You might want pre-marital counseling (even if you think you don't)

January 2 | Guest post by Vegancupcake
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Photo by Mike Baird
I might seem biased when it comes to the value of therapy. Both my parents AND my older sister are clinical psychologists. In college, graduate school, and grownup life, I had three different counselors who I saw for only a few months each but who I can say, without exaggeration, were the exact support I needed to arrive at some necessary revelations and make significant changes in my life, in terms of relationships, sexuality, disenchantment with politics, and family baggage.

So I did not need to be sold on the value of therapy. I was practically born with an appreciation for it.

BUT… something I did not realize until this fall was the power of couples counseling, not just in a moment of crisis but at a time of change.

Almost as soon as we were engaged, I began wistfully thinking about the tradition of turning to a pastor or rabbi for support, guidance, and difficult question-posing in the months leading up to a wedding. I don't have an obvious spiritual mentor, so my thoughts turned to therapy. My fiancee was open to the idea, but the guy we found was a little more pricey than we could afford long term. So we committed to seeing him only four times, and planned that in to our wedding budget.

As my future husband said, "I don't want there to be darkness in our house that we're oblivious of.

The first and second visits were pleasant and peaceful. Maybe too much so. When we left the second session, we realized that using counseling as a way to pat ourselves on the back for being such reasonable and articulate and loving people was kind of a wasted opportunity. So as homework for our third session, we had to come up with something difficult that we felt we needed help talking through. Essentially, our homework was to pick a fight.

It feels a little too personal to share the gory details of the fight I picked and the fight he picked, but I can say that our session on Tuesday was very different from the first two: uncomfortable and challenging, kind of like wading through thigh-high thick, sticky mud. But our counselor pointed out a few things about the way we were talking, and the things at the root of what we were saying, that never would have occurred to me. It will take me probably a few weeks to fully process and integrate all those things that came up and that I learned. (Luckily, our fourth and last session is after the holidays, so I can take those few weeks to really think and digest.)

I remember, when I got engaged, wondering how I would balance the excitement and thrill of planning the magical party with the importance and gravity of beginning a lifelong commitment. Going into couples counseling, even for just our brief four-session stint, has been a very grounding way to hold this intention. As my future husband said in our session on Tuesday night, "I don't want there to be darkness in our house that we're oblivious of." Premarital counseling is a way to pull the darkness out from its hiding places so that you can turn it over in the light and see it for what it actually is.

  1. 100000% agreed! So many couples out there don't think they need pre-marital counselling because "that stuff is for a relationship in trouble" or "we're so lovey-dovey we know everything about each other" etc. But that is wrong!!

    I know my (now) husband like the back of my hand (we'd been together for 6 years prior to our engagement), and we both demanded pre-marital counselling…which was given to us by our officiant.

    We took a compatibility test and scored 98%, which isn't common according to the officiant. But we still discussed many things. And we discussed them in a way the two of us on our own never would have before. We approached topics in a creative and offbeat way thanks to our officiant.

    We hashed out a lot of things that probably wouldn't have been hashed out so detail-focused without the unbiased 3rd party present. I was able to communicate more clearly with my partner, and he to me. Which, honestly, is the goal.

    And don't think that if your atheist you can't get pre-marital counselling (or think that it's for religious people only). Both my partner and I are atheists and did pre-marital counselling through a pastor (our officiant) who does secular/atheist ceremonys. He just said, "Okay, so we'll just skip the religion section and move onto financials!"

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  2. To whom it concerns,

    Thank you very much.

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  3. I saw a therapist for a year or so and have seen her intermittently since then. She also does couples counseling. What are your thoughts on using one partner's personal counselor as a couples counselor? My instincts point toward finding someone neither of us has seen before, but it is helpful that this woman knows my past struggles (agoraphobia and extreme social anxiety) and how my fiance and I worked through them…

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    • Former counselor chiming in. I would pick your counselor's brain on this, as she may already have a policy in place for situations like yours. Bringing a third party into a pre-existing counselor/client team can make for an odd dynamic, particularly if you intend to continue seeing your counselor on an individual basis following your couple's sessions. It can difficult to "start over" with another counselor, but in your case, I think it could be a helpful option.

      Best of luck!

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      • MFT-in-training (marriage and family therapist) here, and I say THIS! THIS! A THOUSAND TIMES THIS! :-D

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    • My fiancee and I went to my personal counselor, and it was…well…not good. Not that it was traumatic or anything, but it was very frustrating. There I was, trying to do the thing where we talk about our relationship, and there my therapist was, trying to figure out how things fit into what I'd worked through with her personally. I felt like i was in personal therapy but with my fiancee helping out. I felt ganged up on. And when the next time she pushed my fiancee in ways that really can be helpful for me but just aren't for her, i realized we really needed someone to start fresh with both of us, as a couple.

