So you’re engaged; now what? Planning and preparing for your marriage (not just your wedding!) is the next step. Although you might find yourself caught up in the excitement and stress of getting ready for your big day, it’s important not to neglect the relational preparation you need to work through with your future spouse.
It’s vital to talk about the beliefs, expectations, and realities that will have an impact on your marriage long after the wedding is over.
Engagement is a time of joy and anticipation, but it can also bring out stress and conflict as plans get underway. So much energy can go into details related to the wedding that a pattern of neglect can form with regard to the relationship itself.
Premarital counseling is a good way to maintain intimacy throughout your engagement. It can help strengthen your relationship and facilitate constructive conversations and intentional preparation for the future.
Pre-Marriage Counseling Topics to Increase Intimacy
Discussing specific marriage-related topics can help you as a couple navigate the transition into marriage in a healthy way. Here are four examples:
Couples who struggle with communication may fear to seek counseling because it might compel them to talk about painful topics. But counseling can be a safe place to work on having open communication between the two of you. It’s a neutral, confidential setting to explore subjects that need discussion, as well as how each of you naturally tends to communicate.
We all have an instinctive communication style we prefer, based on our personalities and the way our parents and family of origin related to one another. We might think that our own communication style is what’s normal for everyone, but it can be shocking to find out that our spouse essentially speaks a different language than we do, and that’s considered “normal” to them.
Because of this, spouses often misunderstand and misinterpret one another just because of their different ways of communicating. There is much room for growth in intentionally learning how your partner communicates and how to speak their language. You can talk about certain phrases you each tend to use and what you mean by them.
Couples often think that their spouse should be able to automatically understand what they’re thinking or feeling. After all, they know each other so well, right? But this just isn’t the case.
We may develop an understanding of our spouse’s patterns over time, but no matter how long we are married, we will never be able to “just know” what another person is thinking or feeling unless they tell us explicitly. Otherwise, incorrect assumptions are inevitable.
When you don’t feel understood by your spouse, you’re much more likely to have communication problems or hurt feelings. As time goes by in your marriage, you’ll grow to understand each other better, but even then be sure to give each other grace for not being mind-readers.
The potential for hurt is actually greater when you feel as though your partner should understand you because of how long you’ve been married or how close you are to each other.
So engagement is the perfect time to start laying a foundation for healthy communication. Learn how to communicate your thoughts and emotions clearly and respectfully. Create habits of open communication, letting your partner know what’s going on with you, without assuming that they already understand.
Creating these communication patterns early on in your relationship gives you practice in handling conflict in a way that is mutually beneficial. Encourage each other and alert yourselves to potential communication breakdowns, especially those based on possibly false assumptions about the other person. Patterns of communication formed over a lifetime are difficult to break, so now is the time to adjust your habits of interaction.
In Christian environments, it may seem taboo to mention sexuality, but it’s vital to cover in premarital counseling. Sexuality is about more than the act itself; it’s a powerful instrument of connection between married couples, allowing physical and emotional intimacy to flourish.
Engaged couples often feel that they can skim over the topic of sexuality and that their sexual relationship within marriage will be effortlessly good, but this isn’t always the case.
Each future spouse has expectations, concerns, and questions related to marital intimacy, and premarital counseling is one of the best places to discuss these things. You can reflect on where your assumptions about sex developed (family, friends, education, etc.) and what expectations you’re bringing in to your marriage.
It’s important to discuss how you will cultivate your sexual relationship within marriage, along with any concerns or curiosities you may be bringing into it. Depending on your comfort level, set some intentional time aside to discuss physical intimacy and how it will progress after your wedding day.
Don’t forget to discuss the practical matters too. What about birth control? How will this affect your relationship and any future plans to have children? Also, consider privacy and how it will be to live together if you have not already cohabitated. It can be quite an adjustment going from having your own space, even with your family of origin or a roommate, to sharing everything with a spouse.
As a couple, what can you talk about now that will make these adjustments easier? How much privacy do you each prefer? Contrary to expectations for a perfect Hollywood-esque relationship, real marriage can be hard, and busy schedules can make it difficult to carve out time for a spontaneous, exciting love life. Although it may seem less romantic, it’s often important to be very intentional in setting aside time for physical intimacy.
3. Inner World
This is an opportunity to discuss your desire for your spouse to know and understand you deeply. Although you probably have this desire, it can also be frightening to be known this closely. In order to be close and increase intimacy, vulnerability is required. You have to let your spouse in.
A way to start doing this to explore each other’s inner world. This means getting to know your partner’s hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes, fears, and anything related to their preferences and desires.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman have described this process as creating “love maps.” Dr. John Gottman’s research has indicated that couples whose love maps are detailed tend to have stronger and more intimate relationships than those with less developed love maps.
