Attention: Clergy and Professionals

For Clergy & Professionals:

If you fall into this category – as someone who helps people, especially couples – then you are probably more aware than most people of the depth of the marriage problem. Despite your best intentions and efforts, you have undoubtedly seen couples that you have worked with end up either divorced or still struggling in an unhappy marriage. You probably know of many others who desparately need help but will not, or cannot, access it for economic or other reasons. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating. But there’s good news… couples – from pre-marrieds to seniors – can learn to be happily married by practicing the skills that come naturally to stable couples.

The following will discuss three basic concepts that underlie much of the success of the “Marriage Education Movement” : Marriage Education, Marriage Inventories, and Marriage Mentoring

“What’s the difference between marriage education and marriage counseling or therapy?”

“Marriage Counseling” and “Marriage and Family Therapy” are specific professional disciplines which are limited to licensed, certified practitioners. They involve special training in the assessment and treatment of cognitive, affective, or behavioral mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage and family systems through the application of therapeutic and family systems theories and techniques and delivery of services to individuals, couples, and families, singularly or in groups, for the purpose of treating such disorders. Marriage and relationship education is NOT counseling or therapy.

There is certainly a time and place for therapeutic intervention in relieving family distress and to identify and remediate mental, emotional or behavioral disorders and associated distresses which interfere with family functioning. Unfortunately, many couples wait too long before seeking out such help. Marriage education can be effective as a preventive strategy, helping couples to form and sustain healthy marriages. The differences between the two approaches are important:

Marriage education is primarily didactic and experiential. It is a skills-based approach in which basic concepts are explained and taught by the instructor and then practiced by the couples. The skills may include such things as communication, conflict resolution, and problem solving. The exercises practiced are practical behaviors that reduce interpersonal tension, emphasize positive interaction, and avoid escalation of issues – things that come naturally to some healthy couples but which most couples need to learn. Marriage education is less concerned with causative factors from the past and more focused on changing attitudes and behaviors for the future.

Marriage education is typically done in a workshop/seminar-type setting, although it may also be done with one couple, in a mentoring or coaching venue. It is NOT group therapy, and even in a classroom situation, the individual couples are not required to reveal any personal experiences or feelings with the group. All sharing is done with one’s spouse or fiance. This is typically a big relief, especially for men. Men also appreciate the fact that there is a specified time frame, with specific “deliverables” or “take-aways” that can be used immediately in the home environment. And of course, teaching in groups means reaching more couples in less time.

Again, this is not to say that there isn’t a need for marriage counseling or therapy. The two approaches work together. It’s like physical health: diet and exercise promote good health and prevent many problems, but some people will still need medical treatment for problems that do develop. In a similar way, marriage education can prevent a lot of problems and help keep marriages strong, but there will always be a need for specialists to help those couples who are dealing with serious relationship issues. This is especially true for problems relating to substance abuse and domestic violence. The research also suggests that marriage education reduces the stigma of receiving help in marital issues, and couples who have had training in relationship skills are more likely to seek help at an earlier stage if serious problems develop.

Marriage education classes, while they all teach similar skills, come in a wide variety of “flavors” and are readily adaptable to any population in a multitude of venues: they can be taught to newlyweds, new parents, “empty-nesters”, and stepfamilies, and can be delivered in a church basement, a community center, or a college classroom. They have been used effectively in the military, in prisons, and in high
schools.

“What is a Marriage Inventory?”

Generally, it is a diagnostic questionnaire that assesses relationship strengths and growth areas in couples. The husband and wife (or spouses-to-be) fill out the forms separately, marking each of 150+ statements based on to what extent they agree or disagree with them. The tests are scored, and the results are used to discuss and work through any issues or concerns that are highlighted by the instrument. The discussion is facilitated by a pastor, counselor or mentor couple (a mature, solidly-married couple that have been together a while).

