Before you plan your wedding
A few years ago, millions of Americans tuned in the prime-time TV show, “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” The reactions of most people to the program ranged from amusement to shock, disbelief, and indignation. The television show allowed a mystery millionaire to pick a bride–with the help of friends and family–from 50 women. Before the groom could choose, each semi-finalist was interviewed. Physical attributes were also displayed as each woman modeled beach wear for the bachelor and viewing audience. The soon-to-be-husband selected his bride and the couple wed a few moments later, without having met before and, obviously, without any type of premarital education. This couple tied the knot before learning the ropes and after a few days, had their marriage annulled.
One quickly recognizes that this high-viewer-rated show closely reflects the prevailing view of marriage in many modern societies today. The parallel is almost too close for comfort–have beautiful wedding pageantry and then dissolve the relationship due to irreconcilable differences.
Beyond the obvious glamour of marrying a wealthy groom, the show's success was due to its appeal to wish fulfillment–most people wish for a satisfying relationship. Isn't it interesting that no matter how much our world tries to deny God, we always have to go back to the Creator? God created us to be in relationship–first with Him and then with one another. And the need to belong and be a part of someone else's life is still one of our primary basic needs.
Furthermore, most people want a satisfying marriage relationship that lasts a lifetime. The fact that a high number of first-time marriages end in divorce in several countries has not deterred many from matrimony. Recent survey results tell us that teenagers still put having a happy marriage and family as their number one goal. Sadly, far too many couples enter marriage with as little preparation as did the two people who became husband and wife on the television show. Most couples spend an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources preparing for a wedding day that lasts a few hours. Not as much time is spent getting the necessary relationship skills needed to build a marriage for a lifetime.
To be sure, it's far simpler to prepare for a one-day wedding event than it is to prepare for a marriage that lasts a lifetime. Nevertheless, the most romantic and elegant wedding in the world doesn't prepare a couple for having a satisfying and happy marriage. After the beautiful wedding and exotic honeymoon, couples are faced with the mundane matters of life. Such issues as remembering to balance the checkbook, or what brand of toothpaste to use and how to squeeze the tube are but a few. Then there are more serious issues like which spouse's family to spend holidays with, how to balance work and marriage, and handling previous friendships. Many couples panic at the first signs of conflict or disagreement, thinking perhaps they weren't meant for each other. They aren't prepared to handle the serious realities of everyday life.
Dr. John Gottman, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, says that it's the ordinary events of everyday life that build love in marriage.1 When couples can resolve conflict in a constructive and positive way, the marriage is strengthened and intimacy is deepened. However, if these seemingly insignificant issues go unresolved or are resolved in a destructive manner, they cause marital distress, which leads to divorce or remaining in an unhappy marriage.
Premarital education as prevention
Current research suggests the possibility of preventing marital distress through teaching couples skill-building in areas of communication and conflict management prior to problems developing.2 For those who want a lasting and happy marriage, premarital education is an absolute must.
Premarital education isn't just to help a couple know where to stand and when to say “I do” on the wedding day. An effective premarital education program teaches couples specific skills, techniques, and ideas for maintaining and building a strong Christian marriage. It's an attempt to help a couple prepare for a satisfying lifetime marriage and, hopefully, prevent future distress and divorce. Couples who have had a positive premarital education experience are also more willing to participate in future marriage enrichment opportunities or counseling if necessary.
If done effectively, premarital education prepares couples for inevitable disappointments and conflict in marriage. It teaches the skills needed to manage conflict and miscommunication and to prevent distress before it starts. Having a good relationship is a skill, and at the heart of this skill is speaking and listening to one another in ways that will build up rather than tear down. For those of us who are Christians, none of this is news, as we have been told, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19, NIV).
Of course, teaching anything to a couple who is deeply in love is very hard. However, this is when most couples usually ask for premarital guidance, after they are well into the wedding and honeymoon plans. Usually the pastor is consulted more as a courtesy, and pastors traditionally have just given a few courtesy premarital sessions and a blessing on the wedding day.
Ideally, a couple should seek the guidance of the pastor or Christian counselor while deciding about marriage and before setting the wedding date. Many couples are so determined to be together that they are afraid to get counseling for fear they will be told that they aren't meant to be together. It's true that a couple may dissolve a relationship because of issues that surfaced during premarital guidance, but such an experience is much less traumatic than going through a divorce.
Consider Joe, 30, and Susan, 29, who have been dating for more than a year. This couple had already set their date and paid a deposit to reserve the reception hall. After taking a premarital preparation program at their church, they discovered that they had many issues that they needed to resolve prior to marriage. They decided to postpone their wedding for six months. At first Susan was unhappy about postponing the wedding, but she knew that it was the right thing to do.
