It’s hard not to become enamored with the website for OURS, a program that its creators herald as “a new way to invest in your relationship”—a “psychoeducational experience.” The homepage is peppered with artistic flares that could’ve been pulled straight out of the Guggenheim: warm pastel colors, squiggly lines, and two halves of a smiley face that snap together as you scroll. Toward the bottom, there’s a banner with headshots of the OURS staff—all master’s-level clinicians. I count eight in total, each smiling and dressed stylishly in black, looking like the psychotherapeutic equivalent of Steve Jobs. “Think of them as your personal cheerleader who will be there for you at every step of your journey,” the site reads, “to answer your questions, give advice, and integrate your learnings.”
According to OURS, that journey entails “4 weeks. 3 steps. 2 brains. 1 future”—more specifically, that’s two 45-minute private sessions with a staff member, four 60-minute guided sessions with the company’s proprietary Loveware software (which includes partner exercises like guided conversations, reflections, and shared activities like art projects, scavenger hunts, and dancing), and, at the end, a personalized roadmap catered to you and your partner’s relationship and goals.
According to OURS, roughly half of all couples who enroll in the program are engaged. But this isn’t your average premarital counseling. In fact, it’s not really premarital counseling at all—or couples therapy, or even coaching, for that matter. It turns out OURS is mostly devoid of therapeutic language: the staff are guides, not clinicians. And their work is in modern relationship health, not therapy, for couples in any stage of life or their relationship.
For guide Liz Earnshaw, who spent nearly a decade as a couples therapist before launching OURS in the summer of 2022, those distinctions are exactly the point. “Back when I was doing therapy, I noticed that so many people didn’t have valuable preventative knowledge prior to entering committed relationships,” she says. And while they might have benefitted from premarital counseling, “a lot of what’s out there doesn’t feel current,” she adds. “It feels stuffy, or like a checklist, or like it’s all about problems.”
Looking to craft a solution, Earnshaw connected with Jessica Holton and Adam Putterman in 2020, who aren’t therapists but do have small-business backgrounds. They spent the next two years laying the groundwork for OURS, surveying couples across the country to find out what their ideal premarital counseling program would look like—if they even liked the idea at all. They discovered that many couples were receptive to premarital counseling, just not the negative associations that came with it.
“Couple after couple told me how premarital counseling seemed really defeating, like a downer,” Earnshaw says. “They wanted something more solution focused and enjoyable.” That feedback informed the OURS repertoire, which Earnshaw says puts a novel twist on traditional couples therapy. Yes, there’s an initial intake and discussions about a couple’s strengths and weaknesses and how partners manage stress and communicate, but there’s also a heavy dose of play and creativity from the get-go.
One of Earnshaw’s favorite warm-up exercises prescribed by the OURS guides involves asking new or prospective parents to find something around the house that reminds them of their childhood. Next, the guide asks each partner how they think the item reflects their values as a parent and how it might complement or conflict with their partner’s parenting style. The conversations that unfold are often beautiful, Earnshaw says. “One partner might find a blanket and say, ‘My house was really cozy as a kid, and my mom was always wrapping us up in blankets,’ while the other might say, ‘I worry about not being able to provide that feeling to our kids because we’re both so busy with work.’ It’s a jumping-off point for an important discussion.”
Of course, Earnshaw adds, “we talk about subjects like family and money and sex. All couples are going to have these kinds of problems. But we’re talking about them in a way that’s normalizing and fun and approachable. People feel safest talking about big issues if they’re able to play.”
Let There Be . . . Counseling
Today, 90 years after Detroit’s Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child and Family Development created the first ever “marriage preparation program,” premarital counseling has never been bigger. There are countless premarital counseling programs, many with catchy acronyms like FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding, and Study), PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program), PREPARE (PREmarital Personal And Relationship Evaluation), and SYMBIS (Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts).
Less than a year after launching OURS, Earnshaw estimates that her team has already worked with hundreds of couples. That’s not surprising: approximately 44 percent of engaged couples attend some form of premarital counseling, according to the National Health Council. In fact, according to a 2017 survey from MidAmerica Nazarene University, 51 percent of Millennials, 48 percent of Baby Boomers, and 46 percent of Gen Xers have attended premarital counseling.
Research supports premarital counseling’s lasting benefits. According to findings published in the Journal of Family Psychology, couples who attend counseling are 30 percent less likely to divorce within five years of marriage than those who don’t. Another study’s findings, published in Contemporary Family Therapy, report that couples who undergo premarital counseling experience a 40 percent improvement in marital satisfaction compared to those who don’t.
So why, even though most couples therapists go through some type of graduate training that qualifies them to do premarital counseling, do so few of them actually do it? A major reason, it turns out, is the same reason OURS uses such contemporary marketing: premarital counseling has long gone hand in hand with a much older institution—religion.
“‘Marital preparation,’ as it’s called, has always been more popular in religious congregational settings than in secular therapist settings,” says Bill Doherty, a therapist, marriage expert, and professor at the University of Minnesota, where he directs the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project. “That’s mostly because the religious sector requires people to do it. And they’ll do it because they have to if they want to get married.”
Earnshaw says she’s aware of premarital counseling’s religious associations. Sure enough, the OURS homepage features a list of descriptors that differentiate OURS sessions from more traditional premarital counseling. In the OURS column: secular, modern, personalized, and delivered by experts. In the traditional premarital counseling column: religious, old, standardized, and delivered by community.
