“Beginning in the 1960s, the divorce rate dramatically climbed to unprecedented levels. Although the divorce rate is no longer increasing, a recent study found that 43% of first marriages end in divorce or separation within 15 years” (Williams, 2007, p. 207) and those statistics are high enough to warrant great alarm, even if they are at a standstill.
To help curb this high rate of failed marriages and to promote a healthy marriage for the sake of the couple involved (as well as their children, whether already present or planned for the future) pre-marital counseling should be a requirement for all couples before entering into a marriage. This is particularly necessary if the relationship prior to marriage has been lengthy and has involved past disputes or is otherwise at risk for other reasons that vary depending on the situation. Since all marriages and relationships are different due to variations in circumstance, culture and other critical factors, the term “at risk” could involve any number of potential points of conflict. In other words, if there is possibility of conflict in a pending marriage, the process of pre-marital counseling can address possible sources of conflict before they have time to escalate into more serious situations that could threaten the health and longevity of a marriage.
Premarital counseling has several definitions, with the primary mode of difference being in what the reasoning is behind the need for such intervention. Nonetheless, there are some working definitions that cover the most salient aspects of this form of preventative conflict management rather succinctly. As one scholar states, “Premarital counseling generally refers to a process designed to enhance and enrich premarital relationships leading to more satisfactory and stable marriages with the intended consequence being to prevent divorce” (Stahmann, 2002, p. 105). Most definitions note that the end goal of premarital counseling is to strengthen and solidify relationships before they become marriages to avoid the possibility of future divorce and touch on the possibility that what couples learn will help them manage future conflict more effectively. While this would be a beneficial activity for any couple considering marriage, for the reasons contained in this and other functional definitions of premarital counseling, these issues are most important for couples who are deemed to be “at risk” before they even decide to get married.
There are a multitude of approaches that different leaders in premarital counseling take, although despite variances in setting and stated aim, the most consistent patterns in this counseling are geared toward helping both the male and female build skills and develop the emotional, coping, and communicative tools necessary to have a functioning, healthy marriage. “Skill-based programs which teach couples communication and conflict-resolution skills have the strongest empirical support to date” (Williams, 2007, p. 216) for couples. As a result, most modern approaches to premarital counseling, whether conducted in the community, within private practice, or in non-secular institutions such as churches or temples, follow this skill-based mode of teaching and counseling. Key elements in these approaches include conflict resolution skills in particular and also value communication strategies as a means of achieving a stable marriage in addition to more ethereal notions such as the existence and maintenance of trust, for instance. There is a difference in how couples who are perceived to be at risk are addressed, however, as sometimes a therapy-based approach is best if there is a history of abuse or mental illness, for instance. Furthermore, approaches may vary based on the setting of the counseling as there are contextual differences to the approach if the counseling is offered by the church versus a private practice, for instance.
Aside from the more practical issues addressed in premarital counseling and ways it teaches couples to think about communication and conflict resolution issues, there are other elements to requiring some form of premarital counseling, especially for couples who are deemed to be at risk for marriage dissolution. One of these is the fact that counseling forces the couple to “slow down” for a while before they rush into marriage and to consider more carefully some of the weighty issues the might have to address. Instead of making them focus on possible hurdles they will encounter, this kind of premarital counseling can be more lighthearted with the sole purpose of helping couples understand, without bringing sources of potential conflict into the discussion, what they can expect of marriage (Stanley 2001). One scholar notes that this is a successful tactic that has been employed by institutions such as the Catholic Church. Instead of allowing couples to enter into a marriage based on their own timelines, the church requires 6 months notice before the couple can be wed within the church. This allows the couple time to think their marriage through, offers the church a more relaxed timeframe in which to address potential issues, and permits a more balanced approach to getting married where the long-term is emphasized over the short-term rush of a wedding ceremony. As Stanley (2001) states, it , “the argument here is for delay in order to foster greater deliberation, not delay for the sake of delay” (p. 278).
To best address the matter of how certain couples over others might experience greater benefit from premarital counseling, it is useful to offer some examples of what might constitute an at-risk couple and to analyze the ways they might benefit extensively from counseling before they enter into a marital agreement. It is a fact that not all marriages are the proverbial “match made in heaven” and that romantic love does not always occur along predictable, straight lines. Couples, despite how they may feel for one another, might have significant familial, ethnic, cultural, or religious (among a host of other) differences that can prove to be hindrances to open communication, non-judgmental understanding, and unconditional acceptance. Murray (2004) notes that much of the existing knowledge about the benefits of premarital counseling result from university studies with sample populations that are almost exclusively white from middle class backgrounds. This is an often unrecognized limitation to these studies that other scholarship on the subject does not address, even when focusing specifically on situations where couples might be deemed as being “at risk” for marriage problems or future divorce. “The most successful relationship prevention programs attend to couple risk factors to determine the most appropriate interventions” (Murray, 2004, p. 448) but as of now, there are few insights about what truly defines risks since there is little empirical evidence that explores issues that are not of interest specifically for the general, standard white and middle class sample population that has been consistently used to formulate theories about how to best conduct premarital counseling. Without proper early intervention, these hurdles can become impossible to leap over, especially if the problems are minimized until they finally reach a critical boiling point and especially if there is no precedent for couples at risk set.
