Your Guide to Premarital Counseling, From the Experts

Before walking down the aisle, here's why you should make your way to premarital prep.
Premarital Counseling hands put together against floral backdrop
Photo Design: Tiana Crispino
Esther Lee - Deputy Editor, The Knot
Esther Lee
Esther Lee - Deputy Editor, The Knot
Esther Lee
Deputy Editor
  • Esther is the Deputy Editor of The Knot. She currently leads all content on The Knot Wellness, focusing on financial, relationship, and mental wellbeing.
  • She oversees The Knot's travel vertical (honeymoons, destination weddings, bach parties), as well as overarching features and trends.
  • She proudly serves on the Advisory Council of VOW For Girls, focusing on ending the injustice of child marriage around the world.
Updated Mar 13, 2024

There's a scene in Sex and the City where Charlotte York is determined to convert to Judaism. She knocks on the door at the synagogue and a rabbi appears. "My name is Charlotte York, and I am here today because I would like to consider joining the Jewish faith," she declares. The rabbi swiftly replies, "We're not interested." He then shuts the door on her face. Jilted, York knocks only to be slighted, again, by a different clergy member. While lamenting about the interaction to her fiancé, Harry Goldenblatt, York learns it's a standard practice for an outsider to be rejected three times as they earnestly convey their interest in converting to Judaism. So York sets forth with the premarital education experience (a conversion in her case), where she develops a deeper understanding of herself, her new faith and her future with Goldenblatt.

The purpose of premarital counseling is to deepen one's self-awareness and understanding of their partner. High divorce rates, unhealthy marriages, and, sadly, domestic abuse cases spotlight the need for premarital counseling across languages, cultures, religions and identities. Until the late 20th century, counseling came with a stigma. Often, couples sought advice from loved ones, local pastors or rabbis.

In This Article:

It's only within the last decade that premarital counseling has reached, well, "trend" status. PMC (as some couples call it) used to be considered a lower-priority wedding checklist item, but the stigma is dissipating—and we have Gen Z to thank. According to a report from the American Psychological Association, never in modern human history has a generation expressed so much interest in prioritizing their mental health. Today, people consider PMC to be vital to their well-being, which is why we predict counseling sessions will become even more common. Let's dive into the data to understand why.

Meet the Experts

  • Pankhuri Aggarwal, PhD, is the Madigan Family Clinical Research Postdoctoral Fellow at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.
  • Rabbi Elyssa Cherney is the founder and CEO of Tacklingtorah, based in Philadelphia.
  • Christiana Ibilola Awosan, PhD, and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist is the Associate Professor in the Marriage & Family Therapy Program at Iona University.
  • Howard Markman, PhD, is the codirector of the Center for Marital and Family Studies in Denver and the founder of the Prevention and Relationship Education Program (PREP),

Why Now?

The US divorce rate peaked in 1980, following the sexual revolution of the '60s and the '70s, and the newfound availability of "no-fault" divorce. While that number has dropped steadily, about 35 to 50 percent of married couples still divorced in 2023. In 2001, a groundbreaking study by researcher Scott Stanley based in Denver concluded that "premarital education" helped lower the divorce rate up to 31 percent.

In fact, Howard Markman, PhD, who founded the Prevention and Relationship Education Program, Inc. (PREP), argues that couples are typically at their happiest during their engagement. Note there's a nuanced difference between happiness and satisfaction: the latter increases with problem-solving and facing challenges head-on as a team. "When planning the wedding, most people don't see themselves as having problems and instead see themselves as having opportunities," says Markman, a psychology professor and codirector of the University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies. "Marriage and divorce rates are both declining, but [the number of splits] is still alarmingly high. Most divorces occur within the first seven years of marriage, and it's even higher in the first two years of marriage." He argues that couples should be equipped with the proper communication skills to work through their issues as they embark on marriage.

"Historically, a lot of folks sought premarital counseling or therapy only when there were issues of divorce or separation," says Pankhuri Aggarwal, PhD. "That's how, traditionally, therapy was utilized. More and more nowadays, you see couples getting proactive in seeking counseling as a place to bounce off ideas and gain a third-party perspective on some of the issues driving their distress and their relationship."

