Ask Surly Amy: Marriage Counseling

Dear Surly Amy,

I’ve been with my boyfriend for several years now and we’re at the point where the topic of engagement/marriage is coming up. We’re interested in going through pre-marriage counseling. This sounds simple enough but the problem is all the programs I’ve heard about have been religiously affiliated (we’re both atheists) or set off my bullshit meter. Examples of things that set off my bullshit meter include discussion of past lives, advertisements for more seminars costing $$$, anti-science rhetoric, anti-psychology rhetoric, and citing Deepak Chopra. We don’t want something that promotes misogyny OR misandry either, which is harder than I realized. Any suggestions on finding pre-marriage counseling that is atheist and skeptic friendly?

Healing Crystals do not a strong marriage make

Dear Healing Crystals do not a strong marriage make,

The best advice that I can give is to call and actually tell the person your requirements before making your initial appointment. You can also ask around at your local skeptic group (if you have one) and see if anyone there can recommend a counselor in your area that they have used with some success. I asked the Skepchicks behind the scenes and Kammy responded with this:

If people are interested in pre-marriage counseling, why not try going to an actual marriage counselor? A few years ago when Greg and I needed a neutral space to talk some things through, we had one and she was great. She had experience with all the ways couples don’t communicate well and great advice. We called a few and asked them questions til we found a good fit. We specified things like that they had to be secular, progressive and sex positive. It was a great experience and very valuable for us. We plan on going in for a tune-up every 5 years or so.

Kammy makes a great point that a lot of pre-marriage counselors have probably historically made their money off of a network of primarily religious customers since the tradition of marriage itself is heavily steeped in religion. Where as many people who seek actual current marriage counseling do so for a wide variety of reasons and a therapist or counselor who deals with the difficulties of keeping relationships working might be more likely to come from a rational perspective and less from a spiritual one. Still, I am sure you are going to need to do some pre-screening of your own. Just remember to be honest and upfront about what you are looking for in your counseling. Just because your needs may be in the minority in the current marketplace that does not mean they are any less important.

If anyone has any resources for secular marriage counselors please leave them in the comments.

Thanks for writing in. I hope this helped.

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

Related Articles


  1. I would suggest family therapists who use a psychodynamic therapeutic approach.

    Rational emotive can be woo-like in that being rationally emotive is extremely difficult for people without Spock-like control of their emotions.

    The best (only?) way I know is to get a referral from someone you respect and who you can tell what you want and they can understand what it is you want and why you want it. You can probably get that in a big city or academic setting, where there is more of a reality bias.

  2. I’m curious: Why would you think you NEED pre-marriage counseling? To my mind, if you’re at that point, maybe marriage is the wrong way to go? I can understand counseling to save a marriage, especially if there are kids involved, but counseling BEFORE marriage? Isn’t that what dating is all about? To make sure you’re compatible?

    Not criticizing, mind you. I just don’t understand the rationale.

    1. It’s an understandable question. Let me ask one of my own — when is the right time to learn wilderness survival skills? Before you head out on a long trip, or only once you’re lost?

      What I — and I think many long-time married folks — have found is that the heady rush of romantic love eventually transforms into something else.

      That “something else” could be a truly beautiful mature love, but it could also transform into squabbling and fighting, or just into a routine and staleness.

      Navigating that transition, and getting a good outcome, requires good skills. Perhaps we’ve already learned those skills from watching our parents, but then again, perhaps our parents taught us different lessons.

      My analogy to wilderness survival skills is, while strained, I think basically accurate. The time to learn how to avoid trouble is before it starts.

      1. So… why not just do things the usual way?

        Move in together, maybe with separate bedrooms at first, then after a few years of seeing if you can stand living with each other, one of you can propose. To strain your analogy further, it’s taking a few camping holidays before setting up house in the woods. Involving an outsider just sounds like it will complicate things.