For sake of illustration, it is useful to provide an example scenario of what one might term as an “at risk” couple. Mary and John have a wonderful time together and enjoy many of the same interests, but are of different ethnic backgrounds. Mary is white and John is African American. Furthermore, Mary was raised in a family who is devoutly Catholic while John’s family is comprised of the traditional Muslim faith. While the two get along marvelously, this situation is ripe for conflict, especially over time. Not only are there varying ethnic differences that might cause them problems in society (although we would like to think this kind of judgment doesn’t exist—it certainly still does) and perhaps some conflict with their families, the two were raised with drastically belief systems. Even if these issues have not played out at the beginning of their courtship, it would be foolish to think that there will never be conflict over issues stemming from these multiple differences.
While this hypothetical example scenario is rather drastic, there are elements of this situation. At the beginning of their marriage, before these potential sources of conflict have time to set in and fester, the couple cannot foresee that there might be the possibility of extreme conflict, thus they do not seek premarital counseling. Several scholars in family therapy and related fields address this issue between a real need for counseling yet the unwillingness to face its necessity. “The low rate of participation in premarital counseling programs is especially troubling in light of research that indicates that couples at highest risk for marital problems are the least likely to participate in it” (Sullivan et al., 2004, p. 176). While the reasons are unclear as to why this paradox exists, a common reason cited by couples is that they are happy with their relationship and do not see the possibility of problems in the future. When love is new and the excitement about a future wedding clouds over the realistic, everyday side of marriage, it is far too easy to gloss over the vast differences and instead see a future through rose-tinted glasses. While it should not be the role of premarital counseling to shatter the hopes of a couple and suggest that there are too many differences and their marriage is doomed to failure, it would be most beneficial for a couple like Mary and John (and millions of others) to have a distanced voice offering reasonable advice about challenges that are likely to arise due to their status as an “at risk couple.”
At this point, only about 30% of couples seek some kind of premarital counseling (Busby et al., 2007), despite the overwhelming evidence that points to healthier marriages as a result. One of the reasons that is suggested repeatedly in explanation of these low numbers is a lack of perceived of such pre-intervention, even if couples state that they are aware of the benefits such counseling might lend them in the future of their relationship. The problem with this lack of action to solidify a marriage in the beginning is that far too often, communication begins to break down, trust starts to dissolve, and couples find themselves in a hopeless situation. At this late stage in marital strife, couples counseling turns into more of a battle rather than a strengthening process or act of affirmation. “While attending family counseling, many couples exhibit negative and hostile patterns. Many couples wait too long before seeking professional help and usually only resort to marital therapy women their relationship is beyond repair” (Lundblad, 2005, p. 41). From the high divorce rates noted earlier, it is clear that many relationships get to this point of no return and are so damaged that the only feasible course of action is to separate or divorce. Unfortunately, since this process of marital degradation can take several years, divorce is complicated and physically, emotionally, and financially exhausting as years of shared possessions and struggles over custody ensue. This seems like a needless end where there is a proven method for couples to gain a healthy start to their marriage and it is for this reason that all couples, with special calls to action for those who are at risk for situational factors in their lives, should receive some type of sustained, if not permanent martial counseling.
Premarital counseling has proven benefits, but there is some evidence that points to the fact that the skills, communication techniques, and conflict resolution tactics couples learn work better when couples do not simply stop attending counseling after they are finally married. One study notes that “among those married 12 months or less, 87% agreed marriage preparation had been a valuable experience. In the case of married couples, by the seventh and eighth year of marriage, however, 50% and 52.7 percent of individuals agreed that it had been a valuable experience” (Williams, 2007, p. 214). With this in mind, other statistics offer a positive correlation between the continued use of couples therapy well into marriage as it keeps essential lines of communication open, aids in conflict resolution, and more, generally, refreshes the couple’s relationship in other ways by asking them, by nature of the sessions, to focus on one another again. Far too often in a marriage that has lasted for several years it becomes easy for couples to forget about one another’s needs or even to remember “how things used to be” when they were about to be married and were addressing sources of potential conflict to begin with. According to results complied across data sets and using a mixed-method approach, Lundblad (2005) found that “couples therapy helped improve relationships in 60-75% of couples. Statistically significant changes from distressed to non-distressed levels has reached an average level of 35-40% (p. 41) and while this is for already married couples, it can be assumed that with proper pre-marital counseling to serve as the basis for a healthy marriage and continued (even if sporadic) counseling before a crisis hits is one of the most sure paths to a healthy marriage in which vital lines of communication and care remain open. In short, premarital counseling is the first stage of many in the construction and maintenance of a healthy, positive, rewarding and most importantly, lasting marriage.
Busby, D. M., Ivey, D. C., Harris, S. M., & Ates, C. (2007). Self-Directed, Therapist-Directed, and Assessment-Based Interventions for Premarital Couples. Family Relations, 56(3), 279-290.
Lundblad, A., & Hansson, G. (2005). The Effectiveness of Couple Therapy: Pre- and Post-Assessment of Dyadic Adjustment and Family Climate.Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 4(4), 39-55.
Murray, C. (2004). The Relative Influence of Client Characteristics on the Process and Outcomes of Premarital Counseling: A Survey of Providers. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal,26(4), 447-463.
Silliman, B., & Schumm, R. (2004). Adolescents’ Perceptions of marriage and Premarital Couples Education. Family Relations, 53(5), 513-520
Stahmann. (2000). Premarital counseling: a focus for family therapy. Journal of Family Therapy, 22(1), 104-116.
Stanley, S. M. (2001). Making A Case for Premarital Education. Family Relations, 50(3), 272-280
Sullivan KT, ., Pasch LA, ., Cornelius T, ., & Cirigliano E, . (2004). Predicting participation in premarital prevention programs: the health belief model and social norms. Family Process, 43(2), 175
Williams, L. (2007). Premarital Counseling. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 6(1/2), 207-217