Most couples who seek counseling are married or have lived together for at least a few years. Often, by the time these couples seek counseling, their problematic patterns are ingrained, and it can take time to repair the damage. On the flip side, couples in long-term committed relationships typically seek out counseling because they’re aware their relationship isn’t perfect. They’ve gotten to a point where they have a lot to lose by not addressing the problems in their relationship.
Couples who are not married and who have been together only a few years are unlikely to seek couples counseling. This is unfortunate, because couples in this situation are likely to experience tremendous benefits from doing counseling together! If they have a negative cycle of interacting with one another, it’s probably still somewhat flexible. If there haven’t been significant hurts in the relationship and if the couple has no history of trauma, counseling can be effective in a shorter amount of time and help them prevent potential road blocks.
There is so much benefit to couples getting counseling when their problematic patterns are in their infancy and before the couple decides to marry. But there is also a major barrier to effective premarital counseling when the couple is already engaged. The engagement is a time of busyness, preparation, and excitement. The couple often doesn’t have much time or mental energy to consider the way their relationship works. And a couple who is engaged, have set a date for the wedding, and have started putting down deposits may feel they have a lot to lose by examining the problem areas of their relationship.
But this isn’t an argument against premarital counseling – it’s a great reason to consider pre-engagement counseling! Figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of your relationship and whether you’re both committed to changing your problem patterns is an excellent way to move forward with confidence toward a proposal and saying “I do.”
And if you are already engaged but would like to work out the kinks in the relationship before the honeymoon is over, it isn’t too late. Whether engaged or not, here are some ways to think about premarital counseling that will help you get the most out of it:
- It’s NOT about a counselor telling you whether you should be together. Ask counselors what they believe their role is as a premarital counselor and avoid any who want to help you decide if you’re compatible. (Note this does not apply to premarital counseling with a pastor or other clergy who may want to determine that you both believe in and adhere to the same religious beliefs.) I assume that if a couple is coming to me for counseling, they want to try to make things work. It is up to the couple – through the process of counseling – to decide if they want to continue investing in the relationship.
- It shouldn’t (only) be about taking a bunch of compatibility tests. Did you know compatibility on various premarital measures is actually not a strong predictor of marital satisfaction? That’s because every relationship involves some conflict and it’s how the couple has conflict that matters. Every couple, no matter how much the partners have in common, can fall victim to problematic cycles where they end up feeling at odds with one another. A counselor may administer some tests as a way of determining the weaknesses and strengths of your relationship, but this shouldn’t be the sole focus of the counseling experience. I find that most couples are able to show me where they get stuck in their relationship before the first session is over. And as an Emotionally Focused Therapist, I know that the source of serious problems isn’t in whether or not they disagree but in how they navigate those differences.
- Don’t skimp. Find a qualified couples counselor. Your relationship is precious. If you’re going to take the time and money to give yourselves the best shot at a healthy, lifelong commitment, make sure you’re not wasting your time or even causing harm to your relationship by choosing the wrong counselor. Any counselor can be certified in certain premarital assessment techniques like Prepare and Enrich, but this doesn’t ensure the person is actually well-trained and practiced in couples counseling. And for the reasons we just discussed, premarital counseling that focuses on these kinds of assessments rather than helping you learn how you can work together when stuff hits the fan is unlikely to be helpful in the long run. Click here for guidelines to help you choose the right person to help with your relationship.
- Pastoral counseling is great – but different from couples counseling. Unless you happen to have a pastor who is trained and licensed to practice couples counseling, the counseling you’ll get from a pastor, clergy member, or another married couple from your church is going to be very different from counseling with a trained marriage therapist. Since pastoral counseling is usually free, why not do both? Meetings with someone from your church are likely to be useful in helping you determine whether you agree on important aspects of your faith, have the same goals for marriage, and meet the criteria to be married within your church. Also, pastors and other lay people from your church can provide great wisdom on the marriage experience. While there is a spiritual depth to these kinds of meetings that you may not get in couples counseling, there is a level of understanding of what makes couples tick that pastoral counselors may not have, and I often find that pastors in that role tend to give advice based on their personal opinions. The good news is that the effective couples therapies, such as Emotionally Focused Therapy and the Gottman Method, are completely compatible with any faith perspective.
- Be willing to talk about the hard topics. They’ll only get harder later. At the beginning of a relationship, it is so easy to rationalize or minimize the negative aspects. Over time, the novelty wears off and couples end up falling into a negative cycle that can overshadow the positive parts of the connection. When this goes on for too long, both partners feel very stuck, very confused, and very hurt by one another. Why not prevent this before it gets really bad? To do this, you’ll need to be willing to tackle the harder subjects – the things you’re nervous to talk about with your partner. But if you do this with a good counselor, you and your partner become stronger or at least recognize where both people in the relationship stand.
I hope this article helps you or someone you know make the decision to invest in all phases of the couple relationship. I know my work with couples who are moving toward marriage has been incredibly rewarding as I see them make a great commitment to one another and to the process of creating a lasting, fulfilling marriage. For more information on Emotionally Focused Therapy, which can help couples at any stage of commitment, click here.