        1. Maybe because moving in together before marriage can also complicate things:

          Study Finds Cohabiting Doesn’t Make a Union Last

          On the other hand, John Gottman has studied couples communication in about as scientific a way as seems possible with current technology. Working with a Gottman trained therapist and/or reading his books might not be the worst idea. Communication is key. And it’s not always natural.

          1. That article from March directly contradicts this one from October ( with the same eventual source (NCHS) – this one says that “On the basis of these numbers, there is not a negative effect of cohabitation on marriages, plain and simple,”. Tch, this pair of articles even quote the same person – Pamela Smock, UoM – with a different spin on her words.

            Any data on what effect a Gottman therapist has on a marriage? The act of reaching for a therapist seems quintessentially American to this Brit.

          2. You may not want to take John Gottman’s self-supported hype as gospel.

            You say he has studied couples communication in about as scientific a way as seems possible with current technology, but according to this article in Slate his method of producing a over 90% accuracy rate of predicting divorce is anything but scientific. He basically took a known outcome and came up with a formula that matches it 90+% but then called it finished.

            He may well have done important studies and contributed much to the field of therapy but his scientific credentials leave a lot to be desired.

      2. I think your analogy is imperfect. Obviously, if you are contemplating marriage, you are already involved in a relationship. Sure, it’s not the same as living together, although that can be done, too. True, if you’re planning on marrying someone you met last week, maybe you need survival training. The first lesson is, don’t marry someone you just met last week!

        In a relationship lasting years, and now leading to marriage, I would guess that the bloom is already off the rose. You should know pretty much everything about your partner. Listening to someone who doesn’t know either of you seems rather strange to me.

        But I can see your point about needing to know how to make a relationship work, whether in marriage or not. There are a lot of things that change over the years, and sometimes you may not be happy about them. But the basics remain, for the most part. Whether you get married or not, maintaining a relationship for a long time requires a LOT of work. If you aren’t aware of that going in, I’m not sure some stranger telling you about it is going to do much good.

        1. Because even living together is not always a good measure of what people’s connotations of “marriage” will be. There are many couples who have co-habitated for years, had children, and when they get married, divorce rather quickly. Now some of that may be that they got married to attempt to repair an already fracturing relationship, but a lot of it also has to do with people’s pre-conceived notions of marriage roles. So marriage counseling before marriage – let’s just make sure everyone’s really on the same page.

    2. The idea with many people is not just tools for conflict resolution and whatnot, but it’s also a bit of a learning opportunity. Not all couples think about establishing long term plans or have talked about boundaries that may be almost unconscious.

      Basically it gives you a structured way to talk about shared life goals and plans. We don’t necessarily sit down and figure out how we will fit in another person’s life without prompting. Knowing that your spouse wants to move out of state in the long term, how you’re going to budget your finances and approach financial accounting or deciding which parenting techniques when raising children (assuming you both agree on having some) is important when you are looking at marriage.

      It also helps you understand ways to communicate that you may not have considered. Knowing that you spouse shares intimacy and feels most loved though [verbal communication, or physical intimacy or doing something active together] helps you avoid misunderstanding or feeling smothered/isolated. For example, if you know that your partner had a parent that avoided conflict and ran away, so they feel panicked and abandoned if someone runs out during a discussion, you can preemptively learn tools to come to consensus.

  3. I would recommend looking into the Gottman Institute. From what I have researched, Gottman has produced the most science-based couples information and counseling around.

  4. Good for you for looking into couples therapy pre-marriage. i wish I had done so!

    daedalus2u seems pretty on point — there’s nothing that’s as likely to lead you to a good outcome than listening to the experiences of people you respect.

    For what it’s worth, here’s something to explore: Imago Therapy

    This therapy saved my family. There’s no woo — at least none from the terapist who worked with me and my wife. It teaches a very sensible set of skills to improve communication and remind you of why you love your partner.

