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Resources from Marriage Savers: Articles

How to Give Marriage Insurance to Premarital Couples

by Catherine Latimer and Michael J. McManus

The Authors Michael J. McManus, Co-Founder (with Harriet McManus) and President of Marriage Savers, has written a syndicated column, “Ethics & Religion,” since 1981. He has written four books on marriage, one on cities and one on children. After earning an A.B. from Duke University in 1963, he was a TIME magazine correspondent (1963-68), a TV producer (1969-1976), and writer of an economic and political newspaper column, “The Northern Perspective,” (1977-1992). He and his wife created Marriage Savers in 1996, a non-profit ministry, whose goal is to reduce the divorce rate, community by community, church by church and couple by couple. Stories on their work have appeared on NBC Nightly News, ABC World News Tonight, CBS “48 Hours.” Mike has been a guest on “Oprah,” MSNBC, “The O’Reilly Factor,” BBC-TV, “Focus on the Family,” and been quoted in TIME, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report plus many newspapers. He and Harriet have been married since 1965 and have three grown sons and three grandchildren. They live in Potomac, Maryland.

Catherine Latimer was an intern at Marriage Savers the summer of 2001.


From 1992-2000 52 “mentor couples” administered an inventory and discussed relational issues it surfaced with 302 premarital couples in one church. Couples completed communications exercises, attended marriage education lectures and completed a workbook.   Some 55 couples dropped out or broke up before a wedding. Of those who married, there have been only seven divorces or separations in a decade. Thus, only 3.1% of marriages failed.  With a success rate of 97%, that’s marriage insurance.


The Census recently reported that compared with 1990, marital statistics for 2000 “barely changed” said Rose M. Kreider, lead author of “Marital Status: 2000.” For example, 54.4% of Americans were married in 2000, only slightly less than the 54.8% of 1990. “The big news is that there has been a strong slowing down of most marriage weakening trends,” comments David Blankenhorn, President of the Institute for American Values.

Nevertheless, marriage in America is in a very weakened state. This is an unfolding national tragedy.  The need is not merely to slow these trends but to reverse them.

Marriage is a fundamental social institution,” write David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, directors of the “National Marriage Project” at Rutgers University. “It is central to the nurture and raising of children. It is the ‘social glue’ that reliably attaches fathers to children. It contributes to the physical, emotional and economic health of men, women and children, and thus to the nation as a whole. It is also one of the most highly prized of all human relationships and a central life goal of most Americans” (Popenoe & Whitehead, 2002).

This case study of one church illustrates an answer: a marriage preparation so thorough that the church’s divorce rate fell to only three percent of more than 200 couples who married over a ten-year period. This is more than marriage preparation. It is marriage insurance.

The Three-Fold Crisis of Marriage

Marriage is experiencing a three-fold crisis. Half of new marriages end in divorce. Marriage rates plunged 40.4%, and cohabitation has soared 11-fold, which has both reduced marriage rates and increased the odds of divorce of those who marry after living together.

1. Divorce:  

The number of divorces in America tripled in only 19 years, jumping from 390,000 in

1960 to 1,181,000 in 1979 (National Center for Health Statistics, 1995). Since 1979 the divorce numbers have remained remarkably stable, with 1,135,000 in 1998, the last year with credible data (NCHA, 1999), though the divorce rate has declined modestly due to population growth.

“Nearly half of recent first marriages may end in divorce” (Fields & Kriedler, U.S. Census Bureau, 2002, p. 17). This figure is often disputed. However, since 1975 there has been one divorce for every two marriages (Statistical Abstract, 2001, p. 59). Some 35 million children have seen their parents divorce since 1970, half of whom witness a second divorce before age 18 (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994).

2. Marriage

There were 76.5 marriages per 1,000 women in 1970 and only 45.6 in 2001 (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2002).  That is a 40.4% decline in the marriage rate from 1970-2001. In 2002 the number of marriages fell another 73,000 to 2,254,000. Had the marriage rate not fallen, there would have been 3.2 million marriages in 2000, not 2.2 million. Millions are missing having more satisfying, longer lives if married. Maggie Gallagher and Linda Waite (2000) cite hundreds of studies that married couples are healthier, wealthier and have more sex.