Although there are numerous brands of these inventories, the two most popular and widely-used are PREPARE and FOCCUS. Both are heavily researched and well-documented in terms of accuracy and results. Each one has a companion program for existing marriages (ENRICH and ReFOCCUS), and there are other “flavors” for specific situations: blended families, cohabiting couples, older couples, etc. Areas covered by the inventories include:

  • Communication
  • Children and parenting
  • Conflict resolution
  • Family and friends
  • Personality issues
  • Realistic expectations
  • Financial management
  • Cohabitation issues (if applicable)
  • Marital satisfaction
  • Idealistic distortion
  • Leisure activities
  • Role relationship
  • Spiritual beliefs
  • Sexuality
  • Readiness Issues
  • Marriage Committment

The instruments have a high degree of accuracy (80-85%) in predicting couples who will be happy from those who will likely experience marital distress and/or divorce.

Scott M. Stanley of the University of Denver, a leader in the marriage education movement, identifies four key benefits of premarital education:
a) It gives couples time to think through their decision more carefully
b) It makes a statement that marriage is a big, important step
c) It can predispose couples for getting help if they need it later in their marriage
d) There is evidence that some couples with some types of premarital training can lower their risks for subsequent marital distress or termination.

For more information on the individual inventories, see the publisher’s website:
PREPARE/ENRICH � Life Innovations, Inc. http://www.lifeinnovations.com
FOCCUS/ReFOCCUS � FOCCUS, Inc. (www.foccusinc.com)

Marriage Mentoring

One of the most common complaints of clergy is the lack of time to do adequate marital preparation with engaged couples. A very effective antidote to this problem lies in the concept of lay mentor couples. Any couple in a mature, stable marriage of ten years or more (recommended) is a candidate to be a mentor couple. Ideally, they should be hospitable and friendly, passionate in their committment to marriage, and reasonably good communicators. Beyond that, there are very few restrictions. Successful mentors have been old or young, first marriages or subsequent marriages, with or without children. Some of the best are couples who have been through some very trying circumstances – illness, tragedy, even infidelity – and have managed to keep their marriage strong or perhaps bring it back from the brink of divorce. These are people who can speak from experience.

But the purpose of the mentor couple is not to be counselors or therapists. Their primary role is that of facilitator – to help the mentored couple communicate with each other. Typically, a mentor couple
– will be identified and recruited by the pastor or spiritual leader. (We don’t recommend simply asking for volunteers. This role is important enough to require hand-picked designees.)
– will be assigned a couple to mentor by the pastor or leader (again, careful selection is key).
– will meet with the couple after they (the “mentorees”) have first had an initial meeting with the pastor/leader. This first meeting sometimes takes place at the mentor couple’s home, where the marriage inventory (see above) is administered, perhaps following a meal together. After the inventories are completed, they will take some time to relax and get to know the couple a little.
– will go over the results, or scores, of the inventory on their own or with the pastor/leader. Areas of strength as well as those of concern or special need will be noted. If serious danger issues (domestic violence, drug abuse, etc.) become apparent now or in future sessions, the mentor couples will alert the pastor/leader and turn the couple back over to him or her.
– will meet with the mentorees over a period of weeks or months, usually in a home environment, to help the couple discuss areas of concern, issues from families of origin, expectations, and other topics. The emphasis is always on the couple talking to each other, not to the mentor couple. In the process, depending on the program used, the mentor couple may teach specific skills or techniques in listening, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and so on.
– may have a final debriefing/reporting session with the pastor/leader at the end of the mentoring period.
– may have one or more followup sessions with the couple after the wedding or at the first anniversary (if newly-married).

There are many advantages to this approach from the pastor’s perspective:
a.) It saves time, because a large part of the premarital preparation work can be accomplished by the mentor couple.
b.) It builds up and strengthens TWO marriages at once: the mentor couples typically report that their own marriage is greatly improved as a result of going through the process of mentoring others!
c.) The mentor couples feel empowered as a part of the congregation’s ministry.
d.) By word of mouth and through appropriate recognition, the mentor couple becomes a model for other married couples in the congregation to emulate. A positive, pro-marriage culture begins to emerge.
e.) Most importantly, the mentored couple has a MUCH better chance of staying together and making their marriage last a lifetime. Churches who have been using this method for several years report a steep decline in the number of couples getting divorced, if they have been through this program. (Remember, too, that mentoring works with existing marriages as well.)

For more information about any of these concepts or programs, contact the Compass office: 
Phone number: 434-455-2117
Email: Larry@betterlove.org

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