Even if you’re happily engaged, pre-marital counseling is one of those pre-cautionary steps we can take to solidify what might already be a good thing. Just like if you’ve already agreed to purchase a used car, it might not be a bad idea to get your personal mechanic to look it over just to double check that you know all of the things that you’ll need to do to make sure it stays in good condition.
Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors, there is safety. – Proverbs 11:14
I had this experience recently. I purchased a car that had a previous owner, and although I was 90% sure I’d buy it, I wanted a mechanic to look at it first to just make sure I knew exactly what its maintenance record looked like. The mechanic was very helpful because they knew to look for and think about things that I did not.
I had no idea from first glance that the rear brake pads would need to be changed soon, or that the cabin air filter would need replacing. These and other minor things came back in his report about the quality of the car and the upkeep I would be signing up for.
Now, getting married is not the same as buying a car. People are not cars. They cannot be inspected and tampered with to make them work the way we want them to. But, in some ways, they are similar to a new vehicle because much like purchasing a new vehicle, you can take the time to get to know what you’re getting into by doing some studying.
I like to think of pre-marital counseling as studying the integrity, soundness, and solidity of a partnership. It’s taking the time to think about a litany of questions you may never have dreamed you’d have to think about. Pre-marital counseling is a lot like asking “what can I expect if I commit to this?”.
People don’t come with maintenance records, but in counseling, we can discuss things like their dating history, their experiences of trauma, their impressions of healthy relationships, and so on. Counseling is like going to the mechanic because there, you can have a professional help you see what you may not have on your own.
So, you’re already engaged?
I have heard of pre-engagement counseling, but I’ve never actually seen it. Most of the time pre-marital counseling occurs when two individuals have already taken the step to get engaged, and then, just as a final measure of certainty, the happy couple might go to pre-marital counseling before they get married.
I think sometimes that’s a funny way to go about it. Being engaged is already a much more serious commitment than dating, and, for some, it can make pre-marital counseling feel more like a check-box than as something that should help them seriously consider if this is the right decision.
Regardless of when a couple decides to seek out marital advice, though, pre-marital (or pre-engagement) counseling is beneficial for a number of reasons:
1. It gives you a toolkit to work with. I guess I’m feeling the analogies today because here is another one: counseling will give you tools to use once you enter into marriage. Marriage is a lot like building a house.
Dating is laying the foundation down. The tools you gather while dating and before marriage will greatly influence the quality of the life you build together. Some of my favorite tools for couples include these:
- Impact verses intent – This is one of my favorite simple phrases used to explain why so arguments can happen. We all have good intentions to love and understand our partners, but the impact of those intentions can be miles off from what they intended for us to feel.
For example, your partner intended to make you feel super loved and respected by organizing most of your trip together, but the impact was that you actually felt really hurt because you felt not needed or not included.
The person who is told ‘you hurt me’ might begin to try to explain their intentions, thinking that if the other person simply understood what their intentions were, then they wouldn’t feel hurt. But this is not the case.
Feeling hurt is a result of the impact of the other’s intentions having different results than intended. This is no one’s fault. This is simply a matter of impact verses intent. The key for couples to understand is that explaining your intentions does not usually lead to one feeling better about the impact your intentions had.
Instead, it could make it worse, it could feel like their feelings are being invalidated or rationalized with logic, such as “but if you understood what I meant surely you wouldn’t still feel hurt.” The best thing a person can do when they are told that they affected someone negatively (although they did not mean to), is to validate how the other person feels.
This can be incredibly hard and doesn’t always happen right away. But even if a day or week later you approach your partner and simply name “what I did really hurt you”, you are now showing that you are at least willing to validate their experience and not minimize it.
I teach couples who struggle with this that I am not saying you are to feel guilt or blame yourself for hurting them. In fact, you can still fully believe “I had good intentions” because you did! But what your partner needs at the moment is not to be told you were right and did nothing wrong. They need to be told their feelings can also exist despite your best efforts.
- The Love Languages – This book by Gary Chapman is one of the most successful couples tools out there for understanding what each other needs. In it, you can identify that the two of you may find very different things to fill your love tank.
One person might respond very well to acts of service, meaning, if you wash their dishes for them, not only will they notice, but they will feel like the most loved person ever. Others would rather receive words of affirmation if they had to choose their favorite way to receive love from their partner.
This means that they would rather get a note telling them how much their partner notices and values their patience and skills than have their dishes done. There are three more love languages which include gifts, physical touch and quality time. While most people can appreciate some aspect of all of these, the Love Languages helps you identify your and your partner’s specific love language that they are most likely to both give and want to receive.
- How to fight well – Pre-wedding counseling can help you get a grasp on what fighting well looks like. Fighting is inevitable, so why not learn how to make the most of it? Arguments can actually benefit couples and are extremely helpful for promoting growth and even increasing connection to one another if done well.
Some forms of fighting not well are outlined in the Gottman’s research where they describe the “Four horsemen” that kill marriages as being: Defensiveness, Stonewalling, Criticism, and Contempt. Counseling can give you the tools that counteract or prevent these patterns such as taking responsibility, doing physiological self-soothing, learning to complain without blaming others, and lastly building a culture of appreciation.
With the awareness to look out for these when entering a marriage, you are already ten steps ahead as you at least can know they are something to look out for and stop the second you notice them happening.
- I statements – “Communication is key” as most marriage advice folks will tell you. “I statements” are one form of very specific communication that can really add understanding to situations of conflict. Instead of resorting to the usual shaming or blaming strategies, an “I statement” is a reflection of how someone feels.
Learning this and other specific strategies for how to communicate one’s own needs in a healthy way is another huge benefit to pre-marital counseling: it gives you language for communicating how you feel rather than saying a ‘you statement’, which sounds more accusatory and might cause your partner to pull back.
- Love and respect principles found in the book “Love and Respect” by Dr. Emerson Eggrichs can also be a huge eye opener for newlyweds. It’s principles are also often integrated into pre-marital counseling because of how accurately they ring true for couples: men need respect, women need love.
When one or both partners do not feel that they are getting these things, it can lead to a breakdown in feeling like a team and instead couples can begin to feel like enemies. Understanding the “his needs/her needs” dance is another really helpful and even vital concept for creating a long-lasting marriage, because, the truth is, we can never fully understand one another perfectly.
No matter how much you might feel like you understand your spouse, I can almost guarantee you that pre-marital counseling will enlighten you with at least one or more new perspective on how your other half (your partner) really thinks, feels or operates.
Again, the person you marry does not come with an instruction manual or a maintenance record. Instead, proactive time spent in therapy and with one another is how you begin to learn what they value and why. In this example, many men value respect over love, and women, love over respect. Who knew!?
As you can see, pre-marriage is fertile ground for learning and gaining tools about a person you hope to spend the rest of your life with. There is always hope that a couple can improve in how they understand and treat one another if they have the proper resources, help, and motivation to do so.
That being said, even if a couple does not do pre-marital counseling, there’s no problem with taking the time to learn these things even after having gotten married. The important thing is to consider, as a couple, that some form of marital counseling could greatly benefit your marriage more than not.
Without counsel, plans fail, but with many advisers, they succeed. – Proverbs 15:22
“Classic Chevy”, Courtesy of Court Prather, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Chilling”, Courtesy of Jacob Postuma, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Spring”, Courtesy of Nathan Lindahl, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Andre e Natalia”, Courtesy of Andre Revilo, Unsplash.com, CC0 License”Andre e Natalia”, Courtesy of Andre Revilo, Unsplash.com, CC0 License