Why Everyone Should Take Pre Engagement Counseling
We all may think we’re relationship experts, but the truth is that everyone has at least a little to learn. With pre engagement counseling, you get the chance to have an open discussion about your future in a safe environment. With a third party present to make sure discussions are going in the right direction, you can be sure that you won’t get off track or become defensive. Plus, counselors force you to take accountability for your (minor) faults. And the case for initiating counseling prior to an engagement? According to Focus on the Family:
Couples who are already engaged are far less inclined to take an in-depth, honest look at their relationship.
Not only that, but who wants to deal with the embarrassment of having to cancel a wedding? Or the financial hit of losing a ton of deposits? If you start counseling after the wedding planning has already started, you’ll be much less willing to acknowledge the issues in your relationship. And on top of that, you’ll be so preoccupied with wedding planning that you won’t be able to give counseling the full attention needed.
In this post, I talk about my own, ongoing experience with pre engagement counseling, discuss the topics covered in pre engagement counseling, offer some advice and suggest links to online pre engagement counseling options.
To be honest, I had never even heard of pre engagement counseling until a couple months ago. Chris and I had talked about getting married, but knew we wanted to hold off until I felt more comfortable stepping into a parenting role with his son.
I was sitting in church one morning and noticed that there was an ad for a Pre-engagement Workshop on the sermon outline. The ad read:
Our 9 week pre-engagement/premarital workshop focuses on communication skills, relationship maturity, financial planning, and a healthy sex life. One additional week will be provided for couple that are blending families. There is a $100 enrollment fee per couple.
Worth the Investment
At first I was like, Holy crow (remember, I was in church), that’s a ton of money! I’m such a cheapskate, and I thought $100 seemed like a lot to pay for a workshop. When we broke it down though, it was really only $50/person. With our specific workshop, we were given 9, hour long ‘classes’, a relationship assessment test (valued at $35), a one-on-one session with a counselor to go over our assessment results, and 2 free one-on-one sessions at the time of our choosing (valued at $60). When we broke it down, we were only really paying $5 for the 9 hours worth of classes!
So yeah, we sucked it up and paid the fee, not really sure yet what we were getting ourselves into. You can check out this guide for a breakdown of pricing depending on what type of counseling you do.
*For those interested, this workshop is offered at Abundant Life on a regular basis.
Day One of Pre Engagement Counseling
The first day of the workshop was a little awkward since no one knew each other. There were six other couples, all of different ages. Some of the couples had already been through a divorce, some were already engaged and some didn’t look old enough to be thinking about marriage.
Once everyone arrived, a man introduced himself as a counselor at the church and started talking to us about what the class was going to look like. They had broken up the weeks by topic, allocating a majority of the sessions to ‘communication’, a couple more to religious topics, one for sex, one for finances and one for blended families. Note that those who are entering blended families are even more in need of counseling prior to a marriage/engagement, since their situation is a lot more complicated.
The counselor told us that the workshop would be an equal blend of Biblical lessons and psychology. I’ll be honest though–there have been quite a few Bible verses used to back up points throughout the weeks. For those that are non-religious, this type of workshop may not be up your ally.
Brace for Some Bible
The church I attend is Baptist, and they’re not afraid to tell it like it is. Day one, we were advised to abstain from sex from that point forward if we’d already lost our virginity (read up on born again virginity if you have a chance). This could definitely be a turn-off for non-religious attendees, so consider how much Jesus you’re able to handle before signing on for counseling at a Church.
Everyone can benefit from pre engagement counseling though, not just the Christians. So give it a shot, even if you’re on the fence; You can always look for a religious institution that’s more middle ground, like a Unitarian Church or a Church that’s mostly young people. Heck, start your own workshop if you can pool your money and rent out a licensed professional! Another option is online courses, which I’ll bring up later in this post.
What I Learned in Pre Engagement Counseling
I’m going to give you the quick and dirty version of what I’ve learned in my pre engagement workshop. Keep in mind that a workshop is different than one-on-one counseling. It’s more like a lesson than a discussion.
