What You Should Be Talking About in Premarital Counseling

Written by Jenn Sinrich
Photo: Kari Dawson Weddings

At first thought you might think “Marriage counseling before you’re even married? What’s the point?” But, according to experts, premarital counseling is one of the smartest decisions a couple can make. Research shows that with as little as eight hours of premarital education or counseling, couples can decrease the likelihood of divorce from 50 to 80 percent. “A 2003 study found that a happy stable marriage is one of the most important life objectives for 93 percent of Americans, yet the divorce rate is still hovering around 50 percent of all marriages,” says Julienne Derichs, licensed clinical social worker in Chicago.

Why is this so? Couples often don't have enough relationship education or counseling to learn the skills that are essential for a healthy, stable and happy relationship. Plus, the examples of relationships set out for them by their parents and other family members are not always ideal. “Many couples enter into committed relationship thinking they’ll be able to work through any difficulties,” adds Derichs. “Some couples they find it almost impossible to believe that there will be rough times ahead and wrongly fear that seeking help for their relationship will only lead to more problems.” But this couldn't be farther from the truth.

So if you make the wise soon-to-be-wed decision to seek premarital counseling, here are some key points you shouldn’t be afraid to discuss.

Sex

According to Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., certified sex therapist and author, one of the biggest reasons that women report stress in their marriage is low desire or mixed expectations about sex. “If the sex is disappointing the marriage is not going to be good either,” she says. Discussing sex in premarital counseling can help open doors in terms of how you communicate sexually with your partner. “It’s not fair to blame or criticize him or her for doing something you don’t like in bed if you aren’t brave enough to tell him or her what you want in the first place.” Avoid things like, “I hate it when you do this or that,” she warns. And remember that there is no normal. Your focus should be on what works for each of you, not what other people think your marriage should be like. “Give your fiancée the tools to be successful in your upcoming marriage.”

Division of labor

Do you handle the dishes and laundry and he tackles taking out the trash and vacuuming the apartment? However you two decide to split up household chores, it’s worth talking about in premarital counseling.

In fact, a survey of more than 2,000 adults by online takeaway firm Just Eat found that nearly two-thirds of couples argue over chores at least once a week—and one in five have broken up over the issue. Topics to cover: How is the division of labor managed in the household? What will your division of chores look like, especially if you have kids? “Uncertainty in division of household responsibilities between working couples often results in ongoing negotiations, resentment and tension,” says Derichs. “Successful equality in the sharing household chores is essential in a happy marriage.”

Meaning of marriage commitment

Topics to consider: Are you committed to doing what it takes to make your relationship work? Are you going to make decisions that are difficult to carry out but ultimately support the kind of relationship you want to create with your spouse? “Couples who are willing to make sacrifices within their relationship are more effective in solving their problems and managing the ups and downs of a long-term relationship,” says Derichs. “Also, couples who are both willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the marriage are significantly more likely to have lasting and happy marriages and decrease their chances of getting divorced.”

Managing conflict

We all have different tendencies that affect our actions and reactions, so we can’t expect our partner to constantly be on the same wavelength. “Some people are conflict avoiders and some are conflict approachers,” explains Derichs. “Neither is wrong, so it’s wise not to make judgments.” The real question is what issues will you get into and which will you let go of? “Arguing about every little thing that happens leads to a conflict-filled relationship,” she warns. “And never arguing leads to built up resentments and a lack of the ‘learned skills’ needed to manage the conflicts that arise in any ​relationship.” Bring up the topic of how you fight with your therapist, who can help you come up with better ways of approaching your different tendencies.

Reconnecting after a fight

Learning how to come back together and shake off your differences after a rift is an essential skill many couples just don't know how to do, says Derichs. “Revisit the conversation when cooler heads prevail and take some responsibility for the part you played in the rift.” Even if it’s a very small point, your counselor can help you learn to see your fiancé’s point of view. Let them know that you don't think they’re completely out of line for thinking or feeling they way they do.

Children

This is a wide-ranging topic that surprisingly not all couples talk about before they say “I do.” But it’s important to come to an understanding of how each of you feel about having children. Do you both want children? If so, how many? And how soon? “Talking about the topic of having children in your premarital counseling can help you determine how kids will affect your careers, lifestyle, recreation, privacy, social interests, money and plans for the future,” says Derichs. “Also, don’t hesitate to talk about what will happen if you experience infertility, birth defects, miscarriages, unplanned pregnancies or other options such as fostering or adopting.”

Friends and family

To avoid rather large obstacles and issues in your relationship, Derichs notes that it’s important that you both like each other’s friends and are on the same page as far as having friends of the opposite sex. Other questions she recommends bringing up in premarital counseling include: Whether or not friends and family welcome in your home anytime or only when invited, who else will have a key to your home or know where the spare one is hidden, etc.

Financial disclosure

It’s quite obvious that couples fight about money—in fact, it’s the topic couples tend to argue about most—so it's best to start the conversation before you say "I do." First, consider what debt each of you will bring into the relationship—student loans, credit card debt, etc.? “Disclosing debts is very important and the lack thereof causes much conflict and often trauma to a marriage when finally revealed,” says Derichs.