    I have to admit that I was a little turned off by aspects that struck me a too “Freudian” (and I’m not a trained clinician, so I may have been off-base in my labeling). But it worked, which to me is the bottom line.

    (And for what it’s worth the more I learn about computational psychology, and evolutionary psychology, the more Imago Therapy seems to line up well with those theories.)

    But again, I’m not an expert on any of this stuff, so don’t take my word for it — read up on it and see whether it resonates with you. There’s a book (“Getting the Love You Want”) that would be in any major bookstore — you could swing by one and peruse it.

  5. A lot of community colleges offer “continuing education” classes in marriage. You usually do not need to be a current student to attend.

    Or you could ask someone with no experience who claims to know all the answers, also known as a priest. j/k

  6. Getting good and professional counseling is going to cost a lot. Expect to pay at least $125 per hour. A good therapist is worth every penny, a bad one, not so much.

    When you think about the cost of counseling, also think about the cost of a wedding which is just a party, and the cost of a divorce which would be the two of you fighting with hired attorneys at a lot more than $125 per hour each.

  7. I’m legal to officiate for weddings in Minnesota, and in our county there is a healthy discount on paying for a marriage licence if you have a cleric who is willing to sign off a form saying you have attended at least 12 hours of pre-marital classes. I don’t feel I’m qualified to do the counseling, so it’s frustrating not to have any non-religious options to refer couples to in order to get the same benefit.

  8. You might try; it’s a resourc of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. It doesn’t have a great search function, but you can at least see a good summary of who’s in your area and how thy do what they do.

  9. I wanted to expand on Kammy’s comment about looking for a therapist who was sex positive. Firstly, I suspect you’d probably find a large amount of overlap between sex positive therapists and secular/non-woo therapists. Even if the sex positive thing is not a priority for you, you might still be able to get a referral from one for a more vanilla secular therapist. Secondly, it’s pretty clear that one of the biggest issues most marriages have to deal with is unequal (and/or changing) levels of sexual interest/desire. Even if a couple starts out on more or less the same page, things can change pretty drastically over the years. Our society is crap when it comes to teaching people to talk openly about their sexual wants and needs, so getting some help at the outset for starting this dialogue should be a major goal of any premarital counseling. The earlier you start talking about this, the better off you’ll be.

    1. I put sex positive on my counselor shopping list because both my husband and I are used to speaking frankly and comfortably about sex and I didn’t want some one making prune faces at me if anything like that came up in our conversations. As it was, we were still quite a bit further along the sex positive continuum than she was and I ended up spending some time explaining some things and pointing her toward resources to help her catch up. I should’ve asked for a rebate! :D

      1. Would that more couples were as comfortable with the subject as you and your husband! It sounds like you are quite a bit further along than most. Maybe you should teach classes! :) I just know from personal experience that it would have been really healthy for my marriage if my wife and I had been encouraged to have ANY kind of discussions about sex prior to (and throughout) our relationship.

        In lieu of any premarital counseling on the subject, I would encourage any couple (no matter what stage of their relationship) to listen to the entire podcast library of “Sex Is Fun” on iTunes.

  10. Honestly, if you guys have been and living together for several years, (and if you’re not living together, do so immediately as it’s the great bonder, or destroyer), and you love each other, are compatible in every way including sexually, I don’t know why the hell you need any “counseling” at all. I’ve been with my wife since 1976, married since 1979, yes we lived together for two years before marriage, have had six kids together, no affairs, very rare disagreements on anything, all without counseling of any kind. We’re atheists, quiet country folks, and have found marriage to be the most satisfying of all endeavors. Good luck and I wish the same for you.

  11. I recommend Catholic Engaged Encounter. Yes, it’s Catholic. But as long as you can tolerate a small amount of that, it’ll be OK. I’ve gone through it, as a protestant. It’s mostly marriage, with a single religious service. Religion is a minor part of it (unless you want it to be a bigger part of it).