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  4. While I do agree that therapy/counseling is beneficial for some people, I do not like it nor agree when people tell me I need it. As someone who has always studied and been interested in psychology, I find pre-marital counseling to be quite a scam.

    Honestly, if the 7 years my fiancee and I have been together (going through extremely difficult patches including illnesses, job losses, loss of family, etc.) and us still making it through and wanting to commit to each other for the rest of our lives, then I don't think a few weekly sessions are going to solidify it any further.

    I was recently told by a friend that we should do pre-marital counseling and she kept linking it back to her divorce and how people change. Therapy works on those who NEED it to work for them, I don't.

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    • I couldn't say if you, specifically, need it or not, and wouldn't presume to. But I think pre-marital counseling is one of those things where an outside perspective can show you things you don't usually see, because they're there all the time. If you always fight or disagree in /this/ way, you may not consider a different way, one that might be better. The two of you may think you've discussed everything, because so much has happened in your relationship, but the counselor /may/ bring up new perspectives or completely new topics that have never come up for some reason. Just my perspective (obviously).

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  5. If the 'DIY' books and websites are anything to go on I really don't think we needed couples counseling. I looked through several and I don't think I found a single question that we hadn't already discussed. Some of them I had a hard time believing anyone could avoid (like "does your partner drink regularly?").

    I'm not saying our relationship is perfect by any means, we do have issues, just that we already talk about them and are aware of how each other feel. Maybe it's because I think poor communication was the reason my past 2 relationships fell apart so I made a point of it this time. Maybe it's because that's pretty much how we met – debating awkward topics online.

    If you feel that you got something from it that's great, but I'm not sure I'd go as far as saying absolutely everyone will.

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    • Do you have any recommendations for books or websites to look at with these questions? At the moment it feels like my fiance and I talk about everything openly but I'd like to see if we've missed any important questions without having to fork out the big bucks for a therapist or guidance session.

      1 agrees
    • Yeah, I'm curious myself about how much of a difference a third party makes vs. just making sure you talk about all the issues you can think of, because we make a priority of the second without professional counseling. I can see that the discussion might happen in a different light if it were moderated by an outside party but I'm not sure how.

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  6. This article seems kind of against the whole "Offbeat" philosophy: "This is something that we're saying you NEED to do." Hasn't this whole website been based off of not dictating what is necessary or appropriate for couples/weddings? If this article said, "You should think about pre-marital counseling (even if you don't think you need it)," I might feel differently.

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    • It sounds like you're responding primarily to the title, which I wrote aiming to be hyperbolic and attention-grabbing. (You know… like our titles often are.)

      I incorrectly assumed the post's core meaning would be clear from the tone of the piece and the context in which it's presented… as you point out, this is after all Offbeat Bride, where we've said thousands of times that everyone is free to make their own choices and never NEEEEDS to do anything evar. Including any advice we offer.

      I have changed the title to be more literal, but I do wish that we could use the word "need" without always having to remind readers that it's contextual and based on what feels right to them. I like to think that it goes without saying, but evidently not.

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      • Actually, I think the content (and the initial follow up comments) really did seem to be along the lines of literal, "You don't think you *need* it, but you do *need* it." I've been reading the blog for almost two years now and never felt the need to comment on wording or "sensitivities" until now. The feeling of the content and the general subject matter seemed to match the "over the top" title… which didn't make me feel like it was a joke. While obviously others disagreed, I've seen enough other people comment on the original phrasing to know I'm not alone! I don't think "Wedding language that won't make you barf" is the same thing as something as seriously taken as "You need pre-marial counseling"! Oh well.

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    • I know I'm a late-comer to this conversation, but I wanted to express some thoughts about the comment that "this whole website [has] been based off of not dictating what is necessary or appropriate for couples/weddings."

      I think there's a pretty big difference between saying you *need* a unity candle or a white dress or a maid of honor and saying you *need* to consider exploring your relationship with your partner with someone who is trained to help you do so. I think it would be awesome if we owned that difference and weren't afraid to occasionally speak in universal (rather than relativistic) terms on some things that most/all people really should strongly consider. General helpful life stuff, as opposed to crazy, WIC-imposed expectations.

