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.

PREMARITAL COUNSELING: The Why

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.

RELIGIOUS PREMARITAL COUNSELING

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.

Catholic

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. 

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