What Catholics actually want and need from marriage preparation

Keep the lines of communication open, and buy gold.

Those are the two things and the only things my husband and I learned in our marriage preparation classes 25 years ago.

It’s hard to say which bit of advice was less helpful. We already knew communication was important, but what we really needed was practice. And the financial advice was sound, but we had exactly enough cash for one month’s rent and a new mattress, so that’s what we spent it on.

In other words, what we learned during marriage preparation was one thing that was true but uselessly abstract, and one thing that was true but comically irrelevant.

And this, unfortunately, seems to be par for the course for most Catholics. When I asked Catholics about their experience with marriage preparation, some said they enjoyed and appreciated it and learned valuable things. But many more told me that the experience was just an extra burden during an already stressful time, or even that it soured a skeptical partner against the faith. The recent announcement by the Vatican of a year-long (albeit voluntary, at least for now) “catechumenal itinerary for married life” has been met with mild to scathing cynicism from Catholics—including priests and lay people—on social media.

“Catholics think if you just get the right program, everything will be fine,” said Robert Krishna, a Dominican priest in the archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia. “And if they don’t understand what they need to do, repeat yourself louder and slower. That’s not the answer.”

Still, the answer cannot be simply to require no preparation. More than one canon lawyer who has worked on marriage tribunals has told me that many couples present themselves at the altar with little to no understanding of what marriage is. Their relationships fall apart because they were unprepared for marriage. So someone has to do something.

What type of marriage preparation is actually useful, helpful and stays with a couple as they grow into the sacrament they have conferred on each other? I talked with Father Krishna, several married people, and a married couple who have been running Engaged Encounter weekend retreats since 2005, and here is what I learned…

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

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9 thoughts on “What Catholics actually want and need from marriage preparation”

  1. Assessments that determine if someone has narcissistic or psychopathic traits are almost always useless, because someone with narcissistic or psychopathic traits has extensive practice lying and presenting themselves in a way that gets other people on their side. Many of those tests only continue to exist so that criminals with money can have an “expert witness” that helps them get out of a conviction or get a lighter sentence (see also: parental alienation, which is frequently weaponized by abusers in family court and has never been accepted by the medical community).

    If you actually used these assessments on a narcissist or psychopath, they would just twist the results and use them against the other partner. The test results would just be one more data point to make victims doubt themselves, or for the abuser to weaponize against them in their family/church/divorce/annulment process.

    Narcissism is contraindicated for family and couple’s therapy. Trained, licensed therapists ethically can’t provide counseling to a narcissist and their partner the way they would any other couple. Untrained priests and lay ministers getting mixed up in assessment and counseling is a horrible idea that could massively harm people and contribute to domestic violence.

  2. We weren’t Catholic when we married and weren’t required to do marriage prep when we “Catholic married” ten years later, so I don’t have personal experience. I think a good idea might be to have married couple who are willing to be mentors to young couples while they’re preparing. I’m not sure how the priest would insure that the couple doesn’t teach falsehoods (like I was through RCIA) but having mentors would hopefully enable a more individualized help in the preparation.

  3. Having finished the whole article — well done — there’s a lot there that is useful. But I’ll also remark that in our marriage prep there was a couple that everyone knew had an unhealthy relationship. He was hypercontrolling, to the point we all assumed it might be an abusive relationship. As far as I know, nothing was done by any of the people in the class, by the teachers, or by the priest to address this or to “gatekeep” in the good sense. As you say, the only solution is community, and we weren’t a community — just a bunch of people forced to be in a room together.

  4. Why can’t the answer be not to have a preparation class? If people are currently required to take these classes but the canon lawyers are saying they see tons of people that got married with no understanding, why would the answer be *more* classes? Or even “better” ones — everyone thinks their plan to force people to sit in a room and listen to them is better than the other guy’s. The solution to everything is not a class, that’s something that started as the Church interacted with the culture of public school (see Orestes Brownson). People can be offered classes, of course, but the requirement is a bad idea. They are taught often by either dissidents that want to influence (we were told at marriage prep that contraception that isn’t abortifacaent isn’t really not o.k., and at our daughter communion prep that the person in charge felt it important to “set aside”some Church teachings) or by strong traditionalists who don’t get that lecturing a bunch of single (read: abandoned) mothers on the theology of the body as a pre-condition to getting their baby the gifts of the Holy Spirit and washed of original sin at baptism is not very nice. Give people a pamphlet, give them the sacrament, and make sure they know that if they accept a sacrament under false pretenses it’s on them. Do your due diligence — maybe a conversation or two, a waiting period, publishing bans, whatever — and then stop acting as if God is powerless to make sure His sacraments aren’t accidentally used badly.

