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Thursday, September 01, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Premarital Counseling

Our question this week is one that I feel I could've asked myself, even after many years of performing weddings. Our matriarchs step in with some really thoughtful (and varied!) responses. Read on:

My question today is about wedding preparation.  One year and 5 weddings into my first solo appointment, I feel ill-prepared to do basic premarital counseling.  The couples I've worked with so far have ranged from starry-eyed college students who probably didn't hear a word I said, to an older (60s) couple who told me the first time we met that they had been around long enough to know what they were doing and they pretty much just wanted my signature on the marriage license to make it official.  I have fumbled my way through some sort of conversation about communication skills and conflict resolution with each couple, but really - it feels halting and awkward.  I'm guessing it wasn't much help to them either.

The previous pastor required a lengthy series of counseling sessions (6-8, I believe) before agreeing to do a wedding.  My practice so far has been 3 one-hour meetings, and I've loosely used the Prepare/Enrich materials (for which I have completed some basic training).  But our conversation usually falls flat, and I've come to dread these meetings more than just about anything else on my schedule.

I recall an earlier response where someone mentioned using the ceremony planning itself as a way of doing premarital counseling.  I'd love to hear more about what you do in that time!  Any other books or resources that have been helpful?  What should the goal be, really, of this time together? Thanks for your insights!

Muthah+ responds:

If there was one thing I hated about being a parish pastor/priest it was pre-marital counseling.  I always felt totally unprepared as I was unmarried.  But I finally began to invite people to discuss how they ritualized things in their families of origin--b'thdays, anniversaries, death, new borns, Christmas, etc.  I was able to see how their families did things -- and consequently began them talking to each other about how they wanted to ritualize momentous times in their lives.  Then I would ask how THEY wanted to celebrate their love for one another.  I generally talked about marriage isn't just for them--it is for the whole community. 
I generally would require that that they be in attendance at a church for the time before the wedding.  If they were in town, I would ask them to be a part of  our worshipping community.  I asked for 3 sessions and more if they wanted to plan, discuss what marriage was about.  I made it clear that I was not passing judgement on their relationship or telling them whether they could be married or not.  But I did need to asscertain whether I wanted to conduct the ceremony or not.
I had one bride come with her mother to the first meeting when I had made it clear that it was to be the bride and groom.  That was one marriage I didn't do.  If a couple is not willing to be forthcoming about their relationship, I would suggest that they find someplace else to get married. They ultimately will be happier.  I don't know if your polity supports that but mine did.  We are not there to be a wind-up toy so that it will be a pretty ceremony.  We are there because we are trying to say that their love comes from God and marriage goes much farther than just them.  I don't believe that the Church needs to be used by those who do not understand the place of faith in their marriage.  They will be happier with a justice of the peace.
I have found that it is through preparation for marriage that some couples find a place for themselves in the community of faith.  And it is in that community of faith that they will want to bring up their children.

Kzj offers:
First a disclaimer, my response does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the denomination I am affiliated with.
You asked what the goal should be? My goals are to a) fulfill the requirement that says I have to meet with them and b) find out any kind of information I can to personalize the wedding meditation even just a little bit.

I don't use any of the materials that are out there and admittedly stopped looking for stuff that does it well. If the questionnaire assumes the couple isn't living together, really how helpful can it be? I do use going over the service as a way to break the ice and I have a few basic go-to questions: Growing up, how did your family argue? How do you handle the bills? Is that working for you? Who's the spender in the relationship? What are your long term goals?

At our first meeting I hand them each a worksheet that they are to fill out on behalf of the other one. The categories include: friends, rivals/competitors, recent important events. upcoming events, current stresses, current worries, hopes/aspirations. They are not supposed to share their answers before I see them, I use the answers on the worksheets for our second conversation. After that I decide if a 3rd one is really necessary or not. I also remind them that I am here for them after the wedding whether it be 1 week, 1 year, 5 years, etc...

