Couples say 'I do' to forming solid marriages

As they navigate their first years of marriage, Jeff and Jackie Wald haven’t had a manual to help them with important issues such as husband-wife communication, family prayer and child-rearing. But the St. Paul, Minn., couple have had real-time support from experienced mentor couples and peers via a two-year course designed to help young Catholic couples learn about marriage and how it integrates into the life of the Church.

“Casting a vision is a big part of what they do,” Jackie said of the Community of Christ the Redeemer’s Young Married Formation Program. “It’s saying, ‘Here’s the vision. Here are the principles. This is what we did,’ and then they share their testimonials. … You’re encouraged, but free to make those decisions for your families because there’s not going to be this rule book.”

An evangelization tool

Helping newly married couples develop a strong bond is a form of evangelization, said Bill Coffin, a longtime marriage education advocate from Silver Spring, Md., who helped pilot Mastering the Mysteries of Sacramental Love, a Catholic marriage preparation course.

“The best way to do evangelization and celebrate our faith is to help couples, many of whom are struggling with lives of quiet desperation,” he said. “They can’t talk to each other; they don’t understand each other. Of course, the best time to build those skills, those attitudes, that knowledge base is when they’re newlyweds.”

The Walds are among 60 couples who have completed the formation program at the Community of Christ the Redeemer, a Catholic covenant community, since 2007.

Program events include monthly talks by mentor couples at coordinators Ed and Leslie Gross’s home and small group meetings. Topics range from marriage and sexuality, to spirituality, to finances and child-rearing.

“Marriage is a doorway for people who are engaged and marrying. … They’re idealistic, they’re hopeful,” Ed said. “A lot of them realize it’s one of the few times in your life when you realize, ‘This is beyond me. I’m receiving a gift from God.’”

A firm foundation

Experts agree that fostering healthy Catholic families means offering young married couples the spiritual, practical and relational tools to build strong foundations for their domestic church before they develop serious relationship problems.

The U.S. bishops called for continuing education and growth for newly married couples in their 2009 pastoral letter “Love and Life in the Divine Plan.”

“While husbands and wives can cling to the unconditional promise that they made at their wedding as a source of grace, this will require persistent effort,” the bishops wrote. “Maintaining the common courtesies — persevering in fidelity, kindness, communication and mutual assistance — can become a deep expression of conjugal charity. It means growing in a love that is far deeper than a romantic feeling.”

A dearth of programs

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Unfortunately, marital enrichment programs aren’t available in many parishes, according to Lauren Gaffey, director of administration and programs for Chicago-based Charis Ministries, whose Ignatian-inspired retreat, Christ Alive in Our Marriage, offers couples in their first five years of marriage the opportunity to reflect on how to best live out their marriage vocation.

“They go through the Pre-Cana [engagement] process that varies by diocese, and then there’s nothing after their wedding,” she said. “‘We’ll see you again when you’re ready to get your kids baptized.’ There’s nothing specifically for young couples.”

Though retreats and programs are available in some areas, fewer than 15 percent of U.S. parishes offer a good range of resources for young married couples, according to one estimate by Illinois marriage expert Lorrie Gramer. And these programs are needed more than ever.

Though a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University reveals that Catholics are less likely to divorce than non-Catholics, other data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that about half of first marriages end in divorce. Many couples who don’t divorce early struggle for years before seeking counseling.

One problem is that many couples haven’t had much catechesis and suddenly have a lot to take in as they are preparing for marriage, said Ed Hopfner, Marriage and Family Life director for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Couples might need to be mentored again because of all the distractions before the wedding, Gaffey agreed, adding that this is why the Christ Alive in Our Marriage retreat is so effective.

Once they are married, “they have a vague concept of what the vocation of marriage was, what the sacrament means, what it means in life,” she said. “[With] the engagement process there’s a lot of other stuff going on competing for attention.”

The parish as a resource

Just letting engaged couples know that they can find help from their parish can be reassuring, said Bethany Meola, assistant director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. Meola manages the USCCB’s website on marriage — foryourmarriage.org — which offers a range of spiritual and practical information about engagement and marriage at any stage, along with links to marriage-related contacts in local dioceses.

“Making it clear during marriage prep that the Church is a place they can turn to when they encounter difficulties — I think even just planting that idea in an engaged couple’s mind can bear a lot of fruit,” Meola said. “When they encounter that difficulty, and they realize maybe this isn’t as easy as we thought it would be, they know who they can turn to.”

Important skills

Couples can learn the skills to handle those difficulties, Coffin said. “Most couples don’t have a clue what do you do when you’re hurt and annoyed and angry and disappointed,” Coffin said. “It’s like, ‘What did our parents do?’ How do you understand your partner when they see the world completely different than you do?”

Unfortunately, most pre-marriage programs don’t prepare couples for the long haul, and many couples don’t receive enrichment after they’re married, said Greg Alexander, co-founder of San Antonio-based Alexander House whose Covenant of Love education and enrichment program for engaged and married couples is being used by 100 parishes.

“If you look at the vocations and professions in our society today, you’ll find if you are a doctor or teacher or accountant there’s always some kind of continuing education to satisfy,” he said. “And here we have the vocation of marriage that we’re called to live for a lifetime. We act as if the ‘I do’ at the altar should take us to ‘death do us part.’”

For young couples, enrichment programs could help them turn a tolerable relationship into a really good marriage, Hopfner said.

A marriage may be working, “but I don’t think God intended us to be ‘fine,’” he said. “He didn’t send his son to die for us just to be fine. That doesn’t mean marriage is always going to be happy and peaceful, but I think the couples I know who have really good marriages are couples that work at it and know what they need to do to work at it.”

Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.