What To Cover in Pre-Marital Counseling

Most ministers are going to do pre-marital counseling at some point in time. When you get that request where do you turn to find out what to cover to prepare this couple for a life long commitment to one another? Here is my basic outline of things to cover when doing pre-marital counseling. This is not broken down into the exact number of sessions, more a list of things to make sure I cover. If you have suggestions of things I am missing please comment below with suggestions of what you have found helpful.

  1. Explanation of my purpose/Expectations for counseling:
    1. To help them prepare for life together through good times and hard times. To help them gain a realistic picture of married life. To give them tools to grow together (communication, conflict resolution, etc)
    2. To not take sides. My role is an advocate for their relationship, not pulling for either person but helping them see their relationship clearly and healthily.
    3. To be a future resource for them. It doesn’t end when you say “I do”.
    4. I also tell them that openness and honesty is important. I tell them that nothing they tell me will make think any differently of them. The purpose here is to help them feel safe to be open and honest so if there are issues that need to be addressed they can come up and be addressed.
  2. Family History:
    1. What is their story? What is their family of origin like? How similar were their families growing up? How were they different? How do the experiences with their family of origin help and hinder their relationship?
    2. In marriage, we find that the models we grew up with are powerful. We often get our roles defined for us early in life on what being a mother, father, husband or wife looks like by watching our own parents (if we had both parents at home). Sometimes I will semi-jokingly ask (if they both grew up with both parents) what life would be like if his dad had married her mom. What issues might have arisen? There are times that question evokes laughter but it also can bring about some “aha” moments that help them see where some of their issues come from and how to address them.
  3. Spiritual Background:
    1. Do they have a common faith? Do they understand the importance of having God at the center of their marriage? How will they raise this children, when they have them (or if they currently have them) when it comes to faith and spirituality?
  4. Biblical foundation for marriage:
    1. Working through various scriptures with them to help them understand the importance of marriage and help them gain perspective on the seriousness of their commitment as well as the great joys that come through a God-centered marriage.
    2. One of the scriptures I always make sure to include is Ephesians 5:22-33. I talk about how 5:22 is often taken out of context and how these verses really are more about the role of the man as servant leader and how most women will want to follow/submit to a man who has her best interest at heart and who treats her with as much love as Christ did for his church.
  5. Expectations in marriage:
    1. It is important that people have a healthy expectation of what marriage is going to be like. You don’t know this unless you have been there. Some people get scared when the honeymoon phase wears off and it gets down to the nitty gritty of real life. People wonder if they are still in love. They need someone to give them a healthy expectation in advance. That doesn’t mean you rain on their parade. It just means you give guidance on what can actually be a substantially healthier period of their marriage beyond all the intense feelings of the early days, weeks, months, etc
    2. Household chores – who is going to do what. Sometimes I will provide them a list of chores and have them each write down who they think will do what and compare.
  6. Communication, Conflict, & Problem Solving:
    1. Conflict is the inevitable in marriage. A healthy marriage is not defined by the total absence of conflict but in how the conflict is resolved. This means viewing each other as a team and not as adversaries when conflict arises.
    2. I cover the “Speaker-listener technique” for communicating through issues that cause conflict. I can’t find a good description of this online so I will post on this later to describe it for you. It is a method that slows down the conversation and forces both people to speak simply and try to understand the other person.
    3. I also discuss the need to resolve conflict and not to let unresolved issues pile up over time (“loading the wagon” to be unloaded on the other person at a later date). This often means picking a time in the future and a place for the conversation to continue when things cool off and everyone has time to think before they say hurtful things.
  7. Finances:
    1. Have them work out a budget. As James mentioned in the comments, Dave Ramsey has some excellent materials. One great resource is the quickie budget.
  8. Love & Love languages:
    1. Cover Gary Chapman’s five love languages, identify their love languages, talk about how the love languages can mend a marriage that is broken.
    2. This leads into a conversation about how a healthy marriage is not two people both trying to take from each other, rather two people trying to give the other person 100%.
    3. Also talk about love being a choice and not just a feeling.
    4. You can have them each write a list of the things they love about each other. They can use this at a later date if they ever have questions about whether or not they were ever really in love (if things get tough). Have them share their lists with each other on their own time.
  9. Trust: Gaining it and Breaking it:
    1. Trust is gained over a long period of time but it can be broken in an instant. I don’t know whose metaphor this is but I usually talk about how trust is like building a wall around your marriage, brick by brick. The world is out there and just the two of you are inside the wall. Trust is broken when some bricks are removed so that someone else can step inside that sacred space. When that happens the wall comes tumbling down and can take a long time to rebuild.
  10. Maintaining the Relationship After the Honeymoon:
    1. Dating your spouse. What you did to win them doesn’t end. It is important that all the effort wasn’t given to “win” them but that we continue to grow the relationship passed the “I do’s.” This is connected with the Love Languages
  11. Sex and Sexuality:
    1. This goes back to setting realistic expectations. This conversation can depend on someone’s sexual history and experience. If someone is completely inexperienced there are things they need to understand going into marriage to help them have a healthy view of sex as well as helping them to understand the sexual experience, gender differences (the old men are microwaves, women are like crockpots deal) as well as sex not being isolated from the rest of what happens in their marriage, rather, sex as an outflow of their love and life together as a bonding experience.
  12. Parenting (if they already have children):
    1. This would include how they want to raise their kids, discipline, issues specific to “stepping” (step-kids)
    2. Step families – some of the best material on this comes from Ron Deal who I think went to ACU.. Thanks to my wife Missy for telling me about this resource!. Just a little note on my wife, Missy has a masters in counseling from Harding School of Theology. I am so thankful and blessed by her wisdom. Deal’s website is called smartstepfamilies.com and his book is called The Smart Step Family