    1. I’m on our Parish’s marriage prep team but I tend to agree with you. I often think sacrament prep borders on a denial of the actual graces received in the sacrament. Also, my husband’s and my pre-Cana was a complete waste of time and we resented the imposition and the cost. No question in my mind it should be optional.

      Surprisingly to me, however, quite a few of the young people today actually WANT classes. The majority of couples in our classes tend to be wealthier and well educated. (I think this is a national trend as fewer poor people seem to bother with marriage). And many of these privileged people tend to look at marriage like they look at anything else: “OK. I got this. Just tell me how to do this thing and I’ll succeed just like I always do.”

    1. It seems somewhat invasive to me. I can’t be the only person who would be worried what the priest, deacon, or layperson would do with that info. I just don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to submit themselves to psychological testing to prove they’re worthy of the sacrament.

      I’m also not sure of the usefulness of any questionnaire. How can we expect people to know how they’d discipline children before they’ve actually had them? Speaking for my husband and me, we’re not big discipliners (we’re more natural consequences type of parents) but even if we were, our approach would certainly vary from kid to kid.

      I think Simcha has it right when she says that marriage prep “ideally should be teaching Catholics from a young age what marriage ought to look like. They should be modeling fidelity and forgiveness, demonstrating how cooperation and mutual submission work in real life.” Too many people have never seen that.

      I’ve recently heard of a couple married in the Church who are now divorcing because one spouse wanted to move to Europe and the other didn’t want to go and certainly didn’t want to raise their two year old alone in a foreign country. Maybe it was an unreasonable request but if it was that important to the one spouse the other needed to find a way to make it work. Or if the fear of moving to Europe was too much for the one spouse could bear, the other spouse needed to let the dream go. But both refused to submit to the other. It just seems to me neither was fully committed to the marriage.

      1. I think a lot would depend on how the psychological testing would be presented; if presented as purely optional and as a tool to help the couple identify areas where they struggle, either individually or as a couple, and then present them with tools about how to approach those areas together, that could be incredibly helpful. If it’s coercive or as a “test,” then no. As far as the questionnaire goes, I remember doing that during marriage prep and then talking about it with my then-fiancé and the priest who was preparing us; it had much less to do with your specific answers about how you were going to disciple your kids or celebrate the holidays and much, much more to do with identifying areas to talk about together that probably would come up at some point in married life. I thought it was helpful, but we had also already talked about 99% of the topics on it.

        My husband and I (married 12 years next week) went through a program in our diocese called Third Option (not sure if it’s offered in other dioceses?) last year that really helped when we went through a pretty rough patch. It was a 12 week program with a different topic and presenting couple each week — topics ranged from family of origin issues to forgiveness and repair, etc. The quality of the presentation varied a lot, but it gave us some really helpful strategies for identifying issues together and not making the other person the issue to be solved or fixed; it was also good to just take an hour each week to focus on our marriage and gave us a lot of good topics of conversation. I think it would be great if some of those elements could be incorporated into marriage prep or accompanying newlyweds in the church.

      2. I think there’s this pervasive idea floating around that “being true to yourself” and “following your dreams (ie, career path)” trumps romantic love. It seems like a lot of storylines even on TV shows that I’ve seen is the unrequited love story where two people are perfect for each other but they both have career paths that they identify wholly with and that split off from one another.

        I don’t know if people know how to think of “what’s best for us as a family” rather than “what’s best for my individual happiness”. I’m not sure if the old answer of the guy’s career always winning out in that battle is the best answer, but I do wonder how many marriages died before they took off because of that.

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