Forum: Tell Me About Your Pre-Marital Counseling

by Dave Miller on January 25, 2013 · 48 comments

One of my closest ministry friends called me this week and asked me for advice about pre-marital counseling. What approach did I take? What materials did I use? Could I recommend books?

Let me share a secret with you: After 31 years of doing weddings, I still feel like I stink (substitute the semi-inappropriate word that is more accurate) at pre-marital counseling. In my own humble but correct opinion, I am a Jedi master at funerals. I am okay at helping a couple plan, prepare and perform a wedding ceremony. But premarital counseling is a real struggle.

It all started with one of my first weddings nearly 3 decades ago, as a youth pastor in South Florida. This young couple (still married today) was coming for their second session. The first one creeped me out. I felt like I was invading their makeout session. They pushed their chairs together, she leaned against him, he put his arm around her and they held left hand to left hand and right hand to right hand. So, I set up their chairs about 4 feet apart. They came in, pushed their chairs together and settled into their snuggle routine. I told them that I had put their chairs where I wanted them and could they please return their chairs to their original positions. They did, grudgingly. I watched as they kicked off their sandals, extended their feet toward each other and interlinked their toes.

What am I going to say to them that has any possibility of sinking in?

I had a friend who bragged that of the six couples that had come to him for premarital counseling, four had broken up. Bravo, bro! If you can break them up in premarital counseling, their chances of going the distance in marriage was almost nil. He was my counseling hero.

I have wondered if anything I said in premarital counseling was getting through or making a difference. “We are in love and everything will work out.” It is hard to break through the optimism of a young couple in love to help them deal realistically with the sometimes difficult realities that lie ahead.

What I would like to do is a brief pre-marital counseling session (or two) and then get the married couple to come back in 6 months into the marriage. By then, the honeymoon will be over and reality will have begun to sink in. I think I could get more done in two or three sessions six months into a marriage than I could in 6 sessions before the wedding. But getting the couple to promise to come back in is more difficult than getting to actually show up.

Anyway, I’m admitting that my friend asked me for advice and I had little to give him. So, I’m throwing open the floor for your help.

  • Have you felt like your premarital counseling was successful? 
  • What is your philosophy and approach to premarital counseling?
  • Tell us your pre-marital counseling syllabus – how many sessions, how long before the wedding, what is involved? 
  • What topics do you discuss?
  • Are there any books or other materials you use?

Help me and my friend.

 

1 Dave Miller January 25, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Plus, feel free to share a premarital counseling horror story.

2 William Thornton January 25, 2013 at 9:00 pm

Here in Georgia, there is a relatively new state law that knocks off $30 or $40 (fees vary by county) on the marriage license if the couple has completed a “qualifying premarital education program” which “shall include at least six hours of instruction involving marital issues, which may include but not be limited to conflict management, communication skills, financial responsibilities, child and parenting responsibilities, and extended family roles. The program must have been completed within the 12 months prior to the application, and the couple must have undergone the premarital education together.”

Ah, the naivete of our legislators. The intent of the new law was that such would be helpful in encouraging premarital counseling and that premarital counseling would lower the chances of divorce. I’m inclined to think that it just saves the couple enough money for a decent dinner at Red Lobster.

Under most circumstances, I rather disliked premarital counseling but would grudgingly do an inventory with each couple individually and put similarities and differences on the table for them to discuss (“So, you want to have six kids while you hate kids?” or “Honestly now, neither of you have discussed finances at all?” and “You didn’t realize that her mother would become your mother-in-law and you would have to deal with her so long as you both shall live?”).

I, too, am a Jedi Master, Galaxy Level Master actually, at funerals. My irreverent opinion of premarital counseling is that clergy think they are really hot stuff doing it and couples think the whole thing is silly.

3 Doug Hibbard January 27, 2013 at 4:40 pm

In my guess, about 20% of the time I have seen “Marriage Preparation” really be valuable for the couple. That’s not much. Usually it is just that: Have you talked about this? Have you thought about that?

My main goal has changed in recent years for that time. It’s now about this: let me specifically try to build a relationship with you as a couple so that in the years after marriage, we still talk. But most marriage prep work is done in the decade before they’re married, when people are learning to walk with Jesus in the first place.

I do keep it as a requirement, at least 2 sessions, but I have backed away from thinking 4-6 were helpful. I like 2 sessions to talk faith and marriage issues, and 1 meeting to plan the wedding.

4 Jess Alford January 27, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Question? With all the marriage preparation in our churches, why is the divorce rate so high? Are we failing in our counciling? Are we uniting lost people? Are we uniting undedicated people? Would anyone take a stab at these questions?