Terri writes:
Premarital counseling is one of my favorite responsibilities as a parish priest. I think it comes from having had a powerful experience as a couple when my husband and I were preparing to we'd twenty six years ago. The minister who married us did almost six months of counseling sessions and, although she was a UCC minster she pointed us to the Episcopal Church, which has been a good fit for my husband and I.

I also worked as a seminary intern for a church that had many weddings, so many that twice a year we held premarital weekend retreats with eight or ten couples each session. So, going into leading these sessions I come with some experience and ideas from a number of sources.

These days I typically meet 4- 6 times with each couple, depending on their age, their relationship experience, how long they have known each other, kids, blended family dynamic, interfaith, etc. The more complicated the more we meet.

I meet with each couple once just to get a feel for who they are, what they are looking for, and to lay out how we will work together. I require each couple to acquire one or two copies of The Marriage Journey
. I ask that they read it through before we begin our formal sessions and pay attention to areas that they want to talk about. Then, regardless of what they may eventually decide I always talk about "Fair Fighting" - focusing on communication styles, listening, healthy argument (focus on issue not person, use "I" language not "You" a "I need" "I feel," " I think." We also always talk about money. Otherwise everything is optional.

In our first introductory meeting, after I have laid out now we will work: get the book and read it, meet 4-6 times to discuss, and a final session to plan the service; I give them another homework assignment (in addition to reading the book and thinking about what they want to discuss), I ask them to come to the next session with a collage of their marriage. The collage can be on any size paper (within reason), and they can use any medium for their images: photos, drawings, etc. The theme is how they see their marriage, their married life together, their hopes and dreams, and anticipations for a life together. They have to work on the collage together, it's a mutual project.

Every one, even if they are hesitant at first, ends up loving the collage idea.

In our second session I tape the collage up where we can all see it and ask them to talk about it: how did they decide who would do what? And, who did what parts? I ask as many questions about their process in creating this as I can think of. The entire point is to see how they work together, as well as what their vision is, and where their values are. Afterward I suggest they save the collage and look at it from time to time. Some even think they may add to it as the years go by.

Our next two or three sessions focus on the  book and the chapters they choose, as well as the ones I always focus on. At the end of each chapter are some wonderful questions for discussion- which really help to guide the conversation.

Our last session is focused on planning the service. Then we have the rehearsal and the wedding.

This structure has always served me well and the couples I have worked with feel as if they have had some important conversations about who they are as individuals and as a couple.

In suspect that once you find a structure that works for you in preparing couples, you will enjoy the process more. I hope we are able to give you some useful ideas for how you can create that structure.

Blessings to you!

And Sharon offers:

I have strongly questioned every aspect of my role and responsibilities as wedding officiant. More and more, I have the feeling that the wedding couple seeks my services so that I can fill an essential slot in their wedding tableau rather than as a trusted resource and spiritual guide.  So, I do put that out on the table at the first meeting: "Why are you here at church talking to me a pastor?  What do you expect from me?"  I am no longer as shy as I once was about shining the light on any low expectations of wedding prep time.
I, too, use Prepare/Enrich and find it to be very flexible. I like that couples are expected to invest $35 (or less for online assessment) in marriage preparation. It's precious little, really!  I require at least six meetings with me, and we don't  plan the wedding service itself until the last one or two sessions.  I always get the governing board of the church to include my requirements in the wedding policy.  I'm not inflexible, though, and I do vary what we do.  For example, I've discovered that Prepare/Enrich requires a certain literacy level that doesn't work for some people, so I go through the things in my own way with those couples.
Please don't give up on couples who seem to be too starry-eyed or too mature for such things!  It always seems that it's the strongest couples who discover something that has been unsaid or unexplored, and they are so grateful to have done that with me.  Other couples -- it's true -- just go through the motions.  I always reassure couples that I am not looking to dig up their dirt or to talk them out of what they already have decided to do.  
The main goal is to celebrate the strengths of their relationship and to identify growth areas now so that they can begin to come together over those. A secondary goal for me is that I want to actually know the couple I am standing before on their wedding day.  Your approach will reflect your own convictions, personality, setting, and what seems to work for you over time.  
And if you discover that it's just not your thing to meet with these couples, I do know pastors who still require the prep, but they delegate it out to other professionals.

