Counseling Today, Features

Building a foundation in premarital counseling

By Bethany Bray January 31, 2022

For many people, the phrase “premarital counseling” may conjure the image of a young, starry-eyed couple doing short-term work with a counselor or religious leader to discuss issues such as whether they’d like to have children or who will be responsible for cooking and taking out the trash.

While that scenario can and does still happen, more U.S. adults are delaying marriage. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age for first-time marriage was 28.6 for women and 30.4 for men in early 2021. In 2000 and 1980, those statistics were 25.1 and 22 years for women and 26.8 and 24.7 years for men, respectively.

In addition, fewer American adults are choosing to say “I do” at all. The Pew Research Center estimates that roughly half (53%) of all U.S. adults are married, which is down from 58% in 1995 and 72% in 1960. Between 1995 and 2019, the number of unmarried Americans who were cohabiting rose from 3% to 7%.

These gradual but notable changes have led professional counselors to evolve their approaches to meet the needs of today’s premarital couples, regardless of whether they have a wedding date marked on the calendar. For Stacy Notaras Murphy, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a private practice in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., premarital counseling includes the couples on her caseload who are planning a wedding as well as those who are in unmarried yet long-term relationships.

In the two decades that Murphy has done premarital counseling, she has shifted from a top-down, topic-focused approach to a bottom-up approach that addresses attachment style and other deeper issues. This is not only because couples’ needs have shifted over the years, Murphy says, but also because recent research indicates the meaningful role that attachment plays in human relationships across the life span.

It is still important to prompt couples to talk through “big-ticket items” such as their expectations about finances, children, sex and intimacy, and the role that family and extended family will play in their lives, Murphy says. But premarital counseling should also build a foundation for couples to engage in these types of deep discussions — and navigate conflict when it inevitably arises — on their own in a healthy way, she stresses.

“All of these topics are grist for the mill,” says Murphy, an American Counseling Association member. “At the end of the day, couples want to understand themselves more deeply, and you don’t get there on your own by talking about what your goals are for retirement [and other topics]. … More so, it’s focusing on the steps that partners take to get their needs met and how those conflict and dovetail. It can be a beautiful dance.”

Getting started

Murphy thinks that in many ways, premarital counseling is couples counseling and uses similar tools and approaches. Premarital counseling has a more preventive focus, however, whereas couples counseling with married clients is often focused on repair work and undoing unhealthy patterns.

Tyler Rogers, an LPC and licensed marriage and family therapist who owns a private practice in Chattanooga, Tennessee, begins work with premarital couples by asking some straightforward questions: “Why do you want to do this?” and “What are you hoping to gain by getting married?”

Hearing couples’ perspectives on the why can help a practitioner understand more about the two partners, their relationship and their expectations, he says. If their answers tend to be more surface level, such as “this person makes me happy,” it opens the door to ask other questions and explore deeper with the couple, including offering psychoeducation about how attraction and liking someone are not the same as being “relationally competent,” Rogers notes. These discussions sometimes involve talking through why and how marriage requires “an entirely different skill set” than dating or living together, he says.

This work is still beneficial for couples who are getting married later in life or who have been living together for a while. Counselors will just need to tailor their approach to meet the couple’s experience.

“Sometimes counselors will need to help [more established] couples have a merger marriage, like the merging of two companies,” says Rogers, an associate professor of counseling at Richmont Graduate University. “Older couples [who are getting married] have less idealistic issues clouding what they think is coming [or] are more aware of each other’s problems. They might say, ‘We are really not good at talking about X’ or ‘This is how our conflicts go.’ … It’s a hybrid place of doing some marriage counseling along with premarital work. Couples may already have patterns or habits that aren’t great, but not to a breaking point.”

Practitioners may also work with couples where one or both partners have been divorced or experienced a painful breakup previously, and they come to therapy wanting to “get it right this time,” Murphy says. “These couples know a lot about themselves but also [know that they] need this partner to be very different than the one who hurt them in the prior relationship. We do a lot of unpacking what their needs are. I also acknowledge that it can be triggering for the other partner to hear a lot about someone’s ex.”

