Did you know that 44% of couples attend premarital counseling before getting married? Interesting to consider, juxtaposed with the fact that approximately half of all marriages end in divorce.
If you had a guarantee that participating in pre-marital therapy with your soon-to-be would improve your relationship in some way, would you try it? What price-tag can you put on that type of experience? If you did premarital counseling, what would you want to get out of it? Keep reading to learn about how pre-marital therapy have evolved, what services are available to you, and how to find a practitioner best suited to meet your needs as a couple.
What is colloquially known as “couples therapy” is often credited to Paul Popenoe, often referred to as the “father of couples counseling.” Popenoe is far from someone to be celebrated, though. He was a eugenicist who supported compulsory sterilization as a “cure” for promiscuous women and prostitutes sent to mental institutions in the early 1900s. His “findings” were used as evidence to support sterilization laws in California and other states. Scary, right?
During the Great Depression, Popenoe opened the first marriage counseling center — the American Institute of Family Relations in Los Angeles. Over 35 years later, there were over 1,800 licensed marriage counselors in the United States. Popenoe asserted that women entering the workforce was harmful to society and the institution of marriage: “Girls who go to college often try to assert their individuality in marriage…their divorce rate is four times higher than that of college men.” Wow. Just wow. Such statements promoted the 1950s baby boom family dynamic at the same time that therapists began treating psychological issues within the family context.
By the end of the 1970s, the feminist and sexual revolution that ensured forced marriage counseling to take on a more holistic approach, focusing less on women’s “problems,” and more on the specific needs and wants of people in relationships- including ya know, women.
Today, engaged couples may seek premarital counseling for more productive reasons, like improving their relationship together. Here are some of the common reasons engaged couples choose to enter premarital counseling:
- Discuss a challenging topic with a trained pre-marital mediator
- Work with a prenuptial agreement mediator to help mediate any issues they have with a prenup agreement
- Ask and respond to questions they had not previously considered
- Test alignment of values in a supportive environment
- Refine communication styles depending on the context
- Adhere to religious doctrine
- Target specific issues that threaten to derail a marriage (i.e., infidelity, addiction, mental health issues, financial challenges)
We asked couples what their experience with premarital counseling was.
“My fiancé and I initially started seeing a premarital counselor on a weekly basis because we could not agree on whether to get a prenuptial agreement or not. Counseling helped my fiancé understand why I wanted one, and counseling provided a safe space for me to explain that it had nothing to do with divorce.”
Premarital counseling for a prenuptial agreement can provide a safe, positive environment to discuss what is often a tricky topic to navigate. We suggest starting any mediated discussion of a prenuptial agreement by working with your counselor to trace either support for or distaste of the agreement to specific values.
For example, one partner may want to establish a prenuptial agreement because they value the legacy of the trust money gifted to them by their deceased grandparent. Another partner may be critical of a prenuptial agreement because they perceive it symbolizes their partner’s doubt in the longevity of the relationship.
Starting with values is a good launchpad for the prenup conversation because couples often share the same values. Understanding the fear or shame at the root of our partner’s opinions regarding a prenup can help us nurture their fear and establish trust.
Relationship challenges are inevitable — it is likely that we will all have difficulties with showing affection, communicating, and resolving disagreements. Additionally, we may face financial, career, or health-related challenges which can significantly alter the balance of our relationships.
Couples who participated in premarital counseling had a 30% higher marital success rate than those who did not, and 93% of couples who attend marriage counseling (in general) shared that the process gave them tools to help them resolve their challenges. In the years to come following your marriage, some of these tools may be useful in meeting the challenges you will face as a couple.
Counselor? Therapist? Coach? Who do I want to see?
It is easy to get confused with terminology in the counseling world. Premarital counselors can attain different degrees, licenses, and/or certifications, and their rates often depend on their qualifications and background experiences.
Premarital counselors generally fall within two camps: therapists and coaches.
- Is likely a psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker (within these titles range different levels of education and certification)
- Focuses on unresolved issues from the past
- Wants to help clients heal
- Emphasizes the means to get to the end
If there are unresolved wounds that have a negative impact on how you show up in the different realms of your life, it might be best to see a therapist who can use methodologies to target specific issues and areas. A therapist could be particularly useful if there are issues from the past that affect how you function in your current relationship. Consider your attachment with your parents or primary caregivers — if there were major issues growing up, it may be worth probing into how these problems manifest in your intimate relationship.
- May possess coaching certifications, but is not licensed to practice or prescribe medicine
- Focuses on changing current habits, behaviors, and/or mindsets
- Wants to help clients get results
- Emphasizes the end goal over the means
If you feel like you had secure attachments with your primary caregivers in childhood, and feel empowered in your intimate relationship (for the most part), it may be more appropriate to see a coach who is enthusiastic about helping you set and meet your present goals. Many couples might say that “communication” is their general goal, but what do they really mean by that? Communication is difficult when our nervous systems are highly activated. Coaches can teach you strategies to communicate effectively depending on the context of the situation.
