A Little Premarital Preparation Can Save You a Lot

Rear view of couple hugging on beach“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” —Jon Kabat-Zinn

You are seemingly in the “perfect” relationship, but then come the hurdles. Your brain starts its silent chatter.

If it’s meant to be, it will be.

Love conquers all.

If my partner really loves me, we’ll make it work.

Hopefulness and idealism are part of any relationship, especially in the early stages, but be warned—there’s a potential shadow side. Complacency can conquer and destroy what was once your dream come true.

How many classroom, home study, and/or test prep hours go into establishing one’s career? Yet we have no formal training to take on one of the most important and challenging tasks: creating a happy relationship. In the education field, one of the meta-goals is to “learn how to learn.” Something similar needs to be applied in intimate partnerships, where couples can “learn how to learn” about one another.

Among other things, couples can learn how to hold mutually agreeable conversations, tolerate uncomfortable truths and ambiguity, manage the balance of power, and compromise while respecting individual differences.

The Challenges Couples Face

Foundational tools for couples, made available in premarital counseling, can help you skillfully navigate the many different challenges that may come into your marriage. These issues might include tensions with in-laws or differences about financial priorities. Will savings be a priority? What if your partner’s sibling asks for a loan? Then there are expectations about affection and sex or how holidays will be spent. Couples face childrearing preferences—religious considerations, private or public school, how many children to have. There is also the challenge of blending the cultural heritage that comes from growing up in two different families.

At work, we focus on solutions—get it done, measure performance against the competition, establish systems and routines to assure better quality next time. In intimate relationships, an emphasis on efficient solutions can embroil the couple in well-intended yet misguided attempts to fix something before truly knowing what is at stake.

The skills needed in marriage are different from those we learn at work. “Soft skills” prove much more effective for the development and sustainability of intimate relationships. Soft skills include:

  • Vulnerable self-disclosure
  • Careful and attuned listening
  • Taking the trouble to absorb and reflect
  • Avoiding name-calling or attacking a person’s character
  • Avoiding absolutes such as “you always …” and “you never …”

These skills take what you know of your partner and deepen that understanding. They provide a clearer reflection or map of the person who is sharing the intimate details of your life. With some coaching and information about what psychologists, neuroscientists, and clinicians have discovered in successful long-term relationships, your ability to co-create connection and closeness can flourish.

Premarital Counseling Can Reduce the Chances of Divorce

Take a minute to reflect on the sobering science regarding couple relationships. People marrying today have a 40% to 50% chance of divorcing (about 40% of first marriages, 60% of second, and 73% of third marriages end in divorce). Further, children who grow up in high-conflict families without divorce tend to experience more or as many problems as children of divorced or never-married parents.

The good news is premarital preparation can reduce divorce rates by as much as 30%.

Going to premarital couples counseling with the intent of tackling difficult areas can feel like leaping into the unknown; it can be exciting and scary. Keep in mind, though, that this is not like signing up for the football team or surgery—you will be co-pilots, and the aim is to create a cooperative, satisfying relationship. Consider the potential for greater comfort and confidence in the most important relationship of your adult life.

Going to premarital couples counseling with the intent of tackling difficult areas can feel like leaping into the unknown; it can be exciting and scary. Keep in mind, though, that this is not like signing up for the football team or surgery—you will be co-pilots, and the aim is to create a cooperative, satisfying relationship. Consider the potential for greater comfort and confidence in the most important relationship of your adult life.

I can think of several couples who were surprised to find that the way their partner approached them was the issue, not the outcome. For some, it was being “triangled” or pressured into agreeing when their partner recruited a friend or family member to endorse their position. For others, it was the sense of demand or expectation their partner brought, rather than a softer approach such as making a request. As soon as the style of interaction shifted, the disagreement melted away. Not all problems are like this, of course, but what a relief to get unstuck when there wasn’t even a fundamental difference in values!

There are a number of models for couples therapy, including Prepare-Enrich and the Gottman method. These methods provide tools to help couples establish positive agreement on topics such as marriage expectations, children and parenting priorities, finances, in-laws, family culture and customs, personality styles, roles, constructive communication, and interdependence.

Premarital counseling is an investment of time, money, and energy. It can contribute to positive couple satisfaction in a relatively short time frame, which also tracks to a rewarding result: intact, happy marriages several years later. Many couples choose to take that time together up front and ensure they do all they can to get it right.

Do you know couples who have participated in premarital or preparative relationship counseling? Do you think it is helpful? Risky? How so? Please share your questions and comments below.


  1. Amato, P.R. (2000). The consequences of divorce for adults and children. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62(4), 1269-1287.
  2. Popenoe D., & Whitehead R.D. (2010). The state of our unions 2010. Piscataway, NJ: National Marriage Project, Rutgers University.
  3. Stanley, S.M., Amato, P.R., Johnson, C.A., & Markman, H.J. (2006). Premarital education, marital quality, and marital stability: Findings from a large, random household survey. Journal of Family Psychology 20(1), 117-126.
  4. U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2007). Statistical abstract of the United States (122nd ed). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Melinda Douglass, PsyD, Couples and Marriage Counseling Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • marine

    February 10th, 2016 at 7:18 AM

    My church actually requires that couples go through premarital counseling if you are getting married there. I really enjoyed the time that we spent getting to know each other in a different way when we did ours.

  • LIndsay

    February 10th, 2016 at 11:18 AM

    In some ways I do believe that this is the best route to take
    and then there are times when I think that counseling is great and all but that you are never going to know the real person until you are married and the time may be too late to back out.
    I know that that sounds a little dreary but you know, sometimes those true colors do not show their face until much later on.

  • Carla

    February 11th, 2016 at 11:22 AM

    I know that I am a totally different person than I was when I first got married, I have changed and I have grown and I do not think that my husband has. I think that he is very complacent, okay with the status quo while I want to learn and gain more and do more, not materialistically but you know, spiritually and emotionally. I feel so distant form him at times because he does not care anything about that.

  • joe r

    February 11th, 2016 at 3:26 PM

    The things that we learned about each other in our premarital counseling sessions are the things that now even 20 years later I can look back on and say that I am so glad that I knew this about her sooner instead of later. I think that learning things like this kept me a little more grounded about marriage would actually be like, and I think that she went into it the same way. We were not immune to being so in love but I think that it really helped us very early on to establish a real and solid relationship learning more than we wanted to get more out of this than just one day, we wanted a real and lasting marriage.

  • Laure

    February 14th, 2016 at 4:15 AM

    So what do you do if you go into premarital counseling and realize that you really don’t like this person that you are about to marry that much at all?
    It would be wise to call things off right then and there but I can guarantee you that there are probably people who still go through with it just to save face.
    Even though they will probably regret all of that later on.

  • Kevin

    February 15th, 2016 at 10:29 AM

    I would love to have a one on one sit down with my fiancee and a therapist and just get the honest truth, if he thinks that we will make it or not.

  • kendra S

    February 16th, 2016 at 3:58 PM

    I would like to say that maybe this bought us a little more time together but in the end there was just too much about us that was different for us to ever be happy together. It hurts still to think about how much effort I think that we both put into being together but in the end it was just not meant to be.

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