October 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 4 · pp. 32–40 

Counseling for Quality: Recent Research Relevant for Premarital Counseling in the Church

Mike Klassen

The need for premarital counseling in the church is testified to, in part, by the church’s history of involvement in this particular area of counseling. The three main groups that have provided most of the premarital counseling in the past include the clergy, along with physicians and mental health workers (Stahmann and Hiebert 1980). The impetus for premarital counseling in the church would seem to be both sociological—considering the large number of troubled marriages in our society, and theological—taking into account the high regard afforded the institution of marriage in the Bible. All things considered, the great potential for continued premarital counseling in the church should cause ministers and other church workers to seriously consider their role in the preparation of their engaged couples for marriage.

Prior to World War II, the content of premarital counseling in the church focused largely on the nature and meaning of the wedding rite itself: the Christian meaning of marriage, the practice of Christianity in the home, and the wedding rehearsal (Stahmann and Hiebert 1980). More recently, the approach to premarital counseling has come to include instructional counseling, with the focus on problems the couple is likely to encounter (e.g., sexual adjustment, marital roles, in-law relationships, religious concerns), and enrichment counseling, with the focus on equipping the couple with particular skills to deal with relationship problems (e.g., conflict resolution and problem solving skills) (Schumm and Denton 1979). As a result, the goal of premarital counseling in recent years has typically centered on promoting the marital quality of the couple’s future marriage.

Accompanying this trend has been an increasing amount of research designed to explore factors, both premarital and marital, related to marital quality. In this paper some recent research on marital quality {33} along with practical applications for premarital counseling is explored. What follows, then, is an examination of seven possible content areas of premarital counseling.


Family Background

Some significant work relating premarital factors and marital quality has been done by Spanier and Lewis (1979). Working off research done by Burr (1973), they state that “the greater the individual’s exposure to adequate role models for marital functioning, the higher the marital quality.” With regard to parental models, Spanier and Lewis correlate high marital quality with high marital quality in the family of procreation, a high level of happiness in one’s childhood, and positive relationships between an individual and his or her parents. Considering Spanier and Lewis’ findings, the premarital counselor may want to include time for the couple to share about their family backgrounds. Stahmann and Hiebert (1980) suggest five things modeled by parents which might provide points of discussion: demonstrating affection, companionship and shared activities, money and finances, religion, and discipline and children. (For a discussion of the couple’s degree of attachment to their families-of-origin and how this relates to marital success, see Premarital Counseling by R. Stahmann and W. Hiebert, Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Co., 1980. Also, see Premarital Counseling by A. Rutledge, Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1966, page 152 under “Relation to the Old Family.”)

Support of Others

With regard to the support the premarital couple receives from others and its relationship to marital quality, Spanier and Lewis (1979) state, “the more support that significant others give to the couple, the higher the subsequent marital quality.” They go on to correlate high marital quality with the parents’ approval of their offspring’s mate, how much an individual likes his or her future in-laws, and the approval of the marriage by friends. In light of this research, the premarital counselor may want to reserve time for a discussion of the support, or lack of it which the couple has received from the important persons in their lives. Past relationships with both sets of parents (what has characterized their attitudes towards their parents and in-laws, as well as future relationships) and how each partner anticipates dealing with parents and in-laws after the wedding, may offer discussion material. {34}

Religion and Values Clarification

The premarital counselor may find that the individuals he or she is counseling come from radically different religious backgrounds. Spanier and Lewis (1979) state that “the greater the premarital homogamy, the higher the marital quality,” and go on to say that “couples with different religious denominational affiliations will have lower marital quality than couples with the same religious denominational affiliation.” Despite the marked pessimism of this last statement, it would seem that with regard to the couple who is convinced of their separate religious beliefs, the premarital counselor’s role should be that of helping the couple build a satisfying relationship vis-a-vis their religious diversity rather than attempting to convince one or both partners to change their convictions. (For a discussion of issues crucial to premarital enrichment with couples from mixed religious backgrounds, see “Premarital Counseling: Religious Dimensions,” by H. Clinebell in Klemer’s Counseling in Marital and Sexual Problems ed. by R. Stahmann and W. Hiebert, Baltimore: William and Wilkens, 1977. See the same chapter for helping couples contract on religious issues.)

Clinebell (1977) points out that spiritual issues are frequently described in nonreligious language. Whether the couple considers itself religious or not, topics which are covertly spiritual such as death, life styles, and attitudes toward the future are likely to be discussed in the premarital counseling sessions. (See “Premarital Counseling: Religious Dimensions,” cited above, for a communication exercise on spiritual issues for premarital couples. For value clarification exercises, see Values/Clarification by S. Simon, et. al., New York: Hart, 1972. For a discussion of religion and the premarital couple from a conservative Christian point of view, see Premarital Counseling by H. Norman Wright, Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.)


