Three-year marriage preparation?

The Catholic Church in Spain is offering a new marriage preparation course. The startling part: It’s three years long.

My first thought was that the last thing the Church needs to be doing is making marriage harder. Few enough people are seeking out the sacraments, so let’s not give them even more hoops to jump through! But it turns out they’re not making anyone do anything. The course isn’t mandatory; it’s for people who are serious about marriage and want help and preparation to do it well.

According to an article in The Guardian UK, the program was developed in response to skyrocketing divorce rates, which increased dramatically after the socialist government made the divorce process fast and easy. According to the article, there was an astonishing 74.3 per cent increase in divorces from 2006 to 2007 in Spain, and “In 2017, there were 57.2 divorces for every 100 marriages in Spain”.

The article quotes Monsignor Mario Iceta, the bishop of Bilbao:

“You can’t prepare for marriage in 20 hours. To be a priest, you need to spend seven years in the seminary so what about being a husband, wife mother or father? Just 20 hours? 

It’s hard to quibble with this point. My own marriage preparation class gave me exactly zero useful information or preparation for the life we were committing to, and I know my experience isn’t unique. I certainly don’t regret getting married to my husband, but we did get thrown into the deep end, and we did flounder.

In the United States, debates over how to support marriage often falls into some timeworn patterns: One camp bemoans the way decrees of annulment are given out like candy, and remind the world that, in their grandparents’ time, people used to take their vows seriously, and weren’t counting on all this ‘happiness’ and ‘fulfillment’ nonsense.

The other camps recalls that their grandmothers often stayed married for life less because they so respected the institution of marriage and more because they didn’t really have another choice, and they just had to put up with being beaten and cheated on and treated like a work horse; and if they did leave, they and their kids would probably starve, or at least be ostracized.

So no, we can’t really improve marriage by simply insisting that people are stuck no matter what. That doesn’t make marriage better; it just hides suffering more effectively.

It’s true that everyone who makes a marriage vow is taking something of a risk, but it’s possible to make the risk smaller by making true discernment a part of the preparation process.

If fewer people who don’t understand marriage have weddings, then fewer people will need annulments. Increasing the preparation time combines the best of both worlds: An understanding that marriage is a serious undertaking that’s supposed to last a lifetime, and not something you can shuck off easily if it doesn’t work out; but also an understanding that it ought to be a partnership of mutual respect, not just something it’s hard to escape.

Ideally, a couple who’ve discerned that they truly do belong together for life will be given some useful tools to act on that intention.

But simply increasing the “training” and discernment period brings predictable problems of its own . . . 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas from Pexels

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12 thoughts on “Three-year marriage preparation?”

  1. Nothing and nobody can really prepare you for marriage. The real help should be after the marriage. Married couples need help through the trials and tribulations of their vocations. There is a course in our parish called the Marriage Project which utilises experiences of different couples, old and young, to help other married couples wanting to strengthen or support their marriage.
    I think extending Marriage prep classes is unnecessary as I think this feeling of bliss and conquering the world together is really one of the only times couples will feel this sort of Unique joy- long drawn out marriage prep kills this joy. I’ll probably sound bonkers for saying this but I found that this joy I felt leading up to and during and after the wedding is something I look back on to reassure me and give me strength during the really difficult stages in my marriage. Particular during the mundane parts (of which there are. ALOT as we all know). Marriage prep should be absolutely mandatory and it’s purpose should be an opportunity to remind engaged couples on the responsibilities of their vocation and also to go over what the Church teaches on married life. If we are Catholic wanting to marry in the Catholic Church then this should be a no-brainer. You can’t say you have a degree in so and so and not do the course. So solid marriage prep (6months leading up to the wedding) is a no brainer.
    Also if a couple is co-habiting and non-practicing and wants to marry in the Church then it is definitely a good time for the Priest to get them to at least rectify this before he marries them. Ie. move out and live and behave with eachother as the Church teaches. The priest can’t enforce the “behave” part but surely he can put conditions on co-habiting. I think if they were serious about marrying eachother in the Church then it is only a good thing and it might make them reconnect with the Church…this should be conditional on the Priest marrying them. It’s probably up for all sort of debate and put a few noses out of joint. But it’s the Priests job to care for our souls and lead us to heaven. Whether we like the advice or not…
    Yeah marriage is hard. But you don’t want to spend 3 years telling couples this. Just a killjoy. They will find out in their own time on their own path. More Church resources need to be put into supporting couples after they marry at whatever stage they are at. A living, active and supportive Church should do this.