5 Doug Hibbard January 27, 2013 at 6:13 pm

1: Because people still have a sinful nature.

2: Because week-in, week-out, our teaching on marriage is “don’t get divorced” rather than more in-depth teaching about *how* to make that happen.

3: Because in general, we Baptists are good at making converts but not-so-good at making disciples, so anything that looks like life-long obedience doesn’t come off as well as we’d like.

Although one thing to take note of is that the “divorce rate is as high/higher in church” stat is dubious. After all, there’s 10 million Southern Baptists that could claim to be church members, get divorced, and hurt the stat….but don’t show up for church. Anecdotally, while 10% is still higher than I’d like to see, that’s actually the average percentage of divorced church members I’ve had over the last 10 years, if you only want the ones who were church members before their marriage.

Add in the people reached post-marriage, and it grows to about 25%.

But there’s still a failing on our part along the way. More pre-marital counseling is probably not the answer. Real discipleship: expecting people to read their own Bibles, pray their own prayers, and helping folks learn whatever is necessary for them to do that, is what we need.

6 Jess Alford January 27, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Doug,

I agree.

7 Rick Patrick January 25, 2013 at 9:01 pm

I require pre-marital counseling sessions and usually meet three to four times in order to review the Prepare-Enrich relationship assessment below:

http://bit.ly/WBd2ki

It keeps me from being a “Marrying Sam” because couples know that they will invest time in the process and that we will talk about spiritual matters.

8 Dave Miller January 25, 2013 at 9:05 pm

I’ll check out the link. Would love to hear more about it.

9 Rick Patrick January 25, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Plus, according to William, I am now entitled to think I am hot stuff, and you can’t really put a price on that kind of self-esteem boost. :-)

10 Dave Miller January 25, 2013 at 9:07 pm

We can help you with that.

11 Dave Miller January 25, 2013 at 9:07 pm

It looks like you have to go through training to use this. Is it extensive training? Pricey? Is there a cost for each inventory with a couple?

It looks like a good thing.

12 Steve Adams January 25, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Premarital counselling (Canadian spelling) is way over rated. Get them to commit to meet with you for some serious counselling after they’ve been married for a year or two.

13 Dave Miller January 28, 2013 at 4:13 pm

I agree with that. Maybe a mixture of both is the best path.

14 Rick Patrick January 25, 2013 at 10:22 pm

The counselor training was about $150 in a one-day seminar 15 years ago. The assessment cost is maybe $30. I used to administer the questionnaire at the church in separate rooms with number two pencils and all, but now they register and complete everything online, making it much more convenient.

15 Dave Miller January 26, 2013 at 2:57 am

But you evidently think the cash outlay is worth it. Sounds interesting.

16 Doug Hibbard January 27, 2013 at 4:31 pm

I use the assessment from Prepare/Enrich as well. It’s actually what I tell couples my “marriage fee” is: they have to pay the $30 for the assessment.

I find it pretty helpful to highlight areas that need to be talked about. First session, though, is focused on the basics: tell me about your relationship with Jesus. Tell me about your relationship with each other. Tell me about what you think those two things have to do with each other.

The exercises from Prepare/Enrich are helpful for finding ways to get couples thinking about issues. Or practicing: this is how to communicate.

It’s been worth the outlay for the training. At some point, I plan to do a refresher-course in it. The other benefit, for me, was that I did that certification several years ago when I was young. It allowed me to say I was a “certified facilitator” which helped strengthen the credibility of the young pastor.

They have gone all-digital, so you’ll have to be able to walk a person through those issues if you have a non-techie involved.

I recommend it, but will say this: you will want to strengthen the Biblical portion of it. It’s pretty generic so as to be widely ecumenical. There’s a “Christian” version and a “non-religious” version, so the “Christian” one is set up to work with everyone from left to right and back again.

17 John Wylie January 25, 2013 at 10:53 pm

In Oklahoma if a couple goes to at least 4 hours of premarital counseling the marriages license are reduced from costing $50 to costing only $5.

Quite frankly, I think the compatibility assessment idea is asinine. Pastors are not Dr. Phil. The first thing I do is ask the couple about their salvation experiences. Then I try to instill the idea that this is a lifelong committment, not just something you’re giving a try. Then I point out some things that tend to divide couples like finances, extended family, threatening to divorce, etc… I sometimes introduce Voddie Baucham’s material “Marriage By Design” into the mix.

18 Dave Miller January 26, 2013 at 11:39 am

Rick, who uses the assessment, seems to think differently.

