Practical help for the ministry leader preparing couples for marriage

An interview with Relationship Experts Les and Leslie Parrott

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Apr 14, 2015

As a leader, you never forget the first wedding you perform. For me, it was for one of my youth group graduates.

While I was a bit nervous about my first time officiating a wedding, at least I had been a bridesmaid before and had some idea of what would happen. What scared me more was premarital counseling. I was single at the time, so I had no personal experience from which to draw.

That’s why I’m glad for resources like Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts by Fuller School of Psychology grads Les and Leslie Parrott. I had lunch with the Parrotts a few months ago, and loved hearing their passion for equipping pastors to launch couples on a trajectory of healthy and flourishing marriages.

Whether you’re single or married—and whether you’ve performed hundreds of wedding ceremonies or none—the practical ideas the Parrotts share in this interview will be useful the next time you find yourself preparing a couple for marriage.

Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott are #1 New York Times best-selling authors of numerous books. Leslie, a marriage and family therapist, and Les, a psychologist, are professors and founders of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. They’ve appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, Today Show, The View, and Oprah. Read our first interview with Les and Leslie on “Relationship help for busy parents.”

The Parrotts are also founders of the highly acclaimed pre-marriage tool, the SYMBIS Assessment. For those of you who find yourselves doing any kind of pre-marriage counseling, the Parrotts are offering a limited-time fifty percent discount to friends of FYI. Check out the special discount code at the end of the interview!

FYI: What convinced you to put so much emphasis on pre-marital work in your writing and training?

Les: We never had pre-marriage counseling, but we spent the first year of our marriage in therapy.

Leslie: That’s the truth. We had a tough first year of marriage – even after dating through most of high school and college. We had very little preparation. And we weren’t the only ones.

Les: The sad fact is that even today, the church does a pretty poor job of helping couples prepare for marriage. Ministers aren’t really trained in how to do it well and so they end up doing what they can, and too often they focus as much on the ceremony they’ll be preparing as they do the relationship that follows.

Leslie: Soon after graduating from Fuller, we took teaching positions at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school, and quickly learned that our students who were headed toward marriage weren’t getting much from their own churches when it came to launching lifelong love. That’s when we started holding an annual event in Seattle we called “Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts” – SYMBIS, for short.

Les: SYMBIS became pretty popular. We soon had hundreds of couples attending annually. So we wrote a book (and his/her workbooks) by the same title. And then Oprah invited us to talk about it on her program. Since then, that book has sold more than a million copies.

FYI: What are some of the most common surprises couples find after the wedding that could have been prevented by preparing better ahead of time?

Les: We sometimes liken pre-marriage work to teaching someone how to use Excel on their computer when they have no real-life application for it. Their eyes roll back in their head and it becomes a real snooze fest. If pre-marriage isn’t done effectively, it’s the same thing; it leads couples to thinking they have prepared for marriage when they really haven’t.

Leslie: That’s the biggest surprise for some couples. They thought they knew what married life would be like and it didn’t turn out that way. Of course, that’s not their fault. Those of us who are preparing them have to take responsibility to do a better job.

Les: So true. And on a practical level, we can do better at helping couples get healthy. We often say that a person’s marriage can only be as healthy as the least healthy person in it. This is key, helping two individuals be healthy. That means spotting caution flags for them so they can work on their issues. Awareness is sometimes the biggest part of the cure. Holding a figurative mirror up to couples before they are married to show them a clear picture of their psychological and spiritual wellbeing is imperative.

FYI: When you think about your experiences with ministry leaders, and youth pastors in particular, what do you think are the top few mistakes we tend to make in helping couples prepare for marriage?

Leslie: The biggest mistake by far is not knowing what content to cover, and then not covering the right content in a personal fashion – so it applies to the couple in specific and concrete ways. It’s a fatal error, because as ministers we can feel like we are doing “the work” with a couple when we are simply going through the motions. And the heartbreak of it is that ministers don’t even know it.

Les: Exactly. Research is very clear on what works and what doesn’t. And some of what works can be counter-intuitive. For example, most ministers don’t know that there are “marriage mindsets.” Every individual about to be married has an attitude toward marriage. It might be “romantic,” or “rational,” or “resolute,” for example. And the attitude of both persons in a couple, when they mesh, can predict fairly accurately the kind of road they will travel together early on. But most ministers don’t know about this research.

Leslie: Another mistake occurs when we project our own story of marriage onto the couples in our care. Every couple is unique. We can’t afford to assume they will have the same experience we did. What helped you may not be nearly as helpful to them. We’ve got to understand the couple we are working with – really get an accurate picture of their personalities, for example.

FYI: What are the most important two things a leader needs to know about counseling a couple prior to marriage?

Les: Every leader needs to know that each person in every couple has unique needs, expectations, pain-points, wounds, goals, and aspirations. Every person relates to God and to their partner in distinctive ways. We give and receive love uniquely through the lens of how God made us. So when you are counseling a young couple, don’t project onto them, don’t assume you know what they need before you understand who they are.

Leslie: Another important point, in my opinion, is to have a roadmap. Know where you want to take a couple through the pre-marriage process. Be their guide. Know when to go “off road” in the process, but ensure that you get them to their destination. And what is that? It’s to a place where they are equipped as well as possible to enjoy lifelong love that honors God. That’s an incredible task. But it’s more doable today than ever. The roadmap is readily available. It stems from God’s Word and helps couples begin their marriage journey – not with mere optimism and hope – but with proven skills and in-depth understanding of one another and God’s path for one of the greatest journeys this life can provide.

FYI: How has your approach to pre-marital counseling and preparation changed over the years?

Leslie: So much has changed – primarily because we have better tools than ever before. And more research to know exactly what helps most (and what doesn’t help that we once thought did). It’s one thing to teach communication skills, for example. But it’s entirely different to teach those skills in the context of each person’s unique personality.

Les: We often say to couples: “There has never been a marriage like yours before, and there never will be again.” Why? Because the combination of two unique personalities has so many facets.

Leslie: That’s why these days we can help couples understand their “talk styles” – how God hardwired them for communication – rather than trying to teach universal skill sets that may or may not work for them.

Les: It’s very exciting to teach skill sets, whether it’s communication, conflict resolution, spiritual intimacy, and all the rest, through the lens of each person’s unique personality.

Leslie: Can you tell we are pretty excited about this? It’s fair to say we are actually obsessed with helping pastors help couples launch lifelong love successfully these days – more than ever!

FYI: You are currently updating SYMBIS and have built something you say is a game-changer around it, right?

Les: That’s right. We have a completely updated edition of the book, workbooks and video curriculum. But we’ve poured a ton of effort and resources into building what we call the SYMBIS Assessment. After completing a “listening tour” with hundreds of churches, asking what they are doing when it comes to pre-marriage and what would help them do it better, the thing that bubbled to the surface was clear: Ministers wanted a robust, contemporary, and full-featured assessment they could use with today’s couples.

Leslie: We took that as a mandate to create that kind of assessment.

FYI: How does the SYMBIS Assessment work for pastors – especially youth ministers?

Les: It’s simple. You get trained and certified as a SYMBIS Facilitator. That takes 3 hours and you do it at your own pace online. Then you invite the couples in your care to take the assessment online and it generates a 15-page report on their relationship. This report is what you unpack with the couple (you can do this in small groups and classes, as well).

Leslie: It makes the pre-marriage process so much easier and effective for any pastor. The SYMBIS Report has discussion starters baked right in. You’ll never wonder what to do with a couple. It provides structure and a map for your sessions, making the process engaging and nearly fool-proof.

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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