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Premarital Counseling May Sound Terrible, but It Could Save Your Marriage

The last thing happy people want to do is actively court sadness, and the last thing freshly engaged people want to do is open up the can of worms that is their biggest relationship problems in premarital counseling. Such pursuits — while fresh in the throes of engagement giddiness, no less — sound about as romantic as a prenup. So why should you agree to try this crazy thing? Here are a few good reasons.

It could divorce-proof your marriage.

“A couple who gets as little as eight hours of counseling can decrease their chances of divorce significantly,” says Julienne Derichs, a licensed clinical professional counselor in suburban Chicago. One study found that premarital education can give couples a 30 percent boost in marital success rates. Another found that 75 percent of couples who do premarital counseling say it was helpful.

It gives you critical skills to weather a relationship over the long haul.

Derichs says premarital counseling does, namely, three things: “Help couples talk to each other, manage conflict and repair the relationship once conflict has happened,” she says. “If we can learn those three parts of managing our relationships, we’re so much farther ahead of the game.”

It helps whether or not you’re religious.

The Catholic Church and most religions offer—or sometimes mandate—premarital counseling to get married in the church, and religious couples are more likely to do it for that reason. But many counselors offer religion-neutral counseling, too. “We talk about everything except the religious aspect of marriage,” Derichs says. “It’s not that it’s excluded, it’s just not the focus as it would be if you get counseling through church.”

It’ll teach you how to solve problems.

“Premarital counseling isn’t about getting a concrete or tangible outcome or result on an issue, but to create a channel of communication between you and your partner that feels safe, trusting and collaborative,” Ari Kipnis, a marriage and family therapist in Denver, tells me by phone. “You don’t both need to have the exact same thoughts about an issue to be in a relationship and go the distance. It’s about being able to talk about the issue and what makes sense that determines longevity, fulfillment and a sense of connection.”

You will talk about big issues.

Kipnis says that means touching on all the universal stuff that trips up even the most stable couples: sex, money and religion are big ones, as well as dealing with in-laws and having kids. “But what we’re really talking about here are values,” he explains. “When we’re talking about money, we’re not talking about dollars and cents themselves but what they represent — for some people it’s security, for some people it’s freedom, for some people it’s luxury. We talk about what it actually means so you know where your partner is coming from. We help you create a channel of connection over these values.”

You will discover that all relationships take work, and that’s okay.

“Everything requires maintenance,” Kipnis says. “We ask: So how will you care for this relationship just like you would a house, a job, a business or a car? What are the investments you’re going to make to ensure this goes the distance and grows the way you want?”

It’ll teach you how to fight.

“One of the most important things to know is that most people argue with somebody,” Derichs says. “Most couples argue. In premarital counseling we talk about what are the areas that are important to get into, but what’s worth letting go of, too.” To that end, Derichs says it’s just as important what you choose to fight about as it is how you fight — and she offers a roadmap.

“You’ll learn to make sure that it’s non-defensive,” she explains. “To try and keep how you manage conflict in a way that isn’t wounding for the relationship. So many couples I see in counseling after marriage will say, ‘We just don’t talk to each other for a few days or weeks [after a fight], and then it goes away and we just move on.’ That’s their best technique for repairing after a fight. It doesn’t need to be that way.”

It’s not as scary as it sounds.

“We don’t have to roll up sleeves and go to deepest, darkest fears,” Kipnis says. “We don’t start at the deep end of the pool — if we do, we may drown or lose the confidence to get back in and enjoy swimming. We start where you’re at, and once you start with the small stuff, the more superficial stuff, if you get a win here or there, when you move through it, couples feel stronger and more robust. It’s about being able to have that process together.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

Derichs says any good counselor is going to foster a customized approach. “Some couples need some basic relationship education,” she explains. “There are what do we do when kind of questions. But also how do we handle finances, or talk about children, or deal with a big transition and moving forward in a career?”

You can find yourself discussing any number of things, she says, such as what you learned about marriage from your parents, or what role models you had for marriage in your life. But mostly, it’s nailing down a vision for your marriage and how you intend to cultivate it.

It’ll teach you what makes marriages last.

“If you showed me a statistic of who’s going to make it and who isn’t,” Kipnis says, “I’ll bet the couples who are able to go the distance are the ones that have learned how to do an authentic and meaningful repair when there’s a disagreement, a break, a rupture or a fight.” Again, that means learning how to fight, but how to forgive, too.

Doing counseling doesn’t mean your relationship is bad.

“A lot of people think, Gosh, if we really need counseling before we’re getting married isn’t that a bad sign?” Derichs says. “When everyone is in love and thinking about marriage, no one wants to think that there might be times they run up against the limitations of their own relationship abilities.”

Remember, too, that these therapists aren’t here to dissect your relationship for the worse — they’re here to help you stay together. A big reason most people avoid couples counseling or premarital counseling is that they’re afraid that testing the relationship will dissolve it, but Derichs says that isn’t the case.

“It’s a valid fear and concern,” she admits. “Some people think, Hey, we’re in a good place, let’s not rock the boat. They may feel protective of the direction they’re going in. It’s important to know that there are relationship-friendly, marriage-friendly therapists who advocate for the relationship continuing. Unless there’s abuse or some insurmountable obstacle, you two are here and committed to working on your relationship.”

Besides, everyone has issues. Getting married isn’t going to make them magically dissolve. “They tend to surface whether you address them or not, particularly in those first years of marriage,” Derichs says. Looked at that way, premarital counseling should be viewed as preventive medicine, the exercise-and-eating-well of a relationship that strengthens you to weather the changes ahead, ideally over a lifetime.

“We’re giving you tools and skills to work through it,” Derichs explains. “We get you into your marriage armed with as many relationship skills as possible.”