A Marriage Survival Toolkit

By Eddie Moody

The divorce rate in the United States has remained stable over the past two decades, with half of all marriages ending in divorce. Nevada has the highest divorce rate followed by Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma, all in the Bible Belt. All southern states except South Carolina exceeded the national average of 4.2 divorces per every 1,000 residents in 1998.

The lmpact of Divorce

There are many negative consequences of divorce.  International studies indicate that people  who divorce have a mortality rate ten times higher than people the same age who are married. Divorced people are also three times more likely to commit suicide.

Children in homes impacted by divorce also suffer. Several studies have detailed the impact divorce has on children’s grades and self-concept, but more troubling is the impact on children’s life expectancy. On average, children whose parents divorced die sooner than those from homes not impacted by divorce.

Concern over the impact of divorce has resulted in some states abolishing “no fault” divorces and the Governor of Oklahoma has called upon pastors and clergy to only marry couples who have taken a marriage preparation course.

The Case for Marriage Preparation

But should we offer such courses? The average marriage lasts seven years and 200,000 marriages end yearly after the second anniversary. It seems that the “seven-year itch” is something to look at and it’s probably no coincidence that many marriages end after the second year. These seem to be critical periods in the lives of couples that they should be prepared for instead of going through blindly.

But the strongest evidence for marital preparation is derived from the work of Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington and some of his colleagues throughout the United States over the last 20 years. After conducting interviews with couples before they married, they were able to predict with 950% accuracy marriages that would fail.

Even during the bliss of courtship there was evidence of disastrous ways of communicating (i.e., escalation, criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling) which have been found to be toxic poisons to marriages. Maybe some preparation work prior to marriage would have helped these couples avoid these pitfalls.

Premarital Resources

You may be convinced that premarital counseling needs to be offered but at a loss about where to start. I suggest a set of videos published by Gospel Light by Norman Wright called “How to Do Premarital Counseling.”

Dr. Wright discusses and demonstrates how to provide effective premarital counseling. He challenges the viewer to set high standards for premarital preparation because the stakes are so high. Individuals who do not wish to do the work to prepare for their marriage don’t have to get married at our church.

The series consists of three videotapes, each around two hours. The first two tapes consist of Dr. Wright discussing premarital counseling with counseling sessions interspersed to demonstrate the concept he is discussing. The material can be broken down into six sections.

Section one (realities to present to premarried couples) involves a discussion of how to help couples develop realistic expectations and to understand what commitrnent really involves.

Section two (goals and structure for premarital counseling) involves an exploration of the purpose of premarital counseling and excellent questions that should be posed to couples.

In section three (examples of church premarital programs), viewers can see sample approaches used by churches. Dr. Wright also discusses how small churches have joined together to provide effective premarital preparation.

Section four (ideas for planning successful marriages) involves preparing for the first year of marriage. Couples are asked to partner with married couples and begin to work with them. The experienced couple serves as mentors to the new couple.

Section five (exploration of couples’ motivation to marry) involves the couple exploring why they should get married now and their reasons for marrying.

In section six (areas of potential conflict in marriage) couples prepare and submit a sample budget and discuss finances.

The remaining material involves sessions with four couples. Some of them have difficult problems. They allow the viewer to see how Dr. Wright skillfully deals with difficult subjects. Although the viewer will not be able to implement all of the skills used by Dr. Wright, they can use some of the strategies in sessions and learn activities to implement in the church to help couples. The videos demonstrates an excellent model of premarital counseling.

Now That They Are Married

How can you help people in troubled marriages? There are some important statistics to consider when problems arise in a marriage. Seventy-six percent of all second marriages, 87% of all third marriages and 93% of all fourth marriages end in divorce. The marriage the individual is in has the best chance for success.

But how can we help people who have made a mess of their marriage through infidelity and other serious problems? Couples should start by discussing their difficulties with their pastors, but there will be times when pastors will lack expertise and time to deal with couples who have serious problems.

It is important to identify a competent Christian marriage and family therapist, psychologist, licensed professional counselor or licensed clinical social worker in your community.

Article adapted from Contact magazine, March 2000.