Wow! These are some fantastic responses! I personally have found them helpful, and I hope our questioner has as well. What about the rest of you? Do you have some thoughts to offer on this topic? Please share in the comments section. And, as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, please email us at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. I use the Prepare/Enrich inventory as a starting place but the conversation often seems to be about these things:
    1. How you deal with money
    2. How you deal with holidays/ritual
    3. How you establish good patterns of conversation now, at the beginning of things, so that down the road, you'll be in good shape to weather the storms.
    At the first meeting, we do talk through the wedding ceremony, which allows me to observe how they communicate, how they do or don't argue for the elements in the service that are important to them, and who in the relationship will give up anything to keep the peace.

    Has anyone tried sending a gay or lesbian couple to Prepare/Enrich to take the survey? Even though I can't officiate at gay weddings in the PCUSA or in Idaho, I do have a couple who would like their relationship blessed and I think they would benefit from the inventory.

  2. This is a great example of why I am so grateful to God for this community! Thanks so much for your wisdom and insight. I have been and continue to be blessed by your depth of experience, your vulnerability and willingness to share - the good, the bad and yes, sometimes the ugly! May God continue to bless your ministries and all those who are a part of them!

  3. I haven't tried sending a same-gender couple to Prepare/Enrich, so I can't speak to that. But I do a lot (mostly, in fact!) same-gender weddings, and in addition to the things mentioned above as part of the counseling discussion, I always ask them two things.

    One: How "out" are they in their lives, and are they equally out? If one partner is not comfortable being out while the other is, or one is out only to friends but not work, (or name your variation here) this can cause huge issues, and needs to be dealt with.

    Second, how accepting are their respective families of their sexuality and their relationship? It's a bit more complex than for different-gender couples, since different-gender couples are not varying from societal expectations in addition to the issues of personality. In other words, with a same-gender couple, Mom may not only be uncomfortable with her child's sexuality, but may also dislike the partner--two separate issues that are often tangled up together.

    An ice-breaker I like to use (and often yields surprising results): Name five things you love about your partner and five things that drive you nuts about your partner.

  4. I have not had a wedding yet, but plan to use a combination of Prepare/Enrich and family systems. I think family tree/genogram would yeild a treasure trove of discussion for a pre-marital couple.

    This discussion has a personal element for me, as my 19 year old daughter has just gotten engaged (to a guy we have serious reservations about). I will not be doing the ceremony and have referred her to a pastor-friend.
    She is questioning the need for premarital counseling and sincerely doubts that her fiance will agree to go. I told her that the counseling was not to determine if they were suited, but to help them discover what is working well and what areas they may have issues with. We are also having the church vs jp wedding conversation - she doesn't want scripture readings or prayers (I think that it's mainly because he doesn't want it.)

    Reading Sharon's advice sounded exactly like what I was trying to explan to my daughter.

  5. Rainbow Pastor, thanks for offering your wisdom about same-gender premarital counseling. Good stuff!

  6. Thanks so much for the great questions and answers today. I'm always wondering whether I'm doing this right and was just musing about it on my blog last night.

  7. I am about to officiate at my 2nd ever wedding this weekend (my first was my daughter's and someone else did their premarital sessions) and I was floundering going into this too. I love Terri's suggestions and will definitely check out that book.

    My mentor made a great video years ago and gave me a copy. I asked the couple to watch that and come back with any issues they wanted to discuss (and to ignore the 80s hairstyles in the video!!) and then I had them do an online MBTI inventory and we talked about that because it's something I know a little about. And we did talk about money and communication. But overall I felt like not very much came of it except I got to know the couple better and perhaps they got some new things to think about. At the last session (we met 4 times) we planned the ceremony.

