The Case for Marriage Preparation

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Marriage enrichment pioneer David Mace once remarked, "Marriage is the deepest and potentially the most gratifying of all human relationships, but it’s also one of the most demanding. Unfortunately couples seldom have more preparation than a little advice from their parents and a new set of china."

With the risk for divorce in the United States hovering around 40-50%, it’s startling that so few people take marriage preparation seriously. One study showed that only 30% participated in even one to two hours of marriage preparation. A 1997 U.S. national survey showed that only 36 percent of couples married in the previous five years had premarital counseling through their religious organization. Recent studies of college young adults show that more than 90 percent say they believe marriage preparation is important but only 35% intend to formally prepare.

Marriage can be one of life's sweetest ventures, but it is also one of the riskiest. Couples and communities are wise to invest in and support active preparation for marriage.

Common Problem Areas

Many young couples' expectations of marriage revolve around the false belief that love will get them through rough times. While love is important, it won’t be enough if couples don't have the basic attitudes and skills they need for successful marriage. Lasting marriages require partners who respect one another, who have gained knowledge about what makes marriage work, and who have developed skills that will enhance the relationship.

Most couples face their most serious challenges during the first five years of marriage. The top ten problem areas researchers have identified are:

  • Balancing job and family
  • Frequency of sexual relations
  • Debt brought into marriage
  • Husband's employment
  • Finances
  • Expectations about household tasks
  • Constant bickering
  • Communication with spouse
  • Problems with parents or in-laws
  • Lack of time spent together

Through conscious marriage preparation, many of these issues can be discussed and plans can be made to handle them so they don't become toxic to an early marriage.

What Is Marriage Preparation?

Marriage preparation is training through courses, seminars, or counseling that prepares couples for a successful marriage. Training often focuses on developing skills such as communication, handling conflict, solving problems, and making decisions. It might also include help in developing the knowledge, attitudes, expectations, and characteristics that are important to creating a satisfying relationship.

An important purpose of marriage preparation is to help each partner assess his or her personal readiness for marriage. It can also help couples become aware of the assets and liabilities of their relationship, which are important factors in deciding who and when to marry. As they evaluate these factors, couples have a chance to slow things down and think seriously about their relationship. In other words, premarital education allows couples to plan theirmarriage rather than just a wedding.

Goals of marriage preparation often include developing skills in the following areas: communication, friendship, commitment to the relationship, intimacy, and problem solving. Instruction usually includes applying these skills to such issues as family of origin and individual backgrounds, conflict, finances, leisure and recreational interests, role expectations, couples interaction patterns, sexuality and affection, fun and friendship, expectations about children and parenting, decision-making, education/career goals and expectations, religious or spiritual values and expectations, and plans for the wedding.

Benefits of Marriage Preparation

Is marriage preparation effective? Research says yes. According to Dr. Jason Carroll and Dr. William J. Doherty, couples who participate in premarital programs experience a 30% increase in marital success over those who do not participate. They report improved communication, better conflict management skills, higher dedication to one's mate, greater emphasis on the positive aspects of a relationship, and improved overall relationship quality. These benefits appear to hold for six months to three years after the program is over. These benefits also extend to couples who enter marriage with greater risks, such as coming from homes where parents had divorced or had high levels of conflict.

Research also shows that marriage preparation can help prevent divorce. Sometimes this prevention comes from strengthening relationship quality. Other times preparation raises red flags that prevent a marriage from occurring in the first place. In one program called PREPARE, 10% to 15% of couples decided not to marry because they became aware of problems that persuaded them the relationship would not last.

Participating in premarital education is both fun and informative. People learn many things about their potential spouse that they never even thought to consider. They often have eye-opening experiences that can be both enlightening and humorous. Discussing topics like household chores, in-laws, employment, and sexual relations helps couples identify one another's expectations. It also helps couples discover areas of disagreement before they get married. Sometimes these discussions uncover information that a future spouse is involved in behavior that will be destructive to the marriage relationship - critical information to know before marriage.

As couples carefully discuss the issues that come up in their preparation, they often come to appreciate their future spouse more. Some realize he or she is not the right person to marry. With either outcome, premarital preparation will have been a success.

Dr. Stephen Duncan of Brigham Young University provides a personal example of the benefits of marriage preparation - in this case unintentional preparation:

During my master's program, I took an "Introduction to Marriage and Family Therapy" course. One assignment was to attend five “enrichment" sessions with a partner. The partner could be anyone, but immediately I thought of several women I knew. I decided to ask Barbara.

Barbara and I had been friends for over a year and just recently felt attracted to one another. I assured Barbara that the enrichment experience was just for a class, for "science," I joked. She agreed to participate.

During the first session, we explored our families. We mapped out our families on the chalkboard and described the relationships we had with each member. Our first assignment was to go out and get to know each other.

We talked for hours about our families and backgrounds. We spent the next day together too, having dinner with her grandparents and father, who just happened to be in town.

The sessions helped us get to know each other from the inside out. We also benefited from the hour-long ride to and from the university, when we talked about many important matters.

Through this assignment I gained something far more important and valuable than an A on the paper. Barbara and I became engaged and married a few months afterward. This unintentional premarital counseling experience set the stage for understanding, kindness, consideration, friendship, and sharing that continues to be an important part of our very satisfying marriage.

