Help us choose the right kind of premarital counseling.
August 10, 2006 7:00 AM   Subscribe

Please school us about premarital counseling. What kinds of issues do people discuss? What is the difference between secular and religious counseling?

I am getting married next year to an awesome man who has been with me for 6+ years. We have compatible values, political and religious beliefs. Our conflict resolution styles match and we see eye-to-eye about saving money and our long-term financial goals. We know what our "love languages" are. Despite this, we have agreed to seek premarital counseling because you never know. We're sure a professional will help us address future problems that we haven't even thought of.

That said, we have a lot of options and aren't sure how to narrow them down. As it stands, we go to a small, currently leaderless Episcopal Church which offers "game night" counseling where we would play board games and discuss issues with married couples within the church who have lots of experience, a little training, but who are not professionals. We could also seek counseling from a larger, nearby Episcopal church where we are considering having our ceremony. The pastor will be one who has received professional training, but doesn't know us very well. Lastly, we could seek out a professional counselor who was recommended by a friend.

We are a bit worried about the expense of a private counselor, especially if we will get the same thing within a church community for less money. In addition, despite attending Bible study regularly we are not the most religious people and wouldn't feel comfortable being instructed to have a 'Scripture based' marriage, especially (for me) if that scripture comes from the Epistles of Paul (grr, 1st Timothy, grr). We do not have a clue about how religious counseling works (plus, I am from the Bible Belt and paranoid), so please let me know if you have experiences to the contrary.

In fact, we don't know much about premarital counseling at all, so please let us know your good and bad experiences. What did you talk about in counseling? Was there anything that was particularly helpful? Is there anything you regret discussing or not discussing? What were the fees like? Do you think there is a big difference between religious and secular counseling? Did one work better for you?

I have already read this thread and found it helpful.

Thanks for your help!
posted by Alison to Human Relations (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This is not exactly what you're thinking about, but I am a big admirer of the work of John Gottman.

He's a researcher who's focused primarily on marriage and has conducted large scale, long term studies of which marriages last and which don't.

He's got some self-helpy type books which kind of rub me the wrong way because I'm not a fan of this genre, but I recently purchased a DVD of a lecture he did which basically summerizes his research and conclusions. It's not too expensive, and I'd highly recommend it.

I originally heard about him on an episode of This American Life called The Sanctity of Marriage. You might enjoy that too!
posted by serazin at 7:38 AM on August 10, 2006

Ditto Gottman. And the very fact that you're doing this says a lot about your commitment, intelligence, initiative and open-mindedness. Congratulations to both of you.
posted by futility closet at 7:49 AM on August 10, 2006

I've never gone through this myself, but I do know a number of couples who have and I have had the benefit of their own experience when asking similar questions (I'm getting married next year as well).

Also, none of them attend Episcopalian churches so YMMV.

I was surprised to find out that most (if not all) pre-marital counseling provided by churches is free of dogma. I guess maintaining the marriage bond is more important to religious folks than conversion, so I can see why they tread lightly when offering this service. All the couples I know that have gone through this service (either in part because the church required it for the ceremony, or because someone just thought it was a good idea) have not regretted it at all. Some originally thought that it was an onerous task, but rather quickly changed their opinions after a few sessions.

I only know of one couple who went to a professional marriage counselor and they decided to go themselves with the parents fitting the bill (some kind of engagement gift I guess). No specific details unfortunately, but they were quite impressed with the professionalism around the personal details of marriage (sex, conflict resolution etc.) and recommended the service (without knowing how much it costs).

I'll be watching this question for more responses because my fiancee and I have yet to make a decision on this. Thanks for the question.
posted by purephase at 7:49 AM on August 10, 2006

Response by poster: We are very familliar with Gottman and our friend recommended the secular counselor based on a conversation about his book and TAL piece.
posted by Alison at 7:52 AM on August 10, 2006

I work in a counseling center, and many of our counselors use a relatively new framework called Narrative Therapy. A recent premarital counseling couple found this approach to be very helpful for framing their marriage together and for externalizing potential problems and working with each other to team up on the problem rather than locating problems in the other person. I would highly recommend it. Not sure what area you are in, but look for a counselor training center, many of which are associated with seminaries/divinity schools. Don't let that scare you if you're not particularly religious because most wouldn't force the issue. You might Google or search on for Ph.D. programs in Pastoral Theology/Pastoral Counseling (PTPC for short). These programs almost universally have a clinical requirement and if the program is worth its salt, they will be teaching narrative.
posted by jxpx777 at 8:05 AM on August 10, 2006

Ah, I guess I should have read your question more carefully. Fees are usually lower at such training centers. Many operate on a sliding scale, meaning they set your fee based on your situation, family size, income, etc.

