What Exactly Is Premarital Counseling, and Why Are So Many Modern Couples Doing It?

What Exactly Is Premarital Counseling, and Why Are So Many Modern Couples Doing It?
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Relationship counseling: It’s not just for married couples anymore. Nowadays, tons of engaged people are enjoying the benefits of premarital counseling—and it’s not just because they’re already on the rocks.

To be clear, we’re not talking about powwowing with a priest, a rabbi, or another type of spiritual leader before your wedding, but rather seeing a licensed therapist or counselor as a couple to talk through present issues before embarking on the whole “till death do us part” journey. Some find it an admirable choice, and yet the practice makes some people uncomfortable—or at least makes them believe that getting a tune-up before committing to a lifetime together is somehow wrong.

If you feel that way, consider this: A 2004 study published in the journal Family Relations found that the average person who participated in a premarital counseling program was significantly better off afterward than 79 percent of people who didn’t participate and that counseling produced immediate and short-term gains in interpersonal skills and overall relationship quality.

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Still not sold? To help clear the air about what, exactly, premarital counseling is, who it’s for, and whether you should give it go, we recruited Jean Fitzpatrick, a New York City licensed psychologist to shed some light on the subject.

What’s the purpose of premarital counseling?

[It’s] primarily an opportunity for marriage education. Couples learn how to nurture their relationship over a lifetime. They learn communication techniques and tools that nurture intimacy and turn conflict into an opportunity to build understanding and a richer connection. They get research findings on the patterns of a lifelong relationship, including information on periods that are typically high-stress in a marriage. We also discuss specific areas that often challenge couples—work-life integration, time management, children, money, spirituality, sex, support system, infidelity prevention, and extended family.

Do you suggest it for every couple? Or just those with concrete problems?

All engaged couples can benefit from premarital counseling. An engagement is often an intense period of figuring out how to be an individual in the context of a couple and how to be a couple in the context of family and friend groups. For couples who are arguing a lot or avoiding hot-button topics instead of finding constructive ways to deal with them, we do often zero in on their particular issues. But premarital counseling is a tremendous help in guiding couples in the care and feeding of a lifelong relationship, with all its challenges.

Do you suggest couples come to you with specific gripes?

Sure! We’ll move beyond finger-pointing and talk about how two people, always imperfect, can be more sensitive and compassionate to each other.

On average, how many sessions do you suggest?

Most couples do three to five sessions.

Do you suggest discussing how couples might handle problems down the road? What are common issues?

Yes. For example, the transition to parenthood is challenging for most couples. They take great joy in their new baby but have a hard time staying connected to each other, and it’s challenging to navigate work and family. Couples who have a heads-up about the difficulties of this period are better prepared to deal with it and less likely to decide they must have chosen the “wrong” partner.

What are the downsides to premarital counseling?

Couples who have been avoiding difficult topics may find it scary to begin talking about them. But research tells us that avoidance in a relationship usually leads to long-term damage. In premarital counseling, partners can learn to confront tough topics constructively.

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Originally published October 2015. Updated May 2017.