Premarital Relationship Education and Its Effect on Newlywed Help-Seeking

by Jennifer Griffith

The Bottom-line First. One of the most important benefits of premarital education may be its ability to increase spouses’ willingness to seek help down the road for the inevitable problems of early married life, and to seek help sooner and at lower levels of distress. Marriage therapists are cheering the findings of a recent study documenting these important benefits of premarital education.

A helpful resource for married couples to turn to when they experience distress in their relationship is marital therapy. Yet we know that most couples experiencing significant problems do not seek out help.[1] Perhaps it is the stigma surrounding counseling, a fear that others will believe something is wrong with them if they do attend, or an unwillingness to accept to the idea that they need help or that available services would be helpful. Could premarital education help couples become more open to seeking help for problems down the road? In a recent article, Premarital Education and Later Relationship Help-seeking,[2] a talented team or researchers explored this intriguing possibility. How does premarital education influence a couple’s desire to take advantage of help-seeking?

In this study, 431 couples living in lower income neighborhoods were surveyed five times over the first 4-5 years of their marriage (the highest risk years for divorce).[3] They were asked: “Did the two of you receive any sort of relationship education or classes before you got married?” (Note that this is a pretty broad definition of premarital education, probably including some informal and less intense formats; 45% said they participated, which is quite a bit higher than the estimates of other surveys.) In addition, they were asked about help-seeking intentions (what they would do and who they would talk to if they needed help with their marriage), whether or not they had considered receiving marital therapy in the last nine months, if they had actually received marital therapy during that time, and when, and general questions about both relationship satisfaction and perceived severity of relationship problems.

Here are the results the researchers found:

  • Wives More Likely to Seek Help. Comparing couples who received premarital education and those who did not, spouses who received premarital education sought help with marital problems at a higher level of relationship satisfaction and a lower level of problem severity than those that did not receive premarital education. But this was only so for wives’ reports, not for husbands.
  • Following Through on Intentions. About 40% of spouses said that they would get counseling if their relationship were in trouble. But those who participated in some kind of premarital education were more likely to actually do so than those who did not participate (about 58% vs. 45%).
  • Seeking Help Earlier. Couples who received premarital education were more likely to seek therapy earlier than those who did not, about 6 months earlier (16 months vs. 22 months). However, among couples who received therapy, their levels of relationship satisfaction after therapy were similar whether or not they had participated in premarital education.

While these findings may not be overly surprising to relationship educators, they have some important implications for their work:

  • Benefits of Premarital Education. One of the most important benefits of premarital education may be its ability to increase couples’ intentions to seek help for marital problems later on, if needed. And importantly, they are more likely to follow through with those intentions. Moreover, they seek help at lower levels of problem severity and seek it sooner. That whooping sound you are hearing now is coming from all your marriage therapist friends and colleagues! Probably the #1 complaint of marriage therapists is that couples come to them after problems have been going on for years.[4] It is more difficult to help couples when their problems have become entrenched and emotional damage is already deep.[5]
  • Ramp Up the Premarital Education. Research suggests barely more than a quarter of married couples these days participate in formal premarital education and this rate may be declining.[6] Also, scholarly interest and research in premarital education also seems to be declining.[7] If relationship educators are putting all their marbles into marriage enrichment or maintenance programs, they may want to reconsider. An ounce or two of prevention before marriage will increase help-seeking in the early years of marriage for the inevitable challenges of married life. With this further understanding of the benefits of premarital education, relationship educators can market these educational services to the general public with more confidence. And marriage therapists ought to be the biggest cheerleaders for premarital education!
  • Helping Men. Apparently, husbands’ aversion to getting help for marital problems is higher than for wives. What can premarital education programs do to help reduce this aversion? Perhaps programs can consider this issue more directly. Maybe tailoring break-out sessions for husbands could help, helping men to talk with other men about the stigma for seeking outside help and other barriers. What other creative ideas do you have?

[1] Hawkins, A. J., Galovan, A., & Simpson, D. (2018). A National Survey of Relationship-Repair Behavior of
Individuals Who Are Thinking About Divorce. Working manuscript, Brigham Young University.

[2] Williamson, H.C, Hammett, J.F, Ross, J.M, Karney, B.R, Bradbury, T.N. (2018). Premarital Education and Later Relationship Help-seeking. Journal of Family Psychology. DOI:10.1037/fam0000383

[3] Couples surveyed had been married on average for a period of five months. Approximately 40% of couples had children, and participants were about 27 years old (on average). Participants studied were low-income, and primarily Hispanic. 241 couples completed all five waves, and 41 couples completed just the baseline questionnaire

[4] Doss, B. D., Atkins, D. C., & Christensen, A. (2003). Who’s dragging their feet? Husbands and wives seeking marital therapy. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 29, 165–177.

[5] Snyder, D. K., Castellani, A. M., & Whisman, M. A. (2006). Current status and future directions in couple therapy. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 317-344.

[6] Duncan, S. F. (2018, March 15). How to increase participation in marriage and relationship education. Institute for Family Studies Blog.

[7] Clyde, T., & Hawkins, A. J. (2018). Re-envisioning and Revising Premarital Relationship Education for the Next Generation. Working manuscript, Brigham Young University.