Pre-Marriage Counselling – What Happens?
- Your pre-marriage counsellor will encourage open and direct communication and give each of you a chance to talk.
- Your pre-marriage counsellor will observe your communication processes and make suggestions for how these can be improved.
- Your pre-marriage counsellor will help you reach agreement about any problematic issues which might affect the success of your marriage.
Very often couples who come in for pre-marriage counselling may feel it is a good place to explore differing views about marriage and lifestyle and to review their communication techniques prior to getting married. Research shows that attending pre-marriage counselling improves interpersonal skills and overall relationship quality (1). Although every pre-marriage counsellor or psychologist approaches the counselling process in their own unique way, there are some common elements in almost all pre-marriage counselling sessions.
HOW DOES THE PRE-MARRIAGE COUNSELLOR GATHER INFORMATION?
When you book your first appointment, you will generally be asked to give a bit of background information about your relationship and any specific issues or dilemmas that your relationship faces. Often in the situation of pre-marriage counselling, couples are not in conflict about any particular issue, but they simply wish to come together in a structured way to discuss their expectations of marriage and lifestyle prior to getting married. This is a genuine and common reason to attend pre-marriage counselling.
If you do have a specific issue that you wish to discuss, it is helpful if you can provide a summary of this information when making your booking. Whilst this is not essential, such information will ensure that you are booked in to see an appropriate clinician and will also help the counsellor or psychologist prepare for your first session.
The process of gathering more detailed information about your relationship and history will commence at your first session when you meet your pre-marriage counsellor. Although not all counsellors take intensive or detailed histories, some basic history is probably going to be required in order for the counsellor or psychologist to help you through the pre-marriage counselling process. He or she may ask you and your partner about past relationships including any past marriages, about how you feel about marriage and whether you have any specific issues you wish to address. Sometimes you will be asked to complete a written questionnaire which may include questions about past relationships, basic beliefs and values and other relevant topics.
WHAT ARE THE LEGAL ISSUES IN PRE-MARRIAGE COUNSELLING?
If a couple has not been in counselling before, the legal issues of confidentiality and mandated reporting may be of significant concern. Usually, a pre-marriage counsellor, psychologist or therapist will discuss these topics in the first session so that you can proceed comfortably and know your rights.
HOW IS THERAPIST BIAS AVOIDED?
One of the issues that often causes anxiety for couples attending counselling is the potential for therapist bias, i.e. there is often a fear that a counsellor or psychologist will not provide a balanced and equal service to each person in the relationship, or a concern that they might ‘take sides’. This should not usually be a cause for concern. Professional relationship counsellors and psychologists are well trained and work diligently to ensure that both parties have the equal opportunity to express their perspective about the issues at hand. They are equally trained and practiced in remaining entirely unbiased.
WHAT DOES A PRE-MARRIAGE COUNSELLING SESSION ENTAIL?
Every pre-marriage counsellor works uniquely in their approach to pre-marriage counselling, but some common techniques used in a pre-marriage counselling session include:-
- Providing an opportunity for each of you to have your say, and be heard by each other. A pre-marriage counsellor is trained to encourage honest and open communication between couples, to identify what might be hovering under the surface and to draw out difficult issues. A pre-marriage counsellor can also ‘translate’ your ideas and make sure that they are clearly expressed and understood by your partner
- Role modeling of good communication skills: These skills include active listening, which is taking the time to really listen and make sure that you understand the message before answering the question or replying. This is a skill that takes practice and does not come automatically. A pre-marriage counsellor will observe how you interact as a couple and give you feedback about your communication skills. They will also model these skills during the session and will often take time to specifically teach them to you. Formal or informal ‘homework’ may be suggested to help further develop these skills between sessions. The pre-marriage counsellor or psychologist may also utilise techniques like role playing to help you learn better communication skills.
