At a recent bridal show, in a sea of photographers, flowers, cakes, and other wedding trappings, Matt Morris stuck out as the only vendor of his kind: He was selling pre-marital counseling.

  "I talked to about 200 brides, and a chunk of them were excited about (counseling). A lot of them said they were doing it already," says Morris, a marriage and family therapist in Gretna who has been working with engaged couples for more than a decade. "But there was a small percentage of the population, about 15 percent, who were appalled that I was there — 'You're already saying our marriage is going to have trouble?'

  "What I would like to say to them is, 'Yes, you are going to have trouble. And that's OK. That's the battle. How do you have problems and still grow closer together? That's marriage.'"

  With an emphasis on improving communication skills and identifying potential conflicts, premarital counseling is widely recommended for anyone tying the knot. With so much attention trained on creating a fantasy wedding day, this is a rare avenue for engaged couples to focus on the reality that comes after that.

  As Morris points out, though premarital counseling has proved beneficial to marriage, the idea of it can bother a bride or groom. Some would rather not admit there likely will be bumps on the marital road.

  "Any healthy relationship has conflicts or disagreements," Morris says. "If you're really sharing your life, your beliefs, values, thoughts, dreams, hopes — you're going to have differences of opinion. If you're not having conflict, you're not truly sharing yourself with the other person, and that to me is a key sign of an unhealthy relationship. The best research shows the healthiest couples still fight.

  "The fights aren't the problem. Does the fight end in a greater connection between the couple, or a greater distance? That's the question."

  Betty Jo Davis, a family therapist and founder of Riversong Counseling Center in New Orleans, performs weddings. Like many officiants, she requires the couples she marries to participate in premarital counseling. Her logic is simple: "If you have a good set of skills going into it: how to communicate, how to solve problems, how to forgive, how to be committed, how to maintain trust — obviously you're going to do better as a married couple," she says.

  Engaged couples do participate in premarital counseling of their own accord, but not as often as Davis would like. "Couples will spend thousands of dollars on the wedding day, getting the right photographer, or flowers, or venue. Yet, if you ask them to put out $500 for premarital counseling they will balk and see that as unnecessary," she says.

  Morris agrees, calling early marital counseling a great investment for long-term relationship health. He sells his services as an engagement gift: a package deal with six premarital counseling sessions, and four sessions throughout the first year of marriage. "It's a really good resource to give to somebody, and I'm glad that some churches require it," he says.

  Licensed family therapist Mario Sacasa directs marriage preparation programs for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He points out that for generations, the Catholic Church has mandated this type of counseling for couples getting married in the church.

  "The Church for a long time has known the seriousness of the commitment: that people go through a major life change when they get married," Sacasa says. "A big comment I hear people saying nowadays is, 'It's just a piece of paper.' ... There's something about to happen here that transforms your relationship. The Church recognizes the gravity of what's happening. We want to help people make sure they understand what they're getting into, so that they can start their marriage on the best foundation possible."

  The Family Life Apostolate's marriage preparation includes a questionnaire that each partner completes individually. "It checks to see in how much agreement they are, and are not, on key issues," Sacasa says. "It gives you a snapshot of where the relationship is right now. Typically, a mature couple by this stage has spent a lot of time together and are more or less aware of the problems. You're just giving them the tools they need to work on those issues.

  "But every once in a while someone becomes blindsided by their partner's answers, and when people are, that's kind of a red flag," Sacasa says. "If there are significant issues present before the wedding, they're not just going to magically disappear afterward. It's best to start working on these things now."

Premarital Counseling: Ten Topics to Expect

1. FINANCES. Because money matters are a leading cause of marital conflict, this is a critical topic to cover before tying the knot. Couples should come clean about their individual finances (credit score, debt load, income, etc.) and solidify their financial goals and plans for achieving those goals. They also will discuss practical matters such as budgeting, money management, and when or how to splurge.

2. COMMUNICATION. One of the toughest, yet most important skills to master for a couple, good communication is essential to a successful marriage. Partners learn how to talk and listen in a respectful way, how to substitute productive conversation for complaining or blaming, how to recognize and respond to non-verbal forms of communication, and other skills.

3. ROLE EXPECTATIONS. Most people enter into marriage with preconceptions of their role within the marriage, and their partner's as well. "Whether they like it or not, they are already forming expectations about what roles they are going to play," Morris says. The couple will discuss what each partner expects from himself or herself in the marriage and from the other person in a variety of areas: parenting, finances, division of labor and more.

4. FAMILY OF ORIGIN. Whether or not we like to admit it, our family of origin has a huge influence on our adult relationships. Discussing our interactions with parents, siblings and caregivers — and their relationships with each other — can be an eye-opener. The goal is to reinforce positive behaviors we learned growing up, while halting negative behaviors and learning better approaches.

5. CONFLICT RESOLUTION. No matter how much the couple loves each other, conflict is bound to arise. Counseling involves identifying potential causes of conflict, learning how to keep a disagreement from escalating, how to deal with stress, and how to resolve conflicts productively.

6. SEX. The couple will have honest conversations about intimacy and the role they expect sex to play within their marriage. Practical discussions include how often they expect to have sex, whether anything is off limits and factors that could impact their sexual relationship.

7. JOBS/ CAREERS. The couple should discuss work or career goals and talk about how these will impact their family life. Do one or both of the partners want to further their education (and if so, how will they afford it)? Do they want to have a two-career family, or will they designate one stay-at-home parent?

8. GOAL SETTING. The couple will talk about where they are now, what they want in the future, and how they can achieve these goals together. They will discuss personal goals for themselves, joint goals and family goals.

9. RELIGION/SPIRITUALITY. Couples should know and understand the importance religion or spirituality holds for their partner, and for them both as a married couple. Practical topics include practices, observances and children's upbringing. "I want them to talk about how they're going to incorporate their religion into their marriage and family," Morris says.

10. FAMILY LIFE. Where will the couple live — what's their ideal home or neighborhood? What are the family values? To what extent will relatives be involved in married life? A variety of topics that involve the couple's vision for their future home and family are covered.