  2. Your idea that 3 years might be too long considering the chastity aspect made me laugh, because my boyfriend and I have been dating for almost 9 years now, and although we’re not perfect regarding that, I can say it is possible to be chaste for (just) 3 years.
    My boyfriend and I started dating still in highschool and had to wait 6 years for him to finish college and another 2 years for him to get a job. It’s just impossible to pay for housing with just one income where we live.
    Finally now we can make plans for the future and the plan is getting married next year (we need to save money for that).
    So, all this to say I 100% get the emotional intimacy vs. physical intimacy hardships.
    I think the Spanish Church might not be advocating for a 3 year engagement, but for using the time between the “we know God is calling us to marry each other” point and the actual engagement in a fruitful way. It makes sense to use that time wisely.

  3. So, I don’t know how common this situation is, statistically, but it’s common enough among people I (35) know: people who have been pretty much unchurched, but want to have a Catholic wedding after living together for 5… years. (I just went through a whole wave of weddings as my college friends all got married to mark their 10th anniversaries together.)

    As it is, it seems like the Church basically has two responses. One is the “you’re not a REAL Catholic, you don’t really believe this stuff, so why are you here? Go get married at city hall!” response. Logical enough, but problematic; how do we expect such people to come back to the faith? The other response is to say “we’re just all going to pretend we don’t see the S-E-X happening here; you’ll have to sit in this plastic chair all Saturday and pretend you’re Good Little Boys and Girls who would never dream of living in sin. As long as we all lie and make the surface look good and repress the truth, we can all be happy; that’s what religion is all about after all.”

    It’s easy enough to say that people shouldn’t have got themselves into such positions, or that people shouldn’t seek marriage in a church they’re not 100% or even 25% on board with; but given that this situation DOES arise (and I’m guessing fairly frequently) I just don’t think we have a great plan at the moment. That’s where this kind of long-period formation seems to me to be a decent tool to have in the toolbox. Not as a one size fits all program, but maybe as an option where a good pastoral priest identifies it as being appropriate. In other words, accompanying a cohabiting, culturally Catholic couple through their doubts and objections to the church, teaching them to pray and develop a spiritual life, building their relationship, and contracting the sacrament of marriage when they are really ready for it — which might look like “three years of marriage prep.” (And hey, everything about modern wedding planning gets easier when you start three years out, so as a bonus you’ll get to have the venue you want on the day you want it.) It strikes me as a way of treating people like grown-ups, with respect for the relationships they really have instead of making them feel like we wish they would pretend to be something they’re not.

    (This is the point where my husband would point out that asking for this kind of accompaniment to be carried out everywhere in the church is probably a little unrealistic for the reality of what we’ve got in terms of holy, willing priests; but I sometimes think Christianity is nothing if not “unrealistic”.)

    1. It is a requirement in our parish that couples volunteering for our pre-Cana program be fully living the Church’s definition of marriage (i.e. no contraception). That said, most of the couples presenting, except the ones who married very young, were living together before their weddings – but, for various reasons have come to agree with the Church’s teaching on sex. Nobody’s pretending anymore. That ship has sailed. Meeting people where they are – both in their lives and on their faith journeys – makes for more useful marriage prep classes. Of our four presenting couples who focus on sexuality, only one has been using NFP for the entirety of their marriage – the others are contraception converts. In my mind, the converts do a better job of presenting and, in fact, generally receive higher reviews from the engaged couples.

