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)

Law, Grace, and Love – Think in Terms of Wedding Vows

It is clear as can be that the New Testament contains commandments and the Old Testament contains grace. So it is hard to draw lines between them when it comes to what God was looking for in each. I tend to think he was looking for the same thing in both testaments. He was looking for people who were seeking him. Before I chase that rabbit too far, let me get to the point of why I am writing this post. A helpful analogy came to me a few days ago that I thought I would share when it comes to commands, obedience, and our motivation to follow God. It is like wedding vows. I was serious about them when I made them. I live my life to uphold them. But I don’t wake up every morning pouring over the things I promised to do on our wedding day in order to make sure I don’t miss anything. Yet, I find myself doing what I promised I would do because I love my wife so much.

I think the same is true of our relationship with God. We don’t have to memorize a long list of rules to keep. If we love Him we will be trying to give him our best each and every day. When we slip up, he loves us enough to keep us around. I think that is called grace.

Ephesians 5 – Husbands, Wives, and Mutual Submission?

I am in the process of writing small group curriculum for Paul’s prison letters. The text in focus right now is Ephesians 5:21-6:24 and part of that is Paul’s “household code.” Paul mentions three sets of relationships in chapters 5 & 6 that each have two parts: husbands & wives, children & parents, slaves & masters. Paul makes the point that in no relationship does only one party have an obligation to the other. All relationships are reciprocal and place requirements on both parties.

First, Paul calls on all Christians to view each other with an attitude of submission (5:21). Paul says that Christians should submit to each other out of reverence for Christ. That means that out of respect for Christ we love each other and see each and every Christian as someone Jesus died for. Because of that, we don’t abuse each other or take advantage of one another. We don’t always have to have our way on everything because other people are too important to just run over.

In 5:22 wives are told to submit to their husbands. There are a lot of opinions on what is going on in these verses. Is Paul starting out with the broader concept that all Christians are to submit to each other (5:21) and then starts going down the line of who is to submit to whom? If that is the case, wouldn’t you think he would say, “Wives, you submit to your husbands and husbands submit to your wives. Because as we all know all Christians are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

But it doesn’t read that way. Is it possible that all Christians are to submit to each other as a general purpose but not always in reciprocal or exactly equivalent ways? If you follow the interpretation that Paul is writing that all Christians are to submit to each other in the exact same ways: wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters we would very quickly see that the second two pairs don’t work out so well. Which then puts into question whether it is really intended in the first example as well (wives and husbands). The next thing you notice is that, although the husbands aren’t specifically told to submit to their wives, I think they are given the more difficult task (feel free to rebuke me kindly if you disagree on this as I can only see this best from a male point of view). 5:25 says the role of the husband is love their wives as Christ loved the church. Christ loved the church so much that he gave himself up for her. Christ died for the church because of his great love for the church. Men…treat your wives with that kind of love and desire.

This is more than jumping in front of a bullet or pushing your wife out of the way of an oncoming bus and letting it hit us. Just as Christ’s giving of himself was more than 6 hours on a cross so is a husband’s obligation to self-sacrifice for his wife a one time event. In fact, I think it is actually easier to jump in front of a bullet or a bus than to live each day in a self-sacrificial way. So, while husbands are not specifically told to submit to their wives, their leadership is characterized by total self-sacrifice.

What is more, when men lead their families with that kind of attitude (which I am still very much working on myself, by the way) then it will certainly make the wives obligation in 5:22, to be submissive to her husband, that much easier. So I am not so sure that this passage teaches mutual submission in the sense that we all submit to each other in precisely reciprocal ways but that as we each fulfill our role as God has defined it that behind it all lies an attitude of love, sacrifice and submission. It just shows up differently as differing roles are being lived out.

What is your take on the concept of mutual submission?

Mark Gungor Explains Differences in the Male and Female Brains

Great stuff…

This is from this excellent video series called Mark Gungor: Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage which I would highly recommend for ministers who do pre-marital and marital counseling and would also be a good resource for a couple looking to understand each other better. It is a 4 DVD set for around $40 on amazon.

The Question

My wife Missy has about as many questions as anyone I know. They are not just questions for the sake of asking questions. She is genuinly curious and wants to know the answer. When we were dating and even a few times in our marriage she would ask “The Question.” It would go something like this – “If there was one thing right now that you wouldn’t want to tell me what would it be?” Isn’t that just great!?! I mean, there is no good answer to that question. It is a set up for failure. Or maybe it is a setup for success if you really feel safe enough with someone to tell them how you really feel or something they may not want to hear. I honestly can’t remember any of the answers I have given to that question. I suppose I could just be repressing the memories but I do know that I answered it honestly and things are still going well today!

Maybe we need more questions like that in our marriages in order to promote more openness, honesty and transparency. It is a shame that some of our marriages have less transparency than some of the troubled financial institutions in our country.

Updated Marriage, Family and Parenting Resources Page

Just a note that the marriage and family resources tab has been updated with many more great links. I hope to annotate many more of the links in the near future. Here is the link.

Pepperdine’s List of Family Ministry Resources

Pepperdine has a great online list of resources to help churches and ministries that want to reach out to families. This is a very good list. Here is the link.

HT: Tim Spivey

Ben Witherington’s Post on Redefining Marriage

BWIII just put up a thought provoking post on redefining marriage and looking at it from a Christian perspective. Very informative and thought provoking. Here is the link. Here are some excerpts:

“What should Christians think of this matter? Well, in the first place not only is marriage defined in the Bible as an act between a man and a woman, it is said that God initiated such an act in the first place. God brought the man and the woman together (read Gen. 1-2). The result of that marriage was a ‘one flesh union’, something which, if we understand it and exegete the phrase properly, is not possible for two men or two women to have with each other. Male and female were created in such a way that they, and they alone, can produce a one flesh union. This is not to say that other sorts of sexual activity could not create bonds of intimacy between two persons. This of course is the nature of intimate sharing in sex. The point is that these other sorts of unions are not what the Bible means by a ‘one flesh union’ (see e.g. Ephes. 5.21ff.).

The result of a proper marriage is not merely that the two become one, but that one of them, the male, becomes a husband and the other the female becomes a wife. It is no more possible for a female to become a husband than it is possible to have a female uncle or a male aunt (I’m am talking here about the issue of identity, not roles that one or another person might be able to play in some fashion).”

Marriage and Family Experts Speak

Thanks to Don Flor for getting me this information and links to a series of online videos by leading marriage and family experts. The videos include some really well known marriage and family therapists and ministers like: Gary Chapman (author of The 5 Love Languages), Henry Cloud (Author of Boundaries), Willard Harley (His Needs, Her Needs), John Van Epp (author of How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk), and quite a few others.

You will have to click through a few places to find all of these but it is pretty straight forward. Have a look.

Articles on Cohabitation

Thanks to Don Flor for these two links to information on cohabitation:

Article 1 – Sex Without Strings

Article 2 – Sex Without Strings, Relationships Without Rings (Rutgers University)

Also see the article I mentioned previously – Dangers of Cohabitation