My husband and I were excited to exchange vows and join in marital union. But we were also excited about attending pre-marital counseling sessions. My naivete is showing, but I was honestly under the impression that everyone did pre-martial counseling before saying ‘I do’. I thought that was just part of the process. It didn’t really occur to me that there are a lot of people who don’t see the value in counseling, and are even vehemently against it.
Shaquan and I are talkers, and with our relationship dynamic set up the way it was, we were basically having in-depth conversations all the time. Even though we were very confident in our decision to get married, there was still a lot of value in our counseling sessions. I want to take some time to explain why I’m so glad we ended up doing those sessions as well as why I think everyone should do this as well.
Marriage in the U.S.
Researchers estimate that 41% of all first marriages end in divorce. The average first marriage that ends in divorce typically lasts about 8 years.
These are pretty somber statistics, and I would imagine it to be difficult for the average person to be ‘excited’ about marriage knowing that, statistically speaking, they only have a 50/50 chance of a lifelong marriage.
Obviously, no one goes into their marriage with expectations for a divorce. But there are reasons why a lot of marriages end this way. In a study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), 31 men and 21 women were put into a ‘PREP’ (prevention and relationship enhancement program) to focus on conflict resolution skills before getting married. The study surveyed couples that ended up divorcing years after the course had passed to figure out some of the most common reasons leading to divorce.
Topics such as religious differences, family issues, cultural differences, finances, and lack of conflict resolution were among the reasons as to why people ended up calling it quits. However, pre-marital counseling addresses such topics and more.
I’m not trying to suggest that pre-marital counseling will guarantee that everything will go ‘just right’. However, I’m a firm believer that it allows couples to truly think about what lies ahead of them should they go through with marriage. It acknowledges strengths but also calls out points of correction that would need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Love is Not All You Need
Cute song, though. At the risk of sounding incredibly ‘unromantic’, I don’t believe love should be the only reason you marry someone. And I don’t think anything brings that to light more than pre-martial counseling. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe you should love that person, but it can’t be the only thing keeping the relationship together. You can ‘love’ someone but still be incredibly incompatible on a lot of different levels.
The truth about love is that it runs the danger of becoming a fleeting emotion. In actuality, love is a choice. This means that when the newness dissipates, when the butterflies go away, when we both don’t look the same as we did when first meeting, there has to be a much stronger foundation to keep things together. I’ve only been married for about four months, I’m not exactly Rafiki out here with the wisdom. But even my husband and I understand that we’re not always going to be happy with each other. We’re still growing and working on ourselves, so we will make mistakes and we become irritated with each other.
A big pet peeve I have is with the phrase “falling out of love”, because I don’t believe that exists. I think it’s very possible to stop feeling the thrill of new love, that things can start becoming ‘normal’ and less romantic, but I find the very idea of ‘falling out of love’ confusing.
Love is necessary. But you also need respect, patience, understanding, like-mindedness on how to deal with certain life situations, similar interests, etc.
The Uncomfortable (but Crucial) Conversations
A big reason I’m thankful that we did pre-marital counseling is that we were able to bring more depth to conversations that we’ve had before.
I feel that if a couple expects to spend the rest of their lives together, there are some crucial conversations that need to take place:
- How long will we live in this area? Are we planning to move? When?
- Do we both want children? How many? When should this happen?
- How do we figure out where we spend the holidays?
- How are we planning to handle our finances? Joint or separate accounts? How much are we saving or investing each month? What will we do to manage our spending habits?
- Do we want a pet? When? What kind?
- Do your goals/ambitions align with each other?
- What are our sexual preferences? What are the boundaries? How do we plan to talk about sexual conflict (frequency, methods, etc.)–yes, sexual intimacy can be talked about at Christian pre-marital counseling too!
Thankfully, a lot of these conversations had already taken place by the time we started our pre-marital counseling. Even the questions we thought we had the answer to, we found that we had to have deeper conversations about.
Another aspect of pre-marital counseling is that it brings up the topic of your own upbringing and how what differences it may have to your spouse. When it comes to how we view the world, how we receive long, how we communicate or deal with conflict, a lot of times it starts with how we were raised. We had to think about things like how our parents brought us up and how it may have affected our outlook on things like money, relationships, familial bonding, and love languages. On another note, it also made us think about the type of parents that we would want to be with our kids. Were we in agreement not just about when we would have kids or how many–but how we would actually raise them?
