The Importance of Premarital Counseling – How To Love Your First Year Of Marriage

20120916-IMG_1022Recently RELEVANT magazine posted an article called 3 Tough Things About the First Year of Marriage. In it, author Bronwyn Lea reflects on the difficulty that she found in her first year of marriage. Now, the purpose of this article is not to critique her post or even respond directly to it. I do encourage you to read it, it may provide helpful context for what I’m about to say. In the long run, I think that most of the kinds of problems that she describes can be mitigated (if not fully prevented) by good premarital counseling.

Now, before I get into the bulk of my article today I want to throw out a bit of a disclaimer. I don’t know anything about Lea’s premarital counseling (or lack thereof), and I know plenty of couples who have had good premarital counseling that struggle their first year. However, in my experience the couples who do premarital counseling are more likely to look back on their first year as a blessing that they enjoyed than as a struggle that they got through. If you are struggling, this is not a statement of condemnation. It does not mean that you are wicked, it is not punishment for sin, it does not mean you married the wrong person, or any of the other lies that you are probably hearing (either from your own self, or from external voices). Sometimes people struggle. Sometimes God puts us with someone who it will be difficult for us to love. Don’t believe me? Read the book of Hosea.

Why Premarital Counseling Helps

My wife and I are a bit unique. We are not that unique as far as how long we knew each other before getting engaged and married (about a year of dating and a year of engagement). However, we are unique in that we lived in EXTREMELY close proximity during our dating and engagement. We were both in seminary, lived in the same building, and for the most part every minute that we were not in class, working, or sleeping, we were together . It felt natural for us to be with each other all the time, so we were. So even though it was a transition from living on separate floors of the same building to actually living together… it wasn’t as MUCH of a transition as it is for most couples.

Now, while that helped, it wasn’t the only (or even the most significant) thing that made a difference in how our first year played out. Both of us look back at our first year (which has included a BOAT load of student debt, a first year in ministry, full-time work and seminary at the same time, two moves, a new ministry, and 5 months of living with in-laws) and say that our premarital counseling is directly responsible for our successful first year.

It All Comes Out

One of the most common things I hear from people who are having a frustrating first year is that they learn things they never knew about their spouse. Now, we will CONSTANTLY be learning new things about our future spouse, but I am talking about the significant things. Do you want to have kids? How many kids? Which side of the bed do you sleep on? How often do you want to visit your parents? All of these things are potential sources of conflict, and a good marriage counselor will know to ask them. There are two substantial conflicts that I can remember during our first year of marriage. One I will touch on later, but the other was an argument regarding the balance of chores and housework. I was working full-time and finishing seminary, my wife was working a “part”-time ministry and a part-time job. We were both VERY busy. My wife felt as though I didn’t do enough, and I felt as though my wife didn’t do enough. However, the chores that we had decided on were decided before we got married. One of the exercises our counselor had us do was to list all of the chores that had to be done around the house, and then decide who was going to do them. Although we had this list, we felt like things were imbalanced, so we went through the exercise again together. Because we had worked through a lot of the potential conflicts in advance, when we butted up against them during marriage we had a framework for how to resolve them (apart from the general conflict resolution exercises we did as well).

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

As I indicated above, our first year was basically an exercise in constant transition. I don’t believe that there was a single month in our first 6 months that did not come with a substantial amount of transition. First we transitioned to living together, then we transitioned to me having a second job, then we transitioned to my wife having a second job, then I changed jobs again, then my wife lost her second job, and on it goes. However, when we had to make a decision, we knew the basic framework for how each person made decisions, and how we as a couple would make decisions. Because our counselor had worked through not only what to do in conflict, but also had talked to us about our decision-making style, we knew the direction the discussion was going to go, and for the most part we could anticipate the other persons perspectives and objections. This made the process a LOT simpler, and often times we had already reasoned through not only our own decision-making process, but each others as well. What was usually left was just to sit down and make the final call (and praise God, we have nearly always been on the same page). Lea refers to “decision fatigue” in the article. I can completely understand where she is coming from, but I think that it is largely avoidable. However, for couples who don’t know that part of their spouse well, I can also understand how it will be exhausting.

