by by Malcolm Miller, Ph.D.

It is fascinating that we evaluate products before we make a major purchase and go to school for years to become trained for our profession, yet, for the most important decision of our lives–to marry a particular person–we have no training whatsoever!

Couples mainly come to counseling after they marry when problems have arisen and their dreams have been injured. Doesn’t it make much more sense to discover important areas of compatibility and identify areas of difference before we marry?

In the excitement of planning a new life together, couples get caught up in wedding plans, the honeymoon, where they will live, and they forget (or avoid) looking at the opportunities and challenges they are likely to encounter after they marry.

During more than 15 years specializing in premarital counseling, I have seen that this process of exploration allows the couple to marry with their eyes open, feel they are not going to be completely taken by surprise by difficulties that arise, and be able to experience the joy of growing and evolving together. Thus this can be an exciting opportunity to learn about each other and one self much more deeply and pave the way for a long, successful and happy marriage.

In John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, they write “What can make a marriage work is surprisingly simple. Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day to day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. They have what I call an emotionally intelligent marriage.” (pg. 3)

Premarital counseling can help couples develop an “emotionally intelligent marriage”!

What does premarital counseling involve?

There are many forms that premarital counseling can take. Individual couples or couple groups can participate. The sessions can involve one meeting a week for a fixed or open length of time, or weekend retreats for couple groups. The counseling can include questionnaires of personality and compatibility. Many couples make the decision of what kind of counseling to attend on the basis of cost and time. However, it is far more important to make the decision on the basis of your unique needs and your sense of confidence in the skill of the counselor to assist both of you. In premarital therapy, the initial objective is to assist the couple to communicate deeply and honestly, in a way that identifies your unique gifts and unique challenges. The intermediate objective is for the couple to develop skills to fully appreciate what each brings to the relationship and to recognize strengths and areas of difficulties. The final objective is to develop a plan for growing together without losing your unique identities. This occurs not only through your commonalties but also in the acceptance of and appreciation of your differences.

A word of caution: it is possible that one’s worst fears will be realized. This is a major reason why couples avoid premarital counseling. You may learn that the marriage will need to be postponed for further individual or couple counseling. The purpose is to assist with difficulties and help you determine if you should remain together. Although realizing there are serious problems in the relationship is very painful, it is far better to learn this early before your lives are intertwined, children are involved, and many hurts and insecurities have developed. Although this only occurs in a minority of cases, I would be remiss to omit this possibility.

Sample Topics

  • Identifying ghosts from your parents’ marriage and prior relationships
  • Idealized versus realistic expectations
  • Hidden treasures in you and your partner
  • Red flags to watch for
  • Sex, children, religion, careers, finances
  • Pet peeves and taboos
  • How to disagree in a problem solving manner

A Few Keys to a Successful Marriage

  1. Most important is one’s perspective of marriage. Those who are successful in marriage see it as something that is far from perfect. It is a work in progress.
  2. H. Norman Wright (1992) provides two definitions of love which are critical perspectives: “A person is in love with another individual when meeting the emotional needs of that person becomes an emotional need of his or her own life. Real love means an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person.”
  3. Since you have probably been scanning the article to see if I included Gottman and Silver’s “Seven Principles,” here are the ones that most stood out for me:
    a. Happy marriages are based upon a deep friendship.
    b. There is a deep sense of meaning in the strongest marriages. Each supports the other’s aspirations and there is a sense of purpose in their lives together.
    c. In successful marriages, the couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world–knowing from the other’s look when (s)he needs some space, knowing the event from the past that will bring a moist eyed smile.
    d. They nurture a fondness and admiration for each other–truly caring about the other, being proud of the internal battles the other has fought.

If you are interested in premarital counseling:

  1. Seriously think about your relationship with your fiancé and discuss the issues raised here about premarital counseling.
  2. Both partners should take the included questionnaire found under the archived Psych Bytes.
  3. Check with your priest, rabbi, or minister to learn his/her background in premarital counseling.
  4. Interview psychologists, social workers and marriage and family counselors who, like myself, advertise premarital counseling as a specialty.
  5. Remember that this is a very important gift to give to each other, with far more long term importance than your gown or tuxedo or floral arrangement, which probably cost much more than premarital counseling.

Dr. Malcolm Miller is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in West Los Angeles and Torrance and is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. He may be contacted at 310-822-9998 or

Copyright 2019 by Malcolm Miller, Ph.D.