Are There Pre-Marital Counselors for Atheists? June 25, 2011

Are There Pre-Marital Counselors for Atheists?

Reader Chas was ordained online to perform weddings and he’s done a few of them to this point. But, in an email, he asked about another aspect of marriage that I didn’t have an answer to:

Our local county offers a discount on marriage license fees for people who go through about 12 hours of premarital counseling, so I also wish there were local secular classes I could refer prospective couples to for secular pre-marital counseling since I’m certainly not qualified to offer it.

We know some places, like the Catholic Church, require that couples wanting to be married in the church go through pre-marital counseling first. Obviously, atheism has no such requirements.

But are there options for a service like this? For what it’s worth, Chas is in Minnesota, but I’m curious on a national scale. Do atheists just have to pony up for an expensive counselor (if they choose to do that) or are there secular alternatives available?

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  • Kristian

    You could try the local Universalist Unitarian church, I know it’s a church but the one here in Jacksonville Florida has as many (if not more) Atheists as Theists and a lot of the ministers are Atheist. That said it’s hit or miss with those churches I’ve seen a UU minister read the King James bible but in the year I’ve been going Jesus was mentioned once and god has only been mentioned in passing. The minister goes to a lot of trouble to make sure he doesn’t alienate the Atheists in the church.

  • Leslie S

    I am not positive on the ability to get a discount for a counselor, but here is a great place to find counselors in your area. Through this you could probably contact them directly to see if they have any discounts.

    As a student in graduate school to be a counselor, whether a counselor is religious or not should not be an issue. If it is a problem this can be against the ethics of the American Counseling Association. Counselors are not to push their values, beliefs, or lack of beliefs on their clients.

    I know I am not the only counselor that is an atheist, so hopefully you can find someone and it is not too expensive!

  • My fiancee and I are going to go through marriage counseling through a program offered by the state which includes a (hopefully) secular offering by our local university.

    This is for Texas and the website for the program is:

  • Church councilors aren’t free. They recommend $100 a month (depending on your income). Maybe you could meet with the minister and they would direct you to a real councilor. Unless, of course, you are a good tither they need to keep around.

    I’m baffled they have state sponsored pre-marital counseling in Texas. It makes a lot of sense to do it to decrease human suffering but for a ‘no government state’…

    It is great in theory for a councilor to leave their personal beliefs at the door (any personal belief) but in practice I doubt it is possible. Especially if they are thinking in the back of their heads, “this guy really needs some Jesus” or “this guy needs to stop blaming the devil for everything”. I’d say the later is much better, of course.

  • I noticed that in Minnesota too…it looks like a money making scheme for churches. I’ll have to look up the specifics of the counseling requirements, but I can imagine a few ways we could work with that.

    The regular fee is $115, the reduced fee is $40. It would appear that Chas is technically eligible to do it (qualified or not). Perhaps it could all be done online.

  • Michelle

    Honestly I’m not sure who would be qualified as a good pre-marriage councilor because every prospective partnership is different. It would be interesting to see what could be done to create a niche for such a thing as secular councilors. I could see it opening a door to many possibilities, especially as we push forward with more rights for same sex couples. Would couples who are interested in open marriages or poly-amorous arrangements feel more open with a strictly secular councilor too? Sorry I’m not more helpful, this is just an intriguing idea to me.
    The best thing I was ever told was this “You need to love the person you marry, but you don’t have to marry every person you love.”, advice I’m glad to have taken.

  • Richard Wade

    Premarital counseling is an excellent idea, and worthwhile even if it’s expensive.

    Qualified marriage and family counselors are trained in interpersonal relationships and communications. Premarital counseling involves educating and training the couple how to effectively communicate, negotiate, use empathy, how to recognize the other’s feelings, how to allow the other to have their feelings, how to handle and express their own feelings, even how to fight fairly.

