself, though not one in private practice, but I’ve worked in mental health settings), every single insurance company is going to require a diagnostic code in order to reimburse services for any health issue (mental or physical). So, actually LCSWs are entering a diagnosis, and they have to justify their interventions as they relate to that diagnosis. The biggest difference is usually that LCSWs can’t prescribe medication, and we have an ethical obligation to provide services that are accessible to people in different financial situations, which may explain why you’re finding more affordable options. I am admittedly less familiar with how family therapists or couples therapists bill for reimbursement. And this is all rather pedantic, so I apologize for that — the most important thing is that you found a therapist that works for you!

    • E

      I went to couples counseling while my husband was also attending individual counseling. He put his individual on his insurance and I put the couples on mine and there were no issues. We did have separate insurance at this point. I would assume if the insurance company covers individual, it would cover couples. Just maybe not at the same time.

    • Yes, it can! My boyfriend and I have been seeing a couples therapist for about 6 months (we started off every 2 weeks and now only go monthly). We’ve been together 11 years (as of today, actually…) and have been pre-engaged for 3+ years. My boyfriend has generalized anxiety disorder as a result of his upbringing, which he has been working on independently with a therapist for a little over a year, but we decided to see a couple’s therapist too in order for us both to understand how his anxiety reflects each of us and the relationship as whole. It has been a wonderful experience and we have both gotten a lot out of it. Money was a concern, especially since he was still doing individual therapy, but the therapist we found works in a clinic that also offers family therapy. Certain insurance plans (mine included) will cover the cost of family therapy, but not marriage therapy, so the clinic just codes it as family therapy so that it’s covered. I just pay a co-pay whenever we go. If your friends’ insurance covers family therapy/counseling, they can call around and ask if it’s something the providers can accommodate in their billing system.

      • NW

        This is really helpful, my partner and I have been together for a while and I’m finally ready to start handling my own anxiety problems in individual therapy, but I think couples therapy could be a huge benefit for us too. I’m checking with our insurance ASAP! Thanks!

        • No problem! It is seriously one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. Our therapist had us go through the standard premarital counseling assessment, on which we had very little disagreement, and then we had discussion for a couple sessions based off that.Then we moved more into the family dynamics that have caused my boyfriend’s anxiety and actionable ways we can both work through it and set boundaries. Taking the couples therapy approach has definitely framed his anxiety in a different light for him and given him some different things to think about and address, beyond and in addition to what he was getting from individual therapy. Both types of therapy have served him well in different ways. At the same time, it was very helpful for me to hear a neutral third party ask some of the same tough questions or make suggestions that I’ve asked/made in the past, and create a dedicated time to discuss them. (My boyfriend is a wonderful listener and we communicate well, but there’s something different about discussing something tough at home and discussing it together with a therapist.) Granted, we’ve had a wonderful couples therapist, so YMMV based off who you get. We did a lot of research before deciding. Good luck to you! If anyone is in the Cleveland area and would like a recommendation, I would be happy to pass along the info for our guy.

    • lady brett

      awesome. thanks, y’all!

    • pajamafishadventures

      They can be, but are not always (my experience would say “not usually” but it is limited and could be incorrect). It’s something you’d have to check with you insurance provider and the therapist you wished to see.

    • TeaforTwo

      I think the deciding factor would be who is providing the counselling, more than what the theme is. My insurance plan, for example, has pretty good coverage for counselling, but it has to be done by a psychologist.

    • Caroline

      Often, clinics which offer sliding scale individual counseling for low income folks also offer couples counseling sliding scale (very sliding scale, like $20 a visit if you’re very low income, which I know in some circumstances is still a lot, but hugely less than private counseling costs).

    • Jules

      His insurance covers pre-marital! It covers up to 9 sessions per year. The problem is, out of network is not covered and in their list of providers, they don’t have the one we were hoping to see. Only one of the providers dabbles in couples’ counseling at all.

