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Preparation For Lifelong Marriage

Mike Mcmanus New York Times

Here are a couple of Valentine’s Day questions:

Do you know the best way and the worst way to decide whether to marry someone?

Is your church a wedding factory, grinding out weddings with little thought about the couples’ chances for a lifelong marriage?

For the last five years, my wife and I have led marriage preparation sessions at a local Presbyterian church. The experience has led me to some firm conclusions.

The main one is: Most couples who marry today make a big mistake by living together in so-called “trial marriages.” They really are “trial divorces.” See how horrible it can be without commitment.

A study of couples who have gone through a premarital inventory program called PREPARE (Premarital Personal and Relationship Evaluation) reveals that two-thirds of cohabiting couples had low scores - predictive of a divorce - while only a third of those who were living apart had similar low scores.

Furthermore, the National Survey of Families and Households reports that 40 percent of cohabiting unions break up short of marriage. And marriages that are preceded by living together “have 50 percent higher disruption (divorce or separation) rates than marriages without premarital cohabitation,” according to the survey.

Fortunately, 250,000 couples a year have found a better way - taking a premarital inventory such as PREPARE or one called FOCCUS, used by Catholics.

Couples need an objective assessment of their strengths and weaknesses as a couple. And churches need a way to help couples in weak relationships discover it in time to bail out.

PREPARE can predict with 80 percent accuracy who will be divorced. A tenth of those who take the inventory decide to break their engagements. Good. Their scores tend to be similar to those who marry and later are divorced.

Couples are asked to agree or disagree with 165 statements such as:

Time will resolve most of the problems we have as a couple.

Sometimes my partner is too controlling.

My partner often doesn’t understand how I feel.

We usually agree on how to spend money.

Sharing spiritual values helps our relationship grow.

There’s a solid new version of PREPARE with 40 new items, such as whether you and your partner ever have problems with alcohol and if you ever have been abused verbally, emotionally or sexually.

The reaction of a young doctor was typical: “The questions prompted discussion of issues that may not have been easily discussed.” A young fiance added, “It truly stimulated fruitful and necessary discussion about important issues we had not previously discussed.”

Equally important, a premarital inventory can be a bridge between an older, wiser generation and the couple considering marriage. My wife and I have trained 38 mentor couples to administer the PREPARE inventory and to talk through the issues that it brings to the surface.

Every church has couples with solid marriages who really could be of help to others - but have never been asked, trained or inspired to be marriage mentors. These couples know how to argue lovingly, how to live by Scripture, “trusting in the Lord.”

Young couples react to them: “Our mentors were exceptionally skillful in encouraging communication and honesty. They are very gentle, non-threatening and unrushed” was one response. “Our mentor couple is fantastic. They show us their true selves and tell us what made them successful,” said another young couple.

Mentors can relieve pastors of some of their workloads. Paul says the job of the pastor is to “equip the saints for ministry.” What more important ministry is there than being a marriage saver?

Through June 1996, our mentors had worked with 135 couples, 25 of whom decided to break up. We agreed with each decision and believe each couple avoided a bad marriage before it began.

Of the 110 who have been married since 1992, we know of only two separations. This is as close to marriage insurance as can be found.

Clergy of all denominations are open to these reforms. So far, pastors from 52 cities have created “community marriage policies” with these reforms.

Since Modesto, Calif., took the step in 1986, its divorce rate has plunged 40 percent, saving 1,000 marriages a year. Divorces also have fallen in Peoria, Quincy and Moline/Rock Island, Ill.; Montgomery, Ala.; and Albany, Ga.

Why don’t more churches give couples lasting valentines?

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