The most effective premarital programs focus on teaching couples how to make the transition from single to married life. These programs make couples aware of the risk factors that will either lead to divorce or marital distress. Communication, conflict resolution, and consensus building are the factors that are most predictive of future distress. What divorcing couples call “irreconcilable differences” often occur in areas in which a couple can make changes and be taught skills for handling their differences.
Marital researchers estimate that only 40 percent of the time do couples in the United States divorce because they are having frequent devastating fights. More often than not, husbands and wives distance themselves to avoid hostile fighting, until there is no closeness, friendship, or sense of connection, thus ending their marriages under the guise of “we just grew apart.”
Couples must also discuss and assess other factors that are less amenable to change or not changeable at all, but may have potential influence on the success of the relationship. These factors include each partner's individual traits and behaviors, such as emotional health, self-esteem, neurotic behaviors, and dysfunctional attitudes. Other areas for assessment are similarity of race, religion, values, age, and gender role expectations. Couples will also want to assess how background factors, including family origin, socioeconomic status, and previous divorce history might impact their relationship. If couples are aware of these factors prior to marriage and preferably before engagement, then they can make more informed choices, anticipate future problems, and sometimes, for their benefit, decide to dissolve a relationship.
Helping young couples to prepare
Historically, the church has been the primary provider of premarital education. To be sure, religious organizations still have the most access to engaged couples, since most first-time marriages still take place in a church, synagogue, or temple. Consequently, even the secular marital researchers are looking to religious institutions to deliver effective premarital programs in the hopes of preserving and protecting marriages. The church can naturally play a pivotal role in the work of preparing couples for successful marriages and preventing divorce.
Given this information, the church can no longer afford to function primarily as a blessing machine when it comes to marriage.3 Despite the energy that most churches put into premarital training, the divorce rate for Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists, is approaching divorce and separation rates among the rest of society. It may be safe to assume that much of this energy hasn't always been spent in the most effective manner.
Adventist church leaders must be more intentional about preparing persons for marriage. First, we have to begin looking at premarital education as prevention, thus taking a long term approach to the process. Each local church must be prepared to establish specific guidelines for engaged couples. In the past the pastor has been solely responsible for premarital preparation of couples. Perhaps the time has come for us to take a community-oriented approach to the premarital effort. The church family must be willing to make a bigger investment of time, energy, thought, and prayer in preparing a premarital education program that supports and prepares couples and individuals in the church for marriage.
The family ministries committee of the local church can serve as a wonderful resource. Churches can use the many tested instruments based on solid research, which help to assess the strengths and weaknesses of couples. There are also many intervention programs which are ideal for use with premarital couples.4
The pastor can then meet with couples privately to discuss deeper issues, and, when ready, make plans for the wedding. Christian counselors, therapists, and certified family life educators may also serve as an excellent resource in providing premarital education for couples. Some churches use trained mentor couples. These are couples who are committed to their own relationship and are interested in helping new couples have Christ-centered marriages.
Take the initiative
The best premarital education available will be of no value unless couples who have a steady relationship take advantage of this valuable resource. If you are already beginning to think of marriage, take time to seek counsel from mature Christians who know you. Better yet, make an appointment with an Adventist minister or professional who has training and experience in premarital counseling. This may require that you travel to a nearby city. In preparation for such meeting, purchase one of the many books written by Christian specialists for couples considering marriage.
There is no question that couples who participate in effective premarital preparation programs are reducing their risks of future marital distress and divorce, and enhancing their capacity for a healthy, satisfying, and Christ-centered marriage.
While we believe that premarital education is an opportunity for prevention, we must also say that its effects won't last for a lifetime. Couples will need ongoing support to maintain the preventive effectiveness. Couples must take advantage of enrichment seminars and retreats as often as possible, and churches must provide these opportunities for couples. Marriage isn't an individual sport. It truly is a team effort.
Ellen White says it well: “One well-ordered, well-disciplined family tells more in behalf of Christianity than all the sermons that can be preached.”5
While Adventist church leaders must assume greater responsibility in this important area, Adventist young adults should also use all the resources available to them to prepare adequately for a successful and lasting marriage. Unless they take the initiative, the risks they will run are too high.
Willie Oliver is the director of Family Ministries for the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Elaine Oliver is a marriage and family consultant. Pastor Oliver has edited a book, Family Ministries: Curriculum for the Local Church, which is available in English and Spanish and can be purchased through Advent Source (http://www.adventsource.org). The Olivers' mailing address: 12501 Old Columbia Pike; Silver Spring, Maryland 20904; U.S.A.
- John M. Gottman and N. Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999).
- Scott Stanley, D. Trathen, S. McCain, and M. Bryan, A Lasting Promise (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998).
- Michael J. McManus, Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Avoid Divorce (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishers, 1995).
- For additional information on premarital resources, check the North American Division Family Ministries website: www.adventistfamilyministries.com.
- Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Nashville, Tennessee: Southern Publ. Assn., 1952), p. 32.