Premarital counseling supports couples in order to build a healthy and solid foundation ahead of the long-term commitment of marriage.1 It also helps couples identify areas of conflict in the relationship and provide effective tools to address those areas to prevent them from becoming serious issues in the future. Premarital Counseling can help couples regardless of their gender, race or religion.
What Is Premarital Counseling?
Premarital counseling or therapy helps partners have a healthier marriage by setting realistic expectations through improving their communication and conflict resolution. It also addresses issues such as finances, affection and sexuality, family of origin strengths and issues, spiritual beliefs, and values. These conversations and awareness prepare partners to set a positive attitude towards couple therapy, if problems emerge down the road.2
What Is Discussed in Premarital Counseling?
Premarital counseling is a time for partners to engage on a deeper level about strategies for healthy communication, as well as issues that may come up later in their marriage.
These topics include:
Expectations Around Marriage
“Love isn’t something that we find, it’s something that we do,” Clint Black.
It is not uncommon for couples to feel dissatisfaction in their marriage because of a decline in positive behavior after marriage. Setting realistic expectations about marriage means that the relationship will require frequent deposits in order to flourish and remain healthy.3
Another important expectation is the roles of partners during marriage. Will they have an egalitarian marriage? Or a traditional one? What are their expectations around work, career, and parenting? Couples need to have these crucial conversations to go into marriage with realistic expectations.
Effective communication calls for active listening from each partner to truly understand what the other person is saying and what is their inner experience. Unfortunately, many couples (especially during conflict) are thinking of their response as the other person is speaking, so they are not really paying attention to the conversation. Premarital counseling teaches couples active listening skills, a key skill for healthy communication.
Conflict resolution refers to giving couples tools for conflict management. Skills like keeping complaints and requests specific. For example, “when X happened, I felt Y, but I want Z.” Listening generously, validating the other person’s feelings, and seeing things through their eyes are crucial when there is disagreement.
Also, conflict resolution involves teaching couples to claim responsibility in conflict. As an exercise, each partner might say, “what I learn from this is___” and take accountability for their part in the conflict. For example: a partner would say, “my part is I didn’t tell you that I will be late coming home from work. Next time, I will give you a call, so I don’t keep you waiting.”
Values and Needs
Couples would examine their needs around freedom, autonomy, inclusion, exclusion, self-identity, responsibility, and religious beliefs etc. With the support of a trained counselor, a discussion is stimulated around the issues that couples face as they enter marriage. A couple would agree or disagree to certain statements, but the main goal is to listen to the themes and needs that are expressed behind each choice.
These statements might be something like: “it doesn’t matter which one of us makes more money since it’s all ours anyway.” Or, “those who are paying should have the final approval for the wedding plans.” Partners would talk openly and discuss those statements.
Family of Origin Patterns
Emotional patterns are handed down in families just as physical traits are. In other words, a person doesn’t only inherit the shape of their face from their parents, they also may inherit a debilitating anxiety or a strange obsession, which can affect important relationships in the future.
Therapists trained in family systems use a family diagram or genogram, which reveals patterns of behavior through different generations of the family. Couples identify healthy and unhealthy patterns in their families and decide which patterns they choose to keep and what they want to change.4
Addressing Challenging Topics
Issues like finances, sex and children can be difficult to communicate. Sometimes partners feel that they are going around in circles without reaching a resolution. Therefore, it is recommended to have a safe and a neutral therapist to guide the conversation and examine the feelings and underlying needs in the conversation—which leads to empathy and understanding among partners.
Couples bring into a romantic relationship a belief around how their financial life will work. Each partner’s beliefs are often created subconsciously, influenced by their families, friends, society and gender-related expectations, but rarely are these expectations talked about.
Couples in this session speak about how to set a shared budget and how to listen to each other’s concerns, fears, and complaints around money. They would also speak about any potential debt that each person brings into the relationship—and if there is a decision for one spouse to be a stay-at-home parent should they have children.3
Intimacy, Sexuality, and Affection
According to sex educator, Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. and the author of Come as You Are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life, around 15% of women have a spontaneous desire, meaning they want sex out of the blue. Thirty per cent experience responsive desire—meaning they want sex only when something erotic is already happening. The rest, or almost half of women, experience a mix of the two, based on context.14 This information is relevant for couples in a long-term relationship.
