Should Premarital Counseling Be A Marriage Requirement?

Should Premarital Counseling Be A Marriage Requirement?

Before Prince William and Kate Middleton tie the knot—something we've been waiting for nearly as long as Kate has—they have to participate in several marriage preparation sessions with the priests who will be involved in their wedding ceremony. The media has seized upon this fact, mostly because of Prince Charles's and Princess Diana's divorce: Are William and Kate attempting to prevent another royal split? But in truth, William and Kate's sessions aren't unusual. As William's spokeswoman Maria Papworth, says, "It's customary for a priest to meet with the couple before their wedding." But premarital counseling isn't just for royalty.

Thirty-seven percent of married adults have participated in formal marriage preparation before their wedding, and, according to the National Directory of Marriage & Family Counseling, premarital counseling reduces the risk of divorce by up to 30 percent. If that isn't enough of a motivation to secure a counselor ASAP, based upon a survey conducted by the National Fatherhood Initiative, 41 percent of divorced folks have said that a lack of premarital preparation actually contributed to their divorce.

"People train and prepare for marathons, jobs, trips and more," says Zoe Saint-Paul, a writer and life coach who participated in both faith-based and psychologically-based premarital counseling with her husband, Brian. "But then they treat marriage as though it's just something we're all naturally good at. There is no more challenging—and rewarding—marathon than marriage, and if we're wise, we'll prepare for it wisely."

Which is perhaps why some faiths actually require marriage education.

Marriage requirements differ from faith to faith, and can even differ from church to church. Within the Anglican faith—the church in which Kate and William will pledge their lives to each other—couples must meet with their vicar in order to plan out the details of their ceremony. Afterwards, the vicar typically extends an invitation to the couple—which they are under no obligation to accept—to an event that will help them prepare for their married life together.

Catholic couples who are about to marry through the church must participate in marriage preparation workshops (typically known as Pre-Cana), and also meet one-on-one with the priest performing their ceremony. Other faiths, such as Islam and Bahá'í, don't require premarital counseling, but do strongly suggest it. Those of Islamic faith are even urged to seek out the guidance of a wali (guardian), who can oversee and advise the couple.

The Church isn't the only establishment regulating the institution of marriage. Some states are attempting to introduce legislation that would penalize couples who choose not to avail themselves of premarital counseling. 

RELATED: Texas Premarital Counseling Program Not A Hit With Couples

Florida, for example, offers a $32 discount on marriage licenses for couples who receive at least four hours of premarital counseling. And Minnesota offers a $70 discount for a whopping 12 hours of counseling. As of 2007, seven states had laws in place that offered such a discount, and more states are proposing similar legislation. Wisconsin, for example, has introduced a bill that would force couples to wait a year for their marriage license if they failed to partake in at least three hours of premarital counseling.

Many of these states provide couples with a list of approved, qualified premarital counseling providers. Others even specify the topics that must be covered during the course of these counseling sessions. (Texas, for instance, requires a "skills-based and research-based curriculum.") At the end of the counseling relationship couples should receive a certificate of completion from their counseling provider, which they must then include with their marriage license application.

Are church and state wrong to be butting in on our marriage plans? Perhaps not. After all, with the divorce rate as high as it is, a bit of premarital counseling couldn't hurt.  

But, despite the obvious benefits, some couples still avoid counseling. Why?

Some are turned off by the stigma, believing that seeking professional help indicates they're somehow deficient. Others balk at the high cost of counseling, preferring to spend their money elsewhere. (A high-priced wedding veil, perhaps?) And still others, like Emily Scheu, a 28-year-old media buyer living in D.C., and her fiancé, whom she's been with for one and a half years, simply believe that they're prepared for the challenges of marriage, and wouldn't have anything significant to gain from the experience. 

"We're not anti-premarital counseling," Scheu says. "[My fiancé and I are] just very much on the same page with everything." She mentions their similar values, their ultimate financial goals, their stance on children and religion. "We just feel there's not much that a counselor needs to delve into with us," she says.

When I ask her if she feels they're prepared to deal with the stuff that could happen down the line—job loss, infidelity, a big move, a financial hit—she's momentarily speechless. "That's probably a good benefit to going to premarital counseling," she admits. "In terms of coping mechanisms and strategies, that probably would be something that would be beneficial."

Chris Westfall, a sales and marketing specialist from Dallas, TX and married now for 17.5 years, also opted out of premarital counseling. He feels that this was a huge mistake.

Westfall and his wife dated on and off for five years before getting engaged. By that point, they thought they were ready for anything marriage could throw at them. But then a job switch necessitated a geographic change, and their marriage began to crumble. "The move was stressful," says Westfall. "It caused tension. It was a huge deal for my wife, but not for me. I didn't have a frame of reference for where she was coming from."

As the tension mounted, they realized they needed to seek out counseling. "We were really committed to making it work," says Westfall. "It's unfortunate that you have to get to that pain point before you realize [it]. Premarital counseling is like taking your vitamins." 

RELATED: Premarital Education After Marriage? You Bet.

So what exactly do couples stand to gain from premarital counseling?

Whether secular or religious, counselors, educators and pastors alike typically cover much of the same ground: finances, sex, communication, parenting and in-law issues, to name a few. These are the things a marital foundation is made of, and one area of weakness can cause an entire marriage to crumble.

Dustin Riechmann, a marriage educator and YourTango Expert, says that the goal "is for [my clients] to gain a better understanding about a key aspect of their relationship and for them to take action to improve their situation." He adds, "I'm a big proponent of being proactive, especially when it comes to our most important relationships. Depending on the topic at hand, this could mean having a meaningful conversation about family planning options, creating a financial budget or planning a regular date night. I instruct them on the importance of a critical area and then encourage them to take steps toward improving those aspects of their life."

