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Pre-Marital Classes

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Getting engaged is a moment rife with romance. Declarations of love are followed by copious kisses and a profusion of champagne bubbles. But while this fairytale high might even be able to get you through the stress of wedding planning, a marriage needs a lot more than amour to be successful. Enter pre-marital classes. Recent research has found that couples who receive premarital education have a 31 percent lower chance of divorce. Here's how to make it work for you, too.

Why it's a Good Idea

Any couple can benefit from pre-marital insights and discussion, even those who are older or may have been married before, says Todd Outcalt, a United Methodist pastor and author of "Your Beautiful Wedding on Any Budget" (Sourcebooks May, 2009). But young couples who are getting married for the first time will find it essential. Why? "Surprisingly, many couples simply don't talk about the 'real' issues that they will face in marriage," he explains. "They often talk about the wedding or about surface issues, but many don't achieve the type of intimacy (deep, personal honesty and understanding of the other person) that marriage requires."

A marriage may be a constant work in progress, but counseling can help strengthen the framework.

The Options

Most religious denominations highly recommend that their engaged couples participate in religious-affiliated premarital programs, and some, such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church, require it. It's a good idea to consult with your parish or synagogue as soon as you get engaged so that you fully understand the necessary requirements and can accomplish them in a timely fashion.

Secular couples can benefit from tried-and-true pre-marital workshops like those offered by the Gottman Institute, PAIRS, Prepare/Enrich, PREP Inc. Couple Communication I & II and Marriage Success Training. Or they can ask their happily married friends to recommend a good marriage counselor. Of course, there also are numerous books, Web sites and magazines that tackle the subject of pre-marital counseling, but nothing beats a face-to-face session with a therapist or in a group, says Outcalt.

When to Get Started

Pre-marital counseling isn't meant to prevent weddings from taking place, says Sally Kilbridge, deputy editor of Brides magazine. The goal is to prevent problems, practice communication and prepare for a shared future before you tie the knot. If you've known each other for years and have already discussed many of the "big life questions," you can probably sit down for a quickie course a couple of months before the wedding. But for most couples, it would be smart to start talking shortly after they get engaged. "The closer you get to a wedding, the more stress you'll be shouldering," says Kilbridge. "Get this stuff out of the way early and then just enjoy yourselves!"

What to Talk About

Whether you take the religious or the secular pre-marital counseling route, there are a few crucial topics that every couple should consider. Kilbridge offers six Practical points of possible contention:

  1. Kids. Do you both want them? Biological or adopted? How many and how soon?
  2. Finances. If a saver is marrying a spender, they'll need to set up some guidelines. Who's going to take care of the bills? Are you going to combine your money or keep separate accounts?
  3. Religion. Do you align? This subject will become particularly important once kids enter the picture.
  4. In-laws. How often are you going to visit them, and vice versa? Are you going to stagger your holidays or avoid the issue altogether and fly to Mexico? How will you deal with elderly parents?
  5. Careers. Are you planning to make partner in your firm or do you want to devote the next five years to finishing that novel? Talk about who will deal with kids if and when they come along.
  6. Chores. It sounds silly, but if you nail this in the beginning (he cooks, you clean up, every sock on the floor means a dollar in the vacation jar), day-to-day life will be a whole lot happier.

In addition, Outcalt emphasizes three Emotional considerations:

  1. Communication techniques. How do you say what you need, how do you "hear" the other person without reacting and how do you compromise? How do you forgive, heal and help each other in marriage?
  2. Goals. Couples that live from day to day without a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve together rarely survive in marriage. Sharing common goals and dreams is essential.
  3. Values. Issues like commitment, ideals and customs are equally important. Again, what is a couple trying to do as a team?

Most importantly, be honest, advises Outcalt. "Don't hold back or let the idea of counseling frighten you. Most counselors will make it a fun experience, and every couple will absolutely learn new things about each other."

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