“When I drove Marilyn to work we used mainly to listen to the radio, but since the course started we talk, nineteen to a dozen, about the last meeting.”
He was referring to the marriage preparation course he was attending back in the ‘60s. I was reminded of this remark when I read the emphasis on this subject in Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis suggested that the form of the course was a decision for the local church so I am considering some important issues, which might be considered. I have my battle honours through a diamond anniversary due this month, several years of running marriage preparation courses, and considerable experience of what can go wrong through years of remedial marriage counselling.
The information which a couple might need immediately comes to mind. I think of such things as handling financial aspects of money, bringing up children, sexual harmony, natural family planning and a shared understanding of the sacrament of matrimony. This is usually quite easy to provide, and often supplied by local experts. These topics can provide a basic structure around which the most important outcome can be built. Pope Francis identifies this: “Sadly, many couples marry without really knowing one another. They have enjoyed each other’s company and done things together, but without facing the challenge of revealing themselves and coming to know who the other person truly is.“ (p.210)
He is speaking here about the prime importance of the relationship itself, and the skills which are needed to promote it. Any marriage preparation course which does not major on inculcating the foundations of such skills is largely a waste of time. Let me give you a simple example. Imagine a ten minute talk on budgeting as a couple, followed by questions. Very useful, no doubt. But let’s suppose that the couples have been given a homework task to create a budget between them using a fixed sum of money. The results may vary, and often promote general hilarity, but, for many, it will be the first budget they have ever constructed. Then, in small groups, the couples will discuss their attitudes to money. Not only will they hear the view of other couples, but they may, for the first time, hear the real views of their partner. In this way they learn that such attitudes have a high emotional content related to temperament and personal backgrounds. And they begin to see how different approaches must be melded through respect for each other’s views.
This format: homework preparation, and discussion of different views under a skilled leader, can with ingenuity, be used for most of the key subjects. Imagine the value of a group discussion on whether it is important to share the same religion. Imagine a discussion on whether male and female attitudes to sexuality are the same. Imagine a discussion on the ideal size of a family. Imagine a discussion on in-laws. Leaders will not be manipulating conclusions but they will be contributing extra information based on broader experience, and ensuring that key questions are considered.
The importance placed on homework and discussion tells us that the one day, or one weekend, course is of restricted value. It does not allow for the necessary dialogue and development which the couples can only do on their own. This takes one evening a week for five or six weeks. That sounds a big demand but engaged couples welcome inexpensive opportunities to spend time together. If couples miss meetings the course is not being successful. We rarely lost a couple after the first meeting.
Participants are recruited through the parish, or several parishes working together. A chaplain is appropriate, but the main staff will be experienced married couples. Some kind of selection process is needed: not every couple, and indeed not every potential chaplain, is suited. They will need some training in the skills of group leadership, including the ability to tolerate views with which they don’t agree. And they will learn to spot the occasional couple who need personal counselling before progressing their relationship.
Like any long marriage, we too have had to cope with several adjustments in our relationship. The advent of children, career changes, illnesses, and retirement have been such occasions. Founded on our clear understanding of marriage as an objective, permanent sacrament in which we participated, we had to learn how to adapt through our respect for each other, expressed and understood in deep discussions. If we hadn’t, we might have ended up like so many couples we were to meet in remedial marriage counselling. In most cases, the difficulties were born from poor communication. It often required explicit training of couples in communication with each other – a skill which might, over the marriage, have saved many tears.
(While this column is published here on he correct date, it will not appear in the Catholic Herald until 22 July)