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This article was published in the Summer 1996 issue of The Journal.

The Creighton research on marriage preparation 

The Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, (of which Michael Lawler is Director) has recently published a report on Marriage Preparation in the Catholic Church: Getting it Right. It researched the perceived value of marriage preparation by couples married between one and eight years. The study was based on a proportional random sample drawn on a demographic basis from a national total of 72,725 couples who over a period of seven years had used a particular communication understanding inventory during their marriage preparation programme which had been processed by Creighton, and who had given permission to be contacted for future research. An initial sample of 2,800 couples was supplemented with a selection of special couples, e.g. older and younger than average, interchurch, etc., to ensure adequate representation. One of the interesting findings was that satisfaction with marriage preparation, high in the earlier years, declined markedly over time. The study also perhaps surprisingly concluded that the fact that the programmes were mandatory did not appear to prevent the participants finding them valuable. Satisfaction increased with the number of sessions, up to eight or nine. 

The Creighton researchers concluded that marriage preparation was indeed useful and should continue to receive the support of the churches. Indeed a recent national survey in America found that more than half (57%) of three thousand young adults polled rated marriage preparation as one of the "very important" ministries of the church for them. Further research is needed to discover why its perceived value declines over time, and if it is the benefits, or only the memory of the benefits, that erode. There is a need to try to ascertain whether marriage preparation prepares couples for the early years of marriage, admittedly the most vulnerable years, but not for the later ones of parenthood. 

Interchurch couples at risk 

Of particular interest to those concerned with marriage preparation for interchurch couples is the following finding: Interchurch couples, who comprised 39% of respondents, are most at rishfor driftfrom church belonging And practice. They come to marriage preparation with lower levels of belonging andpractice, and lower expectations of the value of marriage preparation. They leave it with a significant positive shift in attitude, indicating that marriage preparation has served them well, and yet they driftfurther awayfrom the Church. The study showed that women in interchurch marriages driftfurther awayfrom the Church than men, a disturbingfact given the research that indicates that mothers may be the strongest influence on thefaith development of children. (The term interchurch as used here refers to all Catholic/other marriages, those that in England would usually be referred to as mixed marriages as well as to interchurch marriages in the more specific sense.)

Further research planned on interchurch marriages 

The Creighton study concludes: The challenge is clear. Those who provide marriage preparation programs need to understand better the dynamics and needs of interchurch couples so that they can respond to them better and offer them programs more suited to the demands of their situations. The Church is challenged to make interchurch couples a priority and to createforthem marriage programs that will make religiousfaith and practice a strong, ongoingfactor in their marriages. The Centerfor Marriage and Family is proposing afollow-up study on interchurch marriages, national and ecumenical, to gather and analyse data on them, and to create and pilot models of marriage preparation fitted to their situations

Those concerned with interchurch family life will look forward with eager anticipation to the results of the proposed three-year study. 

Special marriage preparation progams needed for interchurch couples 

In a presentation during a seminar related to this report Sr Barbara Markey, one of the Creighton team, commented that the Creighton study found that 45% of couples marrying in the Catholic church in the national sample had only one partner who was Catholic, and noted that in some Southern dioceses it may be 90%. She adds (using the term interfaith in the sense in which interchurch is used in the report): What do we know about interfaith couples? Greeley's early study (1980) indicated that couples who do not share religion tend to be less satisfied in marriage and rebound more poorlyfrom deterioration than couples who sharefaith. Dr Dean Hoge's study on interfaith marriage (1981) lists interfaith marriage as an accompanyingiactorfor the driftfrom allfaith; interfaith couples often solve their differences by ignoring religion asfar as possible. My experience has been conducting workshopsfor Catholic-Lutheran couples as part of a larger dialogue with persons who are all intensely involved in their ownfaith. I don't know when I have been in a room where pain was more physicallyfelt than with that last group of couples who were struggling to get past misunderstandings andfamily and church differences and wanted desperately to share something as central to themselves as theirfaith with the person they loved.

She adds: Marriage preparation programs ordinarily ignore the issues of interfaith couples. Few resources are available for them, even though these couples are both high-risk and represent nearly one of every two marriages. They need skills, resources, and leaders who believe thatfinding ways to sharefaith builds marital strength.

During the same seminar, Dr James Healy, Director of the Center for Family Ministry of the diocese of Joliet, Illinois, also picked up the theme of interchurch marriage. He explained that in addressing interchurch couples, he uses a good news, bad news approach. 

The good news is that interchurch couples are living out in a very concrete, day-to-day way, the ideals of the ecumenical movement. We might think that the ecumenical movement has stalled at the of ficial level, but at the level of the domestic church - thefamily -ecumenism is goingforward. However, grassroots ecumenism often looks differentfrom official ecumenism. Interchurch couples don't have centuries to work out the details. They have one life time and, in terms of raising children, they have a window of about ten toffteen years. During this short period of time, they mustfind ways to emphasize the commonalities and respect the differences in theirfaith traditions. So the good news is that, when they pull this oft; they really have something of great value to teach us. They are pioneers, and we need to cherish them and listen to their experience.

The bad news is, life is tough on thefrontier. Pioneers are at risk. What Sr Barbara was talking about is very true. These couples experience a double whammy. They are more likely to divorce, partly because they lack the bond for dealing with the stresses of married life that a shared denominationalfaith offers. They are also more likely to stop participating in their respectivefaith traditions, probably because what should be a bond - religious participation - has becomefor them a stressor. If there are too many problems associated with accommodating one or both persons' traditions, many couples make the decision either explicitly or tacitly to remove the source of the tension. So, these couples are at greater risk both for losing their marriages and their faith traditions.

Marriage preparation and support: a common task for the churches 

Dr Healy then returns to the good news: there are many ways we can help and encourage these couples. The first is to distinguish, at least theoretically, between three different types of interchurch couples: those where both partners have solid commitments to their own respective faith traditions; those where one partner is actively involved in their tradition, but the other has less or no involvement in theirs; those where neither cares very much about their faith tradition. These three require a shared focus, but also more attention to their specific needs as well. More than anything, we need better cooperation among the churches. Most of the time, interchurch couples must take the lead in explaining to their churches what their needs are and what kind of support they need. In some ways this is appropriate, but few couples are equipped to do this. He then points to the "community covenant approach" to marriage preparation (see INTERCHURCH FAMILIES January 1994, p.9) where all the churches in an area agree to a common policy on marriage preparation. Early indications are that such policies strengthen Christian marriages, including interchurch marriages, and have a salutary effect on the divorce rate. He cites the value of shared marriage preparation for interchurch couples, to help empower them as co-pastors of their little domestic church.

Dr Healy concludes: The American Association of Interchurch Families has offered a number of other suggestions. In the sacramental area, there is need for further reflection on how more clearly to show liturgically our belief in a common baptism, and a need to reflect further on the possibilities for limited eucharistic sharing. At the parish level, there can be a need for support groups, information sessions, and times when interchurch couples in our midst can be held up and welcomed. In brief, we need to view interchurch couples not as problems, although there are problematic aspects to their situations, but as people with both common and special needs, and with resources and gifts of their own.