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Preparing for marriage

Sometimes you just know when you’ve met “the one.”

That’s what Megan and Chris McCune thought when – after only six weeks into their courtship – they made the decision to seek pre-marital counseling. While their just-dating peers were making decisions about what movies to see, Megan and Chris were building their communication skills and examining trust issues guided by a minister.

“Our friends thought it was a scary thing to do,” said Megan, “but we liked each other, we knew we were serious, and the counseling set us up for better communication.”

What may seem unneeded to some means good life skills to others — and both secular and non-secular organizations have been promoting pre-marital preparation for generations. After all, couples spend hundreds of hours planning out their wedding day — what about the days that come after it?

“Pre-marital counseling is pro-active,” said licensed mental health counselor Elizabeth Galanti. “People want to make sure they are moving forward in the right way with the right person. They are better equipped to enter marriage, and feel more confident in their decision.”

Most religious groups recommend a counseling protocol, ranging from less formal meetings with clergy to a structured program of workshops, reading, reflection and sharing. For Catholics, it’s pre-cana.

“Pre-cana is really marriage instruction to help people deal with issues as they prepare for marriage and enter into a commitment,” said Father Jack Ledwon, pastor of St. Joseph University Church in Buffalo. At his church, pre-cana is a one-day boot-camp led by a team of couples talking about everything from resolving conflicts to planning finances. There’s also a 150-question attitudinal inventory (think of the Kuder Interest Survey you took back in high school). A low grade doesn’t mean a couple shouldn’t marry, but it is an indication that a couple needs to get on the same page about key topics. Additionally, Fr. Jack meets with couples at least twice in the months leading up to the big day. If circumstances (like military service) prohibit couples from attending, there’s an online program with the same discussion points.

Newlyweds Colleen and Jacob Hordych of Fredonia found value in their pre-cana training. “My husband loved the financial discussion, and I really enjoyed the communication session,” said Colleen. “Most of the subjects were things we had already discussed, but this gave us a chance to talk more in-depth.”

Pastor Gale Cirocco at the Wesleyan Church of Hamburg won’t officiate for a couple if they haven’t attended the church’s marriage preparation course, which consists of six weekly sessions and homework. Helping couples make the most of their time together is important, said Pastor Gale, but so is guiding them on giving each other freedom to spend time apart. She also says that in our modern, hurried lifestyle, the “basics” can go astray, so she reminds couples how to show appreciation for each other and guides them on how to keep their love alive.

The course isn’t limited to people marrying for the first time: couples who aspire to a more successful second marriage value this opportunity as well.

“If you have good tools that you can remember to use when it gets tough, and can find the beauty in love that’s stretched and tested, you can come out the other side,” said Pastor Gale. “It’s the difference between contract and covenance.”

Nine years into their marriage, Jessica and Brian Filjones, 32-year old college sweethearts from Hamburg, still reflect on the marriage preparation experience, particularly the conversation about how to handle their finances. “We’ve had many discussions about how to deal with money,” said Jessica. “Being prepared helped us not to fight about it, and to get on the same page.”

Another proponent of pre-marital counseling, Rabbi Gary Pokras at Temple Beth Zion, prefers a less structured format. For example, as part of their instruction, Brenna and Avi Altman of Buffalo wrote each other love letters to express how excited they were about marrying last year.

Instruction is particularly important for interfaith couples, Rabbi Pokras says. While there’s no pressure to convert to Judaism, the couple must agree to maintain a Jewish home and raise their children in the faith. With reflection and discussion, Rabbi Pokras said this has been a successful strategy for many couples.

Outside places of worship, mental health professionals also spend time with couples in the months leading up to the wedding. René A. Jones, founder of the Couple and Relationship Therapy Practice, says trouble begins when couples get caught up in wedding planning details. “The pressure of planning a wedding amplifies problems that already exist,” she said. This can lead normally compatible couples to conflicts they’ve never encountered before. How they handle this, Jones said, “is a reflection of how they will resolve conflict within their marriage.”

The challenge of blending families creates a whole different dynamic, Jones added. “Kids have their own needs and wants, and while the relationship itself may be solid, counseling may “help navigate everyone’s expectations.”

As they say: it never hurts to prepare.

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