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Before you say ‘I do’: premarital counseling allows for a check-in

Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church Senior Pastor Michael R. Sumbry uses the “speaker-listener” technique in his premarital counseling sessions. When couples say no to counseling, he says, he doesn’t feel comfortable performing the ceremony “because they’ve demonstrated an unwillingness to explore some issues, to take on some tools that will help you in that relationship.” (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church Senior Pastor Michael R. Sumbry uses the “speaker-listener” technique in his premarital counseling sessions. When couples say no to counseling, he says, he doesn’t feel comfortable performing the ceremony “because they’ve demonstrated an unwillingness to explore some issues, to take on some tools that will help you in that relationship.” (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Before he marries them, Pastor Michael R. Sumbry teaches engaged couples how the Bible talks of speaking kindly to each other.

Relationship educator Mary Pepper starts couples off with a 200-question test to identify strengths and challenges in their union.

Pastor Steven Paul Roberts discusses service and intimacy, backed up with readings drawn from various books.

These three premarital educators offer free or low-cost services, and each share a common goal: to teach engaged clients to resolve conflict, make joint decisions and map out goals as they move toward marriage.

Speaking and listening

“What each person is attempting to do is arm people with tools in preparation for this relationship, because when a man and a woman come together, they are creating something that has never existed before,” says Sumbry, senior pastor at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Albuquerque.

Sumbry has done about nine premarital counseling series, which consist of seven hourlong sessions over 12 weeks, usually by phone. He starts out asking each person to write a list of goals for their partner, themselves and their relationship. He also teaches “the speaker/listener technique,” where whoever is holding a selected object can speak uninterrupted until giving the object to the other person.

Additionally, he applies biblical passages to topics like the purpose of marriage, conflict resolution, expectations, intimacy, financial management and marital goals.

He uses Romans 14:19, which says, “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things where with one may edify another,” and Proverbs 15:1, which says, “A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.”

For those who say no to counseling: “I don’t feel comfortable doing that marriage, because they’ve demonstrated an unwillingness to explore some issues, to take on some tools that will help you in that relationship,” he says.

Writing a letter

ROBERTS: Pastor requires counseling

ROBERTS: Pastor requires counseling

For Roberts, pastor of congregational care at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Albuquerque, the policy is the same: no counseling at St. John’s, no wedding service there either. Roberts estimates he does six weddings per year, preceded by three free one-hour counseling sessions.

He has couples write letters to each other, “just to see where they are with each other.” As he reads the letters, he learns whether the couple have thought about their commitment. “It’s something they may not have thought through before.”

Sometimes, questions come up: What if one person is religious and one is not? What if the couple has conflicting ideas about having children?

Besides giving couples an opportunity to discuss these topics, he also encourages them to find ways to serve each other without expecting anything in return, and to focus on the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of intimacy and service, he says.

Same-sex couples

Counseling same-sex couples opens up issues opposite-sex couples don’t necessarily face, such as whether or not to be publicly open about the relationship, and how to transition from couplehood to a wedded couple, an opportunity they couldn’t legally anticipate until gay and lesbian marriages became legal in New Mexico last year.

“The idea of marriage in general is still just very foreign in the gay community in terms of what exactly that means … the legality of being a spouse, their credit now being reported together; it’s all kind of new, and with all that you have more of an exploration of ‘What does commitment mean in the first place?'” says Tamara Auger, a psychotherapist in Albuquerque whose practice consists of about 20 percent same-sex couples, and who also blogs for the wJournal.

And while other premarital counselors and educators can use resources such as books designed to counsel couples, Auger says there are not many resources designed for gay couples, since most materials identify the masculine and feminine roles within the couple, whereas some gay couples don’t. “Honestly, there are not a lot of resources for same-sex couples … you have to get an idea of how the couple views the relationship. Some are more comfortable with the masculine/feminine energy dynamic in the relationship, and some are opposed to looking at the relationship that way at all.”

An assessment

Mary Pepper, like the other counselors, has in the past required couples start with an assessment of some sort – in her case a $35 online questionnaire from prepare-enrich.com.

Its 10-page report evaluates the couple’s abilities to express themselves, their willingness to change and their family-of-origin information.

Each week she works with couples for between 10 and 20 hours, accepting barters if the couple cannot afford her $35 hourly fee.

Often, she uses the book “The Couple Checkup,” which includes exercises for the couple to do alone and in pairs. She also distributes handouts such as “How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk,” “Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship,” “Why Marriage Matters in America” and “Fair Fighting.”

Besides mentoring couples, she also teaches group classes. The largest class she’s ever held had 22 couples, with men often appreciating the term “education” over “counseling.”

“Men are not so likely to walk into the counseling door. But they’ll go to skill-based training,” she says. “It’s an easier door to walk through.”

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