    There is usually a history taken of the couple’s early family background, exploring the various issues that often surface later in a marriage. It is surprising how many couples have not openly and thoroughly discussed important issues about sex, money, religion, children, parents, careers, expectations of each other, and roles they will play in the relationship. They’re often focused on being in love, and they’re still using the impaired communication habits they learned in their families.

    In premarital counseling sessions a great deal of unexpected things can be revealed, and in that controlled environment, conflicts can be resolved. If it all comes out months or years later with no referee, it can harm or ruin the marriage.

    Getting counseling from clergy, even if they can keep it secular, is no guarantee that they know what they’re doing. They may have had extensive education and training in relationship counseling, or a smattering, or none at all. Be a good consumer and don’t be embarrassed to ask about their qualifications and experience. You should be able to ask these questions without having to pay for a formal session. After they tell you, it’s okay to say you’ll think about it.

    Make sure you’re not using a Pastoral Counselor, just a “regular” counselor. Talk to the counselor at the very start about your desire to keep it secular. Yes, it is possible for a counselor to keep their religious ideas out of the process. I did it for many years. The counselor’s role is to help the couple optimally use the assets and abilities they have, not remake their world view.

    If a state licensed counselor starts insinuating their religion into the process, boldly call them on it. If they persist, end the session and file a complaint with their license granting state agency. It is a serious and destructive ethical breach for the counselor to do that.

  • Holly

    My husband and I spent a long time looking for secular pre-marital counseling when we were engaged last year. We eventually gave up and decided to just work through a book for engaged couples together. Most of the ones we looked at did not contain any religious spins. I don’t know if these work as well as counseling, but it got us talking about things we might not have otherwise thought to bring up.

  • Lana

    I don’t know about pre-marriage counseling for atheists, but my two cents is that it’s preferable to pony up and pay the costs of a secular therapist.

    Why? Well, maybe in other religions it’s different, but the religion I grew up in didn’t have trained clergy (mormonism). This is bad enough in terms of sin/ confession/ repentance issues, but when it came to marriage “counseling” it was, without a doubt, the worst counseling I have ever received in my life.

    My mom was bipolar, and had a tendency to see mental illness behind every corner. So from the age of 13, I was regularly visiting a therapist and I’ve been through a lot of counseling. I naturally turn toward therapy/ counseling when I have a thorny issue I need help working out.

    So when my bishop said we needed pre-martial counseling with him before we got married, I was like, “Okay, cool, no problem. Makes sense.” We go in, and the 3 counseling sessions basically consisted of: “Wife, obey your husband. Husband, treat your wife with respect and gentleness. Can you two do that? Great. Oh, and also pray daily, attend church regularly, pay your tithing, and your marriage will be blessed by god.”

    Even at the time, as a TBM, I was seriously disappointed in the “quality” of those sessions. Nothing on conversation/ argument techniques? Nothing on how to disagree lovingly? Nothing on how to discuss major issues, like childcare, in-laws, and finances? Just, “Believe in god and everything else will work out.”

    A few years down the line, I walked in on my husband looking at pr0n online. I freaked, and we ended up in marriage counseling with the bishop again. The thing was, I know my husband. He’s a good man, he’s not a perv, he’s not abusive, and this was the first time in two years I’d even gotten a hint that he looked at pr0n. But our bishop treated him like he was one step away from rape and a level 3 sex offender status. His disgust and rudeness to my husband (he even suggested divorce to me, privately) was so out of proportion to the “problem” that I found myself re-examining why, exactly, I believed pr0n to be so awful.

    A few years later, we found ourselves facing another marriage issue, this one related to in-laws, child-raising disputes, and finances. By this time, we were inactive, and we decided to go to an actual marriage counselor.

    Holy crap. Night and day. The bishops had opened and closed the meeting with a prayer. Their focus was on the narrow church-definition of righteousness and wifely obedience. Worst of all, they would pick sides (a natural thing to do, and something a real, professional marriage counselor is better trained to avoid) and basically tell the “wrong” spouse to get in line.