      So now, we are faced with the tricky decision of whether to do counseling with someone who is less experienced and pay $0 out of pocket, or whether we should go with our original counselor and simply pay for it.

      • Whitney S.

        Some unasked for information:
        I actually went to school for and was one of those student counselors in the university psychological clinic. I would say to you and anyone who might have stumbled here that they don’t just push these students out of the nest into the world. In general, I was heavily supervised by the practicum director and and more experienced student. So there were probably actually three people helping manage a case. Also, us “Type A” graduate students types want to be rock stars yet are terrified at the same time. Makes for someone who is super open and on top of the latest and greatest.

        So, if someone out in the world is looking to use a sliding scale clinic, just ask them about their supervision set up. If they aren’t transparent or have a system you don’t feel comfortable with you will know up front.

    • Sarah

      I know this won’t be helpful for most of you, but if there any Aussies reading, the federal government is currently running a program which provides a $200 subsidy for couples wanting to access a relationship counsellor.
      We decided to see a couples counsellor in December to help us get through a rough patch and four sessions in (the program paid for the first two) are finding it really positive. It’s helping us to talk about and navigate issues that we’d previously had problems with. I was pretty skeptical (and frankly terrified) at first but I think it’s probably going to make us a stronger couple. You don’t need to be married to apply for the subsidy, and the service we are using is non-denominational and not-for-profit.

  • Sierra

    I was skeptical about Catholic pre-marital counseling when my FH and I first started, especially since I’m not Catholic (raised Lutheran). However, it’s turned out to be a pretty positive experience! The FOCCUS test showed that we were really in sync about a lot of issues, but the priest was able to point out a few areas that all couples struggle with. That brought up some good things for my FH and I to discuss.

    While we didn’t come up to the answers to every possible question or situation our marriage may face, I have become confident in our ability as a couple to discuss these BIG questions constructively and make decisions as a unit.

    We’ve just got two more classes and an Engaged Encounter weekend left. So close!

    • macrain

      Yea, I think it’s important to realize that you won’t necessarily nail down concrete answers to everything, but that it’s important to open the door to conversations you may have not visited.

    • K2

      Our Pre-Cana class was pretty valuable, but it didn’t include the FOCCUS test, and I was so disappointed! I’d really been looking forward to taking a big giant multiple choice test all about our relationship. (I always liked standardized testing . . . )

      • Sierra

        I noticed that some of the questions were worded strangely, so half the time we weren’t in sync was because one of us read the question wrong…that got kind of funny!

    • Meg Keene

      For all that I have some differences with the Catholic Church (and my Catholic friends have differences with the Catholic Church!) I’ve heard nothing but good things about Pre-Cana for years and years. It’s helped so many friends figure out what the areas they needed to work on are, and get started working on them together.

      • Sierra

        Exactly! Naturally, there were a couple of questions that were religious (and it was clear what the Church thinks the ‘right’ answer is), most of the religious questions were about how we were spiritual together as a couple. There was even a section dedicated to interfaith marriages that had a few questions that basically asked, ‘do either of your families have a problem with you getting married / marrying someone outside of your raised faith?’ This helped our priest determine how much time needed to dedicate time to counseling us on how to handle family pressures in regard to those issues.

        • Meg Keene

          I’ve heard the best stuff from a few couples about the discussions around money that came up.

          • Sierra

            Money came up for us, but our biggest one was talking about who would get our hypothetical children if we passed. Our priest made it very clear that despite the morbidity, making legal documents outlining what is to happen in certain circumstances prevents considerable amounts of grief.

          • TH2012

            So, so true! My attorney MIL wrote wills and powers of attorney for us, and those things are really important to talk about (and get down in writing) in advance. It also facilitated conversations about health care and end of life wishes, relationships with other family members, and other odds and ends we never would have thought to discuss (“Hey Husband, you know those purple earrings I wear? They were a gift from my grandma and belonged to her family before that. They’re important to me, and if anything ever happened to me, get those to my sister.”)

