Those of us who have spent time with couples in marital therapy quickly discover an unfortunate reality: most couples have little preparation going into their marriage. I’m not referring to official marriage preparation done immediately before the wedding day by many churches; I’m speaking of the lack of psychological formation couples receive before they decide to spend the rest of their lives with each other. Many Christian therapists who concentrate on marital and family work would argue that even those who receive catechesis during youth group meetings, high school retreats, and chastity programs are not psychologically ready for the commitments needed in a successful marriage. What can be done to reverse this situation?

Shaky Foundations

Why is such a burden placed on our pastors and priests on last-minute marriage preparation?

Before providing concrete solutions to improve marriage preparation, we should first examine two explanations for our current predicament. First, our culture tends to begin forming individuals for marriage too late in the process. Even in those communities that require some level of formal marriage preparation – such as the Roman Catholic Church – there is not a clear formation period for marriage until around six months before the wedding day. Common sense will tell you that such a short period of time for such a major commitment does not provide the couple with the proper amount of time necessary to form themselves as spouses. Why is such a burden placed on our pastors and priests on this last-minute immediate preparation? Often, it becomes an attempt to make up for lost time; i.e., many parents have forgotten the truth that they (not the Church’s ministers) are the primary educators of their children, and as such, parents and families help to shape marriages far more than any priest, minister, or psychologist ever could.

Another explanation for the lack of marriage preparation is our current societal focus on momentary pleasures, and a fear of working through difficult times. Interestingly, we see movies where a lifetime relationship is the apex of one’s experience. Yet, we rarely see a movie which portrays both the hardships and the joys of everyday married life. While it is understandable that directors would desire to focus mainly on the joys of relationships in order to drive viewers to their productions, these directors do a disservice to their viewers by giving them a naïve view of relationships. Such a naïve viewpoint then sets up unreasonable expectations within relationships, which in turn cause only confusion and possible resentment between spouses if they cannot alter their expectations on marriage.

The Family as a School of Preparation

Families need to become formation centers, or, in Christian terminology, “domestic churches.”

What can be done to remedy our current predicament from a psychological perspective? In the first place, our families need to become formation centers, or, in Christian terminology, “domestic churches,” where we teach the virtues such as prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. But they also need to become a place where children learn to both give and receive love. This last point is especially important since a person’s family of origin is vital to his success or failure in terms of authentic human development and flourishing. In fact, how a person experiences himself within his family will most likely form his conceptualization of both himself and relationships throughout his life.

A few practical things parents can do to help their children be better prepared for marriage are the following:

  • Spend quality time with your children away from any and all work distractions (i.e. your cellphone). Remember that the way you model love and human interactions will be how your child comes to both understand themselves and express love to others.
  • Give your child responsibilities and allow them to fail. Children need to understand what both of these life aspects feel like if they are ever going to succeed within marriage.
  • Guide your child with conflict resolution. Marital researchers, such as Dr. John Gottman’s research, have indicated that those marriages which succeed not only had more positive interactions than negative ones, but that couples knew how to resolve solvable problems.
  • Help your children to accept who they are as children of God, and the implications which go along with that fact. Once they understand and internalize this as their true identity, they can give of themselves to another for the rest of their lives.

Moving Toward a Marital Novitiate

Marital preparation cannot merely be seen as a crash course…to overcome years of bad habits before the wedding day.

Changing how we view marriage preparation as a society is just the first step in improving our current situation. Marital preparation cannot merely be seen as a crash course where we teach couples communication and financial skills and then expect them to overcome years of bad habits before their wedding day. Instead, marriage preparation should begin at birth regardless of the person’s vocation since preparing for marriage prepares a person for a flourishing life. Further, we as a society have a responsibility to provide support to married couples for the marriage’s success, for stronger marriages make stronger societies. In fact, our commitment to proper marriage preparation is akin to a monastic community’s devotion to its younger members. Thus, what we need is not a new marriage preparation program. Oh, no! What we need is a conversatio morum (a conversion of lifestyle) in how we view marriage preparation as a domestic church. What we need is the introduction of marriage preparation as a novitiate.