Marriage preparation is not just for the big day – it’s for life

Marriage by Design CourseOver the last week I’ve been  involved with the Alive Festival in Suffolk. It’s been great to share with delegates some of what I’ve been up to with this blog and discuss ideas and opinions on the state of  politics, our society and the Church. Following a seminar I met Duncan MacInnes who with his wife coordinates the Marriage by Design course for East Anglia. He has a huge passion for seeing marriages start with a firm and secure footing, but what he was most excited about as we talked was the way that he is increasingly taking the course outside of churches and using it successfully in secular settings and with couples who are not having church weddings. I asked him if he’d like to share some of his thoughts here and he has duly obliged. Duncan tweets at @duncanmaci.

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I wonder if you are, like me, someone who tries to think logically and rationally about situations?  Does it sometimes seem to you that the obvious path isn’t always followed?  Of course it could be that the apparently clear way forward is merely a delusion in your mind caused by a lack of information leading to a distorted view.  Then again it might be that there is a straightforward path.

It strikes me that this is the case with some of the problems that beset our society today in the UK.  Over and over again when I have conversations with people who are hurting, I hear evidence of a breakdown in their closest relationships.  This might be with parents, siblings, marriage partner or the parting of ways where two have been living together.  The cost of relationship breakdown to the UK economy is estimated at around £44bn by the Centre for Social Justice.  However our concern should not just be about the financial cost but the tragic social consequences that lie beneath the headline figures.

Relationship breakdown causes various problems including crime, ill health, stress, suicide, mental health problems, work absence, educational and emotional problems and pressures on the housing situation due to people living alone.  In 2011,it was estimated that the percentage of marriages ending in divorce (assuming 2010 divorce and mortality rates throughout the duration of marriage) was 42%. Around half of these divorces occur in the first ten years of marriage.  In 2012, the number of divorces in England and Wales stood at 118,140, that is just over 320 per day.  (Office for National Statistics).  Add to the divorce numbers, the number of people cohabiting who split apart plus the number of unhappy marriages and it is plain to see that we have a problem of epidemic proportions.

Marriage is a wonderful institution but one that presents regular and significant challenges.  In order to avoid the potential of divorce many couples cohabit but this has been clearly shown to be much less stable than marriage.  Statistics show that unmarried parents are approximately six times more likely to split by their first child’s fifth birthday than those who are married.  So how do we try to resolve this problem of relationship breakdown?

The logical place to start would be to encourage people to enter the most stable relationship, marriage, and then help to give these couples the very best foundations for their life together.  Marriage preparation has been, and still is, the obvious answer but this has been regarded by many couples as unnecessary and by many churches as a time-consuming and not always fruitful task.

Let’s firstly look at the reaction of couples that don’t embrace marriage preparation.  These generally fall into three categories.

Couples say:

‘We are in love so we don’t need marriage preparation.  If it isn’t broken we don’t want to try to fix it.’

‘We have lived together for five years and know each other completely so we don’t need marriage preparation.’

‘We have both been married before so we know not to make the same mistakes again. Marriage preparation is not for us’

Each of these categories of people would certainly benefit from good marriage preparation.

So what about the church?  Some church leaders chat to couples over a cup of tea, some offer the HTB five evening Marriage Preparation Course and Marriage Care offer a one-day course for couples marrying through the Catholic Church.  It is the case, however, that many couples marrying in church receive only the basic preparation.  And what you may ask about the 70% of couples who marry outside of church, with this percentage slowly increasing year on year as more and more attractive venues offer a wedding service in addition to the wedding reception.  Those couples are almost completely ignored by the church.

How can the church play a more active part in marriage preparation?  Statistics show that couples who attend marriage preparation are 30% more likely to have a marriage that lasts a lifetime. (Dr. Jason Carroll and Dr. William J. Doherty)

I believe what is needed is to give couples a greater choice of excellent products in conjunction with inspiring teaching.  The more couples who experience this, the more that other couples will be encouraged to participate as word spreads aided by social networking.

My wife, Janice, and I are slowly building marriage preparation in East Anglia and now work in an integrated way with fifteen churches.  By integrated I mean that we encourage clergy to continue with the work they personally do with couples – helping them to understand the wedding service and its format, explaining the spiritual side of marriage and giving some personal teaching about marriage.  We add to this around five hours of great relationship teaching.  Currently we use the new “ Marriage by Design” one-day course from the charity, Care for the Family.  The material is excellent and easily supplemented with examples from our own 30-year marriage.  Most importantly we believe it presents the church in a modern and relevant way to engaged couples.  The one-day format is ideal for young people who lead busy lives and the style of interspersing live talks with video, case studies and brief couple discussions appeals to those who have the short attention span so prevalent in today’s world.  For couples marrying outside of church, we have negotiated with Norfolk County Council for Marriage by Design to be offered to every couple marrying through the county’s nine register offices.

Of course marriage preparation is just the start and it is vital that there is a choice of excellent teaching material for later in marriage.  However if every marriage could get off to the best possible start, then I am convinced we would see considerable benefits for our nation.  If you would like to talk to us about how best to expand marriage preparation in your area and how best to reach many couples without a church connection, do contact us through the Contact page on this blog  – we would love to hear from you!

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Categories: Christian organisations, Marriage

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