What is Premarital Counseling?

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Engaged couples were some of my favorite customers when I was drawing caricatures at fairs and festivals.

In 2006 a high school student interviewed me for a paper she was writing about my services as a premarital counselor. Here are my answers.

 1. How long have you been working in the counseling field and specifically working with couples in premarital counseling?

33 years (23 in churches, 10 as full time marriage and family therapist/conflict mediator).

 2. Can you provide (a few) important specifics about your program? e.g. length of the program or requirements before marriage?

Participation is voluntary so there are no set requirements. Couples typically meet for 6 sessions during which time we look at the results of the on line inventory they took individually (Prepare-Enrich). Some couples come 3 times, others find it so helpful they come ten or more times. Some make it a 6 month ritual to come in after getting married for a tune up. Blending lives is challenging and we’re happy to offer all the help couples need.

Another thing that distinguishes our program is that it’s built on several unique features—the things I’ve learned from couples for 3 decades, the things I’ve learned being married for 30 years, and the things I’ve learned from cutting edge research from people like Gottman, Wyle, Christiansen/Jacobson (among others).

3. Have you found any need to change your premarital counseling methods or workshops over the years and if so how have you adapted them?

Great question  Yes. When I started I rarely counseled cohabiting couples. Now non sexually active couples are the exception. I rarely did blended families. Now that’s a huge percentage of our work (second/third marriages).  I started in a church context where spirituality was taken for granted. Now I don’t assume any religious background.

4. How do you incorporate Christian beliefs and Biblical principles into premarital counseling?

Another great question. The inventory we use cited above evaluates 11 areas of a couple’s strengths and growth areas, spirituality being one of them.  Couples with significant differences in this area (as in all areas) find it helpful to discuss those differences and brainstorm ways to either reduce the differences or learn to live with them.  I respect those with little or no faith background.  If couples ask how my wife and I made it 30 years I then describe the spiritual basis of our lives/family.

5. Have you ever experienced or given premarital counseling not from a Christian perspective?

I am a champion of marital monogamy, fidelity, and equality which are spin offs of my Christian faith. So in that sense, all my counseling is inspired by or informed by historic Christian values.  I have had Hindu, atheist, fundamentalist, RCC, and Protestant clients….they hire me to coach them on how be happily married for a long time so they learn from me the principles/strategies that increase the odds of a long term marriage, although they may not realize those principles are inspired by the Christian faith.  I’m not “preachy,” if that makes any sense.

6. Given that Catholic churches and some protestant ministers require premarital counseling, how do you think participation would be effected it was not required?

I think it’s a good thing that many churches require premarital counseling before performing a ceremony. Statistics suggest those who spend a bunch of hours prior to the ceremony talking about the challenges of marriage fare better than those who do Vegas style weddings. I’m not sure my clientele would decrease since if couples look hard enough they could find someone to do the ceremony without requiring premarital counseling. This is an investment many couples are eager to make.

7. Do you feel that premarital counseling of some form should be required before any marriage (including secular non-religious marriages)?

The oft cited anecdote is: it’s easier to get married than it is to get a driver’s license……and the ramifications of healthy/unhealthy marriages are far more life changing than driving a car. So, yes, given the social/emotional wear and tear of divorce, I’m a strong advocate for requirements.

7a. if so, how do you think it would be appropriate to communicate this requirement to those who are not seeking a religious ceremony?

I’d pitch such requirements to a secular audience the same way doctors pitch diet and exercise. Regardless of your spiritual orientation, avoiding junk food is good for you. Likewise, stable, monogamous marriages are good for couples. I also do divorce mediation,  helping couples work out property division and parenting plans. It’s agony to see the anger, bitterness, and acrimony. Visiting a divorce court would create a great incentive for doing all one can prior to getting married to avoid a dissolution.

8. Most of the literature states that premarital counseling overall helps with better communication and more positive relations in marriage, would you agree or disagree with these findings?

I agree totally.

9. Do you think premarital counseling lowers the risk of divorce or distress in marriage?

Premarital counseling lowers the risk of divorce but NOT (in my opinion) marital distress. Distress will happen. People change, the glow of romance fades, stress happens (job loss, money problems, kids, illness, irritations). The things that draw one person to another often end up driving that person crazy. “I used to love his spontaneity, now his haphazard life drives me crazy.” “I used to love her ambition and hard working character; now she can’t rest and I’m pooped.” Premarital counseling won’t prevent these things from happening but will give tools to couples to know what to do when (not if) they occur.

One of the primary messages of premarital counseling is, “When the poop hits the fan, don’t panic. It happens to all of us.” In that sense, premarital counselors normalize the challenges. Most couples have an idealistic and distorted view of how blissful life will be but when his hobbies irritate her or her family irritates him they accept it as normal and it reduces the temptation to bail. As you know, the statistics are abysmal for long term relationships.

10. (Personal Experience) Did you go through premarital counseling before you got married?

Yes.

10a. if so, do the values and practices from premarital counseling still exist in your life today?

Yes. Even though we had premarital counseling in 1976 (during the Carter administration!) the ideas we learned there have served us well through job changes, financial stress, kids, illness, irritations, etc. By the way, did you write these Qs? If so, good job! You’re on your way to being an excellent researcher. Hope this helped. If I can be of further assistance, please ask.

~Erik

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