Many couples do not consider premarital counseling as they go through the wedding planning process (Li, 2016). However, the clergy has been at the forefront of this concept for some time. Marital failure is particularly worrisome to most religious institutions in part because they frown upon divorce.
I have received numerous calls over the years from priests and rabbis requesting that I evaluate a couple because they have scored low in compatibility tests.
Some popular instruments used by the clergy and others to assess couples are Psychologia Compatibility Test which rates four temperaments in a couple (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic); The Gottman Relationship Checkup; and The Focus Inventory (ie, Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding & Study), which is widely used with Catholic couples in PreCana programs.
Nevertheless, couples are often annoyed with having to jump through yet another hoop to get married—one couple even threatened to leave the Catholic Church until I convinced them their priest had their best interests at heart. All the referring clergy I have dealt with showed a sincere concern for the couple.
Studies on the effectiveness of pre-marriage counseling have shown mixed results. In their study of 1,285 recently married Army couples, Schumm et al. (2000) found that premarital counseling had a negligible effect on subsequent marital satisfaction. But the couples participating in premarital counseling were more likely to consult a marriage and family therapist if problems arose or worsened. These results were supported by Williamson et al. (2018) in a study which also included low-income couples.
In contrast to the previous studies mentioned, prevention programs such as the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) have proven to increase relationship satisfaction levels (Renick et al., 1992; Fereydoun et al., 2020). Stanley (2001) reported that premarital counseling lowered divorce rates by 31 percent. Carlson et al. (2012) found that couples who participated in premarital counseling were better off than 80 percent of the couples that did not.
In a report on Iranian couples, Alizadeh et al. (2021) reported that premarital counseling can include a wide range of knowledge about the purpose of marriage, help couples become aware of reproductive health issues and base their sexual relationship on the right foundation, and help the couple to create a happier, more stable marriage .
Sinrich (2018) found that couples can: 1. Get to know each other in a deeper way; 2. Improve communication skills; 3. Nurture their intimacy; 4. Work at their differences; 5. Adjust expectations; and 6. Learn how to handle their soon-to-be joint finances.
And Gazzar (222) contended that premarital counseling helps partners by setting realistic expectations via improving their communication and conflict resolution skills. It can also address family of origin issues, finances, sexual problems, and spiritual beliefs and values.
Despite positive findings, only 36 percent of married or committed couples attend premarital counseling (Miguel, 2022). Smith (2020) claimed the reason for this is “anxiety.” The author believed that couples are nervous about freely expressing themselves because they are concerned it would cause even more problems in their relationship.
Li (2016) listed several reasons for the avoidance of premarital counseling: 1. Too busy (eg, the wedding takes up too much time and energy); 2. Skeptical (eg, is it really going to help?); 3. Worried about wedding costs (eg, weddings can be very expensive and oftentimes couples go into great debt for one); 4. Scared (eg, fear and anxiety of what may come up in sessions); and 5. Do not know who to see (eg, some couples do not know where to start and fear choosing the wrong therapist).
We all know the divorce rates at this point: approximately 50 percent for first marriages, 60 percent for second marriages, and 73 percent for third marriages (World Population Review, 2022). And we also know how little preparation we receive in elementary school, high school, and college on marriage. A casting director of a television show once asked me when I was interviewing as a potential host what would I tell America about marriage if I could.
My answer was: “We do not need another math course. We really need a course on marriage because this will be the hardest thing we will ever do in our lives.” But unlike other therapists, I am not so much worried about improving couple communication skills. As I have written elsewhere, most couples do not exhibit poor communication, partners just do not like what they are hearing.
Four Tenets of Premarital counseling
The following are four tenets that I value most, and I believe, should be addressed in premarital counseling:
1. Know Yourself–I prefer that partners focus on knowing themselves at the deepest level possible and identify what he/she wants from their counterpart. This will take courage partly because you will have to be vulnerable in the present or suffer the consequences later. For example, if your partner claims to want a good provider and you do not enjoy working long hours, or you prefer that he/she carry the financial load, address this.
If you fail to, your partner may develop unrealistic expectations which can lead to anger, resentment, and disappointment on their part. As part of this process, remember to ask yourself where your needs specifically come from. In this case you may have an internalized a “need to be taken care of” if you were parentified (which can lead to early burnout) or infantilized (treated like a baby or given little responsibility) in your family of origin. Knowing yourself can also help you avoid making the same poor choices in relationships repeatedly.
2. Know Your Partner–Face reality and assess your partner’s capability to please you. Pay attention to cues and clues that can give you an idea what the future will look like with this person. Some partners are selfish and focus on their own needs; others try hard but are simply limited in this capacity; some cannot make a commitment if their very life depended on it.
Then, either accept your partner’s limitations or find someone who is more qualified to satisfy you. Do not go into a marriage with the fantasy that your partner is perfect. Also, do not go into a relationship with the mindset that you will change this person or that the person will get better; they might, but do not count on it. In my clinical experience, whatever behavior you see in the dating phase will exacerbate in the marital phase.
If your prospective wife, for example, is inseparable from her mother or deeply enmeshed in her family of origin, do not expect her to suddenly differentiate once she is married to you. You may in fact experience an increase in enmeshment especially if she has children and is even more dependent on her mother. And last, if you find that you are asking too much, explore why. Are you unconsciously setting your partner up to fail?
3. Assess Your Partner’s Openness–Everyone has problems. It is rare that someone comes from a perfectly harmonious background with little emotional baggage. And that’s okay. Do not waste time looking for or expecting perfection. Rather, as part of getting to know your partner, explore whether he/she is willing to face a problem should one arise and put the time into solving it.
You might also want to measure his/her tenacity in doing so. Some people were raised in conflict-avoidant families that routinely harvested secrets and failed to address even the biggest of family crises. Look no further than the mounds of examples of enabling families who work hard to hide severe mental illness or substance issue in their respective families.
Regardless of the reason for this type of blockage (eg, shame), your prospective partner’s ability to be open is important for the long-term health of the relationship.
4. Assess the Level of Discord–Many couples enter premarital counseling with big problems. And even though they seem willing to work on them, the level of strife is too great to make the time productive. If you and your partner are incessantly arguing so early in your relationship, this is a bad sign. If you have broken up several times or one or both has cheated before or after engagement, there is clearly an ambivalence that merits investigation. For those that have lived together, this assessment should be even easier.
I am sure there are even more benefits from attending premarital counseling, but again, I warn couples not to dwell on the symptoms and to find the underlying cause of their difficulty. Marrying or living together is a serious commitment and these arrangements are much easier to get into then to get out of so it is best to do everything you can to help ensure its success.