One can argue that there is no better time to test couples on their compatibility and communication skills than during their engagement. According to our internal data, 81 percent of currently engaged couples are excited to be married. Yet 80 percent of respondents also said they experience stress during the wedding planning process. A sustained stress response is directly linked to health issues like depression and anxiety. Yet stress isn't necessarily a negative thing, something psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses in her book The Upside of Stress. Engagement is a unique period: If you're like most, you'll face some challenges when wedding planning. How you address them has a formative influence on your marital foundation.

What Exactly Is Premarital Therapy?

Premarital therapy, counseling or programming, depending on the type of sessions, is typically hosted by a certified therapist, licensed mental health professional, or a religious leader, like a priest or a rabbi. The purpose of premarital therapy is for couples to work through issues in their relationship or to begin their marriage with a stronger understanding of their values and a solid foundation for future success. "Most couples seek premarital counseling once they're engaged," says Rabbi Elyssa Cherney based in Philadelphia. "However, in certain instances, they may seek it prior to engagement. They could be navigating a challenging topic, such as merging two faiths in their future home, picking one faith to raise their future children or marrying someone of a different faith." Faith-based premarital counseling is often included in an officiating fee. It can range from six hours to six months of sessions.

Those who prefer to turn to a licensed professional can also use the platform for an outside opinion. "I've had individuals who come in and say, 'We can't figure out a problem. Is that a problem?" says Aggarwal. "Or perhaps couples feel anxious or scared about the next phase and what that would mean. In the presence of a third party, they'd like to talk through difficult topics." You don't need to have a problem to go to premarital therapy.

In some instances, couples can't reach an agreement on something they value. "If a couple gets stuck on a topic, or there's a recurring issue that cannot be solved, I recommend that they see a licensed couples therapist," says Cherney. "I am always transparent about what is outside the realm of faith-based premarital counseling. If that doesn't resolve it, I would recommend they take some time to process and think about what a marriage would look like, and if their values and life goals align at this moment."

In traditional therapy, a licensed professional typically observes personal values or identities in sessions, whereas religious institutions that lead such sessions emphasize faith and identity. While the goal is to help couples have healthy and fruitful marriages, not all are meant to be—and premarital therapy helps couples determine whether marriage is a fit. "I don't look at divorce or separation as something terrible," says Aggarwal. "I think society makes it seem that way. Sometimes, it's actually very good for the kids or for the couple. If they are constantly screaming at each other all day and letting kids be exposed to it, they may function a lot better independently. I never make the choice for my clients one way or the other. I present all the information, playing back what I'm hearing, and then they are in the position of deciding what they want to do with their differences."

Therapist Christiana Ibilola Awosan echoes this point. "My job as a licensed marriage and family therapist is basically to guide couples to a place of self-reflection, so that they're able to come to decisions individually," she says. "I'm helping them develop this [understanding of] how they hold differences."

When addressing differences in upbringing, there is no greater indicator for identity biases than cultural and ethnic influences, says Aggarwal. "I look at culture as the way of doing something. Culture can be as specific as the way you interact with the world. It's one factor of how you look at yourself, at others and the world, and how the world and other people look at you."

Markman believes premarital programs or intervention, as he refers to it, should be conducted with someone who's trained within a program and understands the nuances of that couple's cultural or religious beliefs. "It has to be a research-based program," he argues. "It's not really counseling, it's skill training. There are some principles associated with a successful relationship that are research-based and evaluated. The leaders [who use the program to guide couples] are trained to do that program and to provide coaching."

The Key Benefits of Premarital Counseling

In premarital counseling, couples might unpack everything from daily chores to estate planning. The overarching themes will often involve big "Fs" like finances, family, friendship, and fight or flight tendencies. "It's doing is learning," says Markman, the author of Fighting for Your Marriage. "You take Driver's Ed before you get a driver's license. You should take Relationship before you get a marriage license." You learn the tools to help you navigate difficult times.

"Successful couples will identify where their differences are creeping in," Aggarwal says. "How you want to manage [those moments of disagreement] also could signify growth."