      In our area, we are not seeing cultural Catholics going through pre-Cana. It’s easier on wedding guests to have the ceremony right at the reception hall and it’s a lot cheaper for the couple (no extra flowers, no cantor, organist, or pricey church fees, no bus for the bridal party to the reception hall, and no altar boys to tip). Here in Philadelphia, it’s the norm that even big, over the top Italian weddings take place in reception halls, unless at least one half of a couple takes their faith somewhat seriously. And so we welcome any couple wishing to be married in the Church, regardless of their living situations.

      1. Also currently living in Philly, although we weren’t living here when we got married last year. I really appreciate your whole comment re: meeting couples where they are. I also think in many ways, pre Cana conversations about sex and NFP have to be downstream of much more complex conversations about communication, deep emotional hopes/fears, etc.–at least for us, NFP initially felt impossible because deep down there were a lot of old scars that accumulate over the course of the typical millennial relationships (4+ years, all the way through college and for years afterward, etc.). Even those of us who grow up Catholic or convert in young adulthood and WANT to live Catholic marriages have a hard time doing it, because it can feel so contrary to what all of our friends, families, etc. are doing.

  4. I knew someone who went through the annulment process, and he said if he had to fill out the same application for the marriage that asked the questions required for the dissolution of the marriage, he would have known better than to get married. Maybe we are asking the right questions at the wrong time.

  5. I have more to say. I think marriages working out really relies on the individuals, and if individuals can be inspired by the church to make their marriage work, then that is all to the good. So many of the other couples I saw at our prep retreat were just there to “jump through the hoops” and check the boxes (kind of what Faith Formation feels like at a lot of parishes, to be honest). It was just something they had to get done before they could get to the wedding.

    I will say we were blessed to have a good and holy priest preparing us for marriage, and celebrating our wedding–he said something during his homily that has always stuck with me, and maybe it’s why I’ve worked so hard to make our marriage work. He said something to the effect of how everyone was here to celebrate a couple getting married, and that was great, but to not forget that a couple needs support DURING the marriage, not just on or before the wedding day. He said, “they may come to you at some point and say they’re having problems. Help them. Support them. Because you know what? Marriage is hard. Life is hard. Don’t tell them they’re being silly, don’t dismiss their problems. Helping preserve marriage is everyone’s job.” Boy, was everyone squirming in the pews. Nobody wants to hear how difficult life is on a wedding day! Where were the rainbows, the butterflies, the sparkle ponies? But it stuck with me, and when we had hard days/weeks/months I tried hard to remember that. I think quite a few couples go in believing in the “happily ever after” trope, as if marriage will fix what is wrong with their lives, and boy does it come back to bite them in the butt.

  6. I’ve wanted to start a support group for married and engaged couples for years. I tried once, but the pastor didn’t understand my intention and made us use a curriculum, which completely destroyed what we were going for (we didn’t want a marriage prep class, we wanted a support group with room to discuss things and focus on what the couples actually in the room needed).

    I’ll try again someday.

  7. Oops, I have more.

    I once helped with a junior high/high school level version of Safe Environment training at our parish. The way that program explained how abusers groom and manipulate victims, (before crossing any physical lines), was eye-opening. I don’t know if it sunk in for the kids the way it did for me, but regular exposure to this kind of presentation, during religious ed., at home, wherever, seems like it could go a long way toward helping before the dewy eyed couple show up for marriage prep. By then it is probably too late. But as a long-range preventative, future spouses should start out with a good working knowledge of what manipulation and abuse looks like.

    R for Reboot

  8. We had a long engagement, and by the time we married we had dated six years.

    We started our marriage prep classes 18 months before our anticipated wedding date, because I really wanted to get started. We finished them up a lot closer to the wedding. Thirty-five years later, I can’t say what about them particularly helped. I *do* think that the priest who met with each of us and rushed through the list of questions he had to ask us may have missed an opportunity, but we would have gotten married anyway, even if he had slowed down, let me give more considered answers, and discussed issues with me.

    I think that having spent many years growing together, arguing, making up, learning about each other, was helpful. Whether that could have been forced into us in an extended pre-Cana, it’s hard to say. We still had to continue raising each other for a long time after the wedding — I think you know how that goes. How could something possibly “prepare” you at 22 to face what would be your life at 40?