            Getting your legal ducks in order (typically after your wedding) should be on the list of good things to do, right up there with premarital counseling!

    • My (Catholic) husband and I (Jewish) did Pre-Cana and our experience was pretty mixed. We took the FOCCUS test (which ditto on the people who love standardized relationship testing, that was awesome!) and then sat down to discuss the responses with the Deacon at my husband’s church. He was really awesome and accepting– we even told him we planned to raise our future children Jewish and he still helped us get the dispensation and co-officiated our ceremony; since he wasn’t a priest, he was married and had a son and a grandchild and he told us a lot of personal stories to help the teaching. So that was a really positive experience.

      But the Engaged Encounter was not a positive experience at all. I think this varies greatly based on the diocese you live in. My main gripes were:

      a) intentionally clueless about interfaith marriage which made me feel very unwelcome, including the monsignor who went on a 15 minute rant about why a dispensation from canonical form is the worst thing ever and starts your marriage on the wrong foot
      b) very pushy about forcing people to go to confession and mass
      c) dirty rotten liars about birth control causing all kinds of cancer (you can believe birth control is bad.. you can even incorrectly believe it causes abortions, but I will have none of your crap statistics)
      I would say 80% of the course fell into the above 3 categories and about 20% was a decent workshop about finances.

  • macrain

    We found a couples therapist we liked and just told her what we wanted to cover. She also brought some great ideas to the table.
    Now that we are newlyweds and struggling with a few things, we’ve been able to go back to her and talk some more. I really love that we have that relationship set up, and have someone who is very familiar with us so we can skip the preliminaries.

  • TH2012

    I wish I had this when we were thinking about premarital counseling! My husband is Catholic but has tough relationship with the church, and I’m atheist. Pre-Cana didn’t feel right for us, but we wanted to do something. We decided on a DIY approach: we picked books and articles about marriage, kept a google doc so we could add anything we came across, and talked about the readings together. Essentially a marriage-themed book club for the two of us. During wedding planning, it was hard to stay on top of it, but we continue to read and discuss articles six months after our wedding.
    We didn’t resolve every issue, but we got better at something more important: having tough conversations. The conversations allowed us to figure out what we’re sensitive about and how we communicate best. But what I love most is that it’s an ongoing experience – we’ve created a safe forum to discuss things that are important or bothering us, and having a shared reading makes it easier to dive into tough topics.

    • Sarah E

      That really sounds like an awesome strategy!

      • TH2012

        It’s been great! One challenge has been finding reading material that resonates with us. We’ve found a lot books written in a very gendered way, targeted to people in struggling relationships, or with a conservative or religious tone that we don’t connect with. We’re always keeping an eye out for research-based, feminist books and articles. It’d be awesome if APW did a best of list for marriage reading material!

        • Sara P

          I’ll second the request for a best-of list! This strategy sounds great, but it’s so hard to find stuff that’s not either super specific or sort of …condescending?

        • Caroline

          I recommend the books from the Gottman Institute. It’s very evidence based (based on 35 years of scientific study on marriages), not religious, and targeted to everyone, not just people in struggling relationships. It’s been a few years, but I recall it being somewhat heteronormative, but not emphasizing specific gender roles. They’ve released some new research on same sex couples, so I would hope that might mean newer editions of the books would be less heteronormative. Overall, I highly recommend them though, very helpful.

          • TH2012

            We kicked the readings off with Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work! I haven’t explored the institute though, so thanks for the recommendation.

            7 Principles was a good starter. We definitely liked the evidenced based aspect, and the activities, although sometimes a little hokey, were a good way to start conversation. But it was pretty heteronormative, and I do remember one early chapter had some gender-specific stuff that I didn’t love. But I also remember some questions about equal division of household labor, so I think it was kind of a mixed bag on the traditional gender roles front. I have to admit I didn’t love the tone of the writing though. It felt outdated to me at times or, like Sara P said, a little condescending.

