Dear Dr. Brian,
I just got engaged, and I never want to end up divorced, let alone on your show! I’m 30, she’s 29, we’ve been dating for 2 years, living in the same city but not together, neither of us has been married before, and neither of us has a child. I’ve heard you recommend at least six months of weekly pre-marital counseling, and my wife-to-be is on board with that. I’m researching counselors in my area, and I’m just wondering if you can give me a list of topics that a good pre-marital counselor should cover.
Betrothed in Boston
Dear Betrothed in Boston,
Congratulations on your engagement!
From what you’ve told me, it sounds like: 1) you’ve waited until reasonable ages to get engaged, 2) you’ve given yourselves a reasonable amount of time to get to know one another (in person, not just online which isn’t the same), 3) you haven’t been living together (I generally recommend not living together pre-marriage, primarily because, statistically-speaking, the idea of “test-driving” a marriage doesn’t increase its odds of long-term success and can create extrinsic pressures–like family pressure and joint ownership of pets, TV’s, etc.–to get married even if there are red flags), 4) you aren’t putting your wants/needs ahead of any minor child(ren)’s wants/needs (I generally recommend that the parent of a minor child postpone marriage–except to the child’s other parent–and even dating, at least in the presence of the child, until the child’s no longer a minor, because again, statistically-speaking, the odds of problems in the step-parent/step-child relationship and of the marriage ending in divorce are too great), and 5) you’re in love but you realize that it takes more than just being in love to sustain a marriage in the long run. I’m happy with all of that; so far, so good; props to both of you!
Now, certainly, here are some topics that a good pre-marital counselor should cover:
–values (core beliefs about what we should be striving to do in life and how marriage fits into that–priorities, beliefs about the nature and importance of connection, kindness/compassion, constructiveness/contribution, commitment, candor, …),
–finances (who’ll be working, separate or joint accounts, renting vs. owning, philosophies about debt, goals, ground rules for purchases with marital funds, ground rules for helping relatives, geographic stability and family time vs. relocation and overtime in pursuit of career advancement, insurance, …),
–friendships outside of the marriage, including on social media (what’s okay, what would be concerning, joint or separate social media accounts–if any, …),
–sex (expectations as to frequency and what’s involved, what’s pleasurable and what’s not, porn use–if any, …),
–day-to-day household management (type of home, cleanliness vs. messiness, housekeeping chores, yard/home maintenance, dietary needs and grocery shopping, cooking vs. eating out, sleep schedules, …),
–physical and mental health (risks, exercise, past and current substance use–if any, …),
–leisure-time activities (separate vs. shared, vacations, cooking vs. eating out, couple-only vs. bigger-group socializing, gambling–if any, …),
–parenting (whether to have kids, how many, who’s going to be home with them when they’re home, discipline philosophies, chore expectations, allowance–if any, public vs. private schools, …),
–extended family (what it was like growing up in each family of origin, current relationships with parents and in-laws, expectations about family events/visits/holidays, expectations about grandparents’ involvement with children–if any, …),
–religion (its role in the spouses’ lives and in any forthcoming kids’ lives), and
–communication/conflict-resolution–this one’s huge, because the above list can’t cover everything! (styles, ground rules, what’s worth arguing about and what isn’t, how/when to bring up potentially-sensitive subjects like wanting/needing something different sexually, whether/when the “default” resolution should be to preserve the status quo, to whom outside of the marriage–if anyone–it’s okay to talk jointly and/or individually about a conflict within the marriage, …).
In addition, I generally recommend that people think twice before getting their pre-marital counseling exclusively from clergy members who may have expertise in religious matters but not as much expertise in other important matters. And, in 2019, I recommend that anyone who’s looking for a counselor to work with a male client, whether individually or as part of a couple/family/group, ask whether they subscribe to APA (American Psychological Association–I call it the “American Psychobabble Association) dogma about “toxic masculinity,” “male privilege,” etc.–and if so, steer clear!
Hope that helps, and congratulations again on your engagement!
(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)