      If I say, "I'm going to somersault down the aisle!", that should clearly be in a different category than "I'm not really planning to thank my guests for gifts because nobody forced them to bring them," or "I'm not consulting my partner on any of this because it's my parents paying for it" (or worse, just because he's a man). Nobody should say, "You should probably reconsider that" to the first example. But wouldn't people be remiss to not say something (gently) to the latter?

      Anyway, I felt like this article was more like dealing with the latter. Everyone could benefit from speaking to a neutral third-party about their relationship. At the very least, if you're a healthy couple, it couldn't hurt. Just my two cents!

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  7. I wish I had done this in my first marriage. I know that when I get married again…this will have to be something that we do. Get it all out on the table, be honest and be ready!

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  8. My husband and I decided to see a therapist before we were married. We had talked about a lot of things and didn't think we had any "problems", but both agreed that it couldn't hurt. I called a local psychotherapy training institute and we booked an appt.

    There weren't a lot of surprises in our sessions. But there was a lot of helpful encouragement and feedback that we never would have been able to give ourselves.
    Our counselor helped us see things about the way we argued and dealt with conflict that had been a bit of a roadblock for us. Since then, our disagreements have become shorter, more productive, less frustrating, and less frequent.

    There were other benefits too, and we continued to go regularly more than a year after we were married. For us, it brought us closer and was worth it's weight in gold.

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  9. I personally think the benefit of couples counseling is not that you and your partner haven't discussed the topics yet, but the addition of that third party. We've been together for ten years, so we've covered the important stuff and have even learned how to fight fair. But having these discussions in front of a counselor forced us to be our best selves when hashing out difficult topics, and not slip back into old (and somewhat unhealthy) habits. You are required to listen and respect each other in a way that sometimes doesn't happen when it's just the two of you having a heated discussion. For those couples who've already got it worked out, maybe couseling isn't for you. But it's not necessarily about how much you already know about each other, but about how you communicate.

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  10. Worth noting that premarital counseling, while generally a good idea for basically everyone, isn't always possible.

    That couple getting married at city hall and celebrating with a dinner for six? They may not be able to afford it. They may not have insurance or insurance may not cover it. There might not be affordable resources in their area.

    Or, like us, they could live abroad. Premarital counseling does not exist in Taiwan – counseling exists, but generally for mental issues (ie depression), marital counseling when things go sour etc.. Any given counselor in Taiwan faced with a couple who is engaged and happy would almost certainly not have the training to know what to do with that. It's just not done here.

    So while it's a fantastic suggestion, it's not always an option.

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  11. There are some states (Oklahoma, specifically) that will cut the cost of your licence from $50 down to $5. Website here:
    http://www.okmarriage.org/
    They're pretty much tired of the divorce rate making the state look bad.

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    • That is awesome! I absolutely LOVE that idea.

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    • Also, you may be able to find a non-profit or religious group that offers free or low-cost pre-marital counseling (google low-cost counseling in [your city]), or if you're currently in school, you might contact your university's student health services to see if they offer something like this.

      1 agrees
    • Yep! As an LCSW from Oklahoma, getting married there (live in Atlanta now)…I'm considering it, even though we can afford the $50 vs. $5.

      There's also a little book called "1000 questions every couple should know the answer to" that I bought years ago and use today with my clients.

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  12. I think some people balk at the idea of "counseling"–as if that implies pre-existing problems within the relationship. It's better to think of it as having a discussion with someone who studies relationship dynamics for a living. No matter how functional you and your partner are, an expert could possibly give advice to make things even better.

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    • I agree with you. Unfortunately there's a lot of stigma associated with going to therapy because it implies that something is wrong.

      Interestingly, there's a relatively new branch of psychology called "positive psychology" which is about bettering yourself under normal circumstances. In other words, it helps people without difficulties to live even more fullfilling lives.

      I feel like premarital counselling has a similar objective: it's not about fixing what's broken, it's about helping you to have the best relationship you can have.

      That said, this post could not have been more timely. My partner and I are planning to start premarital counselling soon, so it was good to read what other offbeat brides think.

      5 agree
  13. Oh, I so 100% agree! We went through our pre-marital counselling, and it gave us the tools to use in future complications – and ways to sort through difficulties, and ideas on how to handle situations – the power to make it through thick and thin, good and bad.
    Truly, honestly – I am baffled by anyone who thinks it's "stupid".

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    • 100% agree with you on that last point. It irks me when people think and assume that pre-marital counselling=problems/stupid/not for me.

      The purpose is to heighten communication and strengthen an already strong relationship.