Beatriz Lloret, an LPC with a couples counseling private practice in College Station, Texas, takes a two-pronged approach to premarital counseling: One part involves psychoeducation on the components of a healthy relationship, and the other part explores the couple’s attachment style and patterns. In psychoeducation discussions with couples, particularly those who don’t have a healthy example to follow from their parents or family of origin, she often pulls from the Gottman method’s “sound relationship house theory,” including its components of trust and commitment.

“Couples often feel hopeful because they’re about to get married but sometimes mixed and apprehensive about periods of disagreement. The premarital [counseling] becomes couples therapy a little bit to address those issues,” says Lloret, an ACA member. “The beauty of it is that when [clients] are willing to come and dive into it a little, things [improvements] happen fast, especially because the issues are fresh and there is not too much rigidity built up yet.”

In addition to psychoeducation, Rogers and Lloret both say that initial work with premarital couples includes weaving in questions to cover necessary topics such as family of origin, finances and money management, children, and the roles they expect to have within the relationship.

Lloret says some of the clients who seek her out for premarital counseling do so as an alternative or in addition to premarital programs in their faith communities. These couples sometimes want to discuss issues — often those that have connotations of shame, such as sexuality — that they aren’t comfortable discussing with a religious leader or in programs that use a group setting. 

Although Lloret typically sees premarital couples together for the initial intake session, she splits the couple up for the second session to work with each person individually. This helps her get to know and build rapport and trust with each partner, as well as screen for domestic violence, she says. However, beyond issues such as abuse that require sensitivity, she has a “no secrets” policy for these sessions. Clients sometimes reveal that they haven’t told their partner about a chronic illness, a financial problem or a past affair; Lloret stresses the importance of disclosing and working through these issues with their future spouse.

Ellen Schrier, an LPC with a solo private practice in North Wales, Pennsylvania, has several assessment tools she uses to begin work with premarital couples. She says underlying distress — often involving frequent conflict, trust issues, personality clashes or infidelity — is revealed through this process in roughly 90% of the couples she sees. With distressed couples, it is often the case that one partner is pursuing the other, and the other partner is pulling away, withdrawing or avoiding conflict, she notes.

Schrier considers premarital counseling to include all of the unmarried couples she counsels, including those who aren’t engaged or looking to get married. She estimates this work is 30% of her caseload. Like Lloret, Schrier often sees premarital couples individually for a session early on to get to know them and help tailor her work to their needs.

“Often the case is they come in to strengthen the relationship, but there’s more to it,” Schrier says. “As you begin to talk, you realize there are deeper issues or past infidelity. They come in looking for a little boost but actually are struggling with a big problem.”

Addressing attachment

Initial assessment and discussion about content topics (finances, children, sexuality, etc.) in premarital counseling serve a couple of different purposes. One, they provide the practitioner with information about a couple’s personalities and background and, two, they open the door for deeper discussions and work on challenges that underlie those topics, including addressing attachment, repairing broken trust or breaking cycles of conflict and blame.

“The big-ticket-item conversations have to happen, and they can be very triggering, so it’s good to have them in couples therapy,” Murphy says. “My role is to let them talk about that content but then put it into the context of how they’re talking about it. … It’s absolutely critical to teach them about their own attachment style and how that interacts with their partner’s. Across the board, teaching them how to have healthy disagreements is my main agenda. We have such stereotypes that a ‘good marriage’ is one where you don’t have any conflicts, but that is so untrue. Demystifying that process is my job more than anything else.”

Murphy and Lloret use emotionally focused therapy (EFT) with premarital couples and find it useful for helping clients explore and dig into patterns and attachment issues. Throughout this work, the counselor guides the couple as they talk through deep issues that they wouldn’t necessarily recognize or know how to address on their own. Lloret says some premarital couples choose to work with her because she specializes in EFT and attachment.

