Premarital Therapy: Saying 'Help' Before 'I Do'

There's so much to do for couples who plan to marry: booking the reception hall and the photographer, reserving the caterer and musicians, registering, going to therapy.

Wait a minute ... going to therapy?

It might sound counterintuitive to see a counselor during what is supposed to be such a happy time. But a growing number of couples are getting help from a pro before they step off the ledge and take the plunge.

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"We have seen that a lot more couples are going to premarital counseling for lots of reasons," said Cynthia Hornblower, executive editor at Brides magazine. "Couples today are older and a lot are from divorced homes, so for them it's scary to commit."

About 40 percent of first marriages and 50 percent of second marriages currently end in divorce, according to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

There aren't any hard-and-fast statistics on how many couples seek premarital therapy now versus in the past, though psychologists and counselors who specialize in it say they have definitely noticed an upswing in the last two decades.

The number of family and marriage counselors has skyrocketed in the past 40 years, from only 1,800 in 1966 to 50,158 in 2004, according to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy.

"The increase in the number of practitioners is presumably consistent with the consumer demand of the services," said David Bergman, the association's director of legal and government affairs.

Even celebrities have become more open about going to couples therapy. Courteney Cox and David Arquette have said that they went to iron out some bumps in their relationship before they walked down the aisle, according to In Touch. The gossip magazine also reported that Jennifer Aniston and boyfriend Vince Vaughn plan to follow suit.

"It's becoming more common," said Clifton Fuller, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Antonio, who's been doing premarital counseling for 22 years. "I might have had one or two couples a year [when I started] and now it's more like one a month or 10 a year."

Fuller pegs the increase to the fact that modern-day couples are waiting later to marry and have more education than their predecessors, so they are more fully aware of all that a lifelong commitment entails.

"They have more of an idea of the ramifications of marriage," he said. "They're looking at it more objectively, as opposed to [seeing it as] purely a romantic endeavor."

In addition, many houses of worship require couples to undergo counseling if they want to have their wedding there, including the Catholic, Episcopalian and other Christian churches.

For one 30-year-old New York woman, who asked that her name not be used, premarital therapy seemed like a good way to learn how to handle some of the problem spots in her relationship. At her suggestion, she and her fiancé went to a counselor four months before their wedding.

"It's very helpful when you're in the pressure cooker of pre-wedding to have someone else to talk to," she said. "I needed someone else to help us figure out how to deal with the things that weren't going to go away."

She described those issues as the "practicals" of their relationship rather than chemistry, love or trust. She felt as though her fiancé should be more responsible to her and less responsible to his bachelor friends, for instance. And she found that the therapy wound up being very, well, therapeutic.

"It gives you some kind of foundation," she said. "It's like talking to an expert about redesigning your home — you are not a pro and you're too close to it. They're not invested in it. There's no agenda."

Communication and conflict resolution are two key areas couples work on in premarital counseling, according to therapists. Fuller said that from his experience, about 80 percent of problems in any relationship stem from communication issues and 20 percent deal with resolving conflict.

Premarital therapists teach couples skills for communicating well, fighting fairly and compromising, and help them pinpoint issues they disagree on. The earlier a couple comes to counseling, the more likely it is that the sessions will be effective.

"The therapist has a chance to help them develop a road map, help them understand their strengths as a couple and their challenges," said Alexandra H. Solomon, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

"The earlier in the marriage that you can develop that sense of awareness about what each of you brings into any particular conflict, the better off you are."

What's challenging, she and other marriage counselors say, is when a couple waits too long to seek help.

"The most difficult thing is when a couple comes in with a very entrenched problem that they've had for many years and there's a great deal of hopelessness," Solomon said. "They have already thought about divorce."

Couples therapy does still carry a stigma — the assumption that there must be something wrong with a relationship if the two people in it have to ask a counselor or psychologist for help, especially before they're married.

"Perhaps I'm a bit insensitive, but I think if you're considering premarital therapy, maybe marriage isn't the right path for you," said Randy Tranger, a 30-year-old newlywed from Point Pleasant, N.J. "If my fiancée approached me about premarital therapy, I would probably rethink whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life with that person."

Those who work in the field, however, see that as a myth that needs to be debunked.

"Certainly they're ill-informed," Fuller said of people who believe premarital therapy means trouble for the future. "That's the old idea that people live happily ever after. I rarely hear that."

Thanks in part to TV, movies and other media, Americans have become more comfortable with couples and other forms of therapy, so there is less of a tendency to think getting professional relationship advice is a bad sign.

"I attribute it to society as a whole being more willing to seek out help," said Susan Harper Slate, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. "Psychology has had good press for itself."

And most people tying the knot today know that marriage is no piece of (wedding) cake, and the real effort comes after the Big Day is over.

"Probably they've become aware through watching 'Oprah' that marriage is a difficult thing — they need to prepare and it's going to be work," said Fuller.