An early survey of 557 physicians in North Carolina indicated marital problems among patients in the following order: men—sexual adjustment, money, dissatisfaction with amount of affection shown by wife; women—sexual adjustment, fear of pregnancy, and dissatisfaction with amount of affection shown by husband (Nash and Nash 1962). In more recent research, Edwards and Booth (1976) found a relationship between marital dissatisfaction and sexual behavior within and outside marriage. They state, “The more severe the marital strain . . . the lower the frequency of marital coitus, and as the latter becomes more infrequent, the more likely is extramarital involvement to occur.” A discussion of sex with the premarital couple may include the areas of anatomy and physiology, basic sexual response and the sexual act, and family planning {35} and contraception. (See “Premarital Counseling: Sexuality,” by M. Spencer, et al. in Klemer’s Counseling in Marital and Sexual Problems, cited above, for a list of resources on sex.)

Attitudes about sex in the church vary from openness to talking about sex to discouraging sexual discussion altogether. Gunderson and McCary (1979) identified a relationship between sexual guilt and religion and concluded that sexual guilt is a more powerful predictor of level of sexual information obtained, sexual attitudes held, and sexual behavior expressed than religion. In some cases, then, it may be helpful for the premarital counselor to know something about the couple’s sexual background. “Your Personal Sexual History” (in Becoming Orgasmic: A Sexual Growth Program for Women by J. Heiman, L. LoPiccolo and J. LoPiccolo, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976), may be used as an outline for such a discussion. In order to ascertain the couple’s knowledge of sex the counselor may want to administer The Sex Knowledge Inventory—Form Y, by G. McHugh. This offers an inventory pertaining to the knowledge of sexual information, beliefs, and values. (Order from Family Life Publications, Inc., Box 427, Saluda, N.C. 28773.)


Having the couple communicate about their personal role expectations in premarital sessions may help prevent later misunderstandings. This seems especially important in light of the reexamination and redefinition of traditional husband and wife roles in recent years. L’Abate and L’ Abate (1981) addressed traditional work and domestic roles in marriage when they found that one of the major polarizations in marriages of workaholic husbands is their pursuing of “The Great American Dream,” while their wives are left pursuing “The Pretty Realities of Life.” How this polarization related to other polarities in the marriage will be discussed later. (An instrument designed to investigate the couple’s expectations of marriage is The Marriage Expectation Inventory, Form I by P. J. McDonald. Nine areas of marriage are explored: love in marriage, communication in marriage, sex in marriage, money, selfishness, religious expectations, relatives, and expectations related to children. Considering the scope of areas covered, the counselor may want to administer this instrument early in the counseling sessions. This can be ordered from Family Life Publications, Inc., Box 427, Saluda, N.C. 28773. A simpler tool is the “Your Role Concepts Comparison,” by James Hine in Your Marriage Analysis and Renewal, Danville, IL.: Interstate Publishers and Printers, 1966: 19-20. An adapted version of this can be found in H. N. Wright’s Premarital Counseling, Chicago: Moody Press, 1977: 182-183.) {36}


The relationship of effective couple communication and marital quality is indicated by Spanier and Lewis (1979) when they state: “the greater the individual’s level of interpersonal skill functioning, the higher the marital quality.” Schulman (1974) concluded that there is reason to believe that faulty communication is at the root of the premarital couple’s misconceptions of one another when she found a relationship between the idealization of the spouse-to-be and blocked communication. The sensitive counselor will become aware of the couple’s ability to communicate clearly to each other as the premarital sessions progress, and will view communication as an essential content area for premarital counseling. (See “Step Three: Learning to Communicate,” in Finding Intimacy by H. Grof, New York: Random, 1978, for six principles of effective communication and a checklist for examining communications in a relationship. A communications model by D. Bagarozzi, unpublished, 1978, attempts to teach engaged couples a variety of communication, problem solving and bargaining skills. This can be ordered from The College of Home Economics, Justin Hall, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas 66502. The Premarital Counseling Kit—Form II: Communication Inventory by M. Bienvenu, 1978, may be used for assessment of premarital communication and then as a basis for counseling as it provides clues to communication difficulties in the premarital relationship. This can be ordered from Family Life Publications, Inc., Box 427, Saluda, N.C. 28773.)

With regard to conflict in marriage, Whitehouse (1981) found a relationship between a spouse’s initial attracting quality and the personality quality which is most annoying later on in the relationship. The couple who is informed of the fact that certain qualities about each person will gain and diminish in importance over the course of time may avoid seeing their later conflicts as irreconcilable crises. Thus, the counselor has the responsibility of alerting the couple to the probability of conflict in their marriage and educating them in conflict resolution. (See D. Knox and J. Patrick’s “You Are What You Do: A New Approach in Preparation for Marriage,” The Family Coordinator 20 (1971): 109-114, for a model of behavioral analysis done by Premarital couples. The purpose of the analysis is “to influence premarital counseling students toward careful consideration of a marriage partner . . . through observing behavior of himself and his partner, ranking values, and discussing potential problems.” See “A Marital Conflict Resolution Model: Redefining Conflict to Achieve Intimacy,” by J. Strong, Journal of Marriage and Family Counseling 1 (1975): 269-276, for a conflict resolution model built on skills: listening, speaking, deciphering basic needs, unlocking alternative choices, and introspection about the process. See “A Framework for Conceptualizing Marital Conflict: A Technique for Altering It, Some Data {37} for Evaluating It,” by R. Weist et al., in Behavior Change, ed. by Hamerlynck et al., Research Press, 1973, for a behavioral approach to conflict resolution.)