  8. As someone who has never preformed per-martial counseling but attended with my husband I just wanted to say that you may in some cases be underestimating how much the couple gets out of your sessions. I know we answered most of the questions with some variation of "we both think x now but if things change for one or both of us we will talk about it" - a set of answers that might have left the woman doing her counseling feeling like we were dodging or just too advanced to be helped.

    But my husband (the one not in this line of work already and who is less religious than I so I worried might find it awkward) really valued it and really pushes it own his friends. Even if the couple doesn't have some major break through in the actual sessions they may have more profitable conversations in the car ride home or over dinner later in the week you don't know about. Also just getting a heads up of all the issues that might come up, especially some of the less obvious ones like gifting giving can be helpful to remind people of. Even if they don't really discuss it at your meetings knowing that (gifts, holiday planning, chores etc.) is a common touchy area can be useful when the fights do crop up than know that it’s a relatively normal thing and not necessarily a sign that their relationship is doomed.

    Finally even if we are unlikely to ever take advantage of it (she has moved and we have moved) having the pastor make it clear that she was there for us for the long haul really did matter to us and remind us of the big picture in the midst of the whole wedding craziness.

  9. One thing I appreciated when we went through our own premarital counseling was a comment from the therapist (the church hosted a marriage and family therapy counselor's office and he did all the premarital counseling as 'free rent' - an arrangement I would love to set up myself one of these days)...anyway, at the end of our sessions he said, "one of the reasons to do premarital counseling is so that you know what counseling is like. This is it: the two of you in a room with a third person, talking things through. So if you ever need counseling, and many people will, it's not a big scary unknown thing, but an experience you've already had." I always say something like that to couples (emphasizing that I am not a trained counselor, but I could get them started). I found that valuable for myself and hope they do too.

  10. I have done a couple weddings, but in all cases it seems to make more sense to have others do the counseling for various reasons. However, I will share what my husband and I had from our pastor that we continue to draw strength from.

    The first session - probably about 1 1/2 hrs long - he had us talk about what we want when we are sick. Do you want the other to take care of you? Or do you want to be far away from people. Now, at first I thought this was silly...but it lead to assumptions that we carry from childhood - that even two 30 somethings still carried. (By the way, we both realized that we unknowingly lied in our answers to these questions, but having been asked it here it was easily addressed later.)

    Second session was about finances and his wife came and modeled how they made financial decisions and they were quite open with us about how marriage worked and when it was harder.

    Third session was planning the ceremony and family dynamics which were quite important in terms of who was going to be angry about what.

    My husby and I use all of it to think through our marriage.

  11. Lots of good ideas here; I'll give a close-to-home example of a bad one! I officiated at my mom's marriage to my stepdad. Obviously, I couldn't do the counseling, so I suggested that their parish priest do it. Even though it was a 2nd marriage for my mom and my stepdad had never been married--in other words, lots of potential landmines at 60+--he met with them, got the date on the calendar, told them they were both adult enough to know what they were doing, and that was that :-o So whatever you are doing, it's almost certainly better than that!

  12. Hi,
    Not a Matriarch, but here is my experience.
    I use Prepare-Enrich most of the time, when couples live close enough. I also did the prep for a friend’s daughter. My friend, a minister, was doing the wedding and I got to do the marriage preparation. I had met the daughter a few times, but not the husband to be. A few times my friend has told me that the couple have told her something I said during the preparation, now a few years ago.
    When I did the training, I asked the trainer [privately] about LGBT couples, and the response was just remember who is person 1 and who is person 2 – probably not the official response – I haven’t tried it, so not sure if it works.
    One place I was involved before I was a minister, the church did lots of weddings, and every couple had to complete marriage preparation. A few options were given, none run by the congregation or Minister, but all run by trained people, and available in a variety of locations. Most of the Churches in that town had the same policy, so if you wanted to be married in a church, you did marriage preparation.
    I hope to achieve a few things with marriage preparation:
    - getting to know the couple better, and so able to assist them in planning a wedding that is theirs.
    - helping them remember this is about marriage rather than just the wedding day
    - helping them to recognise that sometimes an appropriate third person, not family or friend, can be helpful.