    I think a good program, like the preparation where the couple meets with an older married couple for many weeks, at least focuses on the couple themselves, and therefore is not a one-size-fits all. That should help better with discernment than sitting in a big class and hoping the couples are doing what they are supposed to in the little breakout exchanges.

    “Is there some other solution that would have helped you make a better choice and live a better life? Or is the Church’s vision of marriage so at odds with modern life that only a lucky and dedicated few can ever emerge with successful marriages?”
    I kind of like the choice I made and the live we’ve led. On the other hand, we had to use the graces of the sacrament, a lot of luck, and a commitment to what we each needed, in order to have a marriage that survived and grew and was life-giving to us both, whether it reflects exactly “the Church’s vision of marriage” or not.

    R for Reboot

  9. I can’t seem to comment on Catholic Weekly, so I’ll comment here. I don’t know that longer marriage prep would do anything, because when I look at the marriages I know of, there are those that took the usual route of six months and foundered soon after, ending in divorce once the kids were ‘grown’. There’s a marriage I know of between a guy who was seemingly a very devout, practicing Catholic, but whose wife divorced him due to extreme neglect and cruelty (after 21 years and 2 kids). There’s my brother in law, who after 20 years and four kids, demanded an annulment, claiming it wasn’t a real marriage because he was “emotionally manipulated” into marrying; there’s the two party animals I knew in grad school, who got married and everyone thought they were nuts because HE was nuts and she was going to have to put up with all kinds of shenanigans, and they’re still happily married, 20 years later.

    There’s my other brother-in-law, who waited until he was nearly 50 because he couldn’t find the ‘right woman’ and then convinced the priest that he and his fiance didn’t need to do the full six months because they were so mature. Now they live in separate houses, for all intents and purposes, divorced.

    For my part, we got engaged within a month of meeting each other, and when the priest met with us and learned we wanted to set our wedding date for a year after we’d met, said, “The Church only requires six months of preparation, why not get married in six months if you’re so sure?” We looked at each other and said in unison, “We need to get to know each other better!” I mean, we knew we wanted to get married. We knew marriage was for life. But we wanted to know a little more what we were getting into. At the same time, you kind of have to NOT know what you’re in for. If my 25-year-old self could have seen into the future, would she have still wanted to marry him, right then? I sure hope so, but I’m not sure. I think waiting three years would have dulled some of the spark? excitement? I never can understand when I read about very long engagements.

    I think the best part of marriage prep, for us, was when the priest had us take quizzes on what areas of life were important to us, how we aligned on our beliefs. We were very well aligned, but I could see it would be great if, upon taking that quiz, you saw that your beloved really didn’t see the point of saving money for retirement, or thought that kids were annoying ankle-biters and not a gift from God; such things really need to be discussed thoroughly before you say “I do.”

    1. We waited 5 months to get engaged so people didn’t think we were nuts. Then we waited the mandatory six months to marry. Truth be told, we could have married after a month. Looking back, I still wish we could have. We were ready and we were right for each other. No regrets. Our pre-Cana was largely a waste of time, except for one useful piece of advice we may or many not have figured out ourselves – maintain physical contact when disagreeing about a large thing.

      So what do I think would be a good idea? Maybe have marriage prep class be part of religious formation in a parish? Before marriage is even on a person’s mind. Catholic high schools typically have a Christian marriage class for seniors in place of religion class. There’s a lot of caring for pretend babies, don’t get pregnant and here’s how you avoid that. But I think it would be good for young people to listen to the experiences of old married couples. Listen to the folks who’ve made it through illness, poverty, bankruptcy, infertility, surprise fertility, special needs children, etc. And more importantly, listen to how successfully married couples have handled the mundane stuff – housework distribution, childcare responsibilities, in law stuff, budgeting, etc.

      And don’t just make the kids sit through talks once or twice, but lots and lots of times. Make the kids write papers on what they think are successful coping strategies for issues and problems that married couples face. Make the kids reflect in their papers on what kind of coping strategies would work best with their individual personalities and how their preferred strategy would work with different spousal personalities.

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