WEDDINGS
02/22/2014 02:30 pm ET | Updated Feb 22, 2014

Everything You Need To Know About Premarital Counseling

By Sharon Naylor for Bridal Guide

While you're planning your wedding, are you also preparing for your marriage? According to a survey published in the Journal of Family Psychology, couples with premarital education reported higher levels of marital satisfaction and experienced a 30 percent decline in the likelihood of divorce over five years. (This topic is especially timely because Colorado has proposed a ballot that would require engaged couples to complete premarital counseling before they’re legally allowed to wed.)

If you're getting married in a house of worship, then you might already have faith-based marriage classes booked in your schedule, since some churches and synagogues mandate them. And if you're not among the engaged couples required to get counseling, then you may be curious about whether or not it's worth taking the plunge. 

Here, get a comprehensive look at how an accredited counselor can help you build a solid foundation for your future together. Also, find out what you should discuss with your future spouse before walking down the aisle.

The Benefits of Marriage Counseling

Creating positive marriage resolutions. It's easy to get emotional when discussing heavy-duty topics like money, sex, and kids. An experienced counselor can help guide the conversation and prevent you and your partner from going off on a tangent, thereby losing focus and not accomplishing anything.

Learning (or improving) conflict resolution skills. If you've had some major tiffs or blowouts in the past (and who hasn't?) then you both know how you tend to react during arguments, whether it's wielding the silent treatment and pouting or yelling and name-calling. If you're being honest with yourself, then there's probably room for improvement. A counselor will teach you how to listen and communicate more effectively; more specifically, they'll also tell you what to say (and not say) in order to reach a happy solution. 

Getting realistic expectations about timing. For example, if you come to an agreement that the kids topic is off the table for two years, then you won't be left anxious or frustrated when you want to delve into that plan and your partner isn't ready. This also applies to major purchases like buying a house.

Avoiding toxic resentments. Clear the air about resentments you've been hanging onto throughout your relationship. A counselor will help you resolve these issues and free yourselves from them so that they don't cause massive damage later on in your marriage.

Dismantling fears about marriage. One or both of you might come from a divorced family, or from a dysfunctional background where fighting and manipulation was the norm. Premarital counseling can teach you how to make peace with your past and break the cycle.

Identifying the "seeds" of future marital stress. With an experienced outsider's perspective, you can learn which behaviors and habits you need to adjust or quit cold turkey.

Address any Concerns You Might Have

Money. Counseling sessions can be pricey and you might not be able to shift your budget to make room for this investment. Ask your wedding coordinator or officiant to help point you toward free or low-cost counseling resources like a community clinic or teaching hospital. In addition, you can check out the American Psychological Association or the National Association of Social Workers to find affordable counselors located within your area. 

Time. Classes will take a chunk out of your schedule so if you both put in long hours at work and your weekends are packed with activities, it can be a challenge to make and keep appointments or be fully present and engaged when you're in them. In spite of this, it still might be worth your time to do it.

Fear of unearthing additional problems. It can be unnerving to begin the process of premarital counseling because you and/or your groom might worry that examining your relationship under a microscope can lead to more stress and issues. In fact, although this can be hurtful in the short term, it can be very helpful in the long run.

Being humbled. It's neither easy nor fun to learn that you have less-than-stellar communication skills or find out that your groom isn't happy with your sex life. Even something as simple as hearing that he'd like more decompression time when he gets home from work can make you feel scolded, so you need to be prepared for some tough truths. It's important for you and your future spouse to remove your egos from the equation and allow yourselves to be open to constructive criticism, with the knowledge that in the process, you'll become a better husband and wife.

Remember this: As challenging as premarital counseling can be, it's all for the best and you're putting in the effort that's required to make your marriage work.

How to Make the Most Out of Your Sessions

Accept that it’s going to be challenging at times. It's a mistake to think that marriage counseling is just a scheduling session for when you'll have kids, or buy a house, or move to an island when you retire.

