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Wedding Checklist: Couples Add Premarital Counseling

High divorce rate spurs more to seek advice before tying the knot

Louise Meyer and Mark Gordon have a lot to do before their June wedding: arrange for caterers, the florist, the band, and the honeymoon. But the young couple, who met two years ago at a congressional subcommittee hearing, say their weekly premarital counseling sessions are their top priority.

"We've each experienced the effects of failed marriages," says Ms. Meyer, whose parents divorced when she was 6. "That's why Mark and I take marriage so seriously. These sessions are helping us to learn what the commitment is all about."

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Meyer and Mr. Gordon are typical of the increasing number of couples who, before tying the knot, are discussing how to stay wed.

Fidelity, it seems, is in. Growing concerns have been raised over the societal impact of the nation's high divorce rate - about 4.6 per 1,000 people, or more than double what it was in 1960, according to the Census Bureau. Many family advocates are questioning the impact of divorce on children. Some states are reconsidering no-fault divorce. These red flags, combined with numerous studies suggesting that children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves, may help explain the rise in premarital counseling programs.

The increase can be seen in every religious denomination. More ministers and rabbis are saying "no" to quick marriages without counseling.

"We have found the process to be very helpful to young people who may not understand what it means to have a partnership," says the Rev. James Terrell of Washington's Second Baptist Church. "Although the counseling is not mandatory in our church, couples are choosing to go through the sessions as a matter of course. There seems to be a more conservative stance toward marriage today, than there was even five years ago."

Some lawmakers across the country are going even further. Michigan state Rep. Jessie Dalman (R) has introduced a bill that would require premarital counseling for couples. And in January, Austin, Texas, became the 38th city in the country to adopt a "community marriage policy."

Under the plan, churches and synagogues agree to require a four-month waiting period, intensive counseling, and a mentoring program for couples wanting a religious wedding.

Whether it works is open to debate. Modesto, Calif., the first American city to adopt such a plan in 1986, has seen its divorce rate drop almost 40 percent since the plan was adopted, although observers say other factors are at work as well.

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A national study recently completed by the Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., showed that the vast majority of individuals who have participated in marriage-preparation programs view the experience as valuable early in their marriage. But the study also found that the perceived value of counseling declines significantly over time. Some researchers suggest that it may prepare couples only for tasks faced early in marriage.

About 10 percent of the couples who went through counseling cancelled marriage plans.

"The intent of any pre-marital counseling program is to keep the couple from being blindsided by marriage," says Barbara Markey, the associate director of the Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton. "Communication, plans for raising children, religious and sexual matters, and issues related to the family in which you grew up are some of the topics which should be discussed."

Ministers and rabbis stress to the couples that there aren't any right or wrong answers, and couples shouldn't always agree.

One of the biggest issues for more couples these days is money. That in turn has led to an increase in prenuptial agreements.

Although "prenups" may seem like the ultimate mergers-and-acquisitions legacy of the 1980s, they have become more commonplace - even among the middle class.

This focus by many couples on finances is a concern to many clergy. Most say couples should concentrate on the five C's: communication, commitment, conflict resolution, children, and church.

"Divorce is probably the most serious problem in the fabric of American society today," says Mr. Terrell. "People have to be prepared for the idea that marriage is work. It's not just a merging of assets."

After two counseling sessions, Mark Gordon concurs. "Every major argument has a cost, a potential parting of the ways, when you can say, 'That's it, it's over.' But with marriage, there's a price to pay, and you realize you can't just cut and run. You have to deal with it. I just wish our parents had learned the same thing."

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