      1 agrees
  14. Pre-marital counseling was a requirement to get married at our Church. We were slightly apprehensive about taking it but we are really glad we did. We know everything about each other but it was really nice to hear a third party's perspective on our relationship. He also offered insight on marriage from his own experience working with couples and being married himself. That is what made it so invaluable to us. I think some people got a little too defensive on this article. I wish people would consider it with an open mind rather than being dismissive.

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  15. I think a great benefit of pre-marital counseling is (as most have said) the involvement of a third party. Maybe there's an issue that the two of you keep coming back to, and nothing ever gets solved, the issue just gets pushed off or a quick apology makes it "okay-for-now". A third party can show you a different perspective and give you the tools to take care of the problem, if not for good, than to start working through it better when it comes up again.

    1 agrees
  16. We went for Premarital counselling through my Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at work. Mostly because it was free and easy to organize, and we left it kinda late before the wedding. (ADHD girl left something kinda late and went for the easy to organize option? Quelle surprise! )
    The intake worker on the phone had a really hard time understanding what we wanted, but set us up with a counsellor and offered to send us a free kit of books on the topic of marriage.
    The free books turned out to be all for people who were having marital problems, so really weren't that much use. I suppose it's good to know that we have books on the topic if things start to get a bit rocky later. For the meantime, they're hiding out on a low part of the bookshelf.
    The counsellor was also surprised when we came in. She had done pre marital counselling in a church setting before but had never done it in the context of the EAP. All in all, she was helpful, and got us talking about a few things we never considered before. For example, I nearly fell off my chair when my Lapsed Catholic man stated that he wanted any kids we had to go to (publicly funded in our province) Catholic school because of the good morals the Catholic system teaches. As a teacher in the secular school board, (who incidentally attended both types of publicly funded school, in addition to two different private schools) I was all "Um, what now?"

    1 agrees
  17. They should call it "pre-marital skill building workshops" or something. Just so it doesn't sound all "you're already in trouble" like counseling sort of does. kwim?

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  18. Great post, cupcake, and I totally agree. I've been with my FH for almost 6 years through thick and thin, but insisted on some couples counseling because like I told the counselor – we have the strongest relationship of anyone I know, but we also have more crap to deal with than anyone I know!
    My FH was reluctant, but willing to attend because I felt so strongly about it, and now he's a believer, too. Just having an outside perspective has been reassuring in trying times, and enlightening, too. There have been no major surprises, but it's really helped us to deal with issues in the moment, instead of putting on a brave face and ignoring them.

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  19. This is definitely one of those "needs" that I initially balked at, but that I've slowly come around to. My FH suggested it soon after we got engaged and my first response was "What's wrong? Let's just talk about it." His parents divorced when he was in elementary school (mine are still married) and I figured he was a little nervous, but I was so confident in our connection to each other that I thought he was overreacting by suggesting PMC.

    Eventually, it occurred to me that I was being a little overconfident when I assumed that we could deal with every problem that ever arose on our own, and that the key to his need for PMC was that he wanted to stop problems before they began. His parents never satisfactorily explained what happened between them, and he didn't want something to sneak up on us like it seemed to on them (and neither did I, for that matter). So it's definitely part of the plan now, and I'm no longer grumbling about it!

    HOWEVER: I'm lucky to live in the San Francisco Bay Area where it's not too difficult to find liberal, non-religious PMC, and I definitely understand where people are coming from when they say that the options in their areas aren't right for them. It's certainly deserving of people's consideration though, so thank you for the post!

    2 agree
  20. My issues isn't with premarital counseling as a whole, I just know it's not for us. If we lived in another town or state, or there were more resources here, maybe I'd do it. But Boise, ID is not the place to find a counselor who's okay with the things that we do. Believe me, I've tried. I don't want to spend anymore phone calls being lectured for my choices, let alone paying for counseling sessions to get a lecture. What does one do if they WANT premarital counseling, but can't find someone who'll be an impartial 3rd party?

    2 agree
  21. I don't go to the doctor only when I am sick, or the dentist only if I have a toothache. I go for check-ups. I go to get an experts opinion on my health and teeth to keep small problems, like a cavity or that not-so-perfect cholesterol score from becomming major issues.

    I think of counseling, especially per-marital, as a check-up for my relationship. We may walk out with a clean bill of health, or we may find out that our relationship cholesterol is a bit off. The good news is that swapping the french fries for a walk around the block is much easier than trying to do a major diet overhaul after a heart attack.

    4 agree
  22. This is great! My fiancé and I are looking for premarital counseling, as we too don't have a spiritual mentor. Do you know or have a online premarital counseling program that you would suggest? We aren't in the same location often enough to commit to an actual counsellor in person.

    Thanks so much! Love the blog!

    0 agree

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