But Earnshaw is quick to add that religious premarital counseling isn’t bad or flawed. “It serves certain people really well,” she says. “If two Catholics want to meet with their priest and they feel good about it, that’s amazing.” The difference with OURS, she says, is it serves people who want something like traditional premarital counseling but are less traditional. Those people might be in open relationships, interfaith couples, members of the LGBTQ+ community who don’t feel comfortable seeing a pastor, or they may simply be people who don’t like the idea of therapy.
Should more therapists consider offering premarital counseling? Doherty doesn’t think it’s a viable marketplace for clinicians. “It can be refreshing for us to work with couples who don’t have 20 years of dysfunction behind them. But therapists expect to be paid well, and not enough clients are willing to spend $200 an hour to do this kind of counseling when a religious organization might offer it for free.”
There’s another barrier: many people believe that going to premarital counseling will only manifest problems. “Let’s face it,” Doherty explains. “Therapy comes out of a medical model. We identify, assess, and treat dysfunction. Why look under rocks if you might find snakes?”
Doherty isn’t implying that therapists who do premarital counseling can’t be helpful. After all, who couldn’t use a toolbox of interpersonal communication skills, especially if you’re remarrying and entering a complicated new family situation? “But couples who already have problems they want to work through—that’s the market,” he says. “Not people who are in love and ready to get married for the first time.” Unless you’re entrepreneurial, he adds, “it’s hard to make a business out of this.”
Counseling by Any Other Name
Premarital counseling may not be the most lucrative work, but for marriage and family therapists like Jane Hammerslough, there’s no reason clinicians can’t pepper it into their regular caseload.
Hammerslough doesn’t brand herself as a premarital counselor; she just happens to receive plenty of calls from soon-to-be-married clients wanting to see her. Right now, she estimates they make up about 10 percent of her total caseload—and she loves working with them. “It’s so gratifying to see how much these couples grow in such a short amount of time,” she says.
Hammerslough says these clients don’t usually ask specifically for premarital counseling, which sounds old-fashioned to them, but say they need help managing simple disagreements, often about finances, children, family-of-origin issues, or sex—“stumbling blocks over one or two things.” Otherwise, she says, the relationship is usually sound, which adds a collaborative element to the work that you don’t often see in couples therapy, where the starting dynamic can be more adversarial. “It’s as if the couple is standing on one side of a table, side by side, looking at the problem together,” Hammerslough says of the work, “wondering how they can address it as a team.”
That doesn’t mean the work is easy. Hammerslough says weddings are a lightning rod for anxiety and fear, and they often bring boundary issues to the surface. She recalls one case where a young couple was happily engaged, but one partner’s parents were overbearing and wanted to control nearly every aspect of the wedding. The bride-to-be had never been able to stand up to her parents, Hammerslough recalls, and she sometimes sobbed in session about her inability to set boundaries with them. Meanwhile, the fiancée was growing more and more impatient and resentful.
Hammerslough began their work with what she calls the miracle question: “If this wedding was everything you wanted it to be, what would that look like? How would you be moving through the world with your families?”
Over the next four sessions, the three of them explored that question together. The couple considered how much of the parents’ demands they wanted to accept, and how much they needed to establish a boundary. Eventually, Hammerslough says, “they reached a point where both of them saw what they needed to do for them to grow as a couple.” Then, they brought in the parents. It wasn’t pretty, she recalls—they got angry and blamed the fiancée for pushing them away—but, eventually, they came to understand and respect their daughter’s need for space. Just as importantly, Hammerslough says, “this couple was finally able to ask for what they needed.”
Something Old, Something New
Toward the end of their work with every couple, the guides at OURS do something special. They call it Surprise and Delight. It involves giving partners an item that symbolizes their union and the hard work they’ve accomplished over their four weeks together. It might be something small, like a personalized leash for their dog, but Earnshaw says a little goes a long way. It’s another bit of pizzazz that makes the OURS experience pop. It feels like your guide really knows you, cares about you, and has earnest faith in your ability to take the next big step in your relationship, together.
“A lot of couples therapists—myself included—love doing therapy,” Earnshaw says. But therapy has a marketing issue, she adds. “Somehow, we’ve told people they should come to us only when they’re ill, but what we actually want is for people to come to us when they start to be curious about what’s happening so they can prevent the big problems.” If accomplishing that means filling your website with cartoonish doodles, or giving clients small symbolic gifts, or calling therapists guides and putting them in black turtlenecks, where’s the harm?
Even without that added flair, Hammerslough believes there will always be a place for therapists in premarital counseling—or whatever people decide to call it. “Marriage has changed so much over the last hundred years,” she says. “But people will always want to feel confident in their relationships, and often there’s a feeling of insecurity going into marriage that you want to assuage. This is important work we’re doing. It helps people get to the core of who they are and what they want.”
Photo © iStock/Delmaine Donson
Chris Lyford is the Senior Editor at Psychotherapy Networker. Previously, he was Assistant Director and Editor of the The Atlantic Post, where he wrote and edited news pieces on the Middle East and Africa. He also formerly worked at The Washington Post, where he wrote local feature pieces for the Metro, Sports, and Style sections. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.