  13. I just performed my first wedding as the main officiant last summer. I gave only two assignments: to read a book of their choice (from my list) and bring their questions to me. Second was to participate in a serious premarital counseling course/weekend and bring their take-aways to me. (They could have done same with me... but they were interested in a weekend retreat which I was cool with.) We had three meetings. One to set the date and the logistics (who in the church do they call to ask about xyz), one to do a "mid-course correction" and generally plan the service, and the final one was the rehearsal. To get their "ticket" to the rehearsal, they had to bring the marriage license to ME and I held it overnight and signed it after the ceremony. That way no one forgot it, and I knew for a fact that the legal side was covered. They are members of our church so it was not a "figurehead" issue. However, I have turned down people who wanted basically a "justice of the peace wedding" in a church. It's rare that you meet someone and decide to get married all in a span of 6 weeks. I'm not comfortable with that. If they don't want to spend time talking or getting premarital counseling (which takes, let's face it, a good 3 months if you are rushing it) then I don't want to be a part of it.

    I'm willing to marry folks if they are willing to make a serious attempt to talk about the ups and downs of married life. I've not had the "granddaughter of a church pillar" issue, as some of my friends have. Man. That's touchy. :)

  14. Reading all these comments has been really helpful--thanks, everyone!

  15. Thanks for all of this. You've helped us decide - sincere and committed Christians with years of service to the church, we will be married by a JP. (a collage? really? that might be enough to make us choose to live together outside of marriage!) Is this much attention given to instructing a new member? To addressing preparation for parenthood? To lay leadership training? To dealing with end of life issues? If so, I sure haven't seen or experienced it.

  16. Anonymous...if only it were! This is one of the very few times when we hold the cards, so to speak, and when many people are open to doing what we ask of them without much complaint. I think most of us wish far more couples would choose the JP route if the particular requirements and faith understanding of a church wedding aren't a good fit for them. I hope that you still will consider some form of premarital counseling--even if not including a collage :-) --even being married by a JP.

    My church does in fact offer a significant course on end-of-life issues and concerns, 3 to 5 sessions ranging from finances to health care to funeral and burial planning, every couple of years!

  17. I'm not artistic, so I would never consider a collage. :-)

    The difference between a wedding and all the other transitions mentioned by Anonymous would be that we're asked to serve as agents of the state. It is on the officiant's authority that the union is a legal one, by which rights and privileges are conferred. As much as I don't like that, and would prefer a system in which the religious part and the legal part were entirely separate, it adds another level of gravity to what we're doing. I don't want to sign that paper for people I don't know and can't vouch for, so to speak.
    All that said, I require three meetings of about an hour each, and that is a mix of planning and counseling.
    To further answer Anonymous, in some churches, becoming a member is a multi-part process. In smaller churches I've served, where as the pastor I'm apt to know the people who are joining fairly well due to reaching out to them before that decision is made, we might spend one hour-long meeting discussing the responsibilities of membership. With most brides and grooms, the pre-marital counseling is the *only* time I will spend with them, as they are so infrequently part of the church family.
    I hope this helps, and I also hope you won't hold our wide range of practices against the clergy in your own church. They/he/she may do something completely different!

  18. Thanks for all the answers to this question so far - turns out it quite the provocative issue, eh?

    I have to say that premarital counseling is one of my least favorite pastoral duties. Almost 100% of the time, the couple I am counseling has no affiliation with our church and will not affiliate with our church after their wedding - they are using our facilities because they are beautiful and they are using me because they want a church wedding (though they don't actually want a church family). It's difficult to offer any kind of real depth in just 3 sessions (i.e., the only time outside of the wedding that I will ever see these people), but I do what I can. Like Martha, I offer a mixture of planning and counseling for those 3 sessions.