3. Cohabitation

Cohabitation, not marriage, is the dominant way male-female unions are formed in America. In 1960 only 439,000 couples were living together outside of marriage. The number in 2000 shot up 11-fold to 4,736,000 (Popenoe & Whitehead, 2002, p. 19). That’s twice the number of marriages in a whole year. “The percentage of marriages preceded by cohabitation rose from about 10% for those marrying between 1965 and 1974 to over 50% for those marrying between 1990 and 1994,” (Smock, 2000). Millions of people – particularly women – believe that cohabitation is a prelude to marriage. And for many, it is. However, Smock reports that 45% of cohabitations break up with no marriage. Another 10% continue cohabiting. This is a major reason that the number of never-married American adults has risen from 21 million in 1970 to 48 million in 2000. (Fields, Census 2000)

Couples believe living together increases their odds of success. However, cohabiting couples who marry are at greater risk of divorce than couples who remain separate and are more likely to experience marital dissatisfaction. A study of 3,300 cases based on the National Survey of Families and Households, (NSFH) found that in marriage, prior cohabitors “are estimated to have a hazard of dissolution that is about 46% higher than for noncohabitors” (DeMaris & Rao, 1992). Larry Bumpass, who has overseen NSFH studies, concurs (Bumpass & Sweet, 1995).  

Children are the innocent victims of these trends. Out-of-wedlock birth rates have jumped from 224,000 in 1960 to 1.35 million in 2000, a third of all births. And 19.2 million now live with a single parent. In fact, half of all children spend time in such families (Bumpass & Lu, 2000) and only 42% of teenagers live with their own mother and father (Federal Reserve Board, 1995).  Children of divorce exhibit more health, behavioral and emotional problems, are more frequently involved in crime and drug abuse and have higher rates of suicide. For example, they are twice as likely to drop out of school as those with married parents (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994), three times as apt to have a baby out of wedlock and six times more likely to be poor (Duncan & Rogers 1991). They are 12 times more apt to be incarcerated and 14 times more likely to be physically abused than children from intact homes (Fagan & Rector, 2000).

Furthermore, “Contrary to what we have long thought, the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Rather, “it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage. When it comes time to choose a life mate and build a new family, the effects of divorce crescendo” (Wallerstein et al, 2000). Judith Wallerstein, reports in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, that of 100 children of divorce tracked for 25 years, only 60 married, of whom 24 divorced, leaving only a third still married.

Rigorous Premarital Preparation Reduces These Risks

There is a broad consensus regarding the need to strengthen marriage and reduce divorce rates to reverse these trends (Doherty et al, 2002).  One strategy has been to improve premarital preparation.

Premarital counseling did not exist before World War II, nor in any significant numbers

in the 1960s and 1970s. As recently as 1987, perhaps only 60% of couples had at least one counseling session with a clergy person prior to marriage, according to Stahmann and Hiebert’s book: Premarital Counseling: The Professional’s Handbook (1987). Often the session was little more than wedding planning. What clergy call “premarital counseling” often leaves no impression on the marrying couple. A 1997 poll by Wirthlin World Wide revealed that 73% of married couples said they had no premarital counseling and 12% said they met with the pastor once or twice. Even in the late 1990’s only 25%-33% of marrying couples attended relationship education (Stanley, 2001).

According to the U.S. Center for Health Statistics, the median duration of marriages that end in divorce is 7.1 years. Few couples anticipate the conflicts they might experience and lack communication skills to resolve their differences. One reform a church can offer to reduce those risks is a premarital inventory to help couples assess their relational strengths and weaknesses. It also offers clergy or counselors a quick assessment of specific relational issues unique to that couple that need discussion. Inventories increase the quality of marriage preparation.

PREPARE (PREmarital Personal and Relationship Evaluation) was one of the earliest premarital inventories. It was developed by David H. Olson, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, and colleagues in 1977. It went through several revisions in 1980, 1986, 1996 and 2000. Olson estimates that by 2003, about 250,000 couples a year used PREPARE..

PREPARE consists of 165 one-sentence statements that the man and woman independently respond to in writing on whether they agree or disagree:

“I believe that most disagreements we currently have will decrease after marriage.

“We openly discuss problems and usually find good solutions.

Nine of PREPARE’s 11 scales also predict with 74% to 84% accuracy which couples will divorce (Fowers & Olson, 1986).

“I believe that God’s power can bring life out of struggles and suffering in our marriage.”

“We have discussed and agree on what being faithful will mean in our marriage.”

If the inventory is administered 6-12 months before the wedding and the couple has numerous feedback sessions, taking an inventory and discussing the issues raised enables couples to discover potential problems that might lead to a future divorce.  

Communication Skills Can Be Taught

Fortunately, it is possible to teach skills to resolve conflict. Studies of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) indicate that marital distress and divorce can be decreased if couples learn how to lessen risk of negative marital interaction by learning how to communicate more positively. Couples taking PREP, a course to improve a couple’s ability to resolve conflict amicably, are less likely than control couples to break up or divorce after five years. A German study found that 3% of PREP couples had divorced after five years compared to 16% of those in a control group (Stanley, S.M. 2001).

