Getting it Right: Marriage Preparation in the Catholic Church

A Study of the Value of Marriage Preparation in the Catholic Church for Couples Married One Through Eight Years. Conducted by: Center for Marriage and Family, Creighton University, November 1995.

Many conclusions and challenges can legitimately be drawn from this study. We choose to highlight the following ten.

  1. The vast majority of individuals who have participated in marriage preparation programs view the experience as valuable early in their marriage. In the first year of marriage, 93.8% agree that marriage preparation was a valuable experience, and in the second year, 78.4% agree. Overall, almost two thirds (66.3%) perceive marriage preparation as a valuable experience, a quarter (26.6%) as a very valuable experience. The other third (33.8%), perceive it as less than valuable, 8.2% of them strongly.

    The implication here is clear. Marriage preparation serves a useful purpose for couples preparing for marriage. It should continue to receive the support and the resources of the churches who are concerned with the enhancing of marriages and families.
  2. The perceived value of marriage preparation declines significantly over time. By the eighth year of marriage, only 47.4% of respondents agreed that marriage preparation was a valuable experience.

    The implication here is that marriage preparation has a restricted shelf-life. The reasons for that are not clear from this study, suggesting the direction of future research to discover why the perceived value of marriage preparation declines over time. Is it simply that memory fades with time? Is it that the benefits derived from marriage preparation erode with time? Is it that marriage preparation prepares couples for the developmental tasks they face early in marriage but not for the tasks they face later? If the latter is the case, and we hypothesize that it is, at least in part, it implies the need for booster programs throughout the various developmental stages of marriage. The restricted shelf-life of marriage preparation must be acknowledged and additional proactive support must be provided to couples in the first eight years of marriage.
  3. While Stucky et al. reported that the perceived effectiveness of marriage preparation is positively related ta the degree of its voluntariness, the present study found that the perceived value in mandatory programs did not differ from that demonstrated in studies of voluntary programs. The mandatory nature of marriage preparation in the Catholic Church does not appear to get in the way of participants finding value in it.

    Though twelve respondents in the present study commented that marriage preparation should be voluntary, no evidence was uncovered in the study to support their position. Given the percentage of respondents drawing value and helpfulness from marriage preparation, even when mandatory, there would appear to be no reason to change the requirement for marriage preparation. It is clearly serving a very useful purpose for a large number of people.
  4. Marriage preparation is perceived as most valuable when it is administered by a team. Clergy working alone with a couple continues to be the most common format for administering marriage preparation, and it is perceived as a valuable format. In this study, however, respondents perceived it as a significantly less valuable format than administration by a team. A team made up of clergy, lay couples, and parish staff was the instructor combination that yielded the highest perceived values. To be noted here is the critical role of clergy on this team. Respondents judged the absence of clergy from the marriage preparation process to be seriously detrimental to the process.

    The implication here is that marriage preparation should always be administered by a team. That team should always include a member of the clergy, for couples consistently judge the presence of clergy valuable and their absence detrimental. It should also always include lay couples, for a recurring complaint was that "priests who don't marry ... just don't know what it is like." There is here a suggestion for future research, to discriminate precisely what it is that the presence of clergy contributes to the perceived value of marriage preparation.
  5. The intensity of a marriage preparation program contributes importantly to its perceived value. Programs that are accomplished in only one session are perceived as being of least value. As respondents who rated marriage preparation least valuable suggested more than once, little of value can be done in one session. The correlation of the intensity of marriage preparation and its perceived value increases with intensities up to 8-9 sessions and then falls off again, suggesting that an intensity of 8-9 sessions might be ideal.

    The present study suggests that the relationship between the intensity of a marriage preparation program and its perceived value is curvilinear, that is, too little is perceived as being of limited value and so is too much. Additional research is required to determine precisely the ideal intensity.
  6. The topics addressed in marriage preparation that were perceived as most helpful were the 5 Cs: communication, commitment, conflict resolution, children and church (values and sacramental activity). A sixth C, career, and especially dual career, was among those topics perceived as least helpful.

