June 2017 – Traditionally, marriage preparation consists of meeting with the pastor once or twice to discuss little more than plans for the ceremony. The focus is on the wedding, not the marriage. Such meetings offer little value, since some studies say that for four decades, half of American marriages ended in divorce.
In the 1990s, my wife and I created a better answer: the trained mentor couple who prepares couples for a healthy, lifelong marriage. Unlike the pastor, they are two genders, who can share their own marriage and testify to the importance of faith in their relationship. As volunteers, they offer time, love, and wisdom – and they lighten the pastor’s counseling load.
We trained mentor couples to use PREPARE-ENRICH, a premarital inventory created by Dr. David Olson of University of Minnesota. The man and woman take the assessment separately online and indicate whether they agree or disagree with 150+ statements such as:
▶ When we are having a problem, my partner often refuses to talk about it.
▶ I am concerned that my partner is more of a spender than I am.
Results are scored by PREPARE-ENRICH and sent to the pastor to spark dialogue. Busy clergy, with time restraints, usually pick two or three categories from “Strength,” where the couple is in agreement, and two or three from “Growth Areas” where the couple differs, to discuss.
My wife and I designed a more productive way to use the inventory. In the 1990s in our church, we taught couples in healthy marriages of 20-40 years to be “Mentor Couples” to administer it. We trained them to discuss all of the 150+ relationship issues with the premarital couple in six two-hour sessions.
This approach provided four advantages over pastor-administered inventories. First, the premarital couple received extended time with a successfully married couple. Few people have had the opportunity to witness a thriving, long-term marriage up close.
Second, mentor couples had the time to facilitate discussion of every issue in the assessment, not just a handful of them.
Third, we trained mentor couples to teach skills of communication and conflict resolution. A major reason for divorce is that couples don’t know how to resolve their differences respectfully and amicably.
Fourth, we taught mentors to administer an “Optional Premarital Sexual Covenant,” providing an opportunity for couples to pledge chastity until the wedding, increasing their chances of a successful marriage. Paul wrote, “You should avoid sexual immorality, that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable” (I Thessalonians 4:3-4). It is difficult for mentors to teach skills of conflict resolution if the premarital couple seeks to restore closeness through sexual intimacy. Problem solving is best achieved by using tools of healthy communication.
We personally prepared 61 couples for marriage in the 1990s, 51 of whom were sexually active. Surprisingly, 43 of them signed the Sexual Covenant.
One couple we mentored seemed well suited for each other. They had dated since high school, were active in church, and their parents were friends. However, the inventory surfaced troubling issues they had never discussed. Concerned over their unresolved disagreements, they broke their engagement. Three years later, both returned to take the assessment again, each with a better suited partner.
We mentored another couple in their 40s who had dated for years. Their inventory scores were good, but he never popped the question. They experienced a dysfunctional cycle of dating and breaking up. However, the assessment and mentoring helped them address undiscussed issues and build a highly functioning marriage.
What were the results of our rigorous mentor-centered marriage preparation?
Mentor couples we trained in our church prepared 288 couples for marriage. However, 58 of them, a big 20%, decided not to marry, probably avoiding a future divorce. Most churches have only 2-3% decide not to marry.
Today, mentors report that of the 230 couples who married, there have been only 18 divorces. That’s better than a 90% success rate over two decades.