19 John Wylie January 26, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Dave I wasn’t talking about Rick’s assessment. I was talking about when preachers in counseling think it’s their job to assess the compatibilty of the prospective couple. That’s not our job, we are not Dr. Phil.

20 Dave Miller January 26, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Gotcha.

21 Dale Pugh January 27, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Having seen a few minutes of Dr. Phil, I’d see that even Dr. Phil isn’t Dr. Phil. But that has nothing to do with this post, so I’ll leave it at that.

22 Jess Alford January 26, 2013 at 4:39 pm

John Wylie,

Compatibility assessment? The only things my wife and I have in common is we love the Lord, and one another, had three children and have three grand children. We have nothing else in common that I know of.

We’ve been happly married 40 years. Well, the first two years were happily, the last 38 years we’ve just been married. Just kidding, but
it has sure felt like it sometimes.

Opposites do attract.

23 John Wylie January 26, 2013 at 10:16 pm

I absolutely agree with you Jess.

24 Dave Miller January 26, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Most husbands and wives are polar opposites on many issues. Night owl/morning person. Messy/Neat. Those kinds of things.

25 Doug Hibbard January 27, 2013 at 4:35 pm

A lot of “compatibility assessment” stuff is just nonsense. She is different from me….that’s the way it’s designed, is it not?

It is helpful to know, though, that I solve problems one way and she another—and how to work through that. Those assessments, which are often more about individual personalities and seeing how they work together, can be helpful.

But one thing the Prepare/Enrich training material points out is that you are NOT there to tell them they aren’t compatible enough to marry, the material is not designed to sort that out. You’re there to help them think through the issues–and usually couples in love don’t know what their issues are, so you have to find a way to get to them.

26 William Thornton January 25, 2013 at 11:02 pm

I plan to refer future premarital counseling to Rick.

27 Randall Cofield January 25, 2013 at 11:40 pm

“Preparing for Marriage God’s Way” by Wayne Mack.

Thoroughly biblical, easy to use, in a word: Superb.

Workbooks for couples run about 15.00.

Used for about 10 years. Every couple I’ve taken through this course is still married.

I refuse to marry anyone who will not complete this study.

28 Dave Miller January 26, 2013 at 2:58 am

Have to get a copy of that.

29 Jess Alford January 26, 2013 at 2:05 am

Dave,

I have two one hour sessions. The first hour is spent telling the couple about all the things that can go wrong in a marriage. I tell them if they think they are ready to get married think again. I tell them if they think they can annoy one another now, just wait till they get marrried. If one of them is bossy now, just wait till they get married.

The second session is the spiritual session. The woes of divorce, and how God hates divorce and how to avoid divorce.

You may ask why only two one hour sessions. First of all, they are not going to remember much anyway. Second of all, see first of all.

I make them memorize just a few words, here they are, (seek counseling).

30 Bruce H. January 26, 2013 at 9:29 am

We are creatures of habit. The influences of our parents during the first 6 years of life have pretty much set our course in life. Many of us have dieted and know we cannot stick to it very long. Just look at Oprah now (not an entire program). You can give counsel for a few weeks but it will not last very long.

Biblical discipleship years before and years after marriage is the only way the foundation can be laid. Since scripture speaks to the Servant, Children, Wives and Husbands individually, we must know how do develop those requirements and work diligently on them. I must seek to love my wife, not explain to her what submission is and visa versa. Point them to the qualifications of the Bishop and Deacon and have them use that as goals to pursue. Above all, show the male that leadership is more effective through example, not being dominate, and the female that the Proverbs 31 woman has ideas she can incorporate in her daily activities. Let them know that everything taught to their children is taught through the habits they have developed through their personal relationship with Christ. It is a great responsibility to be a parent and they will need their lives to be ready when God brings His inheritance into their lives one day.

I would like to make a suggestion to the pastors on this blog. Read the books but make it personal in your church. We have gravitated to “experts” in our day who have written books. It is local influence that will have the greatest impact on the couple. Whatever God has given you and how your church has developed under your pastorate will play a big part to a successful marriage.

31 David Tuten January 26, 2013 at 11:48 am

I require premarital counseling before I will do a wedding. Tennessee also has a stipulation that premarital counseling (at least 6 hours, I think, certified by a notarized document) will give a discount the cost of the wedding license. I usually do three sessions, and try to lead the couple to confront and address many of the common issues that affect marriage relationships (spiritual condition, financial issues, family background, family relations and in-laws, philosophies and desires relating to children and child-rearing, etc.). We also do a Bible study to explore the biblical teachings on marriage.

