An Introduction to Pre-Marriage Counselling

In Australia, over 40 per cent of all marriages end in divorce over a 30 year period, and marriage rates have dropped to the lowest rate they have been in one hundred years (ABS, 2007). Somewhere around one million people in Australia have experienced divorce. The costs associated with divorce, including social security payments and court proceedings, run close to a staggering 3 billion dollars a year in Australia alone (Owen-Brown and Booth, 2003).

Divorce has recently been reported to be the number one ‘wealth buster’ of all the financial hazards in life (Featherstone, 2006). Divorce and separation can be damaging in many other ways. There is an increased risk of serious mental health problems and physical illness for both men and women divorcees. There are also higher fatality rates among divorcees from things such as malfunctioning auto immune systems, suicide and even automobile accidents (Gottman, 1998). Other studies have found correlations between marital separations and alcoholism, anxiety and eating disorders (Fincham & Beach, 1999).

Children are not spared the effects of divorce. Children growing up in ‘fatherless families’ show ten times more risk of having behavioural problems. They are also nine times more likely to leave school before graduation and ten times more likely to become users and abusers of drugs (Tornstam, 1994). Girls whose parents divorce are more likely to drop out of school and are more likely to become pregnant outside of marriage, while children of divorce report lower levels of happiness in their adult years and higher than average levels of divorce in their own marriages (Ellis, 2000).

There is a trend away from marriage. People in their thirties not marrying stated a ‘fear of divorce’ and ‘fear of making a mistake’ as primary reasons. As for those who are still considering marriage, a recent Relationships Australia survey showed that fifty per cent of people between the ages of 25 and 39 when asked about their motive for marriage said that they wanted ‘lifelong commitment’. People in their forties or older said that if they were to marry, a major reason would be to provide security and stability to their children (Clohesy, 2001).

In 2006, the Australian government talked about a $400 million strategy to stem the tide of divorce including pre-marital counselling and compulsory counselling for people considering divorce (Peatling, 2006). In Ireland, the Catholic Church has imposed compulsory two-day marriage courses for those intending to wed (Clohesy, 2001).

Clearly there is a great need in this area, and it is likely that counsellors will increasingly be called on to provide pre-marital programs. In this article, we will look at some of the core components of pre-marriage counselling; including styles, approaches, goals and other information that makes this area a challenging and interesting one.

Reasons for Marriage Breakdown

Some of the most frequently cited marital problems involve communication difficulties, general incompatibility, infidelity, not spending enough time at home and disagreements over money.

The dissatisfaction of women is a better predictor of divorce than is the dissatisfaction of men (Amato & Rogers, 1997). Extra-marital sex is found to be prevalent where relationships have deteriorated to the level where divorce proceedings are considered or started (Harley, 1994).

Styles and Approaches to Counselling

Relationships are necessarily complex. It will be helpful to a counsellor to align and govern their approach with a particular style. There are three usual styles of approach to pre-marital counselling:


Pre-marriage counselling has previously been very much the province of churches and religious groups. In this traditional approach there was a tendency to ‘instruct’ people and to act as a moral and spiritual advisor to the ‘right’ way of going about a marriage.

Obviously a counsellor is not going to be instructive in the sense of trying to be a moral or spiritual guide for clients. Neither are they going to tell clients how to think or behave. They may however find themselves sharing knowledge they have acquired, using it as a basis for discussion.

In this sense couples might be asked to consider books, articles, DVDs and so on and see what opinions and viewpoints are stimulated by this. This can promote a productive exchange of ideas and viewpoints.


Prediction in relationships is normally the province of psychologists and sociologists. They consult social trends while administering questionnaires to clients, gather and analyse the information and then provide feedback as to what these clients can expect in their lives and relationships.

Counsellors will not act in this role, but can draw some useful information from the social scientists. Because relationships are so complex, counsellors can gain a measure of preparedness from the research that has been done. And one can consider the research in light of two main questions: What seems to help to bring about a happy marriage? What seems to cause a marriage to break down?


Approaching pre-marital counselling with a certain program of actions in mind will give the counselling a degree of coherence. However, a key to all counselling lies in recognition of the unique nature of clients. In pre-marital counselling two unique people have presented themselves who have walked their own path in life, have a distinct personal identity and their own set of hopes, problems and fears as individuals.

A person-centred therapeutic approach will therefore be best, by stimulating discussion and asking about the concerns of the couple, by observing their reactions and interactions and by guiding them to form constructive conclusions and resolutions about their future together.

As always with counselling, there will be as many potential situations as there are people, so flexibility and a willingness to attune to individual needs is vital. One is not expected to be an ‘expert’ in relationships, one needs only to be a good listener and something of a guide. Counsellors will find themselves involved in stimulating conversations about some very precious hopes and some deep-seated fears.

As with all person centred therapy, there is no need to ‘solve’ anything, but simply to be there with enough compassion and interest to ensure that the conversations are as fruitful and helpful as possible.