            Why can’t a popular feminist comedian team up with a marriage researcher for her next bestseller? Tina? Amy? Or Samantha Bee and Jason Jones could do it together. Yup, that’s really what I want.

          • Caroline

            Interesting. We didn’t finish 7 principles. We read 10 lessons to transform your marriage, which we really liked, even though I think it’s aimed a little more at struggling couples and we were doing quite well. It’s 10 different case studies of couples who were having problems and how they addressed them, and we were able to go through and talk about how maybe we had a little bit of that problem, or this problem wasn’t really an issue, but we could still learn X from it.

            It’s been 4 years or so, but I don’t remember it having much gender specific stuff, although it was heteronormative. We skimmed 7 Principles, decided it had essentially the same content as 10 Lessons, and skipped it, so maybe being much more recent, it is a little more evolved in terms of gender roles, or maybe I’m just forgetting!

            I agree, a feminist comedian and a marriage researcher would definitely make a brilliant pairing!

  • stella

    Can’t recommend it enough. We had been together 10 years when we got married, living together most of those. We had bought houses together, merged our finances, moved halfway across the world together and adopted a dog :). I didn’t think we would get much out of the required pre-Cana stuff, but we really did. My husband is Catholic and I’m not, though I attend mass with him.

    We did sessions with our priest, along with a one-day conference type thing with lectures. Our priest also insisted on NFP sessions, which I cannot recommend enough, even if you never intend to use that method of family planning. As he put it, he thinks any man getting married (to a woman) should be comfortable saying the words ‘vaginal mucus’.

    The FOCCUS survey was really interesting, and the sessions with the priest helped us talk through our results and also bond with him somewhat, which was really nice. It facilitates all kinds of discussions that you might not think to have in the stress of planning, in a non-threatening way. 10/10 would recommend!

    • K2

      Hahaha when we were dating and discussing possibly using NFP in the future, I asked my future husband to read something about it. He got about a paragraph in before he saw the word “mucus” and gave up. Four years later, he’s like, “Hey, so how’s your mucus looking today?”

  • CommaChick

    I have a question for those of you have been through pre-Cana or other Roman Catholic premarital counseling. I’ve heard that some parishes require couples who live together to move out and live apart during the process. Has anyone experienced this? We live together, and the idea that we would be asked to find new living arrangements has been causing me a lot of anxiety.

    • Lisa

      I think your mileage may vary depending on which church you attend and how liberal/conservative the parish is, but we didn’t experience any of this with our priest. We didn’t make a big deal of the fact we were living together, but we did answer the questions correctly on the FOCCUS test, which interestingly automatically repopulates your test with an extra 10 or so questions. (For example: “I understand why the church condemns living together prior to marriage: Agree or Disagree.”)

      This is probably an instance of knowing your crowd, your priest, and your faith community. We had been going to church at my husband’s Catholic grad school for several years prior to getting married there and knew the priests tended to be more “sunshine rainbow Catholic” as we put it (in comparison to “hell fire and brimstone”).

      If you don’t attend a church regularly, it might be worth going to a mass or two at a location where you’re thinking about getting married to get an idea which way the priests and congregation lean.

      • neighborhoodmap

        Yes, yes, absolutely try to attend a few different services before you commit to your ceremony venue. It will give you so much insight into where the parish falls on the conservative/progressive spectrum and how they might respond to you as a couple. We knew our church was right for us when they used gender-inclusive language in their hymns (i.e. “God” not “Him”/”His”) and included social justice issues in their petitions. The priest who married us told us that he agrees with the church’s position (that couples shouldn’t live together before marriage), but that approximately 75% of the couples he’s recently married have been cohabiting, and that’s all he said about it the whole time we met with him for marriage prep.