I will accept couples getting counseling from another source, as long as I can verify that it was actually done.

32 Dave Miller January 26, 2013 at 8:28 pm

I didn’t realize marriage licenses were so expensive.

33 Dave Miller January 26, 2013 at 9:42 pm

I got married back when all you had to do was present your bride’s father with two chickens and you were good to go.

34 Jess Alford January 26, 2013 at 10:02 pm

Dave miller,

“OK” that does it! I want to know how you got by so cheap. It cost me two chickens and my coon dog. Some people erks me.

35 cb scott January 26, 2013 at 11:32 pm

Jess Alford,

I notice you did not state that the coon dog you gave for your wife was a “good” one.

I am glad that was the case. Otherwise, I would have considered you to be not very bright. Or, as some folks say in the mountains; “Dumb as a coal bucket.”

I would have also considered the preacher who preformed your marriage counseling and wedding not to be fit for very much either.

Through the years of my ministry, I have learned that any man who would give a girl’s daddy a “good-or-great” coon dog, a Belgian made Browning shotgun, or a pre-64 Model 70 Winchester rifle, did not have the mental capacity to be a fit husband to any kind of wife whatsoever.

I felt that to marry such a man to another man’s daughter would be a disservice to the man, his wife, all his close and distant kin, not to mention his daughter who would have married such a simpleton as would give such valuable things for a wife.

Many a young gal’s daddy has thanked me a plenty after he set down and thought about it for a while.

36 Doug Hibbard January 27, 2013 at 6:14 pm

We paid the preacher that did our wedding with a box of bullets for his deer rifle.

There’s days I love being in Arkansas more than others :)

37 Dale Pugh January 27, 2013 at 6:22 pm

I married the preacher’s daughter. All he got in the deal was me.

38 Dave Miller January 27, 2013 at 7:32 pm

My wife married the preacher’s son.

39 Dale Pugh January 27, 2013 at 9:17 pm

I’m a preacher’s son as well. Still don’t know that my father-in-law made out all that well in the transaction.

40 Doug Hibbard January 27, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Fortunately, I married a missionary’s daughter. She thinks the rural church life is luxurious :)

Although the family was not enriched by camels, as my father-in-law was once offered for her. And that was a serious offer.

41 Dale Pugh January 28, 2013 at 12:22 am

My bride, who’s parents are from Texas, grew up on an Indian reservation in Oregon from the time she was 2 years old. 32 years of marriage later she still tells me, “You white people are weird.”

42 Doug Hibbard January 28, 2013 at 12:54 am

We could be called a lot worse than that.

43 cb scott January 28, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Duckman Dale,

Like you, I did not give my wife’s father anything. However, he and his wife did give me something I had never had before I married their daughter;

In-Laws!

44 Jim Pemberton January 26, 2013 at 4:55 pm

I’m about to take my oldest son through “Preparing for Marriage” by John Piper. He’s a long ways from getting married, but he and his girlfriend have talked about it for the future. He’s got the sensibility to only pursue a romantic relationship with the end result of marriage so I want to give him some objectives that can ground him while his hormones demand self-justification whether this gal and he last through their educational goals or whether this relationship serves as a reference for future romantic endeavors.

Piper’s “Preparing for Marriage” is provided free of charge from Desiring God.

45 Matt Svoboda January 27, 2013 at 1:39 pm

Premarital counseling for my wife and I was terrible. It was overly informal. We never got to any real discussion and there was no fruit from our time in premarital counseling.

When I do premarital counseling for people at my church I go through Tim Kellers premarital counseling curriculum. It is fantastic. It gives couples assignments to do alone and then share their answers and discuss. Many times it reveals areas that there is strong disagreement that they didnt realize. This gives them a safe place to talk through those things and learn how to communicate these important areas before they even get married.

46 Matt Svoboda January 27, 2013 at 1:39 pm

I usually do it in 3 or 4 sessions.

47 Monica Joseph February 24, 2013 at 5:57 pm

Its very interesting what you do, is it possible to get a copy am doing an assignment and need guidelines on how to plan a series of premarital counselling
Thank you i advance
Monica Joseph

48 Cara Rogers April 2, 2013 at 5:14 pm

I must admit it’s nice to see someone so self humbling that they are willing to ask others for help in their own profession. I can respect that and as I read this I know I would feel more comfortable seeing someone like you compared to someone who thinks so highly of them selves that they can’t see when they aren’t helpful. So thank you for your honest approach and willingness to reach out to others.

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