There are few years in one’s life that are more exciting (and sometimes more hectic) than an engagement year. After the proposal begins a slew of preparation activities. Book the church, find the reception venue, select your wedding party, decide on wedding attire, choose flowers, select music… “I could never plan a wedding in only a year!” a co-worker once told me. The truth is, a wedding can be planned in a few months if you really have to. All that stuff, while important to making the wedding day memorable, is — in the words of my future father-in-law — “fluff.”
The truly important stuff of a wedding is the growth and preparation of the couple themselves, so that the many years following their few hours of public celebration will be strong and joyful. This means making certain decisions intentionally, long before the wedding day. One of these decisions is selecting a marriage preparation program.
The Catholic Church has a lot to offer when it comes to marriage prep, but as far as I know, no pre-engagement programs. Since marriage prep programs are typically designed to prepare you for the marriage, not discern it, it’s a good idea to go through your own prayer and discernment even before getting engaged. The last thing you want is to put lots of money down on a reception venue — let alone get married — later to discover that your union with Mister or Miss Right was not meant to be.
The priest or deacon presiding at your wedding may recommend a particular program, and many couples submit as if marriage preparation is simply a hoop to jump through. But if you see it as a chance to confirm your vocation to marriage and as something that will enrich all your years, participating in such a program can be very enjoyable. Many dioceses offer weekend retreats, programs that meet once a week for several weeks, parish-based programs, or meetings with married couples in their homes; or they may simply have you meet with a priest regularly. While your priest or deacon may suggest a particular program, you have the right to suggest a program more fitted to your needs as a couple. It’s worth asking. My fiancée Sarah and I decided to partake in a full weekend experience called Catholic Engaged Encounter, an international marriage preparation program.
So what makes for good marriage prep? Primarily, it’s a chance to communicate with each other about major topics like managing conflict, forgiveness, finances, intimacy, faith, communication and values. On our weekend, married couples (of various ages) shared their experiences with these subjects, their struggles, personal strategies, sacrifices and triumphs together. After a talk each engaged couple would journal separately and then discuss it together. Sarah and I had talked about many of these things already, but we still discovered areas that needed deeper discussion. Here are a few things we’ve been continuing to discuss:
- Beyond the wedding — Good marriage programs take the focus off the wedding day and place it on the sacrament of marriage. As Engaged Encounter’s slightly cheesy tagline says, “A Wedding is a Day … A Marriage is a Lifetime.”
- More than love — Good marriage preparation will ask you, “Why do you want to marry your partner?” and hopefully take you beyond the answer, “Because I love her.” For me it was not only because the love Sarah and I share is a sign from God that this calling is real, but also because I want to change the world with God’s love and I can do that better with Sarah than on my own.
- Focus on unity — Good marriage prep will be realistic about the inevitable disillusionment in a relationship and call you to continually build each other up toward greater unity. It will uncover the darkness, flaws and baggage you bring to the marriage, at the same time shining light on your gifts and strengths.
- Learning from experience — Most critically, however, is getting time with real married couples who have experienced the ups and downs of married life. Only they can offer you a practical look at what marriage is and can be. While marriage preparation programs present ideals for which to reach, they must respect that each couple walks areas like intimacy and conflict differently. When the married couples shared their stories on our weekend, Sarah and I couldn’t always relate, but there were parts of their stories where we could. “Their story reminded me of how stubborn I can be!” I might say. “And how sensitive I can be!” she might respond with a laugh. We found that having a sense of humor about our quirks helped enrich the weekend. There was even a worksheet on things like how we squeeze the toothpaste tube or how loudly we chew. “You chew extremely loudly!” Sarah reminded me.
From large concerns, like managing finances and learning how to forgive, to small things, like whether to have a TV in the bedroom and leaving toenail clippings lying around (that was a real question in our workbook), marriage preparation ought to reveal the more nuanced aspects of your personality and relationship personality. If done in an atmosphere of love, transparency, seriousness and even humor, good marriage preparation gives the two of you the tools not only to prepare for entering into the sacrament of marriage, but also to take with you into your decades together. You might even take the “fluff” of the wedding day a little less seriously.