The benefits of premarital counseling

By: James E. DelGenio MS, LCPC
Senior Staff Therapist,
The Family Institute at Northwestern University

Premarital counseling can help ensure that you and your partner have a strong, healthy relationship. This will give you a better chance for a stable and satisfying marriage. Premarital counseling can also help you identify weaknesses that may become larger problems during marriage. Good marriages don’t happen by accident. Many issues can be resolved prior to marriage with the help of a therapist. Common issues addressed may include: mental health issues, work, finances, drug and alcohol use, lifestyle, spending habits, credit card balances, student loans, savings, retirement planning, roles and responsibilities, children, parenting, in-laws, and leisure and fun. Marriage requires an understanding of yourself, your future spouse, and the tools and skills you need to make it work.

Does your significant other have a Mood Disorder?
Some moodiness is a part of everyone’s life; sometimes we feel happy, other times we are sad; some days we have lots of energy, while at other times we may be fatigued and unmotivated. When mood changes interfere with your ability to function, work or go to school, when they harm your relationships significantly, when they cause you to miss sleep, abuse drugs, or behave in ways you later regret, or when they lead to risky behaviors, thoughts of suicide, or losing touch with reality, your mood requires professional attention.

If this sounds like you’re intended. All is not lost. The key factor in this decision is Denial. If your partner tends to deny issues now, do you really think it is going to get better later?

I find that most premarital couples are well aware of their intended’s mood and alcohol/substance issues. My main questions are as follows:
Is he/she:
• Willing to seek help? individually? together?
• In need of psychoeducation?
• Willing to take medication, if prescribed?
• Willing to honestly address alcohol and substance abuse issues?
• Willing to see a therapist for relationship issues and support?

Rules of Engagement
All couples need rules for fighting. The most important rule is civility and respect. This, of course, means no hitting or throwing ever. If there is physical violence, you must call the police. Beyond that essential rules are no screaming, swearing, or name calling ever. This is destructive and may lead to your undoing as a couple. Couples need to work on resolving conflicts in their relationship with civility and respect so that bitterness and resentments can not build. It is possible to argue, resolve conflicts, and agree to disagree. In order to do this, all couples need rules of engagement for conflict. Establish your rules!

Finances and Spending
One of the biggest causes of problems in relationships is differences in values and goals and habits when it comes to money, and especially communication about money issues. That old saying is true …. money can’t buy you love, but it sure can tear it apart.

This makes a discussion of finances necessary before marriage. Learn how to talk about money, and align your financial goals such as retirement, savings, spending, debt, and disposable income. If you can do those two things, you’ve done more than most couples, and you’ve done a lot to start your relationship off on solid ground.

I therefore, recommend meeting with a financial planner to discuss issues such as spending, use of credit cards and financial goals. Goals should include the following: savings, pension contributions, retirement planning, debt, discretionary spending, school loans and the use of credit cards. How will you handle school loans and debt brought into the marriage? How much money can be spent without consulting the other. I usually recommend $100 to $300.

Family Ties and In-laws
A family is made up of many unique individuals, each with a range of thoughts and opinions on almost every subject and situation. Add to the mix extended family with their countless beliefs and personal opinions and there is no wonder there are disagreements from time to time. Conflict is simply the natural and healthy progression of any relationship

Some questions to explore – What sort of relationship do you have with your extended family? Are they local? Do they like your fiancée? Are they affectionate? Are they over-involved or critical? Have there been any major conflictual issues?

I suggest that couples begin to see themselves as their own family unit. When addressing family of origin, always say that “we” will have to discuss the event or holiday and that he or she should respond to their own family unit. This is especially true once children enter the picture. Now consider, if you want to see us come over………  This way the kids don’t have to get up open presents and get in the car! Now your doing what is best for family.

Religious Beliefs
This potentially contentious issue should always be discussed in premarital counseling. The first step is to seek a better understanding of your future spouse’s religious and spiritual background.
Topics to look into are:
• How to reconcile differing ideologies and practices
• How to observe and celebrate each other’s holidays
• How to raise children so that they are exposed to both partners’ traditions without being overwhelmed and/or confused
• How to integrate both extended families, especially during the wedding/holidays

Case Study:

Mark is not religious; Eileen is and expects to go to Church every week. What if they did marry and had children; would Mark go to Church then?
What if Mark is Catholic and Eileen is Jewish? Will one of you convert? Does it matter at all? What will the respective families say? That is a big question especially in regard to child rearing.

“What do you mean; you are not going to raise the baby Catholic? Jewish?” For some, the consequences of that decision may be long lasting or a deal breaker. It is clearly better to decide before marriage and tell both families about your decision. In discussions with the extended families, always use the phrase “we” have decided.

Children and Parenting
Do you want children? How many and when? Are there already children from previous relationships? Have you discussed blended family issues? What do you expect from your spouse regarding parenting/step parenting roles? When a problem arises, how does my partner communicate? What are the responsibilities of each parent in raising a child?

I strongly recommend that you have two to four years together as a couple before you have children. This time is critical, it gives you the opportunity to get to know one another as a married couple.

Children don’t bring you closer together; they create stress and sometimes distance especially if you and your intended are not on the same page regarding roles and responsibilities. And even more stress when ex’s and step in-laws are in the picture.

Blended families have a lot to discuss: the ex, custody issues, the in-laws, parenting, finances, loans, debt, child support, etc.. They especially need premarital counseling. I am surprised at how often these have not been fully addressed.

I believe that the children don’t come first; your relationship comes first. Now I know that is not true but if you divorce, it will be children that suffer most. Of course, my point is don’t forget to make time for your relationship after you have children. Planning for alone time or date night is a key component in addressing this issue. Take turns planning so the wife isn’t doing it all. But above all – Parent as a team! Be consistent with consequences. Discuss issues prior to discussing them with the children. What to say and how to say it.

Work, Lifestyle, Leisure and Fun
What sort of lifestyle do you want? Will you both continue to work when children are born? Do you have the same idea of what is fun? Where will you want to live?

Today most couples are comprised of two working parents. Couples want to maintain or improve the lifestyle they had going into the marriage. This is difficult in today’s economy and job market. For the first time in history, couples may not meet or exceed their parents’ lifestyle. The common expectations of employment today are long hours and work from home in the evening and on the weekend. This reduces quality time together. These forces necessitate compromise and making the most of the time you have together. Planning mutually enjoyable activities and social events and balanced with appropriate alone time is a key component in maintaining a strong relationship.

Final Thought
You may not feel you NEED premarital counseling, but it is still wise choice to consider. You may be on cloud nine with the impending marriage, but counseling may help bring up and resolve some difficult topics. Better to discuss issues before marriage then with a divorce attorney later.


Now I can work via zoom with anyone, anywhere in the country and it may still be covered by BCBS Insurance. Check with your BCBS representative for more information.

Call James E. DelGenio MS, LCPC, Senior Staff Therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, 847-733-4300 Ext 638.   Highly effective on line, one on one, SAT, ACT, GRE, standardized test preparation, via face time or skype.

Disclaimer: This material is meant to be used in conjunction with psychiatric treatment, medication, if necessary, and supportive therapy. Always share this material with your doctor and therapist.

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