“The counselor is a moderator to prompt deeper exploration, diving into what’s really inside of you and what’s really inside the other person,” Lloret says. “I don’t give solutions — what do I know [about what] they should do? — but they do.”

Having couples talk about their family of origin and the examples of marriage and relationships they’ve seen in their lives can be a good starting point for attachment-focused work with couples. Research shows that attachment patterns that humans form in early life repeat in romantic relationships, Lloret notes.

Murphy says, “I repeat over and over: ‘I’m not asking questions about your childhood to vilify your parents. They did the best they could. [And] it’s actually a good sign that you’re asking for help. But it’s important to talk through what you have experienced and what you believe.’ We want to get very clear about those expectations and desires and how to talk about them.”

Rogers believes it is important to relay a message to premarital clients who haven’t had healthy or stable examples of relationships in their life that “it’s not your fault; you didn’t choose that.” A counselor can help couples focus on the fact that they don’t have to repeat those experiences in the family they create.

Couples can also seek out other couples that they would like to emulate. Rogers sometimes asks clients to think of people they know whose relationships they admire and then to connect with them as “marriage mentors.”

“Ask them to have dinner with you, and pick their brain and learn from them,” suggests Rogers, an ACA member who previously worked as a Protestant pastor.

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At its core, premarital counseling should help clients explore and learn about themselves and “the process of couplehood,” Murphy says. Relationship education is some of the most important ground to cover, she emphasizes. The crux, Murphy says, is helping clients understand that human attachment draws us to want connection and support from others. Counselors can then help teach clients how to give and receive that with a partner in a healthy way.

“At the end of the day, [couples] need to really know each other deeply and take care of each other. … It all comes down to ‘is there someone in this world that has my back?’ That’s the basis of attachment: to be secure, to know that there is someone in this world who thinks we are special, a home base,” Murphy says. “Premarital couples don’t always have a lived experience of worrying about that, and my job is to establish that that’s why we’re here or [to] remind experienced couples [of that]. At the end of the day, it’s the same lecture [both in premarital counseling and couples counseling] about the role of attachment in our lives.”

But sometimes partners can become too attached. Some couples who are in the early stages of their relationship have an attachment that Lloret describes as two hands with interlaced fingers. It’s very hard to move one hand independently when the fingers are so tightly interwoven, she explains.

“They need to [learn to] feel comfortable with a certain amount of emotional distance. They need to find patterns of interaction that are healthy while feeling supported, but also maintaining their own independence,” Lloret says. “It’s common to see these issues in premarital counseling, including communication issues, arguing and misunderstanding. They often label it as a communication issue, but it’s really trying to differentiate while maintaining a bond [and] feeling seen and heard and understood while keeping connection.”

Bridging differences

The number of Americans marrying someone with a different cultural background than their own is increasing with each generation. In 1967, 3% of married U.S. adults had a spouse who was a different race or ethnicity. That number has since grown to 11% of adults being intermarried in 2019, and the percentage is even higher (19%) among newlywed couples, according to the Pew Research Center.

Murphy says discussions about culture and cultural differences between a couple — and the friction, misunderstandings or other challenges that may arise from these differences — can fit naturally into conversations about family of origin and relationship expectations. Here, as with other topics, it’s important for counselors to dig into why clients feel the way they do.

“The goal has to be to keep it curious instead of feeling that your partner’s family does it ‘weird’ or ‘wrong,’” Murphy notes.

Prompting premarital clients to share about how their family celebrates holidays can be a good way to introduce these topics, delve into client expectations and uncover potential sticking points that the couple hasn’t addressed yet, Rogers says. It can also be an opportunity to talk with the couple about how holidays — and other aspects of marriage and long-term relationships — can involve a blend of preferences from the two partners instead of being all one way or the other.

Another important aspect of these discussions involves asking couples how they think their partner views their culture, adds Rogers, who leads trainings on premarital counseling through the Prepare/Enrich program. He sometimes prompts clients by asking, “What aspects of your culture are important to you? What would you like your partner to embrace a little more or understand a little more?” 

