Couples Counseling Before the Wedding? Why Experts Say Yes!

We’ve all seen those hard-to-watch (yet hard-to-look-away) “Bridezilla” moments on wedding reality TV.

Brides and grooms freaking out on film over everything from escalating wedding costs to where to strategically seat certain family members to battles over linen colors may make for good TV. But, in real life, these types of serious breakdowns in communication can have a long-standing negative impact on a marriage — or be an unfortunate hint of what’s to come.

If planning the wedding is already causing pre-marital strife, how will couples go on to handle the inevitable rough patches that a lifetime together will surely entail?

Marriage therapists agree that going through pre-marital counseling is the answer, and for better or worse, couples should make it their first priority before taking the next step to a lifelong (and legal) commitment of marriage.

How to spot red flags

Popular SiriusXM Radio talk show therapist Dr. Laura Schlessinger has counseled couples in crisis over the air waves for years, and she says that in most cases, obvious red flags early in the relationship were either ignored or avoided.

“In the 40 years I have been on radio, I have heard thousands of complaints about a spouse — most all of which were blatant before marriage,” Schlessinger says. “When I ask why, with all those bright red flags, they married and made children, the responses sadly range from ‘too young,’ ‘thought it would change,’ or ‘I thought it would work out because we loved each other.’”

Schlessinger thinks premarital counseling shouldn’t be just an option for couples having trouble, but a crucial step for every couple seeking to legally marry. Counseling forces couples to truthfully face their issues early on, instead of waiting until years later when children are often in the picture.

“If I were in charge of the universe, I would make it a law that all couples getting married have pre-marital counseling with a therapist specifically trained to that goal,” Schlessinger says. “Folks come together with all sorts of baggage and fantasies and don’t want to be disappointed or rejected, so instead of discussing crucial issues, they argue about certain things and hide from others.”

Schlessinger doesn’t recommend waiting until the wedding invitations are sent, either.

“Love is such a subjective experience early on in a relationship,” Schlessinger says. “Pre-marital counseling (before engagement) gives the couple an opportunity to explore all the ramifications of marriage with some objectivity.”

Schlessinger also suggests that while many couples receive some form of religious pre-marital preparation from their clergy, they may be better served seeking a trained therapist licensed in psychotherapy who is professionally equipped to handle emotional breakthroughs that may occur in counseling.

Dr. Mike McNulty, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience, offers both couples pre-marital counseling as well as couples group workshops at The Chicago Relationship Center, with locations in both Evanston and Highland Park.

“In our culture, we do not get enough education or mentoring about what to expect in marriage and how to deal with its challenges,” McNulty says. “I believe that the couples who are proactive about getting help do better in relationships.”

McNulty is also a Senior Certified Gottman Relationship Therapist, and subscribes to the principles of renowned psychologist Dr. John Gottman, whose research culminated into the “Gottman Method.” The program theorizes that to ensure a relationship lasts for the long haul, couples must have at the core a solid friendship, be able to manage conflict positively, and support each other’s hopes for the future. The Gottman Method builds on nine components healthy relationships must have for a “Sound Relationship House.”

“Dr. Gottman’s theory finds that even in healthy relationships, only 31 percent of all problems couples face are solvable through discussion and compromise, and result in agreement upon a solution,” McNulty says.

That means the other 69 percent of problems a couple faces are ongoing and referred to as “perpetual,” or problems that are stuck in gridlock, and gridlock in marriages can lead to divorce if couples cannot find ways to work through them.

“Since each spouse has a distinct personality and set of fundamental needs, 69 percent of the time when issues come up in a relationship, partners will have to work with their differences to try to understand one another, and find a way to live well with their compromises,” McNulty says.

Rabbi Steven Lowenstein of Temple Am Shalom in Glencoe has officiated at hundreds of Jewish and interfaith weddings over the past 20 years, and feels counseling should be mandatory for any couple preparing to make a lifetime commitment.

“All marriage is hard — it’s about communication and compromise every single day,” Lowenstein says. “All cards must be put on the table and everything should be talked about besides the ceremony, to include raising children, establishing a home together, dealing with parents and finding the right language to deal with differences.”

Lowenstein offers couples three or four one-on-one counseling sessions, as well as the “Prepare and Enrich” program at his synagogue. He says interfaith marriage requires even more communication and compromise.

“A ceremony is 30 minutes,” Lowenstein says. “A marriage should be for a lifetime.”

Pay now or pay later?

Dismal marriage statistics (40-50 percent of first marriages in the U.S. fail) are real, and McNulty says the more unfortunate fact is that many couples wait at least six years (or even after they divorce) to seek counseling or go through one of his relationship workshops.

“I always have people come up to me after the presentation who say, ‘If only I knew this information before I divorced, I may not have divorced,’” McNulty says.

Karen Shishem is a practicing family law attorney based in Chicago, and she says the average divorce case costs about $10,000 (and many are much higher). That’s why she believes the investment in pre-marital counseling may just be worth it before making a legally-binding lifetime commitment. Of over 1,500 divorce cases that Shishem has handled during her career, she cites finances and a lack of long-term compatibility as the biggest reasons for divorce.

“Finances can slowly kill a marriage,” Shishem says, “There can be so much resentment, anger and loss of respect for the other party, so getting on the same page early on is key.”

McNulty agrees, and says that at the core of most issues that cause marital strife are differences between how each partner sees a problem, and how their impressions and priorities differ.

“For finances, while one spouse may feel their financial goals are totally in sync, the other spouse may feel that their goals and priorities are very different,” McNulty says.

To get started, McNulty suggests reading Gottman’s book “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” or investing in Gottman’s home DVD workshop program.

Group workshops like McNulty’s “The Art and Science of Love: A Weekend Workshop for Couples” can be a great place for couples to meet directly with a Certified Gottman Therapist who will evaluate their relationship, teach them about what to expect in marriage, and help them learn tools to build and maintain friendship, romance, and intimacy, manage conflict, and continue to create a meaningful relationship over time. Two-day weekend retreats start at $550 — a bargain compared to a $10,000 divorce!


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