Most people look forward to getting their driver’s license, and eagerly anticipate getting the coursework and hours completed so that they can become a driver. In California, one must do a 30-hour course, 6 driving hours with a professional, and drive 50 hours with a licensed driver before qualifying to take the driver’s test. If you are a driver, you know the amount of preparation that it takes. Have you ever considered that just as you needed to prepare for your driver’s license, it would be helpful if you prepared for your marriage license as well?
Getting married is such an exciting, important event! Most of us have thought about it, maybe even dreamed about it, for a long time. It marks a foundational milestone in our lives. Given that it is so important, what are you doing to prepare for it? Do you believe that preparation is important or necessary? Actually, it is very important! Research shows that couples who receive premarital counseling have a thirty percent lower divorce rate than couples who do not receive any (Scott Stanley, The Marriage Project). If Scripture (Luke 14:28) implores us to plan and be prepared before building a tower, how much more before building a life together in marriage!
"Research shows that couples who receive premarital counseling have a thirty percent lower divorce rate than couples who do not receive any."
First, as noted above, you need to receive adequate preparation and training in order to receive your driver’s license. In fact, it is required. Getting married is a much bigger, more important life decision than getting a driver’s license. It has far more implications and impact on your life! Receiving premarital counseling will help you be better prepared to do marriage well, to have a happier, healthier relationship.
And premarital counseling is not just for “problem” relationships. We all can use some guidance and training when embarking on an unknown adventure! Whenever I offer pre-engagement or premarital counseling, whether with a couple or in a group setting, I make sure to cover topics such as communication, conflict resolution, finances, spirituality, family history, and leisure activities/shared interests. It is important to be aware of how you and your partner think about these topics. It is also crucial to learn important skills, such as the Speaker/Listener Technique, in order to do them well. Usually, we haven’t even really thought about these topics, or with marriage in mind. Or, maybe we have not had them modeled for us in a healthy manner. There are great benefits to having a trained therapist provide some focused attention on how to do these things well. It will help to make our “adventure” go much more smoothly!
Second, the saying “you don’t know what you don’t know” really is true. There are many things that you don’t know, that you can’t know, about marriage until you get there. Just being in love and knowing each other well does not magically prepare you for marriage. We all go into marriage with expectations that we are not even aware of. We think our way of doing those things is the right way, because that is how we did it in our family growing up and it is the normal way. The problem is, this way of thinking leads to conflicts with our spouse because they have the same idea about their way of doing things! For example, maybe we expect to spend holidays with our extended family, because that’s what we did growing up – it just wouldn’t be Christmas if we didn’t! Yet what we don’t realize is that maybe our spouse is expecting to celebrate with just immediate family, because that’s the “right” way to celebrate Christmas; that’s what they did growing up.
There will be expectations about all sorts of things within marriage, but we usually don’t know we have these expectations until they are not met! Receiving training from people who can give you knowledge and skills to do marriage well will help you identify the expectations that you have and the areas that may be the ones that will most likely cause trouble. Premarital counseling is a great way to explore these preconceived ideas and expectations with an objective third party who can help you figure out how to collaborate and come up with your new family’s way of doing things. They will help you begin to talk and work through those areas so that they will become opportunities to draw closer together rather than cause problems and push you apart. You can’t be completely prepared for marriage, but you can be better prepared!
That leads to a third reason why you should participate in premarital counseling. The preparation that you can receive is not just a collection of nice-sounding ideas that someone thinks might be helpful. We have actual scientific research that informs us of what does work in marriage relationships and what doesn’t, what we should do and what we shouldn’t do. We can trust the reliability and validity of the information because it is research-based.
For example, John Gottman, a leading couples researcher, states in his bestseller Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that he has found from his research that there are specific ways of responding to our partner that predict disaster for our relationship. Responding with criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling (emotionally shutting down and being completely unavailable) in increasing measure is a robust predictor for divorce. Gottman also found that the negative effect of such responses is so influential that it actually requires five positive interactions to offset the effects of one such negative interaction. We all know that it is important to be kind in relationships, but research helps us know specifically in what ways it is important to be kind!
A fourth reason to get premarital counseling is so that you will not be flying blind in your marriage. Getting premarital counseling will give you a sense of stability, safety, direction, and an idea of where you are going and what you are doing. It will take some of the potential fear out of the decision, and give you more hope, purpose, and guidance. It will provide a framework for building a healthy relationship, and equip you with the tools and skills necessary to successfully navigate conflicts and to have meaningful conversations.
For example, Gottman provides antidotes to criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling to be used in their place. Rather than being critical, we should have a softened, gentle approach to bringing up complaints. Instead of being contemptuous about an offense and how our partner failed us, it is much more productive to be descriptive about how we are feeling and thinking about the offense, how we are experiencing it. So, rather than only knowing what we shouldn’t do, and then being unsure of how to respond, we now can have a clear roadmap of what we should do without all the guesswork. We will have a plan.
Many people fear having a marriage like their parents did. Perhaps their parents got divorced, or their parents just live together as roommates, barely tolerating each other. Many people fear having that kind of marriage, and so they are afraid to get engaged or to get married. Or they grit their teeth and decide to work really hard and make sure that that does not happen, just by sheer will power. The problem is, just saying “I’m not going to have a marriage like that,” or “I’m not ever going to do it that way,” is not enough. Sheer will power is not sufficient. We need to develop an awareness of what might have gone wrong in those types of marriages, and how we may have some of those same tendencies ourselves. We need external help to change patterns and modeling that we have witnessed. A trained premarital counselor can provide that external assistance and perspective.
When it comes to marriage, set yourself up to succeed! Be proactive in seeking out good marital preparation. It is helpful to look for someone trained in marital counseling such as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Recognize that just like getting your driver’s license, getting your marriage license requires adequate training and preparation. It will definitely be worth it - you will reap the benefits for the rest of your life!
Willa Williams is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and serves at the Biola Center for Marriage and Relationships as a consulting therapist. She has been married for 30 years, and has two teenage children. Willa has a passion for healthy relationships, and enjoys working with couples as well as individuals. She has a Master of Arts in Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL), and a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology from Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL).