NEW YORK CITY — It was Erin's religious upbringing that sparked a decision to seek a marriage preparation course when she became engaged to her boyfriend Nate.
But it was her adult life living in New York City — where she chose to step away from many of the tenets of the Catholic Church, including its mandatory Pre-Cana pre-marriage course — that led her to look beyond the religious sphere for someone to help her and her future husband build their foundation.
"I was raised Catholic, where it is required," said Erin, who lives in Astoria, Queens and declined to give her last name. "I always had it in my mind that it was the right thing to do."
Erin and Nate found the right fit in marriage preparation through their secular officiant Hope Mirlis, who held informal counseling sessions for them in the weeks before the ceremony.
Across the city, pre-marriage counselors are offering couples a way to shore up their pending union, helping steer it onto stable ground and away from the barriers that could break it apart, according to a half-dozen local practitioners interviewed by DNAinfo.
The experts say their practice has expanded even further to include both same-sex marriage as well as heterosexual couples, in the wake of New York's landmark 2011 marriage law.
There were 74,362 marriages in NYC in 2012, and 27,379 divorces, according to the state Department of Health, which maintains the records. That's slightly better odds than the national average — which remains stable, with roughly 2.1 million new marriages in the U.S. in 2011, and almost half as many marriages that ended in divorce that year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Counselors say some of the most common problems for local couples are the same as those that plague couples nationwide: financial issues, opinions on child-rearing and how to deal with in-laws.
Therapists offer everything from pre-marriage help to group-counseling sessions or courses that take couples through conflict resolution, a plan on raising children and how to manage finances, household chores and their sex lives.
"We are finding more and more couples seem to have this as one of their pre-wedding costs," said Christina Curtis from Midtown Marriage and Family Therapy. "It is actually a line item on their wedding expenses."
Generally, a package of three to five private sessions costs $150 to $300 per session depending on the provider or $300 to $600 for a group course.
Here's a mix of individuals and organizations that offer pre-marriage counseling for couples seeking a non-denominational forum.
Greg Kuhlman, a psychotherapist, and his wife Patricia Schell Kuhlman developed and run their own marriage-preparation curriculum called Marriage Success Training. He described the daylong seminar training as "religion neutral."
Along with the relationship inventory that each couple takes ahead of time, seminar content is based on the latest research on what makes or breaks marriages, according to Kuhlman. The day consists of group discussions and private conversations between couples as well as role-playing of techniques for conflict resolution and communication.
At the Midtown Marriage and Family Therapy, couples have a choice of a one-day group course or six private sessions, according to Christina Curtis, the center's co-clinical director.
The group sessions take couples through set subjects during the day, giving them a chance to discuss privately with each other the principles that are being taught. The course costs $300 per couple.
For the personal sessions, Curtis has couples complete a survey online that pinpoints areas where they might clash, such as how to discipline children or what the division of household chores was in their family growing up.
Each session then goes through about eight to 10 subjects, such as how involved in-laws will be in the couple's lives, Curtis said.
Jean Fitzpatrick attends a liberal church in Midtown East, but she counsels couples from varied faiths as well as those who have no religious affiliation. She recommends three to five sessions, and will customize the meetings by starting off asking couples "point blank what areas they think they need to work on."
Ironing out creases in communication and conflict in the early days of a marriage is crucial, according to Fitzpatrick.
"It is so much easier to work on those things when the relationship is young than eight years down the road when it's in dire straits," she said.
Jim Coving has been counseling couples for 30 years and has prepared thousands of people for marriage, he said. Coving takes couples through a set inventory of subjects.
The three to five sessions of 75 minutes each start with the Prepare survey, which finds areas of strong agreement or strong disagreement in subjects such as the differences in the family and culture in which each person was raised. The results of the survey provide topics for the counseling session, Coving said.
"I think we live in a divorce culture so more couples want to make sure they are on the same page before they get married," he said.
Rachel Sussman steers couples through whatever subjects they want to cover during as many sessions as they require.
"Usually, when an engaged couple comes in to see me they have some issues that were lurking around while they were dating," said Sussman, who has been practicing for 15 years. "Because of the stress of being engaged, those issues are coming to the surface."
About one quarter of the couples Hope Mirlis works with complete a marriage preparation course with her before she leads them in their vows on their wedding day. Sessions last between 60 and 90 minutes.
Mirlis starts off the sessions — normally couples do four — with the topic of money and how it is made, saved and spent before moving onto subjects such as intimacy, parenting and how to deal with extended family.
"What I do is look at the reasons people get divorced and work back from there," Mirlis said.