“What books do you recommend we read in our premarital counseling?”

That has been a question I have been getting a lot of recently. Whether it’s a Facebook message from a friend, an @rhetter comment on Twitter, or some email I receive from someone who came across my blog, it seems lots of people are interested in finding the right books and resources to read in their premarital preparation.

It’s a really good question, I’m sure you will get a million different answers depending on who you ask. I find that people take this stuff real personal, and really want to share with you what books they read in their premarital counseling because understandably they want to be able to contribute to you some ideas of what books influenced their marriage in hopes that it too has a lasting impact on you.

Soapbox: I wonder what would happen to our marriages if we invested as much time into their preparation as we do for all the wedding planning. It would not surprise me if the average couple who actually does premarital counseling spends about 5-10 hours total in this prep. That includes sessions with the counselor and homework on their own. Compare that to the amount of time a couple spends planning the details of their wedding (location, catering, music, photography, honeymoon, seating arrangements, wedding dress, tuxedos, ring shopping, et cetera). You get my point.

Okay, now back to the topic of this post.

There are lots of different directions you can go with premarital counseling, and the books and resources that you might use. When deciding which direction to go, here are a few things to take into consideration.

  1. How much time do you have to do the premarital counseling? A few months?  A few weeks? Days?  Et cetera.
  2. What kind of training do you have?  Are you a pastor who does lots of counseling and performs weddings?  Are you a lay leader who mentors couples? Are you a licensed therapist/counselor?
  3. What kind of couple are you working with?  Are they highly motivated to really invest and engage in the work?  Do they make the premarital counseling a priority?  Will they read the material, or do the assignments?

Once you have answered those questions, then I think that will put you in a better position to help you determine a course of action for premarital counseling, and what resources, books, or tools you might want to implement and recommend.

My premarital work has changed drastically over the last 8-10 years as I have spent more time with couples, changed professions (from pastor to therapist), and have engaged a wider variety or marriage books than are typically touted.

I have a list of 11 books, and 2 resources that I use in my premarital counseling. By that I don’t mean I have a couple read all the books, but I will pull ideas from the various ones listed, and I may make a recommendation of 1-2 books for a couple to read, depending on the couple, and what area of growth I think is most crucial to the success of their marriage. Consider this just the well from which I draw water from. And also know that I use a variety of material from both the Christian and non-Christian marriage literature.

Let me start with books. If I could only recommend five books that a couple reads, or that a counselor/therapist/pastor reads and pulls ideas from, these are the five I would recommend (I would recommend this for marital as well as premarital work):

When To Say YES, When to Say NO, To Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
–Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. This is a huge area of growth for most people, especially couples as they merge two lives, two families, two careers, etc. together. Most people don’t know how to set healthy boundaries, and if you don’t learn this skill early on in your marriage, it could be very detrimental later on.

Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships by David Schnarch
–Two ideas: “self soothing” one’s anxiety and differentiation. Two important concepts that few explicate like Schnarch. Also, Schnarch’s work on sexual intimacy is pioneering work on many fronts, and sexuality tends to often be one subject that couple’s fail to honestly communicate about. Though I hate to put a warning on this book , I must so as not to catch people off guard. This is not a “Christian marriage” book and Schnarch’s graphic writing on topics and blunt language may be offensive to people…though I have found many people thanking me for recommending this book to them. I just think it would be a shame for people to miss out on such a great work on marriage.

Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Love of a Lifetime by Sue Johnson
–When couple’s understand the importance of their early attachment bonds, and how those bonds either positively or negatively influenced their current relationship, it can be a major moment of insight for understanding how they interact. Johnson’s pioneering work on Emotionally Focused Therapy is condensed in this easy to read book, and I think her practical advice can interrupt couple’s negative patterns and promote positive ones.

The Mystery of Marriage: Meditations on the Miracle by Mike Mason
–One of the first books I read on marriage, so it has some sentimental value. And Mason is right, marriage is a mystery, not a five or seven step process that if only followed, equals marriage success. I love Mason’s theological and philosophical insights into the mystery of marriage.

The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness by Dave Ramsey
–Money, money, money. It’s one of the major sources of conflict in a marriage, and one of the most common reasons leading people to divorce. Why we don’t spend more time helping couple’s work through their issues around money is beyond me. Getting on the same page financially, and holding the same fiscal values can literally free a couple up in so many ways.

I might change my mind on those five tomorrow if a different couple has different needs, wants, and desires, or if I see different areas of potential conflict and needed growth in a specific couple. But when put together, those five books have some powerful principles in them that can set a couple off on the right foot and help positively transform their marriage.

Here are some other suggestions for books I might, and often do throw in the mix.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert by John Gottman
–Gottman is a leading expert on marriage, and this book provides LOTS of great exercises for couples to practice.

Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions
by Roberta Gilbert
–I love Gilbert’s use of Bowen family system’s theory and how we might think differently about the relationships we are a part of.

Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy by Gary Thomas
–Because if the subtitle doesn’t compel you, I don’t know what will. Great antidote to what many couple’s assume marriage is all about.

The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman
–A light bulb literally went off in my wife and I’s head (dating at the time) when we realized that we spoke different love languages, but expected the other person to speak the same. Very freeing insight for a marriage.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
–Because at times we need more poetry and less information when it comes to marriage preparation. The section “On Marriage” is a great reminder to couple’s, especially as it pertains to one’s differentiation.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
–“Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other” — Beautiful!

And now for a couple of very helpful resources that I use from time to time in my premarital work:

I’m certified as a counselor/trainer in the use and implementation of both of these inventories/programs. These are great tools to use, especially if you are not a trained/licensed therapist/counselor, or if you are a pastor who feels like you need more tools to help you design your premarital work.

Family Wellness: The Strongest Link: The Couple


As you prepare for your marriage let me make a few suggestions on how to maybe approach and use the material:

  1. Try reading one of the books together…out loud.  You will be amazed at what stands out to you as you do this.  And you will be amazed and enlightened by the conversations that start between the two of you as you simply read out loud.
  2. Try sharing a book and as you read the book to yourselves, use different color pens to highlight material that is important to you.  It helps your partner pick up on some things that need to be addressed, and may help your partner have insight into what issues you see relevant in the coming marriage, or what issues strike a personal chord.
  3. Start preparing for your marriage (not wedding prep) months in advance.  I recommend at least six months so that you have time to properly address issues that may arise.  If your engagement is shorter than six months, then start right away.  Don’t put off till the end.

So anything you would add to this post under books, resources, tips, etc.?

I know lots of people use Love and Respect by Emmerson Eggerichs, and the two books by Shaunti Feldahn, For Men Only: A Straightforward Guide to the Inner Lives of Women, For Women Only: What You Need to Know About the Inner Lives of Men.