Goals of Pre-Marriage Counselling

To achieve a ‘satisfactory outcome’ a counsellor will need to establish a goal with the clients at the outset of counselling, but the goals will generally fall into one of three categories:

For those that are very certain about getting married, giving them the understanding and the tools necessary to be able to negotiate the road ahead.

Helping those that are uncertain to have more certainty about getting married. Time permitting they might also receive some help in preparing for what lies ahead.

Helping the couple to come to the realisation that they are not meant for each other, or that the time is not right for marriage. The counsellor is here partly acting as a catalyst, speeding up the reactions that might otherwise take months or years to come to light.

Marriage is a commitment, but one should keep in mind that there are different types of commitment in marriage. There is the fear of the social, financial and emotional costs of ending a marriage. There is a commitment based on the idea of the importance of the social institution of marriage.

These commitments have their own relevance according to what individuals feel is important to them. Ideally, however, we are seeking a commitment that is based on attraction, devotion, satisfaction and love (Adams and Jones, 1997).

Couples who are in a lasting marriage are found to be more accommodating towards each other and more tolerant of each other’s faults, they are also found to be better and more consistent in communicating and problem solving, including the way they handle conflict (Adams and Jones, 1997).

Therefore a counsellor can look at helping a couple to be ‘accommodating’ in the sense of developing realistic goals and expectations of marriage and their marital partner. The counsellor can also consider helping the couple to be better communicators and also better at handling the conflicts that will inevitably arise.

As stated earlier, it should be kept in mind that is it not necessary to apply every step to each and every client. It is best to get some preliminary information and then tailor an approach to the clients. Another suggestion is that sessions should be kept light if possible and a spirit of fun maintained in the counselling, where this is relevant.

Normally one will be talking to two people who are very excited about what lies ahead and they will not want to delve too deeply or heavily into all sorts of life issues. Part of the adventure of marriage is the unknown and it will not be possible to cover all bases and all possible eventualities.

In other words the counsellor should not try to be the ‘be all and end all’ to the clients with this counselling. The counselling may only last a few sessions. Whatever the outcome,  counsellors should endeavour to have our clients leave with a better understanding of who they are, what they want in life and how to go about achieving that.

Get an Overview

A general interview should be done at the beginning of the counselling. This is a way of getting to know the individual needs of the couple and something of their history. Then an approach can be tailored to suit them. One of the decisions a counsellor needs to make is to what extent they will be seen as individuals and to what extent they should be seen together. It is recommended that early on in the counselling they are both seen separately.

The reasons for this may be obvious. A counsellor may need to be a bridge between the two at times and there may be issues that some people are sensitive about discussing in front of their partner. A counsellor may also find that they have to deal with an individual’s very unique and personal problems, something that may require individual attention.

If the couple are seen separately early on in the counselling it will not seem unusual or ‘conspiratorial’ if they need to be seen separately later on. So the approach could go something like this:

  1. Interview them as a couple
  2. See each of them separately
  3. From then on, vary the sessions between couple and individual

The first interviews will be an opportunity for a counsellor to make two major lines of enquiry:

What sort of positive issues and negative issues are they bringing into the relationship? As individuals what has been their history? Do they have a traumatic background? If so is their partner ready to deal with this? What sort of family of origin issues are they likely to bring into the relationship?

How are they interacting as a couple, what does their communication and body language tell us? When the couple is interviewed together, it is useful to watch for signs of one person simply going along with what the other one says. It may be opportune to follow up on this, and ask the one who is being ‘agreeable’ if they have needs and opinions they are not stating, as this could be a source of conflict that will arise later on.

One can also watch for signs of latent aggression. Is one showing signs of losing their temper with the other? Is one overtly or covertly putting the other one down? Anything else can be noted, according to the observational skills and experience of the counsellor.

From a couple’s perspective, it is unlikely that anything will help more, in their negotiation of any difficulties in the future, than clear, heartfelt communication with each other.

Reference List

  • ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2005) [online] Available at
  • Adams, J.M., and Jones, W.H. The conceptualization of marital commitment: An integrative analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 72, No.5, 1997.
  • Amato P.R & and Rogers S.J. (1997) A Longitudinal Study of Marital Problems and Subsequent Divorce. Journal of Marriage and the Family Vol 59 August.
  • Ellis, E.M. (2000), Divorce Wars, Interventions With Families In Conflict, APA books, Georgia.
  • Featherstone, T. (2006) The Divorce Lottery. Business Review Weekly, January issue.
  • Fincham, F.D., and Beach, S.R.H. (1999), Conflict in Marriage: Implications for Working With Couples, Annual Review of Psychology, Vol 50, pp 47-77.
  • Gottman, J.M. (1998), Psychology and the Study of Marital Processes, Annual Review of Psychology, Vol 49, pp 169-197.
  • Harley, W.F., (1994) His Needs Her Needs, Revell, USA.
  • Tornstam, L. (1994) Dwelling choices for the children of separated parents. [Online] available at: