Abuse and Pre-Marriage Counseling: We Must Change Our Approach
There are scores of books written and designed to be used to counsel engaged couples, purporting to make them better prepared for marriage. Many pastors insist on pre-marriage counseling before they will agree to perform a wedding. I am sure that their intent is good, but frankly, I have never enjoyed nor felt any degree of excitement about this kind of counseling. I have done it out of “duty.” It is expected. People think that we need to pull out all the stops and do everything we can to turn a shaky takeoff into a solid flight.
But it isn’t working, and I think we know it.
Pre-marriage counseling is most often a mere “nicety” rather than a truly effective tool. “There, the couple has had their little chat with the pastor. They have heard a few quips about the importance of communication. All is well.” But then, all does not turn out well. Let me suggest a better way.
First, if the bride and groom are truly genuine Christians who therefore know Christ and are regenerate in heart, then they have already been taught by the spirit of Jesus. Scripture tells us so. They already have become new creations in Christ who know how to love, and in particular know how to love another believer. Oh sure, in their humanity they will have some glitches and sins to overcome as they learn about themselves and one another. But they will overcome. They will eventually see the baggage they have brought along with them, often stuff that originated in their upbringing in their family of origin. But Christ makes them one flesh and the union grows.
But throw into the mix a man or woman who is faking it — who is Christian in name only — and you have trouble. Trouble far greater than if two admittedly non-Christians marry one another. And then, to fire up the furnace of grief even further, toss in a false, hypocritical “Christian” who is also an entitled, power/control seeking abuser and, well, most of our readers can complete the rest of the story. Top off the concoction with some basic instruction on headship and submission, which the still-secret abuser twists and warps to his own ends, and the mold is cast. Standard pre-marriage counseling in other words, can actually serve to enable the abuser even before the wedding day.
So let me suggest a new model of pre-marriage counseling. Let’s see, what shall we call it? Maybe something like this: A Course in What Kind of Person You Must Never Marry. The goal of this counseling has very little to do with teaching communication skills or practical ways that a husband can love his wife (save that for a followup meeting about one year after the wedding). And it has everything to do with exposing just what kind of person the man or woman is about to marry.
I propose that our primary goal in pre-marriage counseling must be to provide the couple with necessary knowledge and tools to discern “red-flags” before they take their vows. In other words, the goal is to expose and reveal the abuser for what he is. How to do this? I would provide the couple with some basic books that we are all familiar with, such as:
- The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans
- Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft [NOTE: This may be too detailed for pre-marriage counseling, but certainly the counselor could use some excerpts from it]
- Read some true stories told by abuse victims, particularly focusing on early warning signs that were “felt” but discounted.
The goals of this counseling are to 1) expose a false Christian, 2) give each of the potential husband or wife the necessary tools to discover abusive tactics and mentalities that have already been evidenced in the relationship, and 3) equip the counselees with knowledge and tools to use should abuse ever begin to show itself in their marriage.
This kind of counseling may well not be received warmly by pastors and Christians. Why? Because it sounds like we are trying to talk this fine young couple out of getting married! Throwing a damper on the whole thing. Aren’t we supposed to encourage marriage in these days when marriage is slighted? Those are the objections we are going to hear. My answer — “Yes, I am trying to talk at least one of the couple out of getting married IF the person they are about to marry is a false Christian and/or an abuser.” Absolutely! I would count it a great success if, as a result of this kind of pre-marriage counseling, one of the engaged couple said “I am not going to marry this person.” Because when it comes to NOT marrying the wrong person, that is indeed a happy ending.