Engagements bring much excitement and dreams about the future but often don’t bring up thoughts on the importance of good premarital counseling. It’s so easy to worry that this kind of counseling will somehow “spoil” the joy. Given that engagements should be about marriage and not a wedding, it’s important that the preparations include making sure all the days beyond the wedding have a good chance of success.
As a marriage counselor, there are specific areas that I’d love to see couples tackle in depth BEFORE they get married. After all, you know the old saying “An ounce of prevention beats of pound of cure”. Some of the categories are fairly obvious and may get touched on in almost any premarital counseling. What’s important is taking the deep dive so it’s clear where both partners stand and how they will generally act in the moment an issue comes up.
- Children. Amazingly some couples never discuss whether they are on the same page about having kids at all. Since this is not an area one can compromise, that needs to be the first discussion, maybe even before premarital counseling. Beyond the having of children and how many, a lot of future conflict can be prevented if the partners dig into expectations and roles in the whole parenting process. Who does what? What parenting style does each partner gravitate toward and where are the likely conflicts around differences in style? What does each partner think about types of discipline and who handles it. Are there expectations that one partner will stay home with young kids or will both partners work? How will division of labor go given parenting is a 24/7/365 demanding job?
- Money. This subject tends to be one of the touchiest and thus mostly avoided completely. Often both people have a general idea about how much the other earns but it might end there. Important questions for premarital counseling include styles of managing money (e.g., live for today and enjoy or save as much as possible to retire earlier, bills need to be paid no later than the due date vs bills aren’t late until beyond the 30 day grace period, keep a careful accounting of the books vs have a loose idea about how much is in there, etc). Additionally, how much debt does each partner have and how was it acquired? Does one partner see credit card debt for fancy trips as equivalent to student loan debt? What are the expectations around pooling finances and debt? Who will be responsible for managing the money? What are the expectations about how knowledgeable each person will or should be about all the money issues?
- Roles. Most premarital counseling will only talk about roles within the realm of faith but it needs to go deeper. What are each person’s expectations about the role of wife or husband in general? About mother or father if that’s going to apply? About tending to relationships and social engagement? About the role of extended family/family of origin in the newly created family? About the role of friends and time spent with them?
- Loyalty. Loyalty is actually a more complicated and sometimes nuanced issue than most people think. There’s the standard fidelity loyalty but sometimes partners aren’t on the same page about what constitutes infidelity. Does flirting on social media count as cheating? The more complicated issue, and the most prevalent, pertains to loyalty and the role of friends, family, work etc. Virtually no premarital counseling I know really gets to the heart of this developmental process. The bottom line is that almost all of the time primary loyalty should be to the partner first and foremost. Essentially that means if someone outside might feel bad or the other partner might feel bad based on a decision, best to choose in favor of the partner. It also means that as parents you are loyal to each other and don’t let kids pit you against each other.
- Values. It’s vital that you know the core values of your future spouse and how he or she lives them out. Top values to discuss include: faith, equality, honesty/integrity, reliability/dependability, generosity, work ethic, primacy of family, fidelity/loyalty, cleanliness/order and political orientation.
- Conflict resolution. This is one of the top issues that brings people into therapy although it’s usually also about one of the prior 5 issues too. There is likely to be trouble if a total conflict avoider marries someone who fights about everything. However, two of either kind can sometimes lead to even more challenges. Does one person need time to get over being mad? Does one need to “Talk it out” over nearly every little thing? How well can each of you listen to the other person’s perspective and find compromise? Does someone need to “win” all the time or does one give in way too easily only to feel really resentful later on? Conflict is a fact of life. You cannot be in conflict about everything and you cannot avoid conflict altogether. Learning how to “do conflict well” will actually enhance a relationship and bring two people together more as teammates.
- Leisure time. Most people assume this really isn’t any big deal but it can often be a huge source of spousal frustration. It’s important that you enjoy at least some things in common but it’s not necessary you both like all the same things. How much entertaining each spouse prefers is also good to discuss especially if the entertainer isn’t the one who will end up doing all the work. How partners spend their leisure time (and how often/long) can get especially dicey after children arrive and that gets back to expectations about roles and counting equally. One very sneaky leisure time issue most people don’t see coming is actually how the KIDS’ leisure time is spent. That goes anywhere from how much screen time is preferred to how many activities, play dates and social engagements kids will have. It’s very common for parents to eventually find themselves with not a lot of leisure time for themselves or time as a couple because they are so busy running kids to an over abundance of activity commitments. It’s then they start to drift apart as partners and resentments can build. Plan carefully and be clear about what you want for your time away from work.
- Sex. You know the joke that sex ends after marriage but research actually shows that married people have more sex and of better quality than singles so don’t despair. It is still important to talk about, however. Frequency, variety, who initiates, what happens when someone says “not now” are all things to discuss. For tips on how the genders differ with regard to sex, read older posts here and here.
For everyone eagerly awaiting a wedding date, congratulations. Take time to put quality, in depth, premarital counseling into your planning and you will be better off for it. One great way to do a deeper dive is to find someone to give the PREPARE assessment. And don’t forget to breathe.