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When I was a high school and collegiate swimmer, I trained two to three hours every day to prepare for an occasional 57-second race. Countless hours were spent in the pool while coaches helped me improve my technique—just so I’d be ready for a competition months down the road. Imagine what marriage would be like if people put that same kind of time and energy into marriage preparation?

Marriage preparation, like coaching or training, is a tool that helps us prepare for a lifelong commitment. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Family Relations found that those who participate in premarital counseling tend to experience a 30 percent increase in marital satisfaction compared with those who do not.

But where do you begin to look for a pre-marriage counselor? Just because someone has the right credentials or a good recommendation from a friend doesn't mean they will be the right fit for you and your partner. Every couple is unique and needs different things, so it's important to take the right steps to ensure you and your S.O. get the most out of premarital counseling.

Here are six things you need to pick the perfect pre-marriage counselor.

01. Define expectations.

Before beginning your search, set aside time to talk with your fiancé about what you both desire out of the experience. Consider the areas where you might want particular guidance or perspective. Maybe key aspects for you are things like family dynamics and marital roles, but your guy really wants to talk about conflict resolution?

By standing on the same starting platform, you and your fiancé will have a shared vision for the direction of your pre-marriage curriculum. Dr. Gary Brown, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist suggests: “Think of pre-marital counseling as building the foundation of your marriage. If you tried to build your house without a foundation, it might not stand up over time.”

02. Search for shared values and a sense of comfort.

Do you and your partner want to work with a counselor with a certain background, level of experience, or religion? You will likely discuss intimate details during your counseling sessions, covering topics such as family history, money, and sex. Ask yourself and your partner if you would be more helpful to speak to someone who understands your values and makes you feel comfortable.

Bob Funaro, Ed.D, LLP, and marriage counselor, recommends “seeking someone who is trustworthy and sensitive to your issues of faith, ethnic background, equity and is open to the many complex ‘marital/pre-marital' roles—both traditional and nontraditional.” Your relationship dynamics and beliefs are unique, and it’s important to find someone who will embrace you.

To get a better sense of where your counselor may be coming from, set up a brief interview before agreeing to a series of sessions. More than anything, you should feel comfortable enough with your counselor to share your true feelings and opinions.

03. Ensure professional training.

Long-time married couples often make phenomenal mentors, but they rarely have the education and training in pre-marriage counseling. Even many mental health experts and counselors are not specifically qualified as pre-marriage counselors. The Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships recommends looking “for someone that has professional training as an MFT (Marriage and Family Therapist) or certification as a premarital counselor.” MFTs have either graduate or postgraduate degrees, and some are accredited or credentialed by a national organization. Those with just certification as a premarital counselor don't necessarily have any further credentials.

In addition to general training, if you are familiar with specific research or methods that you find helpful, find a counselor who prescribes to the methods you find helpful. Counselor Andrea Tramper, LMSW shares her approach, “My most common recommendation is to find someone who uses the Gottman materials.” Dr. John Gottman is a prolific marriage researcher and therapist whose practical advice based on his research is widely used by pre-marriage and marriage counselors. Finding a Gottman-certified therapist is a great place to start.

04. Don’t avoid those who will challenge you.

While it’s important to find a counselor who will be supportive of your faith and values, you shouldn't avoid a counselor who will challenge your perspective. While validation is also a very important aspect of counseling, it's also important to be challenged to grow and to see your partner's point of view. Lynn Foote, MA and licensed professional counselor, shares, “The early stages of relationship is the ideal time to become more conscious and intentional in the ways you interact and work together. Counseling can give you insights into where your particular relationship dynamics might be heading in the wrong direction.” Becoming aware of varying perspectives and discussing weak areas allows you and your fiancé to become stronger together—before you walk down the aisle.

05. Factor in reviews and recommendations.

Whether you sift through Airbnb reviews before booking a bungalow or read every tech blog before buying the latest smartphone, you probably agree that researching a few options usually yields better results.

Read the online reviews and client testimonies of counselors—and don’t be shy to ask family and friends for recommendations. Michele Weiner-Davis MSW, relationship therapist and author, believes the best way to find a counselor is through word-of-mouth, just like many other services and professionals. But it's also important to listen carefully to what those you trust have to say about a counselor and take it with a grain of salt. Their needs and personality may make them a good fit for a counselor that wouldn't necessarily be a good fit for you and your partner.

06. Clarify the details.

Once you’ve narrowed down your options of pre-marriage counselors, ensure the details are in place. This prevents surprises and arguments—arguments that pre-marriage counseling is supposed to help with!

You’ll want to consider and discuss:

  • General costs along with additional fees
  • If your insurance is accepted
  • The number and length of sessions
  • The materials used (if any)
  • Available hours and appointments
  • Specific questions or desires of you and your fiancé

The Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships advises making sure “you are both comfortable with the expectations and direction of the counseling.”

Finding a top-notch pre-marriage counselor will ensure you and your future spouse are well-prepared, strong, and ready for all the adventures of married life.

Photo Credit: Elissa Voss