Why Pre-Engagement Counseling is Better than Pre-Marital Counseling

Chances are that you or someone that you love is in a dating relationship and the idea of marriage is getting stronger.  If this is the case, then I would like to present to you the idea of Pre-Engagement Counseling. Let me start with a brief illustration.

Suppose you had a precious sum of money that you wanted to invest for retirement. You tell your financial advisor that you have your heart set on one particular fund. Your financial advisor winces and informs you that stats show an 85% probability of total investment loss. What would you do?

Now consider this scenario:

Suppose during the course of pre-marital counseling, your therapist told you that the history and trajectory of your interactions with your fiancee indicate an 85% probability of divorce. What would you do? Though this may be an imperfect analogy, the spirit of this scenario sometimes plays out in my line of work.

Every so often, a couple will come to my office and cause me grave concern. These couples tend to have the kinds of issues that precipitate an 85% divorce rate, according to marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman. I will address these issues in other posts. 

I’d like to focus on the factors that would make a couple go through with the wedding anyway.

What would make a conflicted couple ignore the 85% warning? Many reasons!

  • They selectively don’t believe in stats.
  • Breaking up would be a waste of invested months or years.
  • They don’t want to hurt the other person by reconsidering marriage.
  • They’ve gotten used to mistreatment.
  • The sex is great.
  • One or both feel like this is their last chance to get married.
  • They believe things will resolve themselves in marriage.
  • They have faith that God will work all things together for the good of those who love Him.
  • Their tickets to the Maldives are non-refundable and they’ve been going to the gym like crazy.
  • And then there are the cultural reasons.

Cultural reasons may be the great x-factor in pushing a high risk couple down the aisle. In some cultures, rescheduling or even cancelling a marriage would be near impossible due to the shame they would experience.

They would protest:

  • “What would dad and mom say? What would relatives think?”
  • “My parents are prominent in the church, how will they explain to their congregation that the wedding is postponed indefinitely?”
  • “My parents are long time friends with my fiance’s parents. Their friendship would be ruined.”
  • “We already had the Yak-Hon-Shik (Korean formal engagement ceremony). There’s no going back now.”
  • “I’ve been serving my church faithfully for years, what would my congregation think of me now if I postponed the wedding because some therapist saying we are at risk?”

A Solution

With so many factors making it near impossible to break off an engagement, I propose a basic tweak to the whole idea of pre-marital counseling: Do pre-engagement counseling.

Yes, do the counseling before buying the ring, before doing the Yak-Hon-Shik, before going house hunting, before sending out Save the Dates, and definitely before going onto Expedia.

Advantages of Pre-Engagement Counseling

Pre-Engagement counseling has 2 distinct advantages.

  • It prevents the catastrophe of shame. You can spare yourself the awful conversation with your parents that starts with “Uh, Dad, Mom, I think you better have a seat.”
  • It enables the dating couple to more honestly invest in the counseling process. When the wedding date is already set, sometimes the counseling is treated as a mere formality. However, without the pressure of dates, deposits, and shame, a dating couple can evaluate more honestly the state of their relationship, and make an informed decision about their future together.

I, too, believe that God does work all things together for the good of those who love Him. But rather than seeing this as God’s promise that He will make an at-risk couple thrive, I can confidently apply this promise to the other side of the coin. I believe God will work good things as an at-risk couple postpones marriage and works hard on addressing destructive relational patterns. God will work out good things even if they do not marry, or maybe precisely because they do not marry.

This entails a different type of faith, a faith in Christ’s gospel to cover our shame and heartache. But until this shame covering manifests itself, I can make one simple recommendation as a therapist:

Pre-engagement counseling.

Roy Kim is a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in Asian cultural issues, church struggles, pre-engagement counseling, healing from betrayal, and couple’s communication. More information about Roy can be found on http://roykimtherapy.com/.