When the country’s divorce rate is tracked by the Center for Disease Control, tying the knot takes a lot of guts. Many couples, like Brian Blickenstaff and his fiancée, are turning to pre-marriage counseling for support.
On a dark Sunday night this past January, my fiancée, Irene, and I hopped in our little silver car and drove through the Mississippi woods. We were headed to a religious meeting of sorts. Not to late-night Baptist bible study or the evening service at a Methodist church—the two dominant denominations in these parts—but to meet a married Catholic couple who were going to show us the ropes. We were headed to our first session of premarital counseling.
I’m not Catholic, and friends of mine would probably raise eyebrows at the thought of me participating in any religious event, but I got in that car willingly. I got in out of respect for Irene’s desire to marry in the Church, and, honestly, because I’m terrified of divorce.
It may seem like an unreasonable concern given that I’m not even married yet, but the divorce rate in the United States sits at 50 percent. Statistically speaking, once we walk down that isle, it’s a coin flip whether we make it or not. The divorce rate is tracked, along with outbreaks of swine flu and E. coli, by the Center for Disease Control, and as silly as it sounds, I’m afraid that once we get married, our strong, five-year relationship will be exposed to a powerful and destructive affliction: I’m afraid we will catch divorce.
I’m not the only one worried by the statistics. Christian groups, not surprisingly, are concerned about high divorce rates. James Dobson’s well-known evangelical group, Focus on the Family, publishes widely on marriage and divorce, citing practical, financial reasons couples should avoid splitting—alongside their “God knows this design is best” argument.
Politicians red and blue defend the “sacred” institution of marriage. In January, Wyoming House Speaker Ed Buchanan, a republican, sponsored a bill requiring Wyoming couples to complete three hours of counseling prior to marriage or divorce. The bill, which died in committee, sought to “emphasize the core relationship areas of: communications, finances, children, and conflict resolution.”
In other words, Buchanan wants couples on the same page before they get married. A political mandate might be a stretch, but pre-marriage counseling couldn’t hurt.
The Catholic Church takes premarital education seriously. Over the last three months, Irene and I were required to take a personality test (passed with flying colors), discuss the test results with a professional counselor, and complete four sessions with a local married couple. Our sessions were built around a 92-page workbook, When Families Marry.
My primary concerns as we drove to our first session had to do with my distaste for scripture and self-help cheese. These fears were unfounded. First written in 1982, When Families Marry is calculated, thoughtful, and, for a religious publication, surprisingly secular.
The preface of When Families Marry devotes more text to the ethnolinguistics of the Greek words for love than it does religious things like covenants and sacraments. This may not sound like much, but marriage is one of seven religious sacraments important to the Catholic Church (others include baptism, confirmation, and last rites). I considered the preface as a sign of inclusion. I was ready to explore my relationship.
Prior to our first meeting, we were instructed to bring a completed family tree, one for each participant. I learned of cousins I didn’t know I had. When I saw Irene’s, I learned of cousins I didn’t know she had. It seemed fitting that our first session was on communication; if I could go 26 years without knowing the names or faces of second cousins and beyond, there’s no telling what I hadn’t learned about Irene in the five years we’d been together.
As it turned out, these familial revelations were the first of many teased out while we sat on the loveseat and worked through When Families Marry. We didn’t find any deal-breakers—no hidden criminal backgrounds, no secret second families, no forged documents—just a series of small discoveries: a little credit card debt, some insights into parental discipline, an unfounded assumption or two.
It surprised me how often I found myself wondering, Damn, how did I not already know that? We’d talked about kids before, but we hadn’t asked each other exactly how many we wanted (two). We both have credit cards and use them carefully, but hadn’t asked exactly how much debt we owed and what the monthly payments were. I didn’t know how many payments she still had on her car—just that it wasn’t paid off. She didn’t know the exact amount of student debt I carried, just that I had student debt. These are all fairly small matters, but together they amounted to a deficit in our knowledge of one another. Most troubling is that we’d taken this all for granted. We’d assumed we knew the answers when we didn’t.
It’s so easy to assume that love means you know the details—or that somehow love renders details insignificant.
Not all of our discoveries had to do with debt, either. We found we hadn’t discussed how much money we intended to save or invest, but rather that we just wanted to save and invest. We’d been over just about everything in general, but it took a workbook and a lead married couple to get us to discuss things in detail.
I’m glad we finally got to the specifics. I can see how an agreement like “Let’s both save money” could turn into a big, festering problem without first hashing out the details and asking each other the obvious: “OK, how much?” And while I’m confident none of these examples would have destroyed us had we not discussed them in detail before our wedding, I believe the more we can learn about each other now, the better.
That said, When Families Marry isn’t perfect. Some discussion points are poorly worded, others are laughable. While completing a questionnaire on our childhood families, we were presented with this gem: “In my family, there was difficulty sorting out what was important and urgent from what was urgent but not important.” Later, while discussing sex and intimacy, we were asked again about our parents: “Mom and Dad had different fluctuations in intimacy levels.” (I wrote a big question mark and “Don’t know …” in the margin).
Thankfully, I can’t glean too much information from my parents’ sex life, but in other aspects their relationship is my most powerful example; studying their relationship helped me understand my own. The same can be said for raising children. In these sessions, when I found something I didn’t like about my own upbringing, big or small, I pinned it down as something specific I could change.
How to disagree is a major theme in When Families Marry. Disagreements over finances may be the leading “cause” of divorce, but marriage is more than a shared checking account. Some of our sessions dealt with raising children in an interfaith marriage (this turned out to be one subject we had discussed previously), while others focused on child discipline and marital disagreements. In fact, the section on disagreements caused introspection in a way that some of the other sections didn’t. I found I have a tendency to raise my voice when upset. While I wouldn’t call it a problem, it is certainly not conducive to mature discussion. Lesson learned.
People disagree about why 50 percent of marriages end up in divorce; is it a symptom of an increasingly debased society or simply that marriage isn’t as important as it once was? I think it comes down to time and work. As we were driving home from our last session, I wondered if I could sum up all of our learned wisdom and advice into one overriding narrative. Here’s what I came up with: Marriage takes a lot of time, and for it to succeed you must put in the work. This doesn’t mean sitting down for American Idol once a week with a couple of TV dinners. It means asking pointed questions, not assuming you already know the answers, and understanding that it requires hard work and vigilance.
I certainly don’t know all the answers, and I’m sure there will be surprises. I don’t know how this thing is going to shake out in a year or five, but I feel more prepared now than I did before we sat down with our lead couple and talked about what to expect. I know what symptoms to watch for; I know about prevention. I know Irene better, too.
Ed Buchanan won’t ever pass a mandate for premarital counseling, but I think his head was in the right place when he called for one. Maybe he could revise his proposal and instead call for recommended counseling. The CDC recommends all kinds of childhood vaccines, but only a few of us are ever inoculated against divorce.