Should Premarital Counseling Be A Marriage Requirement?


Premarital counseling reduces the risk of divorce by 30 percent. Totally worth it, right?

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. 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." 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.

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