For many couples, "marriage preparation" means little more than choosing the wedding cake. But when making a lifetime commitment, it makes sense to do some more forward planning.
My husband and I wanted to get married in our local Church of England parish in London, U.K., which required us to complete a six-week marriage preparation course led by the minister. We were not particularly excited about the prospect of spending the next six Thursday evenings at the church with several other couples, but it turned out to be an incredibly important step to prepare us for a life together.
The program strongly emphasized Christian values of love and fidelity, but there were also practical lessons on how to budget, talk about finances, retirement dreams and even — gasp — how to cultivate a sizzling sex life.
We saw other people discuss issues for the first time that should have come up far before the proposal. At one point, a couple had a heated exchange, left the session and never returned. I hope the course saved them from a mismatched marriage.
For our part, the sessions gave us uninterrupted time to just talk. It was like going on a series of first dates.
Marriage preparation classes are a great way to help future-proof your relationship, but they don't need to come from a religious perspective.
The Humanist Society offers certification to celebrants who perform wedding ceremonies for secular and humanist couples. Humanists believe in critical thinking over dogma and the agency of humans over their own lives.
Jacquelyn Simms is a humanist celebrant based in North Carolina. She meets with engaged couples to discuss a wide range of topics, like each person's concept of marriage, work-life balance and children — both having them and the possibility that biological kids are not in the cards.
She says that it’s important that two people share a commitment to building a life together and have similar and realistic expectations of the partnership.
"I do not tell the couples that theirs is a marriage 'made in heaven,'" she says. "I do tell them that their marriage will be made by the decisions they make each day."
Cincinnati, Ohio humanist chaplain and counsellor Bart Campolo says people approaching marriage should try to talk to those already in successful long-term relationships.
"I often encourage couples to find an older couple whose relationship they admire and ask to spend some time together before and after the wedding talking shop about marriage," he says.
He says that it’s also important that couples, especially those who aren't part of a traditional church community, seek out supportive mentors to guide them in developing a healthy relationship.
During sessions, Campolo brings up career plans, spirituality, money management, intimacy, communication styles, children, and the division of household labour.
"Conversations around these issues are almost always easier to begin before the wedding, and set in place the idea that relationships require ongoing reflection and revision," he says.
For humanist celebrant Kye Flannery, who lives in Austin, Texas, marriage preparation is a chance for couples to discuss their commitment to one another, free from judgment. She aims to facilitate discussions but doesn't impose her own thoughts or philosophies.
"I create space for couples to reflect on patterns in their families of origin, to say out loud what they want to hold sacred in their own home, and any family dynamics they don't want to repeat," she says.
"I don't see it as a time for me to lecture them or tell them what they need according to my values."
For marriages to last a lifetime, there must be a great deal of introspection, honesty and willingness to grow. The best time to develop these skills is before the wedding happens.
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