Inoculated Against Divorce

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.

Right?

♦◊♦

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.

—Photo gwilmore/Flickr

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About Brian K. Blickenstaff

Brian holds degrees in writing and geography. His nonfiction has appeared in Norman Einstein's Sports and Rocket Science Monthly and Conte, among other publications. Twitter: BKBlick.

Comments

  1. Dcn. Channing Fell says:

    I applaud the “risk” and investment in your marriage. Our society has changed a lot. Once upon a time, the priest who baptized you also prepared you for marriage… and knew you both from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Catechism, etc… He might have even said.. “Well, I was wondering when you would ask her to marry you!” Today, we have people we may rarely see in Mass show up wanting to book the hall. When they hear about marriage prep, they “shop around” for the easiest/quickest… It’s just human nature… But, you cannot “outgive” God. If you GIVE to your spouse as you give to God, you will get more in return…

  2. Divorce doesn’t seem so bad when you consider how the other 50% of marriages end.

  3. Yeah, but all the effort in premarriage counseling doesn’t mean much when your wife says “oh, I was lying when I did that”

  4. Brian-

    I enjoy the insite and depth you shared on your relationship. I think its a positive to even be willing to write publicly about something so private. I also feel when we talk to each other, be it our partners or our best friends, grounding our conversations a a certain perspective helps to achieve a more meaningful dialogue. Sometimes religion is a great common ground. Other times maybe a shared love of mechanics works. Overall, I felt like this is a great window into your life & your soul. Many thanks for the piece.

    -Jeffrey

  5. Yes, premarital counseling is so important at the outset of a marriage, yet the work is just beginning. The momentum of healthy communication must be maintained.

  6. One reason I think marriages end these days really quickly is the vastly different expectations people have coming into them.

    I know for myself, I thought having a wife meant getting the similar behaviors that my mom displayed. Cooking, cleaning, and care taking. It wasn’t until college and my first live in girlfriend that I was very immediately schooled… your partner is not your mom. She did not give birth to you… she does not love you unconditionally as much as your mom, you can’t expect it of her… so clean up your own damn mess. Ha, ha. Lesson learned.

    Young women are who the ‘partnership of equals’ societal message has been very much driven at by feminists and their mothers who did have to toil in obscurity with toilet brush in hand. Contrast this with my upbringing which led me to believe women had a gene that liked to clean and cook. Turns out that was really just a bunch of lies. No one likes scrubbing floors.

    We need to address young men and young women in how to be married far before they even find the person they marry. It takes a long time to understand these things and teaching it early might spare some unecessary arguments from happening.

    • SecondBeach says:

      How many threads are you going to post this on? All is shows that from the 3 billion women on the planet, you can get some conflicting opinions.

      Boring.

      • If you’re too stupid or too emasculated to even grasp how feminism has ruined the lives of both genders as illustrated by the factual content in the video, why are you even here? You should be at home eating paste and coloring with crayons. It requires iNTELLECTUAL HONESTY and a valid education to even understand the video.

        Your lack of common sense = boring.

  7. Brian,

    Thanks so much for this; I wish it had been around about a year ago, when my now-husband and I were prepping to get married. I am Catholic (sometimes-practicing) and he is practicing (he plays in the worship band every Sunday) non-demoninational Christian. Catholic premarital counseling seriously frightened him, but mostly because he had an innate distrust of the Catholic Church and all that it stands for. He also felt like, well, why does some priest, who has no idea about marriage, get to tell me about what *I* should be doing? All the reasoning in the world didn’t work, so we skipped it. His minister uncle married us in a town-owned chapel. I didn’t fight it because he’s much more involved in his church life than I am in mine. Still, I was a little down about it.

    A couple months before our wedding, a very Catholic friend gave us a gift: 3 sessions of Natural Family Planning classes, at my church. My husband had no choice but to attend! And to his astonishment, not only was it not a bunch of mystical Catholic mumbo-jumbo, a lot of it made sense to him. That NFP class kind of served as our version of premarital counseling, even though it isn’t billed as such, and I think we’re a much stronger, more loving couple now than we ever were before.

    Lesson: think what you will of us crazy Catholics (and believe me, I’ve had plenty of not-so-nice thoughts of my own), but one thing we know how to do is prepare people for strong, meaningful marriages.

  8. Men should never be fooled by the gentle doe-eyed promises of a woman that she will never hurt or back stab a lover or husband. This talk of communications is mostly nonsense. The anti-male misandry laws must change first.

    Healthy Communication only goes so far: guess what men? The Divorce/Family Courts are biased against you since you are male. The Criminal Courts are biased against you since you are male. Marriage version 2.0 is a dangerous gamble for men. Healthy Communications doesn’t keep you from a future divorce that demands you be an indentured financial slave to your ex-wife for life regardless of how long you were married. Many women who plan divorce first call in a false domestic violence claim that you raped or beat her, and threatened the kids. Being out of work and broke is no excuse for not paying your ex-wife/girlfriend child support. Unable to pay can still land you in jail. Still, society tells men to ‘Man-up!” and get married to serve the interests of women. It is time for all men to boycott marriage, ghost away from women/society/government that has knifed us, and to go our own way (MGTOW).

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