During the 4-week communication portion of the class, we learned about “the four horsemen of the marriage apocalypse”–the four main obstacles that can stand in the way of a healthy marriage. They are:
1. Contempt is a feeling of disgust and anger toward your partner.
Contempt is the opposite of empathy; Instead of caring about your partner’s feelings and concerns, you’re arrogant. You think you know best, and you dismiss your partner’s concerns. The difference between resentment/anger and contempt is that contempt is directed toward a lower status individual.
At the heart of every human is a need to be respected and accepted. Contempt fosters a feeling a rejection, and can cause your partner to take on the mindset of ‘if you don’t want me, then I don’t want you!’.
Signs of contempt are eye-rolling, sarcasm and facial expressions that suggest disdain or exasperation. Another major sign of contempt is steamrolling–not allowing the other person to say their piece. Instead of contempt, build a culture of appreciation.
2. Stonewalling: In a discussion or argument, the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker because they are feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded.
Instead of stonewalling, cultivate a capacity for resilience. Let your partner know that you need to take some time to calm down and think things over, but you’ll be back soon to continue the conversation.
Use this time away to imagine a place you feel calm and safe, focus on your breathing, relax your body or do something you find soothing/distracting (ie: listening to music).
Note that men are more likely to stonewall than women. When women stonewall, it’s likely to lead to divorce. Women are more likely to become upset by stonewalling than men.
3. Criticism: Criticism involves attacking your partner’s personality or characteristics rather than focusing on the specific behaviors that bother you.
The difference between a complaint and a criticism is that a complaint is geared toward solving and addressing a specific problem, and a criticism is global (adds negative words about your spouse’s character or personality). Instead of criticism, practice a gentle start up.
If you grew up with a parent or close family member that was critical of you growing up, you’re probably guilty of this one. It’s hard for people who are critical to check themselves; They may not even realize they’re doing it. Be sure to tell your partner when they’re being critical, and let them know how it makes you feel.
- Don’t broadly criticizing their character; Pinpoint the issue and explain how you feel about that specific action.
Real world example-
Instead of saying ‘you keep spending money at the casino. I can’t believe how selfish and irresponsible you are’, say something like ‘You spent $150 at the casino last weekend. I feel concerned, and I’d like to discuss this with you.’
4 .Defensiveness: Being defensive blocks connection, compassion, and isolates you from your partner. Instead of focusing on we-ness, a defensive person focuses on me-ness.
Defensiveness can often be traced back to feelings of abandonment, inferiority, low self-esteem and narcissism developed over the course of a lifetime. A defensive person perceives bad behavior toward them as intentional, but dismisses their own bad behavior as inadvertent, a mistake, or unavoidable due to circumstances beyond their control. They do this to protect their own ego; They anticipate or perceive a threat in their environment, and lash out in the only way they know how.
The major issue with defensiveness is that it’s cyclical. When one partner acts defensively, the other partner begins to act defensively as well. Defensiveness elevates as the conversation continues, and both parties end up angry and hurt. If you’re guilty of defensiveness, you’ll need to learn to take responsibility.
- When bringing up an issue with a partner who struggles with defensiveness, sandwich in the negative between two positives.
Real word example-
Instead of saying ‘you’re spending too much at the casino’, say something like ‘I’m proud of the raise you got at work, but I’m concerned that you’re spending too much of that extra money at the casino. I know you have it in you to be a smarter spender’.
- Use ‘I feel’ statements instead of accusations that will bring out their defensiveness.
Real world example-
Instead of saying ‘you’re spending too much at the casino’, say something like ‘I feel concerned about our financial situation with how much is being spent at the casino’.
- Realize that you can only control your own actions.
- Understand that marriage is work, and there’s nothing wrong with seeking counseling.
- Understand that your partner loves you, and they wouldn’t do anything to intentionally upset you.
- Treat people the way you would want to be treated!
One of the things I was most looking forward to with our workshop was the personality test (because I’m a huge narcissist and love learning new things about me me ME).
The test (called Prepare Enrich) ended up being a 300-question assessment that had you scale factors from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’. The report is meant to identify your relationship strengths and weakness, which are resources you can use to help build your relationship moving forward. Questions in the assessment centered around your self perception, family background, stressors and perception of your relationship.