“Generally, it’s a conversation they’ve had already without realizing they were having it, in the form of disagreements about things such as family, money or traditions, [and] without realizing that it’s tied to their identity and feeling that their partner’s objection to their stance is a rejection of their culture,” he says. 

Culture ties into how people express love and relate to those they love in many ways, Lloret notes. This includes everything from expectations about gender roles in marriage to a person’s comfort level around discussing sex or displaying affection in public. For example, in Latin American culture, a male partner may be taught that showing possessive behavior and jealousy can be a way to express care and love. But a female partner from an American background might find these expressions overly controlling.

A counselor’s role is to guide clients as they break down the meaning behind feelings and behaviors and explore why aspects of their culture and traditions are important to them, Lloret says.

“When they take the time to clarify what the expectation means, break it down and explore how they make sense of it, and then find ways to compromise and give and take [with their partner], that’s when the beauty comes,” she says. “It’s either explaining, ‘I can’t give this thing up, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t love you,’ or ‘I will compromise because I love you.’ It’s deeper conversations that create connection rather than getting stuck on the differences.”

Building a firm foundation

Premarital counseling should always aim to provide couples with the tools they need to navigate future disagreements and differences on their own. This includes learning to compromise and respond to each other in ways that are not reactive, judgmental or assumptive, Rogers says.

For example, perhaps one partner wants to live close to their parents and have them involved in the couple’s life, whereas the other partner would prefer to maintain some distance from the in-laws. A counselor can serve as a moderator as the couple talks through why they are in favor of or opposed to something and what compromises they are willing to make. Rogers suggests having clients identify specific solutions such as not allowing the in-laws to have a key to the couple’s home or agreeing to limit dinners at the in-laws’ home to twice per month. That approach is more tangible, he says, than one partner saying something vague such as “Don’t worry, my parents won’t be over all the time.” 

“In premarital counseling, I’m trying to help them learn the process of being a patient, curious person to find out why their partner doesn’t think the way that they think when they don’t agree,” Rogers explains. “A lot of that is teaching them how to communicate why they have the position that they do and encouraging them to do some digging without judgment. … Whatever the issue is, there is a deep why, a reason why they hold these feelings close. The counselor’s role is to help them understand their own why and explain it to their partner, while at the same time being open and accepting [of] their partner’s why.”

Schrier says that couples in premarital counseling often need to learn how to fully listen and acknowledge their partner. “A lot of people don’t have that important skill of listening to someone without reacting … [and] understanding each other’s position and validating it, valuing it, without escalating, getting overwhelmed or angry,” Schrier says.

“Sometimes they need to learn how to have one person speaking at a time without the other person interrupting or adding on to what the partner is saying,” she says.

Schrier uses various activities to help couples practice these skills, including one that has the partners take turns being the “speaker” and the “listener” as they respond to prompts such as:

  • Name three strengths and three challenges in your relationship.
  • What would you like to have more of and less of in your relationship?

Schrier says these conversations help clients with skill building and help her identify things to focus on with the couple. In the process, couples often find things they agree on such as needing to work on communication or making time to have fun together, she adds.

Equipping couples with an expanded emotional vocabulary can help in this realm as well. Clients often fail to realize or fully describe their feelings when in conflict with their partner, Schrier notes. For example, a client who wants more connection from their partner may express that as blame: “You don’t spend enough time with me.”

Schrier has a detailed list of “feeling words” that she gives clients to help prompt more constructive and respectful dialogue. She also sometimes suggests that during disagreements, clients ask their partner (using a nonaggressive tone), “Can you say that in a different way?”

Perhaps a towel left on the bathroom floor triggers an argument between a couple. Initially, the person who discovers the towel may feel intense anger toward their partner, who dropped the towel. But skills learned in counseling can help the person realize what they are feeling beyond anger, she explains.

