(ABP) — “You know of all the weddings we’ve attended this year, statistically, at least one will end in divorce.” It was an odd thing for my fiancé to lean over and tell me as we watch one of my college roommates walk down the aisle of a Methodist Church. It kills the mood to bring up divorce at a wedding. It is even more disheartening for my fiancé to bring it up. What does that even mean?
She is correct, however. I have reached the age where everyone decides to tie the knot. In the past two years, I will have attended nine weddings before I say “I do” at the end of this year. If the national average applies, four of those marriages will end in divorce.
The rising divorce rate has been an issue for years. Since the institution of no-fault divorce in the 1970s, the rate has steadily risen. Television and film is littered with plots surrounding infidelity and divorce. Billboards flash with advertisements for cheap, uncontested divorces.
Is anything being done to stem the tide of divorce? Better preparation is part of the answer.
Planning a wedding is stressful. An engaged couple must choose a venue, hire an officiant, try-out a DJ, select a photographer, purchase flowers, sample the cake, taste the food, try-on a tuxedo, discover THE dress, find a place to live, send the invitations, and then what? Oh — get married!
You prepare in a myriad of ways but miss the one that counts. How do you prepare to live with one another after you say, “I do?”
Pre-marital counseling is a nuisance to the majority of couples planning a wedding. It involves a time commitment when time is precious. Many couples only tolerate the work in order to receive the precious $40 discount on their marriage license.
Baptist churches vary in counseling requirements and methods. Some ministers will not perform the ceremony unless the couple has participated in counseling either with the pastor or a couple in the congregation. This type of counseling can range from a one-time 30-minute meeting to several sessions. More ministers are offering the PREPARE/ENRICH program as another option. It involves an online survey followed by a meeting with a trained facilitator, usually a minister. The amount of time and quality of counseling couples experience varies greatly.
Other ministers follow a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The state of the couples’ relationship is inconsequential. To these ministers, counseling is not their concern. If the couple wishes to be counseled, they can find it elsewhere. Couples who do not wish to follow the rules of the stricter Baptist ministers gladly turn to these lax ministers to perform their ceremony.
Is this how we should prepare young people for marriage?
I will be getting married in the Catholic Church. As a part of preparation for our nuptials we must answer questions about ourselves, our families and our relationship in a 200-page booklet. All couples who wish to marry in the Catholic Church complete this booklet.
The topics discussed range from great, soul searching questions about the worst moment from our childhoods to specifics about who will do the dishes on the third Thursday of each month. No topic seems uncovered.
During the week, my fiancé and I answer our questions separately. We go over our answers together prior to meeting with an older couple from the congregation to discuss the revelations we gain from our laborious work. If there is a topic we’d like to discuss further like different family traditions, we do so. If the couple perceives the development of a potential pitfall based on one of our answers, they ask more probing questions to caution and prepare us. By the end of the process, we will have spent six to seven hours a week for five weeks working and talking about our relationship and preparing for our marriage.
I am not implying that the Catholic Church has it all figured out. But I know far too many Baptist marriages that are crumbling or have ended too soon after they said, “I do.”
Baptist ministers need to reevaluate their definition of pre-marital counseling and the priority they place upon it. A couple who does not want counseling should not be able to go down the street and find another minister who will not challenge them. I am grateful for the importance the Catholic Church places upon pre-marital counseling and how it has strengthened my relationship. I wish more Baptist ministers and couples had the foresight to use the valuable resources available.
William Roberts is a master-of-divinity student at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, and is an assistant archivist with the American Baptist Historical Society. This guest commentary was originally written as an exercise for a seminary class in writing for ministry.