Additionally, renowned couple’s therapist Esther Perel speaks about Erotic Intelligence—or reconciling sensuality with domesticity—and the need to balance novelty and familiarity in a relationship.15 Sex education is crucial so that couples have a realistic expectation of their sex life in the long haul.
Premarital Counseling Examples
Premarital counseling is a time to explore the unique sticking points that a couple is facing. This may include working on active listening or thinking through parenting styles for a blended family.
Case Example 1: Active Listening, Creating a Couple’s Wish List
A couple in their late twenties comes for premarital counseling. They are given a worksheet and asked to write a wish list of the things that they need from each other, then they are asked to state how they would feel if this need is met by their partner. She says that she wishes he would be more social by joining her when she goes out with her family or friends. He says he wishes she could be more organized around the house. He would feel calmer if she worked on her organization.11
The therapist asks them to do a three-step exercise:
- State their wish clearly and calmly to their partner and make eye contact
- Say how they would feel if this need is met by their partner
- Each partner repeats what they heard from the other.
The therapist explains that couples that are more assertive and say what they want have a better and a stronger relationship. Additionally, active listening is a skill that overtime helps couples to feel heard and more connected to each other.11
Case Example 2: Premarital Counseling for Step Families
A couple, who both have children from previous marriages, seek premarital counseling to address their new blended family. Even though the couple is harmonious and have healthy communication skills, they are concerned that their couple-ness will not translate into family-ness. They seek premarital counseling to work out how to approach parenting decisions.11
When the therapist meets with them, he explains that getting married for the second time can be a huge strength. He says that they both have realistic expectations around what marriage is actually like, versus wearing rose-colored glasses that idealize marriage. He also highlights their strong commitment to make it work and apply the wisdom they acquired from their previous experience.
The therapist asks them how they make joint decisions regarding their parenting. They do not see eye to eye when it comes to their children attending church activities. The therapist asks them, “What is your ideal scenario, and what are the motivations behind it?” Partners reflect on their different views, then the male partner sees that the meaning beyond his wife’s desire to attend church activities is a need for everyone to be together. This creates empathy and understanding around their differences.11
Case Example 3: Premarital Counseling for Conflicted Couples
A couple in their early forties came to the session seeking premarital counseling. She reports that she would like him to help more with house chores. Her partner wasn’t looking at her when she was speaking. Therapist pointed out his non-verbal communication and asked him to tune into her visually, too.
The therapist asked the male partner to summarize what he heard her say. He started to defend himself by saying: “I hear I don’t help around the house, but I do.” The therapist stops him and explains that the exercise is to listen, even if we don’t agree. The therapist asks the male partner to say what he heard and re-assures him that he will get a chance to express himself.11
The therapist highlights that the goal of active listening is to tune in to what each partner is saying and not rush to respond. He emphasizes that it is hard, but it is a useful skill. The therapist coaches the couple to practice active listening, then he moves on to praise their commitment to the relationship by seeking counseling and listening and not reacting to one another.11
Cost of Premarital Counseling
The cost of premarital counseling will vary depending on the credentials of the counselor and the setting in which the service is offered. Faith-based premarital counseling or online premarital counseling can cost less than a licensed therapist.
Premarital counselors usually have an hourly rate, and some offer discounts on packages.12 The average cost of premarital therapy ranges from $125 to $175 per session, putting the cost for five sessions at around $600. The majority of the couples do around five sessions, which would put the average cost at $625 to $875.12
Number of Sessions
The number of premarital counseling sessions is determined based on the therapist, the goals of the couple, and how healthy or strong the relationship is. If the couple is facing serious issues, it may be beneficial for them to attend more sessions. The timeline for premarital counseling can range from one session to 12 sessions or more.12
Usually insurance doesn’t cover couple’s therapy unless there is a mental health issue, yet some insurances do cover premarital therapy. Typically, an HSA or FSA can be used to cover marriage therapy or premarital counseling.12
Possible Premarital Counseling/Therapy Providers
Range (per one-hour session)
|Secular Premarital Counselors|
Therapists with a graduate degree or post graduate degree in counseling or Social Work or Marriage and
Some therapists offer Sliding Scale based on income.
|Church Affiliated Sessions|
Some churches offer its active members (or non -members) free pre-marriage counseling. Some churches
Even though the opportunity of having a one-on-one therapy is missed this option is good for busy couples.
How to Find a Premarital Counselor
Many Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists offer premarital counseling as part of their practice. Some of them accept insurance, too. Some hospitals, community centers, or community clinics offer affordable premarital counseling as well.6 A location search for affordable therapists can be found on American Psychological Association (APA), National Association of Social Workers, or American Association for Marriage and Family Therapist (AAMFT).
