CW: Jennifer, you and your husband have worked with engaged couples at St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis. In your experience — as a clinical social worker and someone who has been married for more than 15 years — why are marriage preparation programs so important? How do you counsel couples as they try to figure out whether they are ready to take the sacrament of marriage?
Jennifer Gauvain: The tools that you can gain at a marriage prep course are priceless. As marriage prep instructors, some of the main topics we explored were family issues, finances and sex. (I tell couples all of the time, if you are uncomfortable talking about sex with the person you will be having sex with for the rest of your life it is going to be a bumpy road!) Most engaged couples assume that the fairy tale is about to begin and ignore the fact that life can throw you curve balls like an illness, or a financial crisis. It is critical to talk about these possibilities before they happen.
Not all of my clients are Catholic so when I meet a couple seeking marriage preparation on their own, it’s a pretty good sign that they are in a strong relationship. I have also worked with about ten couples who have shown up on the couch in my office asking whether or not they should go through with their wedding plans. When they have doubts, I encourage them to slow things down and carefully consider their decision to wed. Nine out of ten of them were unwilling to “jump off the wedding train” and examine their doubts, and they got married anyway. And nine out of the ten have gotten divorced. The couple who decided to call it off are very happily married… to other people.
CW: When I was in my early twenties, a few friends and I staged an “intervention” to ask a mutual friend to reconsider her engagement to a man we believed to be verbally abusive to her. It was awful — and it didn’t work. All these years later, they are still married, and perhaps we were wrong to do it. Still, I know I would have regretted it more if I had kept quiet. I was thinking of that situation as I read How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy. If you see one of your friends in a bad relationship — or engaged to someone whom you believe is the “wrong” match — what should you do? What’s the responsibility of friends and family?
JG: Unfortunately most people feel that they shouldn’t speak up. They are afraid it will have a negative impact on their relationship with their best friend, with their sister, daughter, etc. The truth is, whether you say something or not, your relationship will still be affected. If your sister ends up marrying a pot smoking video game junkie, are you really going to be spending a lot of time with her? Probably not. There’s no doubt it will be a difficult conversation but we feel that you owe it to your friend, daughter, sister, son, etc. to share your concerns in a way that they can be heard and not viewed as criticism or judgment. The woman (or man!) you are concerned about may still decide to marry anyway, but she may also appreciate your concern (which in fact could be her hidden concerns). Your conversation with her may be all she needs to give herself permission to get out. In How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy, we outline five steps you can take to have that difficult conversation with someone you care about.
- Speak up. Be honest about your concerns.
- Validate, then activate. Point out some of her best qualities. For example, “I have always admired your compassion for others; you deserve to be treated the same way.”
- Be non-judgmental. Don’t point fingers, don’t criticize her choice. Simply sit down with her and share your concerns with her. Let he know how much you care about her happiness.
- Shift the focus to you by using “I” statements. For example, “I really worry about how isolated you have become since you got engaged.”
- Offer concrete help. Help your friend or loved one by eliminating any excuses she has for not ending the relationship. Tell her you will handle canceling the wedding; she can focus on canceling the relationship.
These concerns will hopefully match up with her gut feelings and she will take time to reflect on those feelings.
CW: If you could offer just one bit of advice to men and women who are having doubts about their relationships, what would it be?
JG: When in doubt, don’t! Those doubts about the relationship are gut feelings that are triggered by red flags. You must acknowledge what those red flags are for you. Learn to tune in to that wise inner voice inside yourself. What does it say when the wedding planning volume is turned down? Figure out what you really want and need in a relationship and then find the courage to end it and move on.
Has your gut every bailed you out of a bad relationship? Do you know someone who could use a gut-check before getting engaged or married? What’s the best way to pray for discernment? Share your thoughts and experiences below, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.