    The secular, professional marriage counselor coached us on anger management techniques, on listening and respecting each others point of view, on taking breaks when the arguments got too heated, on ignoring the first impulse to feel attacked or blamed and actually listen to what our spouse was saying. Going to a good, professional, trained marriage counselor saved our relationship.

    She also helped us recognize behaviors and attitudes that were sabotaging our communication — for instance, when my husband got frustrated and upset, he used to begin cutting me off mid-sentence and his tone of voice changed to one I perceived of as disgust. When I got frustrated and upset, I used to slow down my speech and try to consciously speak in a calm, soothing tone. Well, my husband didn’t realize that his tone had become disgusted/ mocking (he thought he was being concise and getting to the point), and I didn’t realize that my “calm and soothing” tone sounded like I was talking down to a child, especially compared to the fast chatter I normally speak in. With her help, we were able to address subconscious issues like these, too.

  • Heidi

    Chas is probably no less qualified to give counseling than the clergymen are. But if he does refer people to a real counselor, the atheists are going to have a lower divorce rate than the clergy-counseled theists. Win.

  • Most licensed counselors or psychologists will have had some training in couples therapy and can provide pre-marital counseling.

  • I’ll preface this by stating for the record that I am on my second marriage.
    I’m inclined to think that pre-marital counseling is a waste of time unless it is being done to determine if, indeed the individuals are ready to be married to each other-or ready to be married to anyone at all. I have never heard, however, of a couple having gone through such an ordeal and then deciding that they weren’t compatible with each other (or the rest of mankind). No, they inevitably get married…and then quite possibly get divorced like half of us in the western world do. They are going through a “how to” class for marriage, not a vetting process. Unfortunately, many of them have deeply entrenched communication patterns and habits. Can a simple “how to” class for adults really have a positive and lasting influence? I have difficulty believing such a thing.
    I agree with Michelle, who wrote,

    “Honestly I’m not sure who would be qualified as a good pre-marriage councilor because every prospective partnership is different.”

    As secularists, most of us agree that teaching critical thinking skills at an early age is an important step in preventing idiocy in this world. What about teaching basic communication skills as well? I’m not taking about reading, writing or giving speeches, but one-on-one verbal communication skills. Teaching adults how to argue and work out problems without being jerks is a much greater challenge than teaching kids the same from an early age. Yes, there are age related developmental issues that prevent very young minds from being able to fully absorb or appreciate certain things, but that’s still no reason to ignore this need in our education system.
    When relationships of any sort go sour, it’s almost always due to some sort of breakdown in communication. If we can strive to give the next generation critical thinking skills, can we not augment them with basic communication skills as well?

  • JulietEcho

    College environments are sort of a special case, I know, but since my husband and I were both students when we got married, we asked our college’s chaplain (a liberal Methodist who started an interfaith group and was very inclusive of the secular humanist group) to do our counseling and perform our ceremony.

    He was great, and he helped us ask ourselves and each other some important questions. He was also invaluable in helping us plan a wedding that was true to ourselves and would also make my religious family feel comfortable. There *are* pastors and chaplains out there who don’t believe that non-believers are bad or going to hell, and we were fortunate enough to know one of them.

  • I don’t know about secular options ofr pre-marital counseling BUT from watching my friends who are married and the problems they’ve run into I have to say that you need more than just pre-marital counseling.

    Especially for younger people who’ve maybe not been on their own financially for very long you need to sit down together with someone who is experienced with financial matters and really plan out how you’re going to handle bills. In fact if you’re planning to live together before getting married it needs to be done before moving in together. Once you have two people pooling their resources things get a lot more complicated and can cause a lot of stress on a relationship.

  • Nikki

    We had 2 sessions with a counselor in MN prior to our wedding and I am really happy we did. For me it gave me confirmation that my husband and I are good communicators and we had already discussed many of the “tough” topics and I definitely recommend it.

    This is the person we talked to & religion wasn’t in the meetings except for us saying we aren’t religious and that we had talked about it.

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