        That said, though, different dioceses may set Pre-Cana standards for the parishes that fall within their boundaries, so no matter how progressive the parish you chose for the ceremony may be, you’re likely still going to be stuck with whatever class materials were chosen by the hierarchy. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, that means an absolutely TERRIBLE textbook. I was seriously shocked that what I thought was a more progressive parish (and, really, it truly is) made us buy a book that included a whole section on the differences between a “Good Catholic Man” and a “Good Catholic Woman.”

        I brought a stress ball to two of our Pre-Cana sessions. It was an act of mercy to my husband, after I rage-squeezed his leg so hard during one session that I left tiny little bruises on his thigh. And I made a point to stock chocolate and wine for after the sessions.

        I actually think that the Catholic Church squanders Pre-Cana as an opportunity to attempt to bring back some of us who were raised in the faith but have fallen away. But that’s another topic for another thread.

        • Lisa

          Woof, we got married in Chicago as well, and thankfully our parish didn’t make us buy any additional books and really shied away from any gendered dialogues. We actually only ended up getting two premarital sessions, one of which being the fill out paperwork and walk through the church session, which was actually kind of disappointing because I was excited about the possibility of really getting to address some issues with a third party.

          • neighborhoodmap

            Oh man, that’s all you did? We did the FOCCUS, plus a session reviewing it with our priest (easy and quick because we cheated and totally did it while talking about it the whole time, so our answers would match up, and I went to enough years of Catholic school to know which answers were the “right” answers from the Church’s perspective). In addition to that, we probably met with our priest three additional times — once for the initial paperwork meeting, again to choose the readings, a third to go out to dinner and get to know each other as real people, which was actually really nice. Plus, they do Pre-Cana in four two-hour sessions over the course of a month — all of my about to be married in the church friends get warnings that they should gleefully sign up for the get-it-all-done-at-once Saturday 8 hour session, and that they should NEVER let their curiosity get the better of them and go browsing through the textbook.

            The upshot of all of this, though, was that after all of this, our priest actually knew us pretty well, and was able to give an actually personalized homily at our wedding Mass. I really, very much appreciated that, and all of our guests commented on how personalized it made the ceremony feel, even though we did the full traditional Mass, which can often feel so impersonal with all the formality.

          • Lisa

            Holy cow! That’s crazy though also slightly more in line with what my sister has to do at her church in northern Ohio.

            We had the initial meeting with the priest for paperwork, did the all-day Saturday class (which got out 2 hours early), the FOCCUS test (which we answered truthfully though we did coordinate some answers via text on some of the doctrine questions), and then had a final meeting with our priest 3 days before the wedding to walk through the church and go over our FOCCUS scores. (The tardiness of the last meeting is mostly to do with us moving out of town shortly before the wedding.)

            Out of curiosity, which church were you all married in? We got married at St. Vincent de Paul’s in Lincoln Park. (My husband did his grad work there.)

            I guess it just goes to show you how subjective these things can be even within a pretty regimented system even within the same diocese/city.

          • neighborhoodmap

            We got married at St. John Berchmans, in Logan Square (where we live). I should clarify that getting married there was actually a lovely experience over all — save the Pre-Cana textbook (because, really, even the facilitators for most of our sessions were fine, and we honestly liked the priest who married us — it was the book that gave me fits). The church is gorgeous (inside and out), and they let us design the entire ceremony (readings, petitions, songs, logistics of how everybody walks down the aisle, etc.), which helped again with making the ceremony actually feel personalized to us as a couple.

    • Dawn

      We’re not Catholic and we didn’t live together– but, my husband and I attended pre-Cana (Awesome!) with several co-habitating Catholic couples. No one had been asked to change living arrangements.

    • Lindsay

      Our priest knew we were living together, but asked that we not live “as man and wife” prior to the adding (i.e. no sex). He did suggest that we each take different bedrooms in the 3 months leading up to the wedding, but seeing as we live in a 1 bedroom apartment – neither of us was going to take the couch! And he never checked in to see if we were following his request so it was really up to us whether or not we wanted to be abstinent leading up to the wedding

      • Lindsay

        addiing = wedding! oops

    • CommaChick

      Thanks, y’all, for sharing your experiences. It really helps.

