I used to picture premarital counseling as a category of wedding planning. You know, book the venue, schedule the officiant, check off your six weeks of premarital counseling. Which will, undoubtedly, be super easy. After all, you just got engaged, so things are great and there shouldn’t be too much to talk about, right?
Once you’ve found the person you want to marry, there’s a tendency to focus all your energy on the actual wedding planning. Wedding planning prepares you for one of the most important days of your life. But premarital counseling prepares you for the rest of your life.
I think a lot of people underestimate the impact premarital counseling can have on a relationship. Some don’t believe they need it or that it will be helpful. For others, premarital counseling is a foreign concept.
I hope this serves to highlight the growth and clarity premarital counseling can bring, along with answering any questions you may have about the process.
What is the purpose of premarital counseling?
Let me act now, and always in this relationship, in ways that would honor and affirm the tender investment of all who love this person. Let me build on that good foundation, that whatever the two of us create together would be a blessing to all who know us.
Douglas McKelvey, “A Liturgy for Dating or Courtship,” excerpted from Every Moment Holy
If dating is like a home-building process, then premarital counseling is the home inspection. Premarital counseling takes a look at your foundation (upbringing, family values, etc.) and the way you two “build” together (expressing affection, discussing problems, etc.). Your pastor or Christian counselor can help identify strengths and problem areas so you can be set up well for marriage.
Rest assured, you do not have to identify and solve every problem or difference between the two of you. Instead, you’ll receive tools and tactics to resolve issues together and continue growing in your relationship.
Your counselor will work with you to cultivate effective communication and conflict-resolution skills, discuss your values, and develop strategies for addressing your differences. They’ll act as a mediator to help you understand and work with one another.
For example, a counselor or pastor may come back with “assignments” or suggestions for you to work through together or individually to get on the same page. If something already exists in your relationship that threatens your oneness as a married couple, your marriage counselor is there to help you find it.
Premarital counseling helps us build well—whether our relationship has a solid base or if we need to do some renovating. And trust me, I know this process can feel intimidating.
How long does premarital counseling take, and what topics are covered?
It generally takes about six to eight weeks, but it depends on how in-depth the sessions are and if the couple would like more ongoing counseling.
While each counselor is different and will likely focus on some topics more than others, here are some common ones: values from your upbringing, personalities and communication styles, and expectations/plans for marriage (like sex, finances, and having kids). Not every counselor will address all of these, and some may have different topics in mind. Identify a couple of key topics or questions you want to make sure your counselor covers.
How can I prepare for premarital counseling?
Keep in mind you may find some conversations fun and others really hard. Be ready to discuss the tough questions, the I’ve-never-thought-about-that-before questions, and even the are-we-really-talking-to-our-pastor-about-sex questions. Don’t be afraid to dig deep, to gently challenge each other with questions, like, “What do you mean by that?” and “Why is that important to you?”
And, please, do your homework. Pick somewhere fun to talk through things, like a park or coffee shop. You may also need some time to journal alone or process with a mentor or close friend.
I’ve heard it said that you get out of counseling what you put in. I believe that if you go to counseling because you want to build your marriage well, you will come away from sessions with new tools and ways to engage with one another. God will give you wisdom and healing in the hard places as you trust in Him. The safest place your relationship can be is in God’s hands as you both follow Him.
You can also prepare for premarital counseling by going before your officiant assigns it. Many couples don’t seek counseling until it seems to be the only option left —whether the officiant requires it or as a last resort to save the marriage. If you start counseling before it’s “necessary,” you’ll only have more strength and resources to engage in the hard places.
That being said, it’s never too late for to see a counselor. Counseling can help couples find hope and guidance for lasting change. But returning to our house analogy, would you rather fix the cracks and leaks now or years down the road when they’ve done more damage?
Are there alternative options to counseling?
If the thought of premarital counseling feels intense, there are many alternatives such as classes, mentors, and books. Personally, I’m a fan of all three in combination.
In fact, in a study1 I helped conduct in college, we found evidence that reaffirms the value of mentor couples in conjunction with a premarital resource. A course or book offers the structure and knowledge needed to prepare well. But a mentor couple can help apply the information to a couple’s specific needs and goals.
And trust me, you’ll want another couple to grab coffee with in those times when you’re wrestling with hard realities or bursting at the seams with excitement.
What if we learn something we didn’t wanna know?
In college, one of my professors shared his experience as a marriage counselor and urged us all to get pre-engagement counseling. He explained that once a person gets engaged, it’s extremely difficult to call it off, even when it’s necessary.
But I had no idea I would face this painful decision later that year.
I can remember the anxiety I felt when I learned my boyfriend was going to propose. I so wanted to be wrong about my doubts. Our premarital program revealed warning signs that we weren’t ready. It called attention to where we each needed to grow to avoid pain down the road.
Ultimately, we had to end our engagement. It was devastating. But it was necessary for me to be able to follow God’s plan for my life (including writing to you today). I’ve found a lot of peace in trusting God with my hopes for marriage.
Living out this truth doesn’t make hard conversations any easier. But it does give me freedom to embrace dating for both its lighthearted adventures and difficult-to-discuss questions.
Not every big problem or concern needs to warrant break-up level discussions. If you’re in counseling, you’re exactly where you need to be to learn to work through issues together. It may warrant slowing down or breaking up. Or it might be an indicator to give this area of your relationship extra care, perhaps with mentors or accountability partners.
Premarital counseling is not the easy checklist item I used to think it was, and that’s a good thing. It’s an investment in your future marriage, giving you the tools you need to communicate well and live life as a team.
- Felisha L. Younkin, Michael W. Firmin, Madelyn K. Fawcett, Alexandra J. McMurray & Chad D. Clark (2022) Reported benefits of a Fit to Be Tied premarital mentorship program, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 32:1, 77-90, DOI: 10.1080/10911359.2020.1860851
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Alex McMurray is a content writer for FamilyLife at Cru headquarters in Orlando. She graduated from Cedarville University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a concentration in child and family studies. She grew up in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania with her parents and older brother. In her free time, she enjoys having deep conversations over coffee, playing board games, and adventuring outdoors.