Therapist or counselor, labels don’t matter to me. I’m more interested in their methods.
Labels certainly aren’t everything. Highly effective premarital counselors don’t need a Ph.D. from Berkeley to increase the longevity of your relationship. For those that don’t care much about certifications, you may prefer to approach your search based on popular styles of therapy. There are four major modalities you’ll recognize in exploring counselors in your area:
- Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) focuses on our attachments within our relationships. The goal of EFT is to create a more secure bond built on safety, certainty, trust, and connection. EFT is particularly helpful for couples coping with loss or illness. If you and/or your partner are coping with recent trauma, EFT may be the right choice to help you navigate it together.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on disrupting and rewiring distorted thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. CBT is focused on “problems” like depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, and other problems related to mental disorders. The goal of CBT is to treat these problems through talk and/or medication If you and/or your partner struggle with mental illness or distorted thoughts, you may benefit from working with someone who specializes in CBT.
- Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) turns conflicts into opportunities to grow and heal as a couple. IRT highlights a connection between problems in current relationships with issues in early childhood. It emphasizes empathy and understanding as key traits in approaching relationship conflict. If you feel like you choose the type of partner who is a mix of the people who hurt you the most in your youth, an IRT counselor may help you understand that connection.
- The Gottman Method was developed by psychologists John and Julie Gottman. Like IRT, the Gottman Method is based on empathy and a perspective of seeing opportunities in challenges. The Gottman Method helps couples turn toward, rather than against or away from each other, in the midst of conflict. It may be useful for couples who generally feel confident in their relationship and could use coaching to improve their communication skills.
Both therapists and coaches can gain certification in all of the above methods. In searching for a premarital counselor that fits your needs, you may find that practitioners are certified in most or all of the methods, including other less prevalent styles.
How much money does it cost to save a relationship?
Premarital therapists and coaches alike will both tell you that their job is not to “save” your relationship; rather, they are driven to empower you to nurture your relationship and manage inevitable challenges. What you pay to develop these skills will depend on your geographical location and needs as a couple.
For many, the cost of premarital counseling may sabotage the experience. The good news is that many premarital counselors take insurance. When conducting a search within your network of healthcare providers, there is usually a space on a practitioner’s web page that shares what types of insurance they take.
If you’re willing and able to pay for premarital counseling out of pocket, the cost can range from $50 to $250 per visit. Cost is not necessarily a reliable indicator of a counselor’s effectiveness, and we advise reading reviews of the counselors you’re considering. You can typically find reviews on Google or Facebook, and many counselors will advertise testimonials on their professional websites.
Typically, premarital counselors will offer a free initial consultation. We strongly advise you to take advantage of these opportunities and interview different practitioners. Come prepared with a list of questions to see how they would best meet your needs as a couple. If navigating a prenuptial agreement discussion is important to you, for example, you could ask what experience the counselor has in facilitating those types of financial discussions. Ultimately, you want to choose someone with whom both you and your partner feel comfortable.
When’s the right time to “break up” with our premarital counselor?
Modern couples spend a median amount of time of eight hours in premarital counseling, which is equivalent to about two months of counseling. That being said, we advise going into the process without any kind of preconceived notions about how long the process should take. Some couples may discover that one or both partners might benefit from individual counseling with a therapist or coach before commencing couple’s counseling.
Premarital counseling is not a “one-and-done” type deal — in general, we advise seeking guidance until you have developed strategies and practiced them consistently enough to engage them on your own. How much time you spend with a premarital counselor totally depends on your needs as a couple.
How will I know if premarital counseling “works”?
In speaking to two HelloPrenup users who have gone through premarital counseling with their engaged partners, they had overwhelming experiences to share. One user reflected:
“I walked into premarital counseling with all the confidence in the world that I was an amazing communicator and partner…I got knocked off of my high horse pretty quickly (in the best way). I spent four months practicing discussion techniques with my partner then transitioned into individual coaching. I felt like I gained clarity on why I “test” my partner at certain times in our relationship, and we were able to have a productive discussion about why getting a prenuptial agreement was important to me. I felt heard and validated in the process, which helped me trust my partner.”
Another HelloPrenup user shared that they were extremely reluctant to start seeing a premarital coach:
“I had never participated in counseling before and wasn’t exactly elated to share details of my personal life with some stranger. I don’t think the coach I saw was the best fit for me, but I walked away with useful tools and a better understanding of my partner.”
Evidence points toward premarital counseling as a worthy investment in your long-term relationship. Just like establishing a prenuptial agreement can give you and your partner peace of mind, participating in premarital counseling can validate the current trajectory of your relationship or give you a comfortable space to talk about your challenges.
We recommend trying out counselors based on reviews and initial consultations, then making a decision as a couple about how to move forward. Like so many who have participated in premarital counseling, you too might echo the sentiment that it strengthened your relationship for the long run!
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