As my wedding draws closer, I find myself immersed in a number of nuptial planning activities. There have been photo shoots, cake tastings, dance lessons, and more uncomfortable fiscal negotiations than I care to recall. If I had a dollar for every time I asked a potential vendor, “How much does that cost?” I’d be wealthy enough to no longer need to ask. When I am able to surface from the sea of never-ending wedding details, decisions, and deadlines, I often wonder how important these matters really are. In 20 years, will I care what stamps I chose for the invitations or who sat at what table during the reception (probably not)? With that in mind, I decided to dedicate some of my preciously scarce time and rapidly diminishing budget to what I felt really would matter, a premarital preparation course. Think of this as Marriage 101, and yes, even “relationship experts” can benefit from a little help.
For years, I’ve touted the merits of such programs to students in my close relationships classes. However, when it was time for me to take one, I almost let the opportunity slip by. There are a number of reasons why I hesitated to seek out a course; first and foremost, I wasn’t sure where or how to start. A close second was that my fiancé and I were worried that the course would create or magnify issues during an already stressful time. I wanted to write this article in response to those concerns, because I believe others may also be contemplating premarital preparation courses, but have questions about where to turn and what to expect.
The process of finding a marital preparation program can seem daunting. There are a number of different course types available that vary widely in duration, expense, focus, and effectiveness. I urge you to look for programs with a scientific approach that are based on research, rather than personal experience. Reputable programs, like PREP (Prevention and Relationship Education Program),1 PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills),2 and PREPARE/ENRICH,3 concentrate on instilling communication and conflict resolution skills. Such courses help to identify challenges that may exist in all marriages, while helping couples achieve their own personal relationship goals. Studies show that participation in these courses can lead to increased satisfaction and relationship stability, particularly in the first few years of marriage.4,5,6 Moreover, these programs are especially beneficial for couples with “modifiable” risk factors. In a nutshell, if your relationship is characterized by dysfunctional coping or communication, you are especially likely to benefit from such relationship education.7
Once you have identified reputable courses, you will want to look for a facilitator with whom you will feel comfortable. Within my geographic area, there were almost a dozen premarital counselors available. My partner and I discussed our preferences for qualities like educational background, religious affiliation, age, gender, and cost (the price quotes I received ranged from $60-$500 for the online assessment, workbook, and four sessions). Similar to selecting a marital therapist, success in these programs is much more likely when both members of the couple respect and trust their facilitator.8
Based on the program that you choose, your experience may differ from mine, but our PREPARE program began when my fiancé and I each completed a 20-minute online assessment that tapped characteristics like self-esteem and personality, as well as our relationship beliefs and histories (both pertaining to our own relationship and the relationships we had with our families). Our facilitator received our independent assessments and at our first meeting presented us with feedback on our answers and how they were similar or different on many of the major dimensions. We also received a workbook that I liken to a “Cliffs Notes” or Wikipedia version of my close relationships textbook. Between each of the four sessions, we had to read and complete homework on particular relationship topics. For instance, one week we were asked to identify a conflict and then use a set of structured steps to work towards resolving it. Although there are no quick fixes, we did generate solutions aimed at helping us progress toward eventual resolution.
All in all, I will say that we found the course to be beneficial. As you can imagine, it is always great to hear about your relationship’s strengths and difficult to hear about vulnerabilities that you may need to be attentive to in the future. Some days we left our facilitator’s office thinking that we were the most “simpatico” couple to ever take this course. Other days we left feeling a little less cocky. As we had feared, we were asked to discuss more sensitive topics that we generally tried to avoid. However, we were able to speak openly about them, as we found the facilitator to be a grounding force that kept things from getting too emotional or skewed (we referred to her office as the “Tree of Trust”). While we remain open to visiting our facilitator in the future, we were pleased to find that by the end of the four-session program we did not feel the need for ongoing appointments. We brought to light issues that we often tried to ignore and used our newfound tools, like more realistic expectations and increased empathy and perspective-taking, to validate each other, even when we didn’t see eye-to-eye.
If the merits of these courses are not enough to convince you to enroll, particularly in light of the divorce rate in America, consider this: some states, like Florida and Tennessee, actually offer the added financial incentive of waived or reduced marital license fees for couples who successfully complete premarital courses. I call that a win-win!
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1Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for your marriage (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
2Gordon, L. H., Temple, R., & Adams, D. W. (2005). Premarital counseling from the PAIRS perspective. In M. Harway (Ed.) , Handbook of couples therapy (pp. 7-27). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
3Olson, D. H., & Larson, P. J. (2008). PREPARE/ENRICH: Customized version. Minneapolis, MN: Life Innovations.
4Markman, H.J., Renick, M.J., Floyd, F.J., Stanley, S.M., & Clements, M. (1993). Preventing marital distress through communication and conflict management training: A four and five year follow-up. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 70-77.
5McGeorge, C. R., & Clarson, T. S. (2006). Premarital education: An assessment of program efficacy. Contemporary Family Therapy, 28, 165-190.
6Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., Baldwin, S. A., & Fawcett, E. B. (2008). Does marriage and relationship education work? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 723–734.
7Halford, K., & Bodenmann, G. (2013). Effects of relationship education on maintenance of couple relationship satisfaction. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 512-525.
8Summers, R. F., & Barber, J. P. (2003). Therapeutic alliance as a measurable psychotherapy skill. Academic Psychiatry, 27, 160-165.
Dr. Sadie Leder – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder’s research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.