Who Is Able to Offer Premarital Counseling?
Premarital Counseling can be offered by:
- Listened Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs): Most marriage and family therapists offer premarital counseling as part of their work.6
- Religious Leaders: Some religions strongly recommend that partners do premarital counseling or even mandate that couples complete faith-based premarital counseling.9 Some ministers act as counselors and have taken courses in counseling, though they are not licensed therapists.
- Workshops: Couples who don’t wish to see a therapist one-on-one can participate in a workshop to learn effective strategies to communicate and resolve conflict. This is ideal for busy couples. It also offers an opportunity to learn from other couples in the workshop.
- Workbooks, Self-help books, DVDs, and other materials: Seeking premarital counseling material is an alternative when money and time are constraints to working with a counselor. Most of the material is written by mental health professionals, although it is not a substitute for working with a therapist.6
Pre-marriage prep material is offered in different forms to meet the needs of different couples. While many premarital counseling materials are written from a Christian point of view or by Christian writers, there are also some resources for secular partners.7
Key Questions to Ask a Premarital Counselor or Therapist
Some questions you may want to ask a therapist or religious leader before beginning premarital counseling include:
- What is your training, background and education?
- Do you also have counselor training and education? If so, what kind? (Marriage and Family Therapy, Social Work, Counseling).
- What is your approach to premarital counseling, is it faith-based or secular?
- How long is the premarital counseling program?
- What are the topics that we are going to cover?
- Do you use assessments or evidence- based tools in your premarital counseling program?
- What is your specialization within couple’s therapy—high-conflict couples, bi-cultural couples, co-dependency issues, etc.?
- Ask if the therapist is willing to provide a 15-minute free consultation call to see if you are a good match.
What to Expect at Your First Appointment
At your first appointment, your session with a premarital counselor might include:
- Checking in: Asking how each partner feels about premarital counseling, and seeing if each partner feels nervous or excited.
- Administrative information such as fees, appointment cancelation policies, how crises will be handled, confidentiality and its limits.
- Information about the therapist’s approach and the premarital therapy program—what topics will be discussed.
- Warm-up: ask the couple questions such as, “How did you meet?” “How long have you been together?” “When is the wedding?” “How is the planning for the wedding going?”
- Establish their expectations and goals from premarital counseling, and ask why they chose to engage in premarital counseling.
- Depending on the therapist’s approach, they may give the couple an assessment or have them do an active listening exercise as a basic foundation for good communication.
Is Premarital Counseling Effective?
According to a study published by the Journal of Family Psychology, premarital counseling is associated with higher levels of marital satisfaction, lower levels of destructive conflicts, and higher levels of interpersonal commitment to spouses. The study also revealed that premarital education decreases the chance of divorce by 31 per cent.8
Renowned couples’ therapists John and Julie Gottman, who founded the Gottman Institute, say that premarital counseling and couples workshops provide a healthy foundation from the beginning of a relationship. According to Gottman Institute Research, couples who experience relationship challenges wait an average of six years before they seek professional support.
Premarital counseling is suggested for couples with untroubled relationships, as it provides tools to address thoughts and concerns around the relationship. Couples also feel more comfortable seeking therapy if problems arise during their marriage.6
Challenges of Premarital Counseling
While premarital counseling can be an effective tool for people who are getting married, there are some challenges that couples may face that inhibit their ability to fully engage in the process.
Anxiety & Fear
Some partners dread therapy over concerns that deeper issues will be discussed—sometimes for the first time. Difficult issues and points of view can be discussed and dealt with successfully in therapy, but some partners realize that their differences are irreconcilable and choose not to proceed with the marriage.6
While premarital counseling offers a safe space to talk about the relationship and the role of each partner, sometimes it is difficult or hurtful to hear what the other partner truly thinks or feels. This can bring short-term conflict, but can eventually be resolved with the support of a trained therapist, leading to a marriage that is built on a strong foundation.6
Time & Money
Some Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) don’t accept insurance, making it difficult to access premarital counseling. In this case, some doctors or health care providers may be able to recommend affordable premarital counseling. For others, time can be a challenge. A couple may find it hard to put in the time commitment needed for the sessions. Some therapists offer a flexible schedule, but other times resources such as seminars, workbooks and DVDs are an alternative.