Couples therapy also helps you form a team mentality. When you recognize your unique superpowers and form a "we" perspective, you'll be more willing to work together on everything else. "We want interdependency," says Awosan. "Teamwork brings excitement to people."

"People don't get married to handle conflict," notes Markman. "Protecting friendship, protecting fun, enhancing love and sensuality, helping people be better teammates is what we do." The goal is to protect and preserve positive connections within your relationship.

The Future of Premarital Counseling

In 2018, the Harris Poll conducted research on behalf of the American Psychological Association in its annual Stress in America report. It discovered that Gen Z is much more willing to report on their mental health concerns than millennials and Gen X. A separate study found that two out of five Gen Zers go to therapy to manage their anxiety and depression. Based on this data, Gen Z is much more likely to seek out a form of counseling or therapy either for themselves or their partnership. The same applies to faith-based mechanisms for marital prep.

Cherney has observed that more couples are coming back to traditions and rituals of faith-based marriages. "The more chaotic the world is around them, the more comforting these ancient traditions can feel. Having a professional guide you through the process is very valuable, and often underemphasized in the planning process." She aims to transform how to-be-weds view their wedding and the formation of their new family unit.

If you prefer the interaction of a professional, leader, or a mediator, you should book the venue and couples counseling around the same time. Currently, there are long waitlists for therapists, and some programs will require up to a six-month commitment.

What If We Pass on Premarital Counseling?

Wedding planning is a busy time. At minimum, you should prioritize date nights and quality time with each other, a welcome respite from stuffing invitations and tracking RSVPs. Quality time, however, differs from premarital therapy and general couples counseling.

Often, what ends up happening is couples wind up in therapy in times of crises or challenges. Markman refers to this set as "distressed couples." Unprepared and unequipped to face issues head-on, they turn to a professional in moments of turmoil after resentment has built. Some are still reluctant to seek therapy, particularly among heterosexual couples. "Men are more reluctant in going to therapy," explains Markman. "But they are interested in learning skills and principles. A class in relationships, of sorts, opens up the doors to learning."

Premarital counseling helps struggling couples observe, ultimately, whether they should move forward with marriage. "I've had couples who've had a hard time and say, 'We're not ready for this,'" says Awosan. "Others still have issues and end up moving forward. There's nothing you can do about that. There are couples who say, 'We still want to get married and we'll keep working on it.' I'm still working with certain couples now in marriage." That's one highlight: Therapy or couples counseling is an option even after you sign the marriage license.

"Being open and honest with the professionals guiding you will only benefit you in the long run," Cherney says. "Your clergy and counselors are there to help. And the discussions should continue outside of the counseling environment. I always stress that the wedding is one day but the marriage is forever."

It's also worth acknowledging that there are barriers to entry even in the mental health space. Professional therapy and counseling, though in high demand, isn't accessible to everyone. "There's a barrier to therapy," says Markman. "It can include cost or stigma. People who can seek and receive couples therapy are a privileged and primarily white group. Some couples want it, but can't afford it." Costs can range anywhere from $50 to $200 per hour, according to therapy app Talkspace. If you are fortunate enough to have access to premarital counseling, the data is clear: With guided help, you and your partner can be even more assured about your union as you sign that marriage license.

Same, but Different: Premarital Counseling Terms

Premarital Therapy: Led by a professional counselor or licensed practitioner, sessions help couples unpack their thoughts and challenges before marriage with the goal to help them reach their own conclusions.

Premarital Counseling (PMC): Many Jewish and Christian organizations require couples to go through this program if a rabbi, ordained minister, pastor or church/synagogue leader is officiating the wedding. These leaders will also recommend whether the couple should be together after observing their responses throughout sessions. It typically lasts three months.

Premarital Education: A program fostered by research-backed methodology that is intended to be adopted by educational leaders.

Pre-Cana Classes: The premarital prep work for most Catholic couples, led by a priest. It typically lasts six months.

Premarital Coaching: For Muslim couples, the term premarital coaching has become a highly sought-after form of marriage prep hosted by Islamic wellness and community centers.

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