- Asking couples to independently write down their hopes, expectations and aspirations for married life. This includes asking couples to think about what issues their marriage might face, or what concerns they might have, and then raising them within the session so they can be considered and addressed. A pre-marriage counsellor can help a couple with any existing issues as well as identify potential issues and ways in which they might be able to be resolved in the future.
TOBY AND JENNI’S STORY
Toby and Jenni have known each other for about 1 year and been dating for about six months. Although they come from vastly different cultures – her family is Indian and his family is Anglo-Australian – they are deeply in love and want to get married. Since they have not known each other for a very long time, friends suggested that a few sessions of pre-marriage counselling would be a good idea before they make any final commitment to each other.
As Toby and Jenni attend their first session, they are both a bit anxious. They have never attended therapy or counselling and do not know what to expect. As they meet their pre-marriage counsellor for the first time, they are happy to find that they like Steve a great deal. The are particularly assured after he carefully explains how he works with couples and his policy of “no secrets” during the couples counselling process.
Both Jenni and Toby talk about growing up in their families and about family expectations around spiritual and religious beliefs. Although Toby has spent time with Jenni’s family, he is surprised at the degree to which Jenni feels strongly about her Hindu religious beliefs and rituals and that she wants her children to have the benefit of what she considers a very rich and textured belief system. When he thinks of his own haphazard Episcopalian upbringing he feels a bit intimidated.
Jenni and Toby also come to realise that their approach to finances are completely different from each other. They discover this difference through an assignment that Steve suggests whereby they are both given $1,000 in pretend money and they have to budget and spend the money. Jenni happily and easily spends almost all of the money with only $7 left over, while Toby finds that he wants to save the majority of the money and only spend what he has to on necessary budgetary items like housing, utilities and paying bills. They both find this difference disturbing and a bit startling.
Steve realises that the differences between his clients are substantial, but he uses assignments and role play activities to help them reframe their differences into strengths they both bring to the relationship. He also helps them to discuss how they might each be able to compromise in relation to some of these differences, and works with them to enhance their active listening skills so that discussing potential compromises in the future can come more easily. Active listening is one of the most effective communication techniques that can be taught by a marriage counsellor or psychologist, and it results in more satisfying and rewarding interactions between partners (2). Additionally, he uses role play, modelling and assignments between sessions to enhance what he demonstrates for them during counselling sessions.
Steve also suggested that Toby and Jenni consider making an explicit agreement about the religious upbringing of any children they might have together. At first Toby and Jenni thought the suggestion was a bit silly, because they weren’t even thinking about children at this point in their relationship. But after some discussion, they both acknowledged that the issue of children and religion was hugely significant, especially to Jenni, and that one of the reasons they had decided to come to pre-marriage counselling in the first place was to address any major issues that might come up. Coming to a resolution about this issue proved to be extremely difficult and fraught with emotional ties to family and history for both Jenni and Toby, and they were glad they had Steve’s assistance to work through the problem. Ultimately, through some rather intense and heated discussions across two sessions, they came to the realisation that the issue of religious upbringing was essential to Jenni, and not as essential for Toby. Yet through these discussions, Toby also discovered that if they made a decision to raise their children in the Hindu tradition, this decision would have ramifications for Toby and his family. Working with Steve allowed Jenni and Toby to reach an honest and open awareness of each of their needs and develop true empathy for each other’s positions. In this way, they were able to reach a compromise about the situation, and even more importantly, they both felt really good about their decision.
WHERE DO I SEEK PRE-MARRIAGE COUNSELLING?
If you and your partner are considering getting married and would like to speak with a professional relationship counsellor or psychologist about pre-marriage counselling and how it might benefit you or you would like further information about our services, please contact Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors Sydney.
Carroll, J. and Doherty, W. (2004). Evaluating the Effectiveness of Premarital Prevention Programs: A Meta‐Analytic Review of Outcome Research. Family Relations, 52(2), 105-118.
Pasupathi, M., Carstensen, L. L., Levenson, R. W., & Gottman, J. M. (1999). Responsive listening in long-married couples: A psycholinguistic perspective. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, (23), 173–193.