Premarital counseling supports couples 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, age, race, or religion.
What Is Premarital Counseling?
Premarital counseling is a type of couples therapy that helps partners have a healthier marriage before it begins by setting realistic expectations, improving their communication, and working on conflict resolution. It addresses issues such as finances, affection and sexuality, family of origin, strengths and issues, spiritual beliefs, and values. These conversations prepare partners for when problems emerge down the road.2
6 Reasons to Attend 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.
Here are six reasons to attend pre-marriage counseling:
1. Discuss Expectations Around Marriage
It isn’t 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.
2. Practice Healthy Communication
Effective communication in a relationship calls for active listening from each partner to truly understand what the other person is saying and their inner experience. Unfortunately, many couples (especially during relationship 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.
3. Learn Conflict Resolution
Conflict resolution refers to giving couples tools for conflict management, like keeping complaints and requests specific. For example, “When X happened, I felt Y, but I wanted Z.” Listening generously, validating the other person’s feelings, and seeing things through their eyes are crucial when there is a 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 might 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.”
4. Discuss Values & Needs
Couples examine their needs around freedom, autonomy in the relationship, inclusion, exclusion, self-identity, responsibility, religious beliefs, etc. With the support of a trained counselor, a discussion is focused 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’re 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.
5. Explore 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
6. Address Challenging Topics
Issues like finances, sex, and children can be difficult to communicate. Sometimes partners feel that they’re 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—which leads to empathy and understanding among partners.
Here are a couple challenging topics you might discuss in pre-marriage counseling:
- Financial management: 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.3
- Intimacy, Sexuality, & Affection: talking about sexual expectations is crucial so that couples have a realistic expectation of their sex life in the long haul. There is a lot of relevant information to cover including desire, expectations, and sex drive.5,6
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.
Here are three premarital counseling examples:
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.7
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 who are more assertive and say what they want have a better and a stronger relationship. Additionally, active listening is a skill that helps couples feel heard and more connected to each other over time.7
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.7
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.7
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 asks the male partner to summarize what he heard her say. He starts defending 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’ll get a chance to express himself.7
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’s 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.7
Types of Premarital Counseling/Therapy
There are many different types of premarital counseling with different modalities. It is important to talk about your goals of therapy and issues with your premarital counselor to learn together what modality may be a good fit for your relationship.
The Gottman Method focuses on building friendship, resolving conflict, intention setting, and minimizing the frequency of criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. The emphasis of the Gottman Method is on building love maps and connections as a partnership.
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)
EFT is based on attachment theory and building healthy adult attachment by dismantling intense negative emotions. Couples learn healthy ways to manage conflict and difficult emotions in their marriage.
Psychodynamic Couples Therapy
Psychodynamic couples therapy helps couples understand their own and their partner’s fears, hopes and dreams that motivate them to behave the way they do. This is helpful to know going into a marriage so the couple can learn ways to complement these differences and find ways to stay connected in the face of disagreement.
Cost of Pre-marriage Counseling
The cost of couples therapy and 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.8 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 $875.8
How Many Sessions Will We Attend?
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.8
Does Insurance Cover Premarital Counseling?
Insurance doesn’t typically 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.8 Some premarital therapists offer Sliding Scale based on income.
Here are possible premarital counseling/therapy providers and their cost range (per one-hour session):
- Secular premarital counselors ($50 – $175): these are therapists with a graduate or postgraduate degree in counseling or Social Work or Marriage and Family Therapy by a regulatory body like the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).
- Church affiliated sessions ($25-$125): Some churches offer its active members (or non-members) free, pre-marriage counseling. Some churches include premarital counseling as part of the fee to rent the church.9
- Group seminar ($100-$300): even though the opportunity of having one-on-one therapy is missed, this option is good for busy couples. It also allows the opportunity to learn from the experience of other couples. Group seminars happen in one session.9
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.10 If you’re ready to find a premarital counselor, you can start your search through an online therapist directory.
Who Offers Premarital Counseling?
Pre-marriage prep material is offered in different forms to meet the needs of different couples. While some many premarital counseling materials are written from a Christian point of view or by Christian writers, there are also resources for secular partners.11
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.10
- Religious leaders: Some religions strongly recommend that partners do premarital counseling or even mandate that couples complete faith-based premarital counseling.12 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.10
- Online premarital counseling: Online premarital counseling can also be completed via live video sessions with a counselor or through an online course.
Key Questions to Ask a Premarital Counselor or Therapist
You may want to ask a premarital therapist or religious leader a few questions before beginning premarital counseling about their tracing, background, and education, among other things.
Here are key questions to ask a premarital counselor or therapist:
- 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 premarital 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 an emotional check-in (asking how each partner feels) and administrative tasks or information.
Here are other things to expect at your first premarital appointment:
- Information about the therapist’s approach and the premarital therapy program
- Establish expectations and goals
- Depending on the therapist’s approach, they may give the couple an assessment or have them do an active listening exercise
How to Prepare for Premarital Counseling
It is important to go in with an open mind and to be open about what the counselor may ask of you, your history, your partner’s history, and your relationship history. It will take work from both people in the relationship, so having an open mind will help you both in the long run.
Be prepared to talk about your:
- Also be prepared to discuss:
- Religion/spiritual beliefs
- Gender and sexuality
- Past trauma
- History of family of origin
- History of therapy
- Relationship preferences (open marriage, poly, etc)
- Socio-economic status
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%.13
While counseling can be an effective tool for people who are getting married, there are some premarital 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.10
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.10
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. Some therapists offer a flexible schedule, but other times resources such as seminars, workbooks, and DVDs are an alternative.
Benefits of Attending Premarital Counseling
There are many benefits of premarital counseling that can help you both feel confident and secure moving into a marriage.
Benefits of premarital counseling include:
- Improving deep connection
- Improving communication
- Approaching relationship problems as a team
- Learning new things about their partner and themselves
- Broadening intimacy
- Finding ways to move forward from conflict and accept each other
Premarital counseling can be helpful for couples and give them a good handle on how to manage issues in their marriage. It takes both people in a relationship to make premarital counseling meaningful and worthwhile, so going in with an open mind and with an honest heart will go a long way for your relationship.
For Further Reading
- Best Books for a Healthy Marriage
- Best Books About Self Improvement
- Podcasts all about couples counseling and relationships
- Lasting App – A self-guided couples counseling tool to use alongside marriage & couples counseling