    Anonymous, I confess I'm a little confused by your comment - you are making a decision to marry with a JP because the premarital counseling is too thorough? Or, what? (I'm honestly asking as I'm honestly confused).

  19. Earthchick,

    Maybe it is that the premarital counseling is too thorough in my particular situation (keep reading) - but I'm not sure that thoroughness can really be determined from a description of the processes. It does seem too formulaic - read this particular book, answer these particular questions, plan the actual wedding at this session or that session.

    I appreciate Songbird's comment about acting as an agent of the state very much and support (and, literally, have supported) a minister's decision not to officiate at the wedding of a couple she does not know or does not believe should marry. And I also like the idea of distinguishing between marriage as a civil contract and marriage as a Christian covenant.

    But part of my immediate reaction to this is based on my understanding that marriage is not the only Christian covenant; the others are, IMO, "underlooked" while this one seems to be on steroids! Which is, I think, a reflection of our culture's view of the wedding event rather than a reflection of an understanding of marriage. Frankly, it seems hypocritical to spend so much time and energy on this particular subject and so little (in my experience and observation) on others that are of just as much importance to a believer and the church. Perhaps other congregations are more attentive to this than the ones I have belonged to.

    This level of premarital counseling also implies that I trust my pastor with a very personal view of my life. With some ministers this would be true, with others not. It is not the case with our current pastor. We have, however, agreed to support him in his ministry as do all members of the congregation; asking another minister to officiate would not be appropriate. To ask our pastor to do this and then when confronted with a premarital counseling requirement to change our minds could cause hurt and unhappiness within our church family.

    So if premarital counseling involves participating in activities that may or may not be helpful just because they are required and compels us to disclose things to our pastor that we prefer not to share with him, then we choose a JP (probably a friend who is an elder in our church - if she is willing). We think right now that we will have our wedding at my home. We believe that we are entering into a holy covenant with one another and with God as a response to part of God's call on both our lives. But we will not be recognizing that in a specific ceremony in our sanctuary.

  20. Thanks, Anonymous, for your response! I understand what you are saying. Your point about other life transitions being "underlooked" is well-taken. I think part of the issue, in addition to what Songbird had to say, is that with a wedding we are in the unique position of having been invited into that transition in a very explicit way. Betsy is right - we have more power in this life event than we often do with others (even with rituals that you would think the pastor has a lot of say-so in - joining the church, lay leadership training - we may be bound by congregational tradition in a way that we often are not when it comes to a wedding).

    I *wish* I could have some pastoral authority when it comes to helping people with the transition into parenthood!! But I am not consulted with that decision the way I am with weddings. I'm just grateful if I get called when the baby has actually been born.

    Your point about our emphasis on premarital counseling being a reflection of the culture's view of weddings is a very thoughtful one, and one I think has some merit. I might substitute the word "reaction" for the word "reflection." There is so much hype about what the wedding day is supposed to be, the premarital sessions are an opportunity for the pastor to say, "Wait a minute! Before we talk about the wedding, let's think about the marriage!" We get to have a moment to help the couple reflect on matters that are more important than the photographer and the dress and the reception.

    All that said, I fully support the decision to forego both a church wedding and premarital counseling. (I did the same!)

  21. One other thought about a transition not mentioned yet. In many denominations we spend a great deal of time preparing young people for Confirmation. They may attend a class or work in a mentor-based program for a year or more. In teaching Confirmation, I spend intense time with the students, both as a group and as individuals, trying to be sure they understand just what is happening when they affirm their baptismal vows. It's a far more in-depth formation process than any other, certainly moreso than that for a wedding. Thanks for asking the question, Anonymous. It's given me a lot to ponder.

  22. Thanks, Songbird, for reminding me of Confirmation Class. You are right about that being an opportunity for formation and pastoral care that usually is honored. An upbeat end to my thinking about this today! :D


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