Your Church's Premarital Counseling is Probably Not Enough
Getting married is one of the most exciting times in your life. However, it is easy to overlook preparing for your marriage while you are busy preparing for your wedding and reception. Many church’s or marital officiants require that you complete premarital counseling before your wedding as a prerequisite for using their facilities or services for your ceremony. Church based premarital counseling is a great service, but buyer beware, there are some drawbacks to only pursuing your churches required counseling. From struggling through taboos to time constraints here are five reasons why your church’s premarital counseling is probably not enough to lay the proper foundation you need for a great marriage.
You Can’t Talk Openly About Difficult or Taboo Issues
Many people choose a church or religious officiant for their wedding for a variety of reasons. Some choose this setting because it is a family tradition to get married in the church or in a certain location. Others choose a faith-based ceremony because they themselves are religious, and feel it is important to have faith as a part of their nuptials. Whatever the reason you may have for getting married in a church or with a religious officiant, this affiliation often carries with it some expectations of religious standards for your relationship. This may create a barrier when it comes to talking through real issues in premarital counseling if your church or officiant is the provider of these services.
Because certain expectations exist around a couple’s relationship for before and after they get married when it comes to faith or religion, couples may be less likely to discuss problems or challenges they have experienced in regards to living together, sex, or spousal roles because of what their religion believes about these issues. Many faiths believe that couples should not cohabitate or have sex before they are married, and many couples who have experienced these things will attempt to hide from or avoid these topics if they come up in premarital counseling. Couples may also feel judged or fear that their officiant will not marry them if they find out they are already having sex or living together. It is important that couples come to premarital counseling with an open mind and willingness to discuss important issues freely; and if a couple is worried about being judged for their current actions their counseling will be rendered ineffective.
It is Too Short
Let’s face it. Marrying couples at the church or off site at a wedding venue is just one of the very many jobs a pastor or officiant has to do in a week’s time. These individuals stay busy preparing for weekly sermons, presiding over funerals, visiting church members at their homes or in the hospital, attending church planning and business meetings, as well as performing other community outreach tasks. The work that these individuals do is extremely valuable, and they stay very busy serving as many people as possible in the name of their faith or ministry. Many of these individuals enjoy the role of officiant when it comes to marrying young couples, but they may lack the time or availability to meet with the couple one on one to sufficiently prepare them for this transition.
Due to these time constraints, premarital counseling with an engaged couple may only take place a few times for a half hour or so or may not even take place at all. I have often heard from couples that premarital counseling consisted of only three 30-minute long sessions with the church’s family minister. A session usually covers a variety of topics from a workbook with shallow discussions.
My experience working with premarital couples today finds this minimal level of engagement not as helpful as it could be. It is very difficult to talk through many of the important topics premarital couples should cover in 90 minutes or even in 3 hours. And let’s be honest, very rarely do couples read the books you give them; and if they do the woman has read the book thoroughly and has paraphrased her readings for her partner. Premarital counseling sessions should provide enough time and space for couples to have real, in-depth conversations that will truly help them prepare for this life transition.
The time a couple spends in premarital counseling lays the foundation on which their marriage will build for years to come. Getting married, and to whom, are the most important decisions a person can make; and they should make them with the most information available. The only way to do this is through genuine, straight-forward, in-depth discussions between the two partners. Through working with a licensed marriage therapist, the couple can also learn and develop healthy communication skills as they work through these discussions; skills they will draw upon for the rest of their lives. Premarital counseling is the best way to prepare a couple for marriage, and it should be afforded a sufficient amount of time and energy to effectively prepare a couple for this next life stage.
You May Feel Like You’re Being Tested or Evaluated
Have you ever walked into an exam and thought to yourself, “I sure hope I pass.” This is not the feeling you should have walking into your premarital counseling sessions. Because many church’s or officiants require that a couple complete their premarital counseling sessions with them in order to be married by them, it often leaves couples feeling as if they have to be approved and checked-off by their officiant.
While the premarital counseling process should be used by the couple to evaluate their own readiness for marriage and this life transition, the feeling of being evaluated by a person of authority in the church can leave a couple feeling nervous, overwhelmed, and just plain scared about premarital counseling. If I have learned anything at all through my time working with clients, I have learned that fear does not allow for vulnerability. If an engaged couple is worried about being evaluated by their officiant during their premarital counseling sessions they will likely not engage with the process sufficiently or maybe even shut down completely. This also may lead to couples skimming over actual problem topics or leaving out large portions of the truth of their situation because of their worry about being evaluated or “failing the test.”
When couples ask me if I will be determining their fitness for marriage during our counseling sessions, I always let them know that it is not my place or job to make decisions for them; but I hope to help them to discover for themselves the answers to any questions or worries they may have. I am not hear to let you know if you should be getting married, or if you have chosen the right person. I am hear to help you have what are sometimes difficult conversations, and to teach you the communication and conflict resolution skills you will need to succeed in marriage going forward. This process should be helpful, enlightening, and should promote growth and learning for both the individuals and couple. While there may be moments in sessions where a couple discusses very difficult or sensitive issues, that is what premarital counseling is designed to do. I am here to help couples learn how to navigate tough topics in sessions, so they know how to do the same for themselves at home.
You Won’t Talk About Divorce
One of the most important aspects of preparing for marriage is understanding where you and your partner stand on the topic of divorce. While it may seem counterintuitive to talk about divorce as you are getting ready to be married; it is crucial that you and your partner are on the same page on the topic of divorce and whether or not it is an option in the future. No couple goes into marriage assuming they will eventually get divorced, but the growing divorce rate in America tells us that many couples end up going down that road at some point in time.
I believe that addressing this issue in premarital counseling is the best way to figure out where each person stands on the topic of divorce, and under which circumstances they would consider it. When I ask each of my premarital couples in session if divorce is an option for them, many of them answer “No, of course not.” However, when I then ask, “Under what circumstances would you consider divorce” they often respond with “In the case of infidelity, abuse..." or other reasons specific to their views. Sometimes, we uncover a mismatch as to what's an appropriate reason for divorce.
Not only is it important to know if you or your partner would consider divorce in the future, it is helpful for couples to know the boundaries surrounding the point at which each partner would consider taking that step. It is also helpful to have a discussion about whether or not divorce will be used as a frequent or infrequent threat during arguments or disagreements. Discussing the boundaries surrounding the topic of divorce in premarital counseling is one of the most important parts of preparing for marriage that many couples never have the chance to discuss openly.
There May be Too Many Family Ties
Lastly, it may be difficult to fully engage in premarital counseling if the person across the table is related to or are friendly with y'alls families. Churches are a great source of social support and community for families at all stages. This allows for church members to become close and well-involved in each other’s lives. While this can be extremely helpful in times of need or despair, it may create some discomfort when it comes to a premarital couple getting ready for marriage.
As mentioned above, it may be hard for couples to open up in a religious or faith-based setting because they may fear judgement by their church leaders or officiant. Similarly, this feeling may be amplified if the church leader or officiant is very close with either of the partner’s families. While we can hope and assume that all religious leaders and officiants abide by a strict code of confidentiality, it may be difficult to open up about issues surrounding family or intimacy if the person you are speaking with is a close friend of your father or knows your partner’s grandmother very well. The church family is a wonderful resource for newlyweds and new families and should not be overlooked if faith and a church family are important to a couple. However, it may be beneficial to reach out into the community to obtain premarital counseling from a therapist who is legally and ethically bound to confidentiality and has no family affiliation.
Lauren is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who works with engaged, newlywed, and married couples to build successful and resilient relationships. If you would like to schedule a free consultation with Lauren today, give her a call at (713)364-9748.