  • weedingcane

    We haven’t done the counseling route but every year we have an Annual General Meeting and big things get discussed, kids, parents, work, dreams, money, how to love each other better. That’s where we came up with the idea to get engaged and what it meant and why, and we’re going to fit an Extraordinary general meeting in before the wedding day so we can clear some of the decks which are becoming apparent. We’re an older couple I’m going to be 50 this year, we have grown up children and ageing parents, there’s a lot to talk about.
    It is a lovely day, sometimes weekend, it always ends with us cooking an elaborate meal and champagne and a better understanding of what both of us want. Try it.

    • Jess

      This sounds really cool. Kind of a yearly reaffirmation and state-of-the-union. I’m about it.

    • Sierra

      Love that! I’ve noticed our most important conversations happen when drinking wine or cooking a big meal. Might make a good anniversary tradition!

    • mackenzie

      Love this. We have a family meeting about once a month. My hubby keeps a Google doc with ongoing agenda items. It all sounds very formal, but it’s so nice to have the planned check-ins. We sit in our home office with a bottle of wine and talk about life, finances, relocating, having babies. I came from a family where family meetings were never a good thing (ie. mom and dad are getting divorced), so I’m happy to have a baby family where communication and being on the same page are the name of the game.
      ETA: We do a state of the union on our wedding anniversary. It’s really lovely.

  • emilyg25

    We’re nonreligious (and actually didn’t have an officiant anyway) and I couldn’t find a counselor or prep course that I liked, but some sort of serious premarital discussion was really important to me. In googling, I found The Commitment Conversation. The original organization is now defunct, but they very kindly left their website up:

    It doesn’t have the benefit of having a real live person who can ask follow up questions and tease out issues, but it’s better than nothing!

  • Amy Elizabeth

    Terrence Real’s book, The New Rules of Marriage, is so amazing. He offers weekend seminars and trains other therapists in his methods. We’ve only read the book so far, but hope to do a weekend session. My parents were really into self-help kind of stuff – I’ve seen therapists on and off since I was a kid and have done more conferences than I can count – but his work stands out as the best of the best to me. I also think that once a little more time has passed and I have more perspective/distance from the issues we’ve been facing, that I will say something like “this book saved my relationship.” It really is THAT good.

  • Nope.

    Just wanted to chime in that I loved pre-marital counseling. We did two sessions with the priest who married us (they were two longer sessions when we were in town for wedding planning, since we live a few states away). I was worried that my (now husband) would be less comfortable since she’s my childhood priest and is extremely good friends with my parents, but she did a wonderful job and he was fully comfortable. She was able to verbalize back to us some of the central tenets of our relationship, which was so fun – at one point, after talking about expectations and what makes us happy, she said, “Oh, so you don’t want to just be married, you want to be each other’s favorite person.” We now affectionately refer to each other as our “favorite person” on the regular.
    She also had us do Myers-Briggs and Strengthsfinder, which were fun for us — and Strengthsfinder actually led me to change my career. So, definitely do that.

  • Bethany

    We’re going to be doing a few sessions with our pastor for which I’m both excited and nervous (sort of like any counseling I guess. My parents have been part of their church’s pre-cana group for over 20 years and love it. They usually teach the finance section and have this presentation they’ve been refining with baseball jokes and Cleveland references over the years that really talks through different approaches to money, what’s worked for them, what’s worked for other couples, and how to talk it through. I proofread it once for them about 10 years ago and was weirdly impressed. Apparently their church has the hardest time getting a couple to do the natural family planning talk — they have to switch every few years because eventually every natural-family planning teaching couple ends up having too many kids for the talk to be plausible!