What is invariably true is that the most uncomfortable and difficult topics to discuss are those that cause the most conflict in marriage (sex, money and communication). Make sure not to skip them just because of awkwardness or uncomfortability on your part and do them a disservice.

Additional resources:

  • Prep – Prep has some outstanding resources. Some of it you may have to be trained in to do.
  • How to avoid marrying a jerk by John Van Epp
  • Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts by Les and Leslie Parrott (Book or Kit)

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

10 Responses to What To Cover in Pre-Marital Counseling

  1. John Ross says:

    Matt,
    My wife and I were married in the Catholic church. Since I was not a Catholic we were required to take classes they called Pre-Cana. Recently I came across the worksheets and “borrowed” much of what they covered. I would be happy to share these worksheets with anyone who would like a copy. Contact me at jross@53avecofc.org and I can email you the file.

  2. Steven says:

    Great post, Matt. thanks for sharing these thoughts.

  3. Mark says:

    Great job, Matt. I’m getting ready to do some of my first pre-marital counseling, and this came exactly when I needed it.

  4. James Wood says:

    Recently I did some premarital counseling. This list looks really good to me. I would also add a conversation on if they want to have children and how many they want to have. Another big issue for couples is money and budgeting. I personally give that its own section. I’m a big Dave Ramsey fan, but my main goal is getting the couple to be on the same page with how they treat their money.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Good call on finances. I usually do cover that but forgot to include it. Any other gaping holes?

      • This is some great information., I am a Bible Teacher who is going to travel and probably will be doing very limited pre-marital counseling, and marrying. I was asked by a co-worker to do marital counseling for them, and do an internet search. I found your blog and found it very throughout. I am going to use it as a resource to direct people to. Thank you sir.
        Scot Ashcroft Alexandria, MN http://www.hcibh.com

  5. mark says:

    Try to find out if they are just getting married for free sex and, if still in college, a ticket out of the dorm. I believe the radical separation of the genders on some cofC college campuses led some to get married for only those two reasons.

  6. Janice says:

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