Before Saying ‘I Do,’ Consider Premarital Education to Learn about Partner

Before they say “I do” more couples are saying “I will” — to premarital education, hedging their bets that time spent in class may keep them out of court. Divorce court, that is. New research suggests they may be on to something.

A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that premarital education was associated with higher levels of marital satisfaction, lower levels of destructive conflicts and higher levels of interpersonal commitment to spouses. The study, based on a random phone survey of 3,344 adults in four states, revealed that couples who received premarital education were 31 percent less likely to divorce.

Premarital programs aren’t new. And they’re not premarital counseling, where couples typically meet one-on-one with a counselor to work out any conflicts or problem areas. In contrast, premarital education occurs in a group setting to provide general advice on relationships, marital challenges, and couple dynamics.

In a society awash with wedding books, magazines, and websites, few resources address the challenges couples face after the honeymoon, a time when two families must learn to coexist peacefully. And the advice in chat rooms about soon-to-be in-laws or family issues is often rose-colored and pop-psychology simplistic. Premarital programs tell couples what they need to know about family dynamics.

So just how much education does it take to stave off the dreaded “D” word? Depends on the couple, but the journal study found that time spent in premarital programs varied from as little as a few hours to 20 hours, and“ with an average of eight hours.

Most religious denominations recommend premarital programs to work out any wrinkles before engaged couples tie the knot. Experts suggest that couples start such programs six months to a year in advance. Scott Stanley, co-founder of a premarital and marital education program who co-authored the journal study, intimated that the rising interest in premarital education marks a cultural trend “to be much more accepting of education as a way to improve one’s ability to do life well.”

His study bears this out. Of the adults surveyed in Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, only 7 percent of those married during the 1930s and 1940s got premarital education, compared with 44 percent of those married since 1990. The benefits crossed racial, economic and educational lines with access to classes being the only limitation.

So how to improve access? Use new mediums to promote the message. William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, has a DVD that dispenses premarital education as part of a couple’s wedding planning. The two-hour mini-course is designed to manage what Doherty calls the “people stress” of preparing for a wedding.

Another way to provide greater access is to offer programs at work. With a 57-year marriage as a model, Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy, 85, has implemented a full range of marriage-friendly policies and programs at his Atlanta-based headquarters and 900 franchise operators across the country. Offerings range from seminars and marriage retreats to lunchtime sessions and counseling from on-call psychologists.

Even the military is recognizing the importance of premarital education. The Building Strong and Ready Families (BSRF) initiative, realizing that single soldiers are likely to marry soon after their enlistment ends, launched the Premarital Interpersonal Choices and Knowledge (PICK) program. Developed by Dr. John Van Epp, the five-session curriculum — also known as “How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk(ette)” — reviews the five dynamics that create attachment and the five crucial areas to explore in a premarital relationship.

One final bit of wit and wisdom from Mark Twain: “There isn’t time — so brief is life — for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account there is only time for loving — and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

About the author: Alex A. Kecskes is a national award-winning writer with more than 20 years experience in advertising, PR and promotions. He is founder of ak creativeworks, a creative services company and writes regularly for web and print.