Is Love Really Enough?
Let’s talk Pre-engagement Counseling
My husband’s uncle conducted our outdoor wedding ceremony on a quite-chilly November afternoon. I will be honest, I only heard about half of the words he said that day at the altar; I am not sure if I was shivering more from the weather or from the nerves and adrenaline. But I definitely remember the words he and his wife spoke to us over the weeks leading up to our wedding, as they met with us to talk about what not just our wedding day, but our marriage, would look like.
There were two topics that stuck with me the most in those meetings with them.
One, what is the theme of your marriage? Our wedding theme was fun to chat about, believe me, but our marriage theme was of greater importance. What did we want the world to know about who we are (and in our case, who our Lord is), from witnessing our marriage in day-to-day life?
Second, words that you vow to each other are words that matter. Whether you write your own vows or you do not, you should know what those words really mean and what you are promising. The altar should not be the first time you hear or read them. Think to yourself: are these vows ones that you can reasonably keep?
My husband and I were incredibly grateful to have multiple seasoned couples in our lives, not just his aunt and uncle, who took the time to slow us down and help us process what marriage meant for us.
But this experience is not the norm, and we easily could have missed out on this amazing gift of time to “plan our marriage before our wedding” (a phrase famously and consistently used by Gary Chapman, author of the Five Love Languages). My only regret is that we did not have many of these conversations sooner.
A growing number of couples’ professionals are advocating for what is called pre-engagement counseling. Think: premarital counseling with less pressure and fewer deadlines.
After all, there are no two people more antsy and eager than a couple navigating the in-between season of “seriously dating” and “engaged.” This couple has most likely been dating for a while, and the taking-you-home-to-meet-my-mama mile marker has been successfully surpassed. They are ready for more serious conversations about their futures.
But unfortunately, once that coveted ring appears, time jumps to warp speed and the couple now feels completely tethered to the burgeoning plans for this surreal and fleeting fairytale moment they’ve set for the future. It consumes much of their time, energy, and mental space.
During the engagement phase, couples are much less likely to pause and seriously consider the details of what day-to-day life together will actually look like.
A Focus on the Family article on pre-engagement indicates that “we’ve found that couples who are already engaged are far less inclined to take an in-depth, honest look at their relationship” .
After all, deposits have been made on cakes and venues, and Save-the-Dates sent to family and friends. Once couples have announced their engagement, the focus quickly moves toward wedding preparation instead of marriage preparation.
Thus, I present to you a case for pre-engagement counseling in lieu (or at least as a precursor to) premarital counseling.
Elizabeth Busby, a Dallas-based marriage and family therapist who specializes in pre-engagement counseling, shares that pre-engagement counseling
can help couples feel more confident in their discernment of a spouse, it can help them be better prepared for marriage, and it can allow them the flexibility to use their engagement to plan their wedding while also diving deeper into more intimate topics of discussion beyond the basics of traditional marriage prep. 
The call for this type of counseling has, in my opinion, never been more important. As the average age for marriage continues to rise (which is currently 28 years old for females and 30 for males) , people are spending more years solidifying their individualistic views and modes of operating in daily life as a single person. While there are generally positive aspects to this, such as maturity and better financial standing prior to marriage, it also means that couples are entering into marriage with their adulthood habits and worldviews more firmly concreted.
This requires some honest and open conversations prior to entering into the covenant of marriage.
Let’s put this all into perspective.
In 2021, the average couple in the United States spent between $28,000-$34,000 on their weddings and were engaged for about 14 months . It is no secret that the wedding industry is booming.
But despite all these resources being funneled into the vision of a perfect day, few couples stop to consider what resources are being invested into their lifelong marriage.
Even though research reflects that premarital counseling is a predictor of “lower divorce rates, lower relationship conflict, and higher quality in [your] relationship” [2,7], it remains to be an investment that only a minority of couples choose to make.
An iconic study from 2003 identifies a 30% rate of higher marital satisfaction in couples that completed premarital counseling . It also claims that 92% of couples who utilized premarital counseling found it helpful .
So where is the disconnect?
My theory is that many couples “don’t know what they don’t know,” and assume that counseling is primarily for couples with actively hostile relationships. If couples seem compatible and things are going well prior to engagement or marriage, counseling is not necessarily something top-of-mind. Counseling is for other people, they assume.
But what if my relationship is already top-notch?
Couples can appear incredibly compatible in most areas of life, but maybe have not discussed topics such as personal finances and debt, managing in-law relationships, parenting styles, or simply how to share household chores.
These are just a few of the topics that a trained pre-engagement or pre-marital counselor can help couples discuss.
Maybe you are not even sure where to begin or what topics to focus on. No problem. Your counselor can help you there, too, using a variety of assessments or simple questionnaires to tailor your experience to your individual relationship.
And the good news is, this type of counseling is beneficial for any couple. Maybe you wish you’d had the experience of pre-engagement counseling.
You do not have to wait for heated disagreements to arise in your marriage to seek out counseling. These are sessions that you can seek out at any time to simply build strengths-based approaches to nurturing a healthy marriage or relationship.
For someone who has never attended a counseling session (or even for someone who has), pre-engagement counseling can be daunting. Here are some facts and quick things to expect.