    The ‘Marriage Encounter’ organization was founded in the Catholic church, is sponsored by churches, and is vaguely Christian, but it’s mostly about couples.

    1. Main issue: religious stuff can be really grating and marginalizing to someone who doesn’t share ANY of those views. As a protestant, you at least (I would assume) believe in a god, Jesus, many parts of the bible, etc. Atheists don’t, and the last thing most of us want is to have to sit through that stuff being thrown at us as part of understanding a healthy marriage.

      For the record, I know you’re trying to be helpful, and hopefully some people will find that link useful, but the point of the OP was that they didn’t want religion or woo at all.

  12. Thinking back, my wife and I did have to endure some pre-marriage counseling through the church (we were Catholics then, nearly 40 years ago.) It consisted of 3 or 4 half hour sessions with a priest, mostly about the “duties” of a Catholic spouse. For the most part, everything he said was gone by the time I walked out the door. It had no bearing on our marriage, or our lives.

    Being a private person, I don’t understand the need some people have to share their lives with strangers. While I have known some people who seem to have been helped through counseling, I cannot picture myself being open and honest with someone like that, especially if I have to pay for it. I just don’t see how it would benefit me. If it came down to talking with a therapist or hanging by my thumbs for an hour, I think the thumbs would have to take the hit.

  13. On pre-marriage counseling: we didn’t get any, but we DID have a lot of pre-marriage counseling type discussions with both sets of parents, and my grandparents were very helpful. My grandmother was informative when it came to big and small financial tips, and my grandfather was very helpful for legal issues (wills, life insurance, property, etc). If you have people in your family whose opinion you respect I highly recommend taking advantage of that resource. I think pre-marriage counseling with a good secular, sex-positive marriage counselor is also a great idea:)

  14. I think some people posting here have some misconceptions about what premarital counseling is. It’s not primarily couples therapy (though it can contain that if the couple needs it) think of it instead like a pre-marriage class where you learn about how to make your marriage more successful.

    Moving in together is pointless advice, sure you’ll find out what all those issues you’d have living together when married will be but it doesn’t help you deal with those issues. This is especially true of people who don’t have the best relationship rolemodels in their life. I think the wilderness survival analogy is good, the time to learn how to handle a situation is before you do it not while you’re in the middle of it.

  15. As an additional note something that is often included in premarital counseling that ALL couples should have whether as part of counseling or learned otherwise is a good primer in finances and how to handle combining them and making spending decisions together. Money conflicts are one of the leading reasons people cite when it comes to divorce.

  16. There is a service based in Denver doing exactly that: The Happy Couple. Their website ( makes it explicitly clear that they are completely secular and science-based.

  17. My husband and I went to Lutheran Engaged Encounter for pre-marriage counseling. It was a really good experience, and I would encourage anyone getting married to judiciously seek some sort of similar opportunity before getting married. The religious aspect of this program actually put into stark relief some of the challenges we would face in communicating our beliefs with friends, family and others – it made for a very good exercise.

    The one we attended didn’t end up being as “churchy” as I feared. My husband and I were a little smug going into this, thinking we had talked about EVERYTHING. But the program brought up several things that we had never talked about. They also brought up different points of view that really helped us further our discussion and communication.

    The way that this particular program worked, was to bring up a topic, provide some commentary on it, and have the couples go off on their own and talk about it. The religious sections ended up being very useful to us. We had previously talked about our religious views at length and understood each others views. But here we were, “in enemy territory” so to speak. Discussing with each other how we foresaw navigating our marriage and dealing with the misconceptions, preconceptions, and assumptions that people were going to have about our beliefs and how we should be acting. It was very educational. And very bonding.

    All this being said, a secular alternative would be spectacular!!!

  18. Just remembered that we had a couples’ counselor buy an ad with the San Francisco Atheist Film Festival, which certainly suggests to me that she’s secular:

    Some of the language in her ad and on her website come off a little woo-y to me, but her website states that she practices evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button