“Saying ‘I feel disrespected or devalued’ is a better way to talk about it and less reactive. It’s more empowering to say that than to say, ‘You make me angry.’ It gives their partner more to understand and change,” Schrier says. “It’s a way to slow the conversation down a little bit so they can better understand their partner instead of assuming they know what [their partner is] feeling.”

Couples who aren’t able to do this sometimes get “stuck on a hamster wheel” of arguing over the content (in this case, a dropped towel) rather than the feelings of a disagreement, she adds. When this happens repeatedly over time, it can lead to contempt, resentment and distance in relationships.

“It’s so much easier to work on problems when you’re coming in [to premarital counseling] with a spirit of friendship, instead of years later coming in as adversaries with years of misunderstandings and hurt feelings,” Schrier says. “It’s better to do it on the front end and be preventive.”

Premarital counseling can also open the door for couples who need deeper long-term work, Murphy notes. Premarital clients who are not able to fully resolve challenges before their wedding date may need to return for further counseling after they are married or when a life change, such as having a child, upsets the couple’s equilibrium.

“Premarital counseling can be the appetizer to a later full meal of deep couples work that is needed, sometimes years later or with a different clinician,” Murphy says. “It’s important [for counselors] to normalize getting input from different sources throughout the life span.”

Preventive care

Although premarital counseling often covers some of the same ground as couples counseling, there is one major difference: clients’ attitudes. The counselors interviewed for this article said that premarital work is rewarding because most clients are optimistic, enthusiastic and willing to strive to make changes to strengthen their relationship. In addition, growth and improvement often occur quickly.

“Premarital counseling is preventive care in a lot of ways,” Rogers says. “It can be some of the most rewarding, fun work to do with couples. … So many other mental health issues could be helped if we can help people have healthy relationships. We can be instrumental in pushing the ball forward to start marriage off on the right foot rather than addressing things only when they’re in a bad situation.”

 

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Let’s talk about sex

One of the most important “musts” to discuss with couples in premarital counseling is sexuality. This is an area that couples who are older or who have lived together for a while may think they have figured out and don’t need to cover, says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Tyler Rogers.

Rogers sometimes jokes with premarital couples, saying, “John Lennon was wrong. Love is not all you need.”

Couples may have “the basics” of sexual intimacy mastered but need psychoeducation about how a healthy sex life will need to evolve and change over the course of a marriage. There will be times in life when sex isn’t easy and effort has to be made to foster intimacy, Rogers says. It’s important for practitioners to ask premarital couples about their sexual history and expectations regarding sex and, if they are sexually active together, to ask questions to ascertain their level of sexual wellness. Manipulative behavior such as withholding sex can indicate an area that needs more attention in therapy. Factors such as past sexual trauma or pornography use can complicate this issue, Rogers notes, especially when it is undisclosed between partners.

“There can be feelings of shame or guilt, especially if things are not disclosed until after they are married,” he says.

Tensions or misunderstandings regarding sex can cause distress that spills into other areas of the relationship for couples who otherwise have healthy connection, notes Beatriz Lloret, an LPC with a couples counseling practice in Texas.

Lloret says that where she lives, many premarital couples choose to delay sexual experiences — and important related discussions — until after marriage. Clients who fall into this category, many of whom are in their 20s and come from conservative, Christian backgrounds, often explore feelings and judgments regarding sexuality, she says. For some, discovering that their partner has certain sexual preferences or expectations carries a negative meaning or assumption for them. As with learning how to handle conflict in premarital counseling, practitioners may need to equip clients with tools to listen and respond to their partner about intimacy without being reactive or accusatory, Lloret says.

“For couples who don’t get to explore their sexuality until they’re married, once they open the door to this whole universe of sexuality, there’s a chance for a huge mismatch. Sometimes people have very different ways of expressing themselves and relating to pleasure, and it can create a big disconnection,” Lloret says. “They often need to explore judgment in a way to open their heart to the human being they’re in love with and the wiring that is sexual pleasure for that person. [It’s] getting judgment out of the way. There’s no one technique or easy way to do that, but the focus should be on being open and nonjudgmental.”

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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