This process of getting to know one another’s inner worlds is an ongoing activity that should characterize your marriage over the course of your lives. In the same way that a city changes over time, with new construction and expansions, our inner worlds do the same.
It takes work to get to know your spouse’s deepest desires, dreams, and fears, and when you do this, you’re creating your “love map” of their inner world. Love maps increase intimacy, because not only are you getting to know your spouse better, you’re investing time and value into the process.
Intentionally seeking greater intimate knowledge of your spouse should be at times that are relaxed, when both partners feel safe and comfortable (i.e., not during a conflict) and able to absorb what the other person is sharing. It’s a good addition to a date night. You can make it more structured by taking turns asking each other questions and discussing memories, struggles, joys, hopes, fears, and dreams.
Inner worlds are complex, layered, and only reveal themselves with time and effort. Life changes shape the details of our inner worlds. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman says, “If you don’t start off with a deep knowledge of each other, it’s easy for your marriage to lose its way when your lives shift so suddenly and dramatically.”
For this reason, it’s best to create the habit of getting to know each other’s inner worlds early on in your relationship. Then you will have the tools to learn new things about your spouse throughout your marriage, which you can add to your “love map” of them.
4. Conflict Management
For some people, talking about conflict might seem counterintuitive. Oftentimes couples have the idea that the less conflict, the better; if they just got rid of conflict altogether, they would have a much better relationship.
But this isn’t the case. Conflict isn’t a bad thing that should be avoided at all costs. Instead, it’s an inevitable aspect of every human relationship, and handling it in a healthy way offers a key opportunity for genuine intimacy.
Conflict is unavoidable at some level, but the way you achieve intimacy through conflict lies in how you deal with it. Equipping yourselves with healthy conflict management skills gives you a chance to resolve issues without hurting each other emotionally. This way you can learn to understand your spouse in a deeper way, without leaving scars from hurtful conflict.
If there is a topic you know is likely to cause conflict, learning how to approach it without being on the defensive is an invaluable skill. Conflict does not have to turn into an ugly argument or be avoided altogether; instead, it can be resolved in a healthy way, and this knowledge can make each partner in the relationship feel more hopeful and confident when approaching difficult topics.
A willingness to examine current conflict patterns in your relationship is a helpful first step. You can identify any patterns that are destructive and that serve to escalate disagreements rather than settling them.
Once you’ve identified these patterns, you both can work on changing them to more constructive ways of dealing with the situation, allowing you to resolve disagreements in a way that allows for growth and intimacy.
A Christian Pre-Marriage Counseling Perspective
A Christian counselor can help facilitate these conversations, leading to the best outcome for both of you as you work toward greater intimacy. Depending on which topics you’re discussing, a counselor may give you extra materials, education, or practical exercises to work on the strengths and weaknesses of your relationship.
Every relationship has both strong points and areas where growth is needed, and addressing these points early on will allow you to build a strong foundation of intimacy.
One of the main objectives of premarital counseling is for the counselor to help you discover the preconceived notions and expectations you each bring to the intended marriage. This is a way for couples to get to know one another and possibly grow closer than they have been before.
Vulnerability opens the door to intimacy, allowing a beautiful chance for growth and flourishing. God’s desire is for married couples to experience oneness and openness through being intimate with one another.
This sacred unity develops over a lifetime, as both learn to submit to one another and to Christ. He uses this journey to transform us to be more like Him, which is part of His intended purpose in creating marriage.
Please remember that no couple is going to master and flawlessly implement perfect communication skills, love maps, or conflict resolution, especially before the wedding has even taken place.
Premarital counseling is simply a place to begin, and to give you knowledge and tools to help you with the transition into marriage. It allows you to be more aware of patterns in your relationship and the tools you’ll need for growth both now and in the future.
But growth always takes time, and it’s very normal for a marriage to take at least a year to settle into a comfortable harmony and flow. Marriage is a constantly-changing, ever-evolving journey of growing in intimacy, communication, and love.
The premarital counselor is simply a facilitator of discussions that will hopefully continue throughout your marriage as you resolve conflicts, get to know each other’s inner worlds and build a stronger relationship.
If you are engaged or planning to be soon, and you think premarital counseling could be beneficial for your relationship, let us know how we can work with you to prepare you for a godly marriage.
“Engaged”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Conversation”, courtesy of Christin Hume, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Hopes and Dreams”, Courtesy of Edward Cisneros, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Lightning”, Courtesy of Casey Horner, Unsplash.com; CC0 License