Recently Elise and I have had the honor and privilege to walk with former students and volunteers through pre-engagement and pre-marital counseling. While it is an honor, it is also humbling to think that I have reached that stage in student ministry where I am now seeing former students get married and start families. Nothing says you are getting up there like those moments (haha). But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
As we have walked through these counseling sessions, it is apparent that to handle them well, we need to know how to proceed, what to cover, and most importantly, we need to know the couple. As I step back and look at what we have done well and where we could improve, I want to provide a few tips on how to help you be the best counselor to those who come to you for pre-engagement or pre-marital advice, guidance, and support.
Listen well and observe.
This is one of the best things you can do if you are walking with a couple. Often you can pick up on nuances or subtleties by simply observing and listening to the couple. You can see how they treat one another, listen to how they speak to and about one another, sense when there is tension, and also notice strengths. This is not meant for you to curate a list of problem areas or to critique them, but instead it helps you notice areas that need to be talked through and processed so they can become a healthier couple going forward.
Speak truth in love.
When it comes to former students, don’t be afraid to speak truth to them. When you work with students long enough you see areas that they need to improve upon, but we can often soften the approach to help protect them and the relationship we have with them. However, when it comes to entering into a marriage relationship that student isn’t only working on themselves, there is another person who is intimately involved as well. I am not saying to be mean and critical, but to speak truth directly in love.
Let me provide an example. If we are at camp and the guys’ dorm is disgusting we may say something like, “Gentlemen, this isn’t okay. Clean up your crap or no free time.” In a marriage saying something like that doesn’t work, but in pre-marital counseling you can bring up the conversation of cleanliness, who is responsible for what, how does the couple handle tension, personality types, laziness, and even how our actions communicate love.
Address problem areas.
This tip is probably one of the harder ones, especially depending on the depth of your relationship with the couple or individual. If a former student comes to you seeking relationship or pre-marital counseling, there is a good possibility you know a lot about them including where they struggle. I would encourage you to be open and honest with the couple from the beginning and let them know that if they choose to continue in this counseling relationship, you will not shy away from difficult conversations. This is not because you take joy in pointing out sins or struggles, but because you are encouraging authenticity, transparency, and seeking to strengthen their relationship through holistic intimacy.
Resources are huge! Don’t simply rely upon your conversations with the couple, but give them outside resources whether books, articles, research, or a podcast. Elise and I are always on the lookout for things we can provide to the couples we are counseling. In fact, keep an eye out as Elise is going to do a book review on a book we just read that in our opinion is a must for couples thinking about marriage.
When you provide resources it allows people to go home, engage with a topic or conversation, gives them time to process, and then opens up an opportunity for ongoing conversation with their significant other. Resources also afford you follow up conversations and the opportunity to see what the couple has learned and talked through together. Some things we send couples home with are questions from our session with them, DISC Personality Assessments, episodes from Theology in the Raw or The Bare Marriage Podcast, websites like To Love, Honor, and Vacuum, or the Feelings Wheel with a directive to utilize these resources in all of their conversations together over the next couple of weeks.
Refer out when needed.
This is one the best things you could do as the person(s) counseling a couple. There are so many areas we are not equipped to handle as ministers and leaders because we have not had the training. It is important to remember that most of us are not licensed counselors or trained to help people in certain areas because if we try to do so and offer bad or wrong insight, it could lead to horrible consequences. So should the conversation lean toward an area or reveal a situation you are not comfortable with or equipped and trained to handle, you need to refer out right away. This is not removing you from caring for and working with the couple, but instead helping them get the help and care they need.
My recommendation would be for you to begin building a network before you even begin counseling couples. Know who is a licensed and trained counselor in your area who is trained in helping couples. Bonus points if they also are Christian counselors as that will ensure consistency with what God says about marriage and relationships. Know who your mental health professionals and addiction specialists are as well. You never know when past trauma, harmful behavior, abuse, or addictive behavior may manifest in your sessions with couples, and being able to refer out is paramount in those moments. Also, know your state’s laws on various topics and think through when you need to get different first responders involved.
Don’t avoid the hard or awkward conversations.
I feel like this is something I have heard all too often when it comes to pre-engagement and pre-marital counseling. Couples prepared for conversations about sex and intimacy, couples came ready to talk about their past, topics of abuse and trauma were said to be discussed, but then those conversations are barely approached or dismissed altogether. I know for Elise and I this happened to us, and honestly left us feeling frustrated and disappointed.
These aren’t always easy conversations and frankly they could lead to awkward or difficult interactions, but these are needed moments. I have always wondered if we avoid addressing something before a couple gets married, how will it be addressed when they are married? The reality is those topics won’t just go away and a lack of engagement will lead to prolonged tension, frustration, disappointment, or worse.
So dial into those conversations and strive to do well. Approach them with love, grace, and truth. Be mature as you talk through them. Be willing to engage them and be honest about what is and isn’t helpful. Also be willing to help eliminate or minimize stigmas surrounding those topics and give them the prominence they deserve. In these moments you are valuing the couple and helping them work on communication and holistic intimacy.