A few things to consider if you have never been in couples therapy before:
– Finding a therapist who specializes in couples, pre-engagement, or premarital counseling is ideal. Many of these therapists utilize specific assessments such as Prepare-Enrich  and are trained in guiding couples using specialized data. They can target discussions toward your individualized needs.
– A couple’s therapist views the relationship as his or her primary client and should not have biases toward either party in the relationship. Due to this, I would not suggest asking one of your individual therapists to also act as your couple’s therapist. That could get sticky for everyone involved.
– Sometimes concerns arise that may need to be addressed with individual therapists, outside of couples’ counseling. This may be something such as a traumatic experience or a substance use problem. If an issue is greatly taxing on a relationship or distracting the couple from focusing on their relationship goals, a counselor may suggest that one or both of the people in the relationship see an individual counselor concurrently. Or, the therapist may suggest that the couple see individual therapists prior to continuing in couples’ counseling. While this may feel frustrating at first, the intention is to make sure both parties are in an appropriate place to focus on building relationship skills.
– Pre-engagement counseling is probably more skills-based and educational than a regular individual counseling session you may have experienced in the past.
Topics that may be covered in pre-engagement or pre-marital counseling:
- Finances and money-management
- Career goals
- Expectations related to sex and intimacy
- Conflict Resolution
- Household roles and chores
- Parenting styles, thoughts about having children
- How families-of-origin handled conflict, holidays, vacations, etc. (How will your marriage be similar or different?)
- Communication styles and skills
How can pre-engagement counseling help? It provides…
- Open space for answering logistical questions about marriage
- Safe Space for resolving conflicts and broaching difficult or “awkward” topics
- Collaborative space for discussing marriage goals and general expectations
- “The luxury of time” to explore the decision of marriage before making formal wedding plans .
1. Busby, E. (n.d.). Pre-engagement. Discerning Marriage. Retrieved January 6, 2023, from https://www.discerningmarriage.com/
2. Carlson, R. G., Daire, A. P., Munyon, M. D., & Young, M. E. (2012). A comparison of cohabiting and noncohabiting couples who participated in premarital counseling using the prepare model. The Family Journal, 20(2), 123–130. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480712441588
3. Carroll, J. S., & Doherty, W. J. (2003). Evaluating the effectiveness of premarital prevention programs: A meta-analytic review of outcome research. Family Relations, 52(2), 105–118. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2003.00105.x
4. Clyde, T. L., Wikle, J. S., Hawkins, A. J., & James, S. L. (2020). The effects of premarital education promotion policies on U.S. divorce rates. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 26(1), 105–120. https://doi.org/10.1037/law0000218
5. Engagement: Lessons & tips for a successful engagement. Regain. (2022, December 22). Retrieved January 8, 2023, from https://www.regain.us/advice/engagement/
6. Horowitz, J. M., Livingston, G., & Graf, N. (2019, November 6). Marriage and cohabitation in the U.S. Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. Retrieved January 6, 2023, from https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/11/06/marriage-and-cohabitation-in-the-u-s/%C2%A0
7. Jessen, B. (2021, March 22). Is premarital counseling worth it? College of Health and Human Sciences. Retrieved January 6, 2023, from https://chhs.source.colostate.edu/is-premarital-counseling-worth-it/%C2%A0
8. The Knot Research & Insights Team. (2022, February 15). The knot 2021 real weddings study is here. theknot.com. Retrieved January 6, 2023, from https://www.theknot.com/content/wedding-data-insights/real-weddings-study
9. Pace, R. (2022, September 4). What you need to know about pre-engagement counseling. Marriage Advice – Expert Marriage Tips & Advice. Retrieved January 8, 2023, from https://www.marriage.com/advice/pre-marriage/pre-engagement-counseling/#Why_pre-engagement_counseling_is_better_than_pre-marital_counseling
10. Pre-engagement counseling. Focus on the Family. (2010). Retrieved January 7, 2023, from https://www.focusonthefamily.com/family-qa/pre-engagement-counseling/
11. Prepare/Enrich. (2021, April 1). Retrieved January 6, 2023, from https://www.prepare-enrich.com/%C2%A0
12. ReGain. (2022, December 29). What are the best pre-marriage counseling books? ReGain. Retrieved January 8, 2023, from https://www.regain.us/advice/engagement/what-are-the-best-pre-marriage-counseling-books/
13. Reports: National marriage project. The National Mariage Project. (n.d.). Retrieved January 6, 2023, from http://nationalmarriageproject.org/reports/%C2%A0
14. Richer, L. (2021, August 16). 33 premarital counseling questions (from a couples therapist) – anchor light therapy. Anchor Light Therapy Collective. Retrieved January 6, 2023, from https://anchorlighttherapy.com/33-premarital-counseling-questions-from-a-couples-therapist/
15. Stone, L., & Wilcox, B. (n.d.). The religious marriage paradox: Younger marriage, less divorce. Institute for Family Studies. Retrieved January 7, 2023, from https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-religious-marriage-paradox-younger-marriage-less-divorce
16. Thomas, G. (2005, January 1). Searching for a ‘sole’ mate. Focus on the Family. Retrieved January 6, 2023, from https://www.focusonthefamily.com/marriage/searching-for-a-sole-mate/