Pre-Marital Therapy: Benefits, Drawbacks, and Who Needs It?

I did an interview for a fairly popular magazine* last week, although I don’t think the editors decided to go with my answers to their questions about pre-marital therapy. Therefore I’m posting it here for those who have any interest in the topic. Enjoy.

1) On average, how many pre-marital counseling sessions do couples have?

Pre-marital work isn’t all that common, so it’s very difficult to estimate how many sessions a couple needs with any real certainty. For couples with specific goals, who grab the bull by the horns and take the therapy seriously, only a handful of sessions might be needed to give them tools with which to build going forward. Couples who arrive in crisis, with the relationship hanging in the balance, may need many months of therapy. For the average couple, I give a qualified estimate of about 10-15 sessions, but make them pinkie swear that they won’t hold me to that number.

2) What percentage of the couples you have helped separate/decide not to get married?

Very few, if any, have chosen to not to go forward with their marriage. While I have not always agreed, virtually all couples are at the point where they’ve invested so much in the relationship that they decide to not turn back. I’ve actually had a few people return months or years later to deal with divorce/grief issues when the relationship dissolved.

3) What do you see as the main benefits of premarital counseling?

The main benefits of premarital counseling aren’t much different than regular couples’ therapy (unless the couple is truly using the treatment to decide if marriage is a viable option). There are countless books on marital therapy, but for most couples the work usually boils down to honing their communication skills so that each party gets his/her needs met. Almost everyone fancies themselves as great communicators, but within the confines of such an intimate relationship, it is virtually impossible to be the ideal talker and listener. For couples who are not experiencing extreme hardships such as domestic abuse, financial issues, substance abuse or extreme child-rearing problems, communication style is usually the focus of the therapeutic work. (Note: you can read more about communication within a romantic relationship here).

4) What advice would you give to somebody whose partner does not want to attend premarital counseling with them?

I encourage people to speak to their partner in the vein of the following: “this relationship is very important to me, but there are issues and topics that I’m not fully comfortable with or capable of talking to you about. I really need us to use a qualified person to help with these things so that I’m more at ease with taking this huge step.”

In short, if you won’t do it for you, do it for me. And if you won’t do something like this for me, I need to think about what else you might not do over the course of our lives together.

5) What questions should couples ask themselves to decide whether they would benefit from premarital counseling or not?

Any couple that is giving more than a passing thought to premarital therapy should probably give it a shot. Aside from the financial and time issues involved in a preliminary session or two, there’s no real obligation. If it’s not for you, you can simply stop. The stigma associated with mental health treatment often makes people erroneously think they need to make some huge leap to be “in therapy,” almost along the lines of “having heart surgery.” It’s not an either or, lifelong endeavor.

All couples getting ready to be married need to remember the following: marriage is a very serious commitment. It lasts well beyond the wedding day, and I guarantee that it will not always be pleasant. Use as many resources at your disposal to help increase your odds of success. If an obstacle to this is time, remember that your marriage is the most important adult relationship you will have. It requires time and effort, not unlike the way many people view exercise for their bodies. If the issue is money, consider the follow costs: divorce lawyer, divorce filing fees, alimony/palimony, child support, dual mortgages/rents, multiple cars, divorce therapy and possibly even anti-depressants. Premarital therapy doesn’t sound so expensive now, does it?

* As you probably know, I’ve been whoring myself out to try to promote my book, so that involves a lot of interviews. I don’t have people banging down my internet door; rather, I’m constantly hounding dozens of publications to let me talk to them, so I truly forget with whom I’ve spoken.

Related Post: Why Marriages Fail

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12 Responses to “Pre-Marital Therapy: Benefits, Drawbacks, and Who Needs It?”

  1. Cam says:

    I think pre-marital counseling is completely under-utilized. In my (not always humble) opinion – lots of people tend to marry with the brilliant idea that a wedding will fix the problems that are starting to arise as a relationship hits that first plateau period. They go into marriage with the blissful notion that it will be as ooey-gooey lovey-dovey as the first year or so of dating. When the reality is tears are the secret ingredient to that perfect pot roast your mother used to make and that first aid kit and bottle of vodka have just become the most valuable commodities in your household.

  2. T.J. says:

    Cam:

    Yep … I’ve seen this happen a few times as I’m getting to the age where I watch all of my friends get married, have kids or come out of the closet. Seems kind of like trying to paint a burning house, no?

  3. Cam says:

    To some extent maybe. I’d say more like painting a house on a street full of slum lords. It’s still a structure with potential, but it’s still likely to get decimated by a drive by.

    I like to refer to it as the Disney Dilemma – we all think we’re supposed to immediately live happily ever after with no thought to what happens after the wedding. I almost wish that pre-marital counseling was required to obtain a marriage license. If people were required to sit down and hear first hand from an objective source that the first year or two or five of marriage isn’t all rainbows and roses – they might take it a little more seriously.

  4. T.J. says:

    Well said.

  5. I do know couples would tend to have problems before they’re even married and that’s normal. Everybody goes through it especially when couples have been together for so long. But I think it still depends on how strong the bond between lovers is that would help them survive married life with or without therapies like this.

  6. More couples should embrace pre marital counselling. It is always good to get a third opinion on a relationship, most couples realize they had been shying away from facing some problems. Better to solve these before it is too late.

  7. Hi!
    I found this post when I searched “average number of premarital sessions.”
    I’m posting it on my website, HoneymoonTherapy.com, as the more voices encouraging premarital work, the better.
    It is hard to convince puppy-eyed engaged couples that beginning to work on the relationship NOW will provide so much comfort and ease (and possibly “you-don’t-have-to-come-back-to-see-me-in-10-years”) in the long-term.
    Thank you for writing this!
    -Kathryn Martin

  8. Premarital counseling doesn’t guarantee a long lasting relationship but it would surely give couples an outside perspective on their relationship, and how to make it last.

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