    One question I remember my dad saying that he heard the priest ask, that he wished they’d been asked before they got married, was pretty basic — where will you spend your first (as a married couple) Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter? He said that the responses always got the couples talking. Some hadn’t talked about it at all, some had never considered other perspectives, and others had very intense plans about how to handle the holidays.

  • Laurel

    I wish I’d had this last year!

  • quickj

    Our couple of sessions with our parish priest (Episcopal) were awesome – he couldn’t marry us due to travel, but basically prompted questions about difficult situations, problem-orientation, and family, with some elements “develop and respect your own meaningful rituals” and “what are your unique orientations toward living out your faith on a daily basis”? They were good practice for how to continue having those conversations later on. The conversations with had with our friend who officiated the wedding (who is also a minister) revolved more around our feelings about one another and our hopes for our marriage. Both types of conversations fulfilled different functions and we’re so glad that we had the opportunity to do them both!

    Our favorite, though, are our weekly check-ins (post-marital counseling?) – once a week (normally on Sundays over dinner) we more intentionally check in with one another with a combination of both kinds of conversation we had during premarital counseling – problem-oriented (what can we do better?) and relationship-oriented (why do I love you?).

  • Anonymous

    Pre Cana was one of the most onerous parts of our wedding planning, due to working with a really conservative priest in a conservative area of the country. The ceremony turned out to be the spiritual and meaningful experience I
    wanted, but that came after an inordinate amount of arguing with the
    priest and serious thought about moving the ceremony. My main problem
    was that I thought my priest was a more open and inclusive sort of guy,
    and he turned out to be a meticulous taskmaster that liked to make up
    his own rules.

    I am a life long Catholic, but I wouldn’t do this process again. I wish that the Engaged Encounter would have promoted the kind of deep, languid introspection that I would have liked with my husband, but instead I felt drilled with Catholic theology and rushed from one session to another, all the while being lectured to for a whole weekend by facilitators reading word for word from their notes. I’m not someone that can articulate a complex viewpoint in a series of 10 minute discussion sections. The final indignity was being hit up for donations at the end, after we had paid $350/couple to stay in a crappy hotel with bad food for an weekend (7 p.m. Friday to 4 p.m. Sunday, rooming with a total stranger).

    Moral of the story-ask lots of questions of your priest and parish staff. Have them walk you through the rules for marriage preparation. Ask to talk to previous participants of Engaged Encounter, and not just people who have continued to be involved with the organization.

    I think pre-marriage counseling is actually very important, but the Catholic Church missed the boat for me.

  • Pingback: Premarital Counseling- Secular vs. Religious | panjing()

  • Eh

    We are not religious and we had a civil wedding. My SIL said that she wanted a civil wedding to avoid religious premarital counselling, however it was important for my BIL that they get married by a pastor. (My SIL did not find the premarital counselling helpful and she found that it just lead to fights and she felt she was being attacked because she yells when she gets upset while her husband avoids conflict so won’t engage her when she is upset.)

    We were considering secular premarital counselling but my husband and I work opposite shifts so we are rarely home at the same time (not a good reason to do a few sessions). In the end we settled on reading The 10 Conversations You Must Have Before You Get Married (and How to Have Them) by Dr Guy Grenier (he was actually one of my psych profs and we clicked so I trusted that his book would be a good resource). I highly recommend reading the book if you aren’t going to premarital counselling but want an idea of things you need to think about. We had already talked about most of the points in the book but it did change my perspective on a few things (especially about finances – APW has also has influenced my views on this topic too). My husband is a very agreeable person so it also made me confirm that he agreed with the decisions we were making and not just going along with things (I.e., making decisions together and not just me making the decision).

    (Note: my SIL and BIL have been in marriage counselling with their new pastor and they have found it very helpful, they just needed to find someone they really trusted. I think if they had this pastor when they got married she would have had an more enjoyable time. The pastor has helped them improved their relationships with my BIL’s/husband’s family which has been great for all involved.)