Also, be sure to look for one that is AAPC accredited. The AAPC website might also be a good place to start looking for information and counselors.
posted by jxpx777 at 8:07 AM on August 10, 2006

I guess I'll be the one that talks about a bad counseling. Wife and I did our church-backed (Catholic) style, which was 4-6 weekly sessions, about 2 hours each. We were one of three couples, with two PHD therapists. All that we did was read-along with a long paper-back guide, which split up each week into a specific session, such as money, arguments, sex, etc.

Each session started with reviewing the previous week, any discussion we had with our spouse about that or the current session. After that, we did a long questionaire...imagine a lengthy Cosmo quiz done each week. You had to mark how you feel about a question/statement, and how you thought your spouse thinks about it. When done, you review the results with spouse, then talk about answers. Then, the two leaders would talk more, answer any questions, and that was it.

Hate to say it, but this did nothing for us...and it was a waste of time, in my opinion. We knew where we stood with all topics, and the things we disagreed on, we knew that from dating for the past two years. The only thing we really got out of it was seeing how this one couple disagreed on everything, and how much she hated him, but was going to marry, regardless, because she thought she could change him. (For those keeping score, they divorced less than a year after their wedding.)

In all fairness, the other pre-counseling option was a weekend long in-depth course, but we had scheduling conflicts. I heard mixed reactions to that, too...It sounded to be a more discussion with all other couples, not a couple-therapist situation, which I think we would have appreciated and grown more through it.

One last comment: I think the group discussion really scared my wife. She's shy, and I don't think she wanted to bring up anything or ask any question. That might have been the case with other couples there.
posted by fijiwriter at 8:58 AM on August 10, 2006

Premarital counselling (which I'm a big supporter of), be it secular or religious, varies a great deal. My wife and I did premarital counselling with the minister who performed our ceremony (I am a devout Christian after my fashion, she is a "raised that way" Christian who is not particularly devout) and we both thought it was very helpful, but then the minister was a very liberal minister and an old friend who ran the student ministry I worked with back in my college days. In this case, we filled out some surveys which were analyzed by software the denomination in question had organized and then discussed the result with the pastor. It can be surprising the things you think you've got "all sorted out" that actually bear further discussion. None of it was a matter of oh my God, divorce on the horizon - much more just interesting, develop a better understanding. Cost is certainly a factor, if it's done well religious counselling can be a real bargain.

With religious counselling there are a couple of concerns, one is that it may be unprofessional/not well thought out/unhelpful. The church we're members of has done a lot of work with professionals developing a denomination-wide standard process and all pastors receive formal training in administering it. This is certainly not always the case. Another fear is the pastor may have some particular theological axe to grind (you've been living in sin for years?! Your marriage is DOOMED unless you sincerely repent of this grievous offense unto thy Mighty God!). Obviously God and faith are going to be part of religious counselling but as you are church-goers I assume that's okay for you.

Maybe try the game night at your church, other couples may have experienced whether your church has a standard counselling package and what it's like, some of them might even have had counselling at the church and/or with the pastor you are considering at the other big church. You might also arrange to meet that pastor, see how s/he suits you in general, don't be afraid to raise touchy issues like gender roles. Even ask for referrals of recent counsellees.

In any kind of counselling the right relationship is everything. You could pay a lot for secular counselling and get a dud. You have the absolute right to screen the person you choose and make sure it's going to be worth your time, effort and money. But there is a huge range of diveristy among Christian churches, even within a particular denomination, so no advice or anecdote you're going to get here will replace doing some research into your specific options.
posted by nanojath at 9:30 AM on August 10, 2006

The Episcopal Church's understanding of marriage is based on Scripture and the apostolic tradition. If you "wouldn't feel comfortable being instructed to have a 'Scripture based' marriage," then a secular counselor would probably be a better choice.
posted by Ø at 3:57 PM on August 10, 2006

Response by poster: Okay, after discussing our dilemma with married and soon-to-be-married friends we decided to go with the free counseling offered by the university I work for (I just learned that they did pre-marital counseling) and supplementary sessions from a pastor who is a friend of a friend. We are still clueless about what we will be discussing, but I suppose we will find out soon. Thanks for your help!
posted by Alison at 7:18 AM on August 14, 2006

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