General preparation. General programs can benefit anyone, whether they’re in a relationship or want to prepare for being in a relationship. They’re offered through high schools, colleges, faith communities, and adult community education courses. Some programs focus on attitudes and expectations while others focus on developing specific skills such as communication, handling conflict, solving problems, and making decisions. For a list of some of the best-known and best-researched programs, see the Forever Families article, Strengthening Marriage through Marriage Enrichment Programs

Premarital counseling. Clergy, professional health workers, and physicians9 (p. 39) are the three main providers of premarital counseling. A good portion of premarital counseling occurs in a church setting, usually overseen by the denominational leader. Some faiths require specific preparation before a couple can be married by clergy of that faith. For example, they might require:

  • Three to six months of marriage preparation.
  • Counseling sessions with clergy or other counselors.
  • General classes about marriage and divorce.
  • Participation in a weekend marriage seminar.

A major benefit of premarital counseling is that couples establish a relationship with someone they can consult to help them solve marital problems later on if needed10 (p. 275).

Books. Reading a good book is a fun and practical way to gain knowledge about marriage. Some books take a religious standpoint and others do not. Several are based on the life experiences of others. Fewer are based on scientific research. Good information is available from any of these types of books, but make sure any particular book is based on reliable information and is supportive of your personal values. The following is a list of books based on scientific research:

  • The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John M. Gottman & Nan Silver, 1999
  • Why Marriages Succeed or Fail . . . and How You Can Make Yours Last, by John Gottman & Nan Silver,1995
  • Should We Stay Together: A Scientifically Proven Method For Evaluating Your Relationship and Improving Its Chances for Long-Term Success , by Jeffry H. Larson, 2000
  • Fighting for Your Marriage: Positive Steps for Preventing Divorce and Preserving Lasting Love , by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, & Susan Blumberg, 2001
  • Empowering Couples: Building on Your Strengths, by David H. Olson & Amy K. Olson, 2000

Relationship Questionnaires. Questionnaires or surveys can offer valuable insights to couples preparing for marriage. They help uncover strengths and weaknesses and identify areas where improvement is needed. Some of these programs charge a minimal fee.

  • The RELATionship Evaluation (RELATE) Questionnaire covers every major predictor of marital quality. It provides an illustrated report covering more than 60 aspects of the relationship.http://www.relate-institute.org. It can be completed within about one hour.
  • FOCCUS asks 189 questions, then produces a couple profile. It is available in four editions: General, Christian Non-Denominational, Catholic, and Alternate (for learning impaired).http://www.foccusinc.com
  • PREPARE requires that couples locate a counselor in their area trained in this program. The counselor administers the 195-question test and provides three to six counseling sessions based on the test results. http://www.lifeinnovations.com

Deciding Which Type of Premarital Education Is Best for You

The following questions can help you decide which type of program is best for you.

  • Am I less self-motivated and/or do I learn best by listening to others (an "audible" learner)? If yes, a pre-marriage seminar or pre-marital counselor may be your best option.
  • Do I enjoy reading and/or am I a visual learner? If yes, reading books and completing an online relationship evaluation may be a good choice.
  • Do I want my preparation to have a religious component? If yes, talk with a member of your clergy to see what programs your church provides.

Some couples may want to participate in all three types or programs so they can receive a wide range of training.

Conclusion

Churches, synagogues, and communities can help premarital preparation bemire successful. When couples see their marriages as a holy union that is accepted by a supreme being, they have a solid foundation to build on. Likewise, when the community shows support for premarital prevention efforts, couples feel that others want their marriage to succeed.

Whatever form of premarital education you choose, make sure you practice and make the most of your experience. The more you learn before you get married, the more smoothly your relationship will go when you do get married.

Written by Jeremy Boyle, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


References

  1. Barlow, B. A. (1992). Just for newlyweds. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co.
  2. Carroll, J. S. & Doherty, W. J. (2003). Evaluating the effectiveness of premarital prevention programs: A meta-analytic review of outcome research. Family Relations, 52, 105-118.
  3. Duncan, S. F. (2001, April 5). Marriage preparation important, often neglected. Deseret News. 
  4. Duncan, S. F., Box, G., & Silliman, B. (1996). Racial and gender effects on perceptions of marriage preparation programs among college-educated young adults. Family Relations, 45, 80-90.
  5. Duncan, S. F., & Wood, M. M. (2003). Perceptions of marriage preparation among college-educated young adults with greater family-related risks for marital disruption. The Family Journal, 11, 342-352.
  6. Halford, K. W., Sanders, M. R., & Behrens, B. C. (2001). Can skills training prevent relationship problems in at-risk couples? Four-year effects of behavioral relationship education program.Journal of Family Psychology, 15(4), 750-768.
  7. Olson, D. H. (1983). How effective is marriage preparation? In D. R. Mace (Ed.), Prevention in family services: Approaches to family wellness (pp. 65-75). Beverly Hills: Sage.
  8. Risch, G. S., Riley, L. A.., & Lawler, M. G. (2003). Problematic issues in the early years of marriage: Content for premarital education. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 31 (3), 253-269.
  9. Stahmann, R. J. & Salts, C. J. (1993). Educating for marriage and intimate relationships. In M. E. Arcus, J. D. Schaneveldt, & J. J. Moss (Eds.), Handbook of family life education: The practice of family life education, Vol. 2 (pp. 33-61). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  10. Stahmann, R. J. & Hiebert, W. J. (1997). Premarital and premarital counseling: The professional's handbook. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  11. Stanley, S. M. (2001). Making a case for premarital education. Family Relations, 50, 272-280.
  12. Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (1997). Marriage in the 90s: A nationwide random phone survey. A marital research poll by PREP, Inc. Denver: PREP, Inc.
  13. Senediak, C. (1990). The value of premarital education. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 11(1), 26-31.
  14. Valiente, C. E., Belanger, C. J. & Estrada, A. U. (2002). Helpful and harmful expectations of premarital interventions. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 28, 71-77.