“I take you . . .to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death, as God is my witness, I give you my promise.”
The words are beautiful. I remember the tears that sprung to my eyes the day I said them to Harry. The pastor who married us was a fine Godly man but in those days premarital counseling was rare. This pastor was no more help to us than was the flower girl who fled to her mother in tears. We met with this pastor beforehand and chatted briefly about our intention to marry and plan the wedding. It was harmless, and useless and a grave disservice to us.
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Let’s look in on another couple. You can tell they are in love. Their eyes light up and their hearts are doing back flips. Eyes and hands are locked. They think they are meant for each other–but this couple is going to make sure. Instead of spending time dreaming, preparing the guest list, browsing through bridal magazines, and discussing food for the reception, they make note in a workbook. Laughter breaks the silence. Discussion follows. How much time should we spend separately? With friends? Who will write the checks? Balance the checkbook? Pay taxes? Decide what TV programs to watch? What birth control methods to use? Where to go for holidays? How often should we visit in-laws? How will arguments be settled? Who will handle what household chores? Where will we go for holidays? Hmmmmmm. There’s no laughter now s they get serious.
Sound unromantic? Unappealing? Maybe. But a growing number of pastors have decided that this is precisely what their church needs in order to prevent divorce. Pastors in 24 cities in 16 states recently adopted a Community Marriage Policy, a voluntary agreement among city religious leaders that requires couples who want to marry to submit to a rigorous four-month premarital training program. Before they can wed, these couples attend weekend seminars, study scriptural wisdom, receive premarital counseling, agree to limit their time together, read books, and complete workbook activities clarifying expectations for their relationship.
The Cause of Divorce
Before couples can adequately be prepared for marriage, a clear perception of the cause of divorce is needed. The major cause of divorce is not infidelity (17%), drug or alcohol abuse (16%), or physical abuse (5%) as many assume. Incompatibility is cited in 47% of all divorces according to a Gallup Poll. Related to incompatibility were arguments over money, family, or children (10%). In other words, three-fifths of marriages (57%) fail due to poor communication or poor conflict-resolution skills.
The Gallup study said, “More than one-third (38%) who have divorced report that they were aware of the problem at the time of marriage or soon thereafter.” This proves the theory that couples tend to ignore relationship problems when dating and drift through problems with rose-colored optimism. When they do encounter a problem the tendency is to minimize its seriousness, thinking it unimportant or that it can be corrected after marriage. As the romance wears off, however, the problems become glaringly more apparent.
The Gallup Poll came to this critical conclusion: “In an era of increasingly fragile marriages, a couple’s ability to communicate is the single most important contributor to a stable and satisfying marriage.” The most important single goal of any engaged couple then should b to improve their communication skills. Yet, most couples “in love” have the illusion that communication is easy, feel that they are each other’s best friends and say they can talk about anything. Those that are aware of communication problems don’t know what to do about it and think their problems can be solved later.
The fact is they can’t improve their communication skills on their own any more than they could teach themselves to read and write on their own without going to school. Most churches require only two or three counseling sessions in which most of the discussion focuses on planning the wedding service. There is no minimum waiting period. If a couple wishes to be married in a month, and the church is available, their wishes are granted. There is no required waiting period, no required reading, no training in communication skills, no compatibility testing. A few general questions may be directed at the couple about some problems they may be having. That’s it. Larger churches may offer more stringent programs but most small churches offer no structured program. A church that functions in this manner becomes only a “blessing machine” for tomorrow’s divorces.
The Church’s Responsibility
It is the church and specifically pastors who have immediate access to engaged couples. About 75 % of all first marriages take place in churches. Yet there are over l,l00,000 divorces annually. To use Michael J. McManus’ words, “most churches are little more than blessing machines.” With hardly a twinge of conscience preachers quote pious words, words that will come back to haunt 60 % of all couples.
Couples who want to be married in the church where they grew up should do so but if that church does not offer adequate marriage preparation, including all six suggestions listed here, they should get their marriage preparation elsewhere. Pastors and parents of single adults should evaluate the quality of their church’s current premarital program with a critical eye. When evaluating your church’s current program remember that if one out of ten couples isn’t breaking their engagement before marriage, the program isn’t strict enough!
Recommendations for an effective premarital program would include:
l. A required waiting period. A couple contemplating marriage shouldn’t be able to reserve the church until they have completed a minimum of four months of pre-marital counseling, testing, and preparation seminars. Regardless of the arguments given to hurry things up, the church must stand firm on not rushing into marriage–for any reason.
2. Compatibility testing. Prepare is the most widely administered
3. Premarital instruction courses. Engaged Encounter is a weekend retreat for the engaged. The weekend consists of eighteen talks led by trained married couples followed by private sessions between each engaged couple. Nearly a tenth of those attending decide not to marry or postpone their wedding. Rather than being a sign of failure this indicates a strong program. With 60 % of all marriages dissolving, the premarital program should be rigorous enough to break weak relationships Before marriage.
4. Work with a Mentor Couple. Every church has some couples who would gladly assume a mentor role, if trained and asked. Mentoring is done by both husband and wife who can impart wisdom from both a male and female point of view.
5. A Rigorous Self-study program. Couples can be guided into a self-study program. My book HOW TO TALK SO YOUR MATE WILL LISTEN (Baker Books 89) is my effort to help couples improve critical communication skills. HIGHLY EFFECTIVE MARRIAGE is also designed to spark deep thought and talk in critical areas of marriage.
6. Counseling with the Pastor. After all the previous efforts, the couple still needs to learn what it means to have a “Christ-centered marriage” and how to attain it. It should not be assumed that because both are Christians or church members they know how to make Christ the head of their home.
These six suggestions hold true for all engaged couples, young or old. Today many people are marrying for the second and third time. Such persons are less likely to seek premarital counseling in subsequent marriages than the first. And the older the couple is, the more likely they are to marry with little or no period of engagement or premarital work. (Read Smart Love–A Field Guide for Single Adults Baker Books l997)
The final word: Couples should spend less time planning the wedding and more time building a relationship that will last a lifetime.