Remember that the goal is not to "win." Both partners need to keep an open mind and be willing to change things that aren't working.

Keep your sessions completely private. Don't chat with bridesmaids, your mother, or anyone else about the things you've discussed, and don't even think about posting anything on Facebook that could embarrass your partner. Trust is essential to improving upon any relationship and 100 percent discretion is necessary.

Express gratitude to your partner. Tell your future spouse that you're thankful they're willing to attend counseling with you and for the great work you're doing together.

While it’s a great advantage to have a professional counselor guiding you, you might find that it's easier if you just discuss all the hot topics and future plans in the comfort of your own home. Use the following questions to get the conversation started about your expectations, hopes and values.

Questions to Ask Your Future Spouse

Values:

  • How will we handle conflict?
  • What are our zero-tolerance hot buttons (e.g. financial dishonesty, infidelity, drinking too much, gambling)? What are the repercussions of those missteps?
  • What are the most important values that we’ll keep in our relationship?

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Career:

  • What are our career goals (e.g. getting a second job or traveling more) and what will it take for us to reach them?
  • Do either of us plan to change careers, and if so, how will we adjust our lifestyle and budget to allow for a potentially lower household income? 
  • During busy times, will we be working late at night? On weekends? During vacations?

Finances:

  • What is our current financial situation, including our total debt, savings and retirement funds? 
  • How big of an emergency fund do we need to live well if one of us is out of work, or if we have an unexpected expense?
  • What is our monthly budget?
  • What can we establish as our individual "fun money" funds, and do we want to inform each other when we tap into them?
  • Who will pay for which of our household expenses and bills?

Intimacy:

  • Are we happy with our current lovemaking schedule, or do either of us want more?
  • If we’re not having as much sex as we would like, is it a matter of time or energy, and what can we do to remedy those barriers?
  • What’s the best way for each of us to express that we’d like more sex?
  • Do either of us want more romance? If so, what exactly are our most wished-for romantic gestures? More kissing? More hugs? Romantic dinners?

Kids:

  • When do we want to have kids?
  • How many kids do we plan to have?
  • If for some reason, we can’t have children, will we pursue adoption?
  • Will one of us stop working after we have children, and how will that affect our lifestyle and finances?
  • What do we want our children to learn from our relationship?
  • Will we raise our kids with religious beliefs and traditions?

Religion:

  • What are our independently-held or shared religious beliefs?
  • Would we like to re-connect to a religious or spiritual community?
  • What are our spiritual beliefs and practices, and how will we include them in our life?
  • If we each have different religious beliefs, how will we maintain our own traditions and combine them, if possible?

Household Duties:

  • Who will be responsible for which household chores?
  • Can we revisit our job division list in a few months, if either of us is unhappy with the balance of effort needed?
  • Do we have strong needs for our home to be spotless, or is a little bit of clutter okay?
  • Who will be responsible for meal-planning and meal preparations during the week and on the weekends?
  • Do either of us need and enjoy alone time? How will we make that happen?

Family Involvement:

  • How often will we visit our parents on a regular basis? Every weekend, or once in a while?
  • How will we divide the holidays fairly between our parents?
  • How will we deal with our respective family dramas?
  • How often will we vacation with our families, if ever? And if it’s not something one of us loves to do, how can we compromise (e.g. leaving after three days instead of staying the week)? 

Social Life:

  • How often will we spend time with our friends? Will we keep our regular Friday night happy hour plans with them or adjust to once a month or so to give us more time together as a couple?
  • How will we deal with each other’s friends we don’t like very much?
  • If a friend asks to stay at our house while they're in town, or if they're out of work, how will we handle that?
  • How often will we have date nights?
  • How often do we want to vacation together?

Hold on to this list and review these questions again in six months or so after your wedding, when you've adjusted to being married, to see if any of your responses and feelings have changed. 

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