What is Covers
Strength and growth areas in the assessment included spiritual beliefs, character traits, family & friends, sexual expectations, leisure activities, financial management, partner habits, conflict resolution and communication. Pretty thorough! Our report showed that we scored high for communication and low for financial management, points we were both pretty aware of already.
The relationship dynamics sections grades you and your partner in terms of assertiveness, self confidence, avoidance, and partner dominance, so you can both see how you compare. A Personal Stress Profile lists off the stressors you identified in your assessment, and a Family map shows whether you come from similar backgrounds. Finally, a SCOPE personality test shows how you and your partner compare for 5 personality dimensions: Social, Change, Organized, Pleasing and Steady. Check out this sample report for a better visual.
The exam costs $35/couple and must be taken through a facilitator, but the results are well worth it. For one, you may be more comfortable saying things in an online assessment that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to your partner’s face. Plus, an assessment gives you the chance to consider factors you may have never thought of, and see actual charts depicting the results.
Talk About Finances
If you’re like me, you and your significant other pay for things separately. Sure, you may cover each other’s meals every once in a while, but your finances are pretty much your own.
Guess what happens when you get married though? Those bank accounts become joined as well. For better or for worse. In poverty and in wealth.
If you’re unhappy with your partner’s spending habits, it’s better to address it now than wait until the Honeymoon. Through pre engagement counseling, you and your partner will ask each other the tough questions. Questions like: who will be the primary financial provider? How will you come to a decision on major purchases, like a house? Who will keep track of expenses? How do you both feel about debt and credit cards?
All of these questions are important to address in a setting where both parties feel comfortable being honest. Now, if you both disagree on something small, like how often you should eat out, you have no reason to worry. That just means you’ll need to give that issue extra attention throughout your marriage. HOWEVER, if your partner has crazy spending habits that involve thousand dollar shopping sprees at Toys R’ Us (RIP) or a bizarre obsession with collecting priceless antiques, you may want to consider financial advice and professional counseling. For those who don’t know where to start, Dave Ramsey’s 7 Baby Steps are a good point of reference:
One great resource to look into are these episodes from Dave Ramsey. He offers advice on planning for Christmas spending, finding a real estate agent, dealing with stock market dips and more. The app EveryDollar is also a great (free) resource for tracking spending and budgeting.
Planning for the Future
Before getting married, you should share your current debt situation with your partner, discuss your credit scores and talk about financial plans for the future. Map out your current income and expenses, then create a sample budget for when you’re married. It’s a good idea to have a checking account and a savings account. Many couples also have monthly ‘allowances’, fun money that they can use to go to a fancy restaurant during a lunch break, take a solo weekend trip, buy a video game, etc.
Chris and I are a little different in how we approach money. Where I will take the time to find the best deal and use coupons, Chris would rather just make the most convenient, least time-consuming purchase. For me, finding a deal eases the guilt of purchasing something I don’t need.
We also differ in our approach to saving. Where Chris has a Roth IRA and 401K, I have no savings to speak of. I would rather spend the money now and enjoy life while I’m young than be rich and old. What it all boils down to is the fact that I’m impatient, and I wasn’t raised in a household where saving was top-of-mind. The idea of a ten million dollars in 10 years sounds less appealing to me than the idea of ten thousand dollars now. If you can pinpoint the differences between yourself and your partner now, you can be aware of these issues moving forward.
What matters most is that you both have an equal say in purchasing decisions and you both trust each other to make decisions based on what’s best for the family. If they love you, they aren’t going to bankrupt your family.
Talk About Chores
It may not seem like something you need to talk about prior to an engagement, but it’s good to scope out how your partner approaches chores. Some men still think the woman should be the only one to take care of household chores, even if she’s working as well. If you’re okay with that, woohoo! But if you’re not, you should have an open discussion with your partner about it.
Once you’ve agreed that you’ll both be contributing to chores, decide who will be doing which chores. Make a chart to hold each other accountable, and reference the chart when someone isn’t holding up their end of the bargain. Also understand that circumstances can change, and one person may pick up the slack if their partner is out of town or working late.
Other Topics to Discuss
- Career goals
- Religious beliefs
- Love languages
- Where you want to live
- How holidays will work with visiting family
- Views toward vacations (frequency and cost)
- When you want to get married
- Desired family size