  • Kara Davies

    The pastor we chose to do our ceremony (long time family friend and my former youth pastor) requires all couples he marries to do premarital counseling with him. We had 2 very condensed sessions after we got engaged (great fun though!) as my husband is Aussie and I was still stateside for the vast majority of our relationship. It was very low key, informal, and very informative. My husband and I were very much on the same page which wasn’t really a surprise, more of a relief. We kept in regular contact with our pastor while writing our ceremony and it all worked perfectly. I recommend premarital counseling highly.

  • Amanda L.

    We had two types of premarital counseling – religious and with a therapist. We met with our rabbi, mostly to discuss the ceremony and for her to get to know us as a couple, but it also helped us talk about where we were coming from spiritually, as an interfaith couple, and begin the conversation of how that might look in our home.

    We met with a therapist three times to talk about the more difficult topics that we needed to discuss, because I knew it would be hard to have those conversations on our own – things like money/joining finances, dealing with each other’s families, etc. It was also helpful because there were a lot of different things stressing us out about the wedding planning process, which actually revealed some other underlying issues in discussion. We also got a change to talk about and work through how and why we fight, and how to more constructively work through fights. It was super helpful for us and helped us to better understand where the other person was coming from in a neutral, safe space, and have conversations we may have shied away from otherwise. We plan to go back as needed, not when we are in a crisis necessarily, but just when we need to talk through something difficult and could use a neutral party involved in the discussion to help us talk it through more constructively.

  • slmrlln

    My fiance and I live in different states (we’re both academics, were lucky to get tenure-track jobs, and are now entering the long slow process of getting jobs in the same region). We want to do premarital counseling but have been struggling with the logistics of it since we can only visit once a month, mostly on holiday weekends. The wedding is in August, so in theory we could do counseling over the summer, except that we’re also planning a major overseas research trip so that both of us can get started on our respective books… So to all you experienced APW readers: how many meetings do we actually need with a counselor? Can we cram them all into a week over spring break, or do they need to be spaced out? Would it work to do some meetings over Skype and others in person? We’re both Episcopalian, but the officiant is my mom (married female priests FTW!) so we definitely need an outside counselor and prefer a secular one.

    • Britta

      Same situation here – aunt is female Episcopal married priest so we needed an outsider! I would definitely space them out – depending on the format you choose some sessions might be a little exhausting. I also posted another comment about finding the right practitioner for you – we went with a secular therapist and it was not what we needed/wanted. In person would be better as I found the physical presence of my fiance really important- holding hands during tricky bits, etc. But perhaps you can do a combo of in person/skype?

      • slmrlln

        Thanks, that’s helpful! I never thought premarital counseling would be the part of wedding planning that I would get hung up on.

  • Britta

    +1 for counseling… With the addition of *in the format that is right for you – which is not always what you think it will be!*

    The Episcopal Church requires counseling but it can be from any certified practitioner – a priest, a therapist, whatever. We are not at all religious but my aunt, a priest, is marrying us (on a beach, not a church).

    Since we’re not religious, we went with a couples therapist near us. I wish we had actually worked with an Episcopal priest! All the therapist did was push push push to drag up old individual issues that we had individually resolved in therapy, which stirred up emotional energy in a negative way and were largely irrelevant to our future life together or the goals we told her we had for the sessions. Despite our requests, we covered 0 practical topics such as finances, family culture, raising children, etc. We gained nothing from the experience except a better understanding of the type of practitioner we would want to work with in the future.

    Although we didn’t get much out of the experience itself, it did push us to work together on a few areas we had wanted to, but I wish we’d had the structure and practical orientation that the church’s way would have provided. I never would have thought I’d be saying this prior to the experience. Live and learn…

  • Thanks for the post; it highlighted the importance of premarital marriage counseling for couples. Are you in a hurry to reconcile your marriage? Well, for one, it is not something that can be hurried. MarriageCounselingAlt is here to help reconcile your marriage in Estero. Read more at