Some of these topics are uncomfortable, even if it is with your significant other. However, being able to disect these topics piece by piece with an objective third party can do wonders when it comes to gaining a better understanding of the other spouse that you may not have previously had.
Prepare for Conflict
As I’ve said before, I don’t believe couples who say “We never argue!”
The reality is, conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship. It’s not a matter of if you argue, but when as well as how you do it. A lot of us actually believe that we’re great at conflict resolution. However, many will be surprised to find that we’re not necessarily good at resolving conflict rather than just discussing it.
There will be times where your significant other may have done something bothered you, so the two of you talked about it. But the question is, did that disagreement ever come to a resolve? Was there a solution or did you two just air out your feelings and decide to leave the subject alone and continue about your day? If you’ve done the latter, chances are the tensions from that argument never actually went away and likely came back up again at a much later time in a completely different disagreement.
What pre-marital counseling heavily emphasizes is the idea that happy couples do not avoid disagreements, they resolve them while remaining respectful of each other, thereby strengthening the relationship. What I loved about the particular exercise we did is that it called for us to identify a problem that we have and, step by step, pick it apart. From setting a time/place to actually talk about it, to listing the ways in which we both contribute to said problem, to identifying past attempts to resolve the issue that were not successful, to finally brainstorming solutions to it.
Obviously, when we run into a problem, we’re not always going to be in the mindset of sitting down and going through that step by step process. However, the important thing isn’t about getting that meticulous process down to a T more than it is about catching ourselves so that we can respond rather than react. Trying to face a conflict head on without any thought often leads to emotional reactions rather than thoughtful responses. Even the simple step of taking that time out to sort out your thoughts and feelings can do wonders for the productivity of the conversation that takes place later.
It’s not always this organized nor is it always easy to remember, but it’s such a healthy foundation to base conflict resolution that doesn’t lead to knock-down-drag-out fights.
It’s Worth the Time
People have their own reasons for not going to pre-marital counseling. For some, they base it off of someone else’s negative experience (‘my sister said her therapist never listened to her’, ‘my friend’s marriage crumbled when they started going’, etc). However, it’s important to understand that everyone’s individual experience with counseling or other forms of therapy will be different. It’s all the more reason to do your research and be in agreement about who you will trust to facilitate your counseling.
Another reason people avoid it is because of the cost. Clearly the cost will vary, especially if you are not going through a place of worship which is typically free for active members. However, I would encourage others to figure out how they can budget these counseling sessions. Your income shouldn’t be taken lightly, we spend money on the things we need and the things we care about. If there is anything worth investing money into, I would hope it would be your marriage.
For some people, their avoidance is a direct response to the fear they feel about attending pre-marital counseling sessions. For them, they believe it to be a “test” to see whether or not their relationship has too many problems and if their counselor will discourage them to go through with a wedding. While there will be some crucial conversations taking place because of those sessions, it’s not helpful to view it as a test. If you don’t bring up those issues beforehand, they’ll likely keep popping up throughout the life of the marriage anyway. Staying ignorant to the issues will not help you get through them, nor will acting as if your problems don’t exist. The counseling is there to help and offer perspective about your relationship; ultimately it will be the decision of you and your fiancé when it comes to going through with a wedding, postponing it, or calling things to an end.
But finally, a simple reason as to why people do not seek pre-marital counseling or regular couple’s counseling is because they don’t believe they need it. They don’t think their problems are “big” enough for that. Counseling and therapy is actually for everyone, not just for individuals who have a diagnosed condition or couples that live in a constant state of dysfunction. Your counseling should be a safe place for your and your spouse to talk through the things that you are going through, and for pre-marital couples it should be a space in which you can strengthen your skills in communication and conflict resolution. It is something that is here to benefit anyone and everyone who wants to figure out their bad feelings or disconnect.
I’m obviously not an expert on marriage (it’s barely been six months for us), and I do understand that pre-marital counseling is not a bulletproof guarantee that everything will be perfect 100% of the time. However, I do understand that by just taking the step to do the work beforehand, my husband and I have established that we view our relationship to be one of our highest priorities. And not only did we learn more about each other during the sessions, but we were more affirmed than ever that we were making the right decision to get married.
If you are making plans for engagement and haven’t discussed pre-marital counseling yet, I would highly encourage you to do so. And if you’re not yet engaged but see yourself going down that path, try having that conversation sooner rathe than later. But even if you’re not even dating, feel free to look into counseling or therapy sessions for yourself. Self-awareness and the willingness to recognize your own shortcomings is a definite key to improving your relationship with others.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Awkward Penguin,