Andrew Engstrom, MS, LMFTA, Bellevue Christian Counseling
Perhaps the most important benefit of premarital counseling is the practice that you and your fiancé will gain in communication. Counseling sessions provide an opportunity to discuss, process, and negotiate topics that will arise in marriage. They also provide a space in which a couple can gain skills in conflict management as the two partners learn to communicate ̶ not only with the counselor, but also with each other.
Dealing with Feelings in a Relationship
Humans have feelings. Because of this, they have hurts and needs to discuss, but they also have fears of doing just that. When there is a hurt or a desire or a negative dynamic that a partner wants to address, there now exists a thing within that person and also within that couple – to be addressed. To normalize this dynamic, I refer to this thing as “stuff,” and the addressing of stuff as “dealing with stuff.” This may sound pretty intuitive, but it isn’t simple. “Stuff” usually has to do with feelings, and “dealing with stuff” is most often the very definition of “communication” itself. Communicating about your feelings is tricky – it is hard to stay connected to, and to further validate a partner who feels hurt by you.
If you are hurt about something, need something, or have a concern about something in your marriage, it needs to be articulated. Ironically, “stuff” cannot be dealt with by “stuffing” it. Things that have been buried or bottled up remain alive in their hiding place, and covertly fester like an untreated wound between the partners. This causes a rift and eventually resentment. Couples who are able to speak with each other and to hear each other in both small matters and in more difficult topics, have achieved “good communication.” I spell this out because when I was growing up I often heard it said that a marriage needs “good communication,” but it was never clear to me what that meant. This is also ironic.
Dealing with “Stuff” in the Counseling Room
Premarital counseling sessions certainly cover the topic of communication, because communication is the backbone of any healthy marriage ̶ and perhaps the key to most unhappy marriages. However, fostering actual conversations and having the couple “deal with stuff” in the counseling session is invaluable practice for developing the couple’s craft in the art of marriage. Guided by an unbiased counselor, this real-time practice on issues that challenge the couple is an asset that will invariably bless a couple. It is a personal privilege to be with a couple in these moments ̶ to help them to engage, connect, and succeed in some of their first hard discussions. Dealing with “stuff” gets much easier with practice, and pays hefty dividends in peace and love. In the meantime, it is a joy for me as a counselor to help couples talk through issues that have not been brought up before.
It can be easy, however, for an untrained counselor to get caught up in the topics and talk-points of premarital work, and miss the opportunity to lead the couple to conversation. It can also be difficult and intimidating to guide a couple into (and through) hard conversations. This is why a professional counselor is particularly helpful in premarital counseling. Whether trained or not, the goal of a counselor is that counseling will lead a couple to more intentionally (and fearlessly) confront issues outside of counseling sessions. This will help the couple begin their marriage already engaged in proactive discussion, so that they will not suddenly be confronted with the permanent proximity of their partner.
Fostering Specific Conversations in Premarital Counseling
There are some conversations that I usually aim to guide a couple through every time I work with premarital clients. Besides basic and critical conversations about topics such as roles, division of labor, child rearing, and finances, I try to assign conversations. I especially try to develop a central theme and goal for the couple in their union, something like a marriage mission statement. Each couple is different, and having a desired outcome and target aspiration for them is a healthy way to direct the couple’s energy, and to help them to appreciate what they have in each other.
Sometimes I also ask a couple to write up a sort of marriage contract that includes statements on their expectations and desires on a number of topics, such as sexual relations and fighting. This document fuels deep conversations away from the counseling office and helps the couple get a rich, character-driven image of their union. It also guides several conversations in-session, and can be something a couple returns to in the future. It can also be saved as a memento. Finally, while this is rare, a counselor may sometimes need to bring the couple into conversation about whether they should be getting married to one another, especially if there are serious reservations on the part of either party. Depending on the couple, some areas of conversation will receive more or less attention. But the counselor’s expertise is needed in order to emphasize and guide these conversations to provide the best fit for the particular couple. This is what makes premarital counseling such an effective preparation for marriage.
Christian Counseling is an Effective Way to Prepare for Your Marriage
If you are engaged, I highly recommend investing in at least six sessions of premarital counseling with a Christian counselor, and I think you will find that further sessions will prove a profit in your marriage. Even if a couple is not engaged, or if there is more than a year before the wedding, it is not too soon to begin the work. There are a number of ways to do premarital Christian counseling, usually through a church program or a marriage therapist, but an experienced practitioner is more likely to find important areas of conversation and lead the couple to deeper discussion.
“14296-counseling & psychology 3934-Edit.jpg” by Texas A&M University, https://flic.kr/p/nScECL, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Costa Rico,” by Renee Barron, https://flic.kr/p/7yKjU7, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-ND 2.0)