Self Esteem

Premarital and marital relationships have the potential to offer a sense of self worth and well being to the individuals involved. Spanier and Lewis (1979) relate self esteem to marital quality when they state: “the more positive an individual’s self-concept, the greater the marital quality.” The relationships between self esteem and other facets of the premarital and marital relationship distinguish self esteem as a crucial content area for premarital counseling. These relationships will be discussed later. (See Reaching Out: Interpersonal Effectiveness and Self-Actualization, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972 by D. Johnson, chapter eight, “Acceptance of Self and Others,” for exercises on building self esteem in relationships. The Self Esteem Scale developed by M. Rosenberg (1965) measures the self acceptance aspect of self esteem and is an easy instrument to administer. This can be found in Measures of Social-Psychological Attitudes ed. by J. Robinson and P. Shaver, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Institute for Social Research, 1975: 81-83.)


Research has indicated a number of relationships between some of these factors particularly in the areas of communication and conflict solving, communication and self esteem, role absorption and self esteem, and role absorption and communication.

The importance of role clarification in premarital counseling is indicated in the research done by L’Abate and L’Abate (1981) in which they found a relationship between role absorption of the husband and wife in traditional work and domestic areas and the couple’s inability to experience feelings, improve dialogue, and achieve intimacy in marriage. They also correlated role absorption in the couple with low occupation, inability for self expression, and over-involvement with their families-of-origin.

The relationship between communication and marital satisfaction is well documented and thus is an important content area for premarital counseling. With regard to communication and self esteem Schumm, Figley and Fuhs (1981) found a correlation between self-disclosure anxiety, self esteem, and aversiveness (or, hostility in communications). Research conducted by Miller, Corrales, and Wackman (1975) led these researchers to conclude that “there is an esteem component in every interaction between people. That is, by the way people communicate to {38} each other, they are demonstrating their intent to maintain and build, or to destroy, their own and the other person’s esteem.” Speaking as practitioners, Stahmann and Hiebert (1980) state that relationships in which one or both partners have low self esteem are marked by an absence of conflict, difficulty in making decisions, or domination of the person with low self esteem in the relationship.

In the area of communication and conflict resolution, Knudson, Sommers, and Golding (1980) found that couples who responded to marital conflict by engaging the conflictual issue at hand showed more access to one another’s interpersonal perceptions, whereas couples who responded to conflict by avoiding the issue were not as aware of each other’s perceptions. In comparing the communicational interactions of maritally distressed and nondistressed couples engaged in conflict resolution tasks Billings (1979) found that distressed couples made significantly more negative and fewer positive problem-sharing acts. Birchler and Webb (1975) concluded that unhappy couples make their original problems worse or accumulate new ones because their styles of interaction and problem solving are ineffective, if not destructive.

The premarital counselor needs to recognize marital quality as the product of a number of interrelated and interacting factors in the premarital couple’s relationship. As the implications for counseling are explored, the counselor thus increases his or her ability to counsel for the purpose of promoting marital quality in the couple’s future marriage.

As crucial as premarital counseling would seem to be for the future quality of the couple’s marriage, some premarital counselors have questioned the openness of the engaged couple to a serious exploration of their relationship. Guldner (1971) surveyed eighteen couples who had gone through three or more premarital sessions with their minister. The survey was conducted within a period of one to ten months following their marriage. He found that only four of the couples felt that the sessions were of value. Eleven couples indicated that they could not remember much of what was said during the sessions, and three couples felt that the ministers were the cause of some conflict during the sessions.

Recently, post-wedding counseling has become an accepted part of many premarital programs (Schumm and Denton 1979). Research conducted by Cutler and Dyer (1965) may indicate the need for such counseling. In exploring the violation of expectations of seven areas of marriage in newly married couples these researchers found responses from the husband and wife ranging from sharing openly about the violation, to not sharing at all, to adopting a “wait-and-see” policy. While premarital counselors may want to specifically design a post-wedding counseling program, simply reexploring the areas covered in the pre-marital {39} counseling sessions may prove to provide adequate content for these sessions. Guldner (1971) found that the best time to conduct the first post-wedding session is six months after the wedding.

At the beginning of this paper it was stated that one of the major goals of premarital counseling is to promote the quality of the engaged couple’s future marriage. Within the church one might include another goal as that of assuring the couple of the church’s interest in their relationship both before and after the wedding. It would appear that as ministers and other premarital counselors in the church become more informed regarding the premarital factors related to future marital quality, the chances of this second goal being actualized are augmented.


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Mike Klassen is doing doctoral work in marriage and family therapy at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, while pastoring the Manhattan Inter-Mennonite Fellowship.