    There are two strong implications here. The first relates to the enhancement of the 5Cs, especially to the topic areas of communication, commitment, and conflict resolution, all of them crucial tasks in the early developmental stage of marriage. The second relates to the need to improve the treatment of the topic of dual-career marriages. Dual career marriages are an area that needs to be further investigated by future research.
  7. The present study showed a statistically significant positive correlation between the perceived value of marriage preparation and prior formal religious education at the high school or adult levels. The correlation was more significant in the case of those who had religious education as an adult. In an oblique way, then, the study validated the importance of both high school and ongoing adult religious education. It may be that high school is the key formative time for the issue of relationship. The study showed also, at the other end of the spectrum, and not surprisingly given levels of interest and focus, that grammar school religious education is the least effective pre-marital education.

    Religious education in high school and ongoing religious education in adulthood is the best long-range formal education for marriage the Church can offer. If it wants to improve the quality of its premarriage education programs, and of Christian marriages and families, then it must ensure that marriage preparation does not stand alone but is allied with formal religious education. The Church must find ways to engage its members not only in marriage preparation just before marriage but also in serious religious education long before marriage when issues of a relationship first begin to arise.
  8. It is predictable that a sense of belonging to the Church and/or participation in Church activities prior to marriage preparation will color an individual's attitude toward marriage preparation. The present study demonstrated this hypothesis. Individuals who were more active in Church life and/or who had a greater sense of belonging to the Church perceived greater value in marriage preparation. They also reported a drop in both their sense of belonging to the Church and their level of practice in the first eight years of their marriage.

    Whether individuals perceive value in marriage preparation simply because it is required and offered by the Church to which they belong or they perceive marriage preparation as one more way to participate in Church practice, there is an important implication here. Marriage preparation does not and cannot stand alone. There is an important task of pre-preparation, dare we call it pre-evangelization, that must be done. In the immediately preceding chapter, that pre-evangelization was named adult religious education. Here we name it the creation of a sense of belonging to and practice in the Church. There is also an important task of post-marriage preparation to be done to maintain and enhance both belonging and practice.
  9. Inter-church couples, who comprised 39% of respondents in the present study, are most at risk for drift from church belonging and practice. They come to marriage preparation with lower levels of belonging and practice, and lower expectations of the value of marriage preparation. They leave it with a significant positive shift in attitude, indicating that marriage preparation has served them well, and yet they drift further away from the Church. The study showed that women in inter-church marriages drift further away from the Church than men, a disturbing fact given the research that indicates that mothers may be the strongest influence on the early faith development of children.

    The challenge is clear. Those who provide marriage preparation programs need to understand better the dynamics and needs of inter-church couples so that they can respond to them better and offer them programs more suited to the demands of their situations. The Church is challenged to make interchurch couples a priority and to create for them marriage preparation programs that will make religious faith and practice a strong, ongoing factor in their marriages. The Center for Marriage and Family is proposing a follow-up study on inter-church marriages, national and ecumenical, to gather and analyze data on them, and to create and pilot models of marriage preparation fitted to their situations.
  10. One of the best predictors of how much value individuals will derive from any program is their prior expectation of the program's value. The present study demonstrated that it is no different with marriage preparation, uncovering a strong statistical relationship (r=.54, P < .01) between the value couples expected to derive from marriage preparation and the value they ultimately judged they derived. It is clear that those who come to marriage preparation with high expectations derive more benefit from it than those who come with low expectations. The present study demonstrated an important result related to expectation, namely, that couples' experience of marriage preparation.
    • The implication here is that those who administer marriage preparation programs need to do all they can to raise couples' expectations for marriage preparation. Providers must themselves set a high expectation for marriage preparation and its delivery and must communicate that high expectation to couples who participate in their programs, to raise the value those couples expect from the program. The higher the expected value, the higher also the perceived value. Future research is needed to explore specific ways to raise expectations, and also to confirm the degree to which expectation creates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

A final comment concludes this report. For a large majority of the respondents in this study, marriage preparation was a valuable process. The challenges issued here, therefore, are challenges designed not to make helpful what is not helpful, but to make it more helpful to a larger population what is already perceived as helpful. We acknowledge the enormous resources and energies already expended on marriage preparation most Catholic dioceses in the United States. We challenge only so that resources and energies may be expended in ever more helpful ways, echoing the challenge issued by Pope John Paul II. "The church must promote better and more intensive programs of marriage preparation in order to eliminate as far as possible the difficulties many married couples find themselves in, and even more in order to favor positively the establishing and maturing of successful marriages."