I Need A Little Help From My Friends… Er… Counselor

My wife and I had one major conflict that was one part decision and one part my-stubbornness. Just before I finished my last seminary class, we were forced to make a tough decision together, and it was one that we were at a complete impasse over. My wife hadn’t found a ministry job, and staying where we were was not really an option. My wife wanted to move in with her parents, and I wanted to move anywhere but in with her parents. This is the only time that I attempted to exercise male headship and put my foot down. Even though I am a complementarian, that was absolutely not the right thing to do. Even though we didn’t know what decision to make, we knew someone who could help us through it. We called our premarital counselor and set up an appointment. We sat down with him for a very long session (close to 3 hours I believe) and when we came out of it we had a decision that both of us could live with. My fears were addressed because we set some guidelines regarding how long we might be living there, what to do when things got tense, and what kinds of boundaries needed to be established with her parents for this to work. She ultimately was able to explain some of her fears regarding simply moving somewhere without a ministry job, and ultimately we both felt good about the plan that the three of us had come up with.

P.S. I was dead wrong about my concerns of moving in with her parents, and it was a VERY good experience. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, or anyone… it worked for us though.

Selecting a Counselor

I could go on and on about things we learned during our counseling and how it helped. However, I digress and will now provide just a few thoughts about selecting a good counselor.

  • If possible, do your counseling with someone who already knows you as individuals and as a couple. – Your counselor needs to know you well enough to know your weaknesses and help strengthen you.
  • Do you counseling in the context of a Christian community. – Some states offer discounts on your marriage licence for using a licensed counselor, which may restrict you to a secular context. If this is the case, then do both. Your marriage is intimately related to your Christian faith, and your premarital counseling needs to understand and develop that reality.
  • Do your counseling with someone who is married. – A person who is married can understand the difficulties of marriage in a way that a person who is not married cannot. Our counselor typically brought his wife in for a discussion on sex and the challenges that sex presents for a young virgin couple. He was also able to refer to specific instances where he and his wife faced challenges. It made what he was saying real instead of theoretical.
  • Do your counseling with someone you can go back to for help later on. – As I said, we went to our counselor when we needed… well… counsel. If you know you’re going to be moving to another state after you get married, it may be worth it to try to do your counseling sessions with someone in the area where you are going to be living, rather than the place you currently are.
  • Do your counseling with someone who will ask hard questions and be honest with you. – My wife and I didn’t have any deep dark secrets to get out-of-the-way during our counseling. However, if we did that would have been the place to do it, Finding out that you are not your spouses first sexual partner before the wedding is hard, finding that out after the wedding can be devastating. Finding out that your spouse has a gambling problem before the wedding may prevent the wedding, finding out after will probably lead to divorce. If your counselor is not willing to probe for these kinds of things, or not capable, then he or she isn’t all that much value to you.
  • Find a counselor who is interesting in doing a long process. – Our counselor insisted on 5 sessions, once a month for 5 months. We wanted to do more, and he was happy to oblige. There were times where we came back to the same topic for 2 or 3 session in a row, because as we went back to normal life and started to put into practice some of the things he was teaching us, it brought questions or areas that needed further work. If your counselor thinks that he can get you ready to be married in 1 or 2 sessions, or over the course of a week… find a different counselor.

 What To Do if You’re In The First (or Second… or Third… or Fourth…) Year, And It’s Not Going Well

Now, I know that there will be some readers who look at this and think “My first year is hard, and I didn’t do premarital counseling, so this doesn’t help me.”

The good news is that it is never too late to do premarital counseling. Ok… so technically it is too late. However, there is no reason you cannot find a premarital counselor and ask them to go through with you the same content he would with an about to be married couple. You will find that they are probably VERY happy to do that. The point of premarital counseling is to help you be prepared for the first year of marriage, and every year to come. Going through the kinds of exercises that I described above will help to resolve the kinds of conflicts that you are likely happening, and may help to prevent the kinds of conflicts that you haven’t yet had.

Now, I’m sure some might feel like this is just a way to avoid going to marriage counseling, and that’s not at all what I’m saying. If you feel like you need a marriage counselor, then by all means go find one. The difference between doing premarital counseling after your married and doing marriage counseling is more about the goal of the counseling. Marriage counseling is likely more focused on solving problems that exist. That may be necessary. However, premarital counseling is focused on giving you a tool set to prevent and resolve conflicts and problems before they arise. If you’re suffering from decision fatigue you may just need someone to work with you to help figure out how you as a couple need to make decisions better. If you’re struggling with how to manage social circles, you may just need someone to help you and your spouse establish expectations.

Finally, seek help. If you are struggling in your first year, do not be ashamed. Your pastor, your parents, your friends, probably even strangers, want your marriage to succeed. They want you to be happy and healthy. Even if you have made huge mistakes, seek help. The Christian life was never meant to be a solo act, and your marriage was never meant to be an island.