Preparing Couples for Marriage
By Liz Percival
A wedding is a day, a marriage is a lifetime!
"A wedding is a day, a marriage is a lifetime" reads the by-line of Engaged Encounter, a residential marriage preparation weekend that has been available in this country since the eighties. Yet whilst the average couple will invest over £12,000 in their wedding, they will invest little or nothing in preparing for a lifetime of marriage.
Since 1994 couples have had a far wider choice of wedding venues, and perhaps surprisingly, the most recent statistics available (1995 - 1997) show that the Anglican Church in England and Wales has more or less maintained its percentage share of weddings with a fall of only 1%. It is exciting that many couples are still choosing a Christian setting to begin their married life together but it also offers us a real challenge to ensure that we are offering them more than just a pretty traditional venue. How can we also come alongside these couples and share the love of Jesus with them and enable them to grasp the desire God has for their marriage?
One of the first things to consider in planning a preparation course is the number of couples coming forward each year for marriage, their background and their needs. What works in a suburban parish may be of little use in an inner city or country parish.
The attitudes of the couples themselves plays an important part in what can be done. Couples who have been living together are often reluctant to take up what is on offer, seeing marriage as simply a ceremony, which will not significantly change their lives. They believe they have tried "marriage" out and now they are fully prepared for the real thing. On the other hand, those who come starry-eyed and full of romance can see no faults in each other and assume life will be plain sailing. A good programme will be one that opens their eyes to the fact that they have much to learn.
Some couples may be living miles apart or working long hours or shifts. This may influence whether to have a course based on a series of evenings or a full day, on a Saturday.
Churches Together for Families are mounting a campaign this year to encourage ministers to take the challenge seriously, but for busy clergy setting up or expanding their work with engaged couples can seem daunting. One solution is to find lay couples who are able and willing to help. It is often the couples who have been on some sort of enrichment course themselves, such as Marriage Encounter or Marriage Review, who feel called to this sort of work. It is interesting that the engaged couples can learn as much from the way those presenting the course relate in their own marriage, as from any taught material.
Teaming up with neighbouring parishes or whole deaneries is another way to spread the load and improve the breadth of a course. Local diocesan FLAME groups have tried to build up resources of information and training to support parishes; some like Guildford have designed their own course.
Some parishes may prefer to put together their own course gleaning from different sources the elements they wish to include. Videos, cartoons, group discussions, brain storming sessions, questionnaires, listening exercises and role play can all be combined to produce an interesting and varied course. The UK's leading marriage website, www.2-in-2-1.co.uk, is packed with useful information, courses and organisations. Professionals such as counsellors, bank managers, health professionals can also be invited in. In some areas Relate are willing to work with the churches to provide relationship skills training.
Resources available these days range from psychometric inventories such as Prepare/Enrich and FOCCUS, through books to videos and courses. Prepare/Enrich and FOCCUS are excellent for one to one work. The couples fill out an inventory which sheds light on the areas of strength and weakness. Couples can then choose which areas they would like to work on and be directed to other resources or organisations that can help.
Most individuals bring emotional baggage and expectations of married life from their upbringing, family, experience of life, and even previous relationships or marriages. Surfacing these in a course or in one to one interviews will help couples to understand themselves and each other better.
Relationship skills, such as listening skills and managing conflict, are valuable elements of any course, but an understanding of marriage itself is essential. No amount of communication skills will help a couple who do not understand the basic concepts of unconditional love, forgiveness, fidelity and commitment. Perhaps the most important thing to get across to couples is that their marriage needs tending like a plant. If they come to recognise the importance of working at their relationship and even seeking outside help when they are struggling, then they will have learnt a great deal.
Finally for couples committed to laying the strongest possible foundations for a successful marriage, there are residential courses available nationally such as Engaged Encounter and CWR's Preparation for Marriage.
Once you have identified the needs and expectations of your couples, found your willing helpers and designed and run your course, what next? There are other things you might like to consider. Can your church pray regularly for the couples planning to marry there? Mentoring is a scheme which is also catching on around the country. Engaged couples are assigned to a more experienced married couple who are available from the moment the wedding is booked right through into married life, to listen and advise when they are needed. Marriage preparation is really only the first step for any church to take in supporting a couple. Beyond the honeymoon every married couple will need on-going support and encouragement - but that is another story...
Other resources which may prove useful are the two papers available from Marriage Resource entitiled Marriage Preparation I & II
This article is based on one first published in the Celebrate supplement of Church of England Newspaper in March 2001