Melodie Tucker, another marriage educator and YourTango Expert, points out that most partners have different expectations for marriage. "People assume that what they need is what the other person needs, and that's just not true." She tries to teach couples how to ask for what they need, and even what they want.

Taffy Wagner, a certified personal finance educator, who offers both pre- and post-marital counseling with a focus on money, tries to get couples to understand that they need to talk about income, spending and debt. The couples who come to her have decided they want to do this marriage-and-money thing right. "They value the marriage enough," says Wagner. "They want to make sure they've gotten all the 'i's dotted and the 't's crossed. They've considered a more general form of premarital counseling, but don't feel they'll get enough of a financial education there."

During her sessions, she asks couples, "What is your mindset when it comes to money? What were you taught about money? What did you do when you were on your own? What do you want to do moving forward? How will you communicate about this?" Through her sessions, she helps couples establish mutual financial goals. 

Ryan Dalgliesh, a 35-year-old pastor and the author of Love Notes: A Biblical Look At Love, provides one-on-one counsel through the Church, and himself received premarital counseling from his pastor. In detailing his own experiences, he stresses the importance of learning about marriage from someone you know and respect—someone who has a marriage you can aspire to. "I grew up in a very dysfunctional home. I wanted to know what a good marriage is supposed to look like." Because of this, he tries to provide a good example to those who come to him for counseling, and also urges them to seek out advice from other happily married couples.

He also goes over the practical stuff with them, in particular sex and finances, the two biggest causes of divorce. "If people are miles apart on expectations," he says, "the marriage is over before it begins."

On the topic of his faith—and on what the church has to offer that a mental health professional doesn't—he says, "my goal is to show them that their spouse isn't the priority. It's about God. If I love God, I should be a good husband. I'm good to my wife because I'm supposed to be good to my wife, regardless of how I feel today." Speaking of faith-based counseling...

What ground might the royal couple cover in their own marriage preparation sessions?

Miriam Bellamy, a licensed marriage and family therapist who does not counsel William and Kate, says that it could be smart for the couple to delve into relations with the in-laws. "How will Kate negotiate being herself with fulfilling her responsibilities as a royal family member?" asks Bellamy. "How will Prince William deal with being in the middle—between Kate and family expectations? How can he deal with the anxiety of wanting to please his family (he is the first born, after all) and being a supportive friend, partner and companion to his wife?"

In addition, she throws out a few more questions they'd do well to consider before saying "I do." "In what ways can they maintain their connection with each other when the public pressure is high?" asks Bellamy. "What say does Kate have with their finances, or with decisions that require finances? How can they create space where Prince William is just William and Princess Catherine is just Kate?"

Finally, and most importantly, "Can they talk about sex with this counselor, or is it a royal taboo to get this personal? I think they must talk about it to keep their humanity in clear focus. Nothing helps with humility like getting naked with one's spouse."

Should all couples seek out some form of premarital counseling? 

Saint-Paul, the writer and life coach, and her husband found premarital counseling incredibly valuable, and especially enjoyed "hearing from these couples who had been married a long time, how they dealt with things that came up in their marriage." Counseling, she says, helped them reflect more seriously on the vows they were going to be taking.

"Those vows were about more than just my own personal feelings of happiness. They were a commitment I made to my husband and to God. When I have those 'get me out of here' moments, I come back to those vows and they ground me. Eight years later, we're still glad we did it, and we always recommend to couples that they do an extensive marriage preparation."

Says Riechmann, "During an engagement, life can seem a lot like a fairy tale, but that inevitably wears off. It's best to have some discussions about money, sex and family planning before you are forced to endure tough times and realize that you are not adequately prepared to deal with those issues in your marriage." Before Going To Couples Counseling, Ask Yourself These 5 Questions

"It takes courage to go to counseling," adds Westfall. "The alternative is that you walk away from it. The person you care about walks out of your life. People go to therapy as a last resort. It should be a starting point."

In a recent survey, 78 percent of YourTango readers said all couples should get premarital counseling.

If you're still unconvinced that premarital counseling is right for you, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you know each other's financial history, and have you worked out a plan for handling finances going forward?
  • How important is religion to both of you, and how will you honor your faiths going forward? If you plan to have children, what kind of religious education will they receive?
  • What are the differences in how you were raised? How might these differences affect your marriage?
  • How sexually compatible are you? What are your expectations when it comes to the bedroom?
  • Are you in agreement about plans regarding children? What about careers? Living situation?
  • Do you share the same core values?
  • What are your expectations of marriage, and does your partner share those expectations?
  • How do the two of you handle disagreements?
  • How will the two of you negotiate any future roadblocks that may unexpectedly pop up, like job-loss, caring for an ailing parent or financial difficulty?

If there's even one question you have difficulty answering, it could be worth considering premarital counseling.

If you're unsure how to go about finding a counselor, one good place to start is your church or temple. It can also be helpful to ask for recommendations from friends and acquaintances, and especially from people with marriages you admire. Beyond that, there are plenty of qualified professionals among our YourTango Experts. Directories also exist at Psychology Today, the American Association of Marriage and Family TherapyPrepare-Enrich, etc.

Don't just go with the first counselor you meet. Once you've found some likely candidates, ask them about their credentials, their counseling strategies and their pricing, and also try to get a feel for whether or not you click. It's important that both you and your partner feel comfortable with whomever you choose.

And if your partner resists?

"Don't say, 'I really think we need help,'" advises Dalgliesh. "Say, 'Look, I love you. I want to see us be successful at marriage. How about we talk to someone and see if they have tips? I value what we have. This is an investment in us.'"

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