 Lengthen The Preparation Period

For 25-30 years most Catholic Dioceses have had a “Common Marriage Policy” that required a minimum period of six months, from the time the couple first discusses marriage with a priest until the wedding can take place, regardless of the parish in which they marry.  Protestants have generally had no such time requirement. During the 1980’s and 1990’s a growing percentage of dioceses also required couples to take a premarital inventory and to attend a series of “Pre-Cana Classes,” and/or to meet with a “sponsor couple” to discuss marital issues. Generally, however, it was the priest who administered the inventory, not the sponsor couple.

There has long been important correlative evidence of the Common Marriage Policy. States with the highest percentage of Catholics in the Northeast have had the lowest divorce rates for a generation. Massachusetts, whose population is 49% Catholic, had the lowest divorce rate of any state in 1998 (2.2 divorces per 1,000 people.) New Jersey and New York, both 40% Catholic, ranked third and fourth at 3.0, and 3.1 respectively. (Maher, B, 2002).

The Church Bears Some Responsibility for the Disintegration of American Families

Organized religion is an integral part of the disintegration of the American family.

Although clergy perform 86% of our nation's marriages according to a Peter Hart Poll (Hart, 2003), half of new ones fail (Fields, Census, 1996). Gallup Polls report that 69% of Americans are members of a church or synagogue and 43% attended weekly (Gallup, 2002). Therefore, houses of worship have access to most couples, but are ineffectual in sustaining marriage.  In Europe where church attendance rates are 10% or less, the divorce rate is often half that of the U.S. Compared to a divorce rate of 4.1 divorces per 1,000 people in 2000, it is 2 divorces/1000 in France, 2.3 in Germany, 2.6 in the United Kingdom and only .6 in Italy (Nugman, 2002).

In fact, as Pollster George Barna reported, virtually all American Protestants have higher divorce rates than atheists (Barna, 1999). Only 21% of U.S. atheists and agnostics have divorced, while 25% of Mainline Protestants have experienced a failed marriage. Even higher numbers of evangelicals divorced. Some 29% of Baptists have had a divorce, and 34% of those in non-denominational evangelical churches. Catholics and Lutherans reported the lowest rate of church members divorcing at 21%, but that rate only equals that of atheists and agnostics. No denomination does a better job with its members than unbelievers do on their own.

How Have Churches Failed Marriages?

Most houses of worship are wedding factories inadequately preparing couples for a

lifelong marriage. They are not helping to sustain the marriages of couples in their congregations. Most have no strategy for troubled marriages, stepfamilies or reconciling separated couples, other than to refer them to counselors who are often ineffectual with crisis marriages, or even encourage divorce. Furthermore, most clergy have been mute regarding the risks of cohabitation. In scores of cities that are signing Community Marriage Policies, the author has asked pastors, “How many of you have preached on cohabitation?”  Only one hand in 50 is typically raised.

Most clergy have not known that there is an alternative to cohabitation – a positive

way for a couple to test their relationship appropriately. Because 86% of marriages in America occur in houses of worship, they have great access to couples and could become part of the solution to marital disintegration.

A Journalist Examines Models of Success

Since 1981 one author of this paper has written a nationally syndicated newspaper column, “Ethics & Religion.” From the outset he was intrigued by the paradox that America is the world’s most religious nation – and its least ethical. According to Gallup Polls, two-thirds of Americans are members of a church or synagogue, and no modern nation has higher church attendance rates. Yet the United States has the world’s highest divorce rate of any modern nation (Nugman, Heritage Foundation, 2002).

He wrote many columns spotlighting answers that some churches were piloting that offered great promise for reducing the divorce rate: a minimum preparation period, the taking of a premarital inventory and training in conflict resolution skills. However, the author saw no evidence his columns had an impact. Therefore, he decided to write a book about the best of these church-led interventions, with an agenda to plant marital reforms, hoping to stimulate a “marriage movement” (author’s citation, 1993, 1995).

Unanswered Questions

As he began to write, there were unanswered questions. While engaged Catholic couples have to take a premarital inventory, would Protestants who are under no such authoritarian structure, be interested? Could mentor couples be recruited and trained to administer an inventory, talking through relational issues, couple to couple? What is the mentoring experience like?  Therefore, the writer violated a basic journalistic rule: he (and his wife) became personally involved.  They volunteered in their own church’s marriage preparation program.

The Genesis of A Model Premarital Preparation Program

The couple’s church, Fourth Presbyterian in Bethesda, MD, is a prominent church in suburban Washington D.C.  It is a large, brick church attended by 2,200 in three Sunday services and averages about 30-35 marriages a year. In 1991 “Fourth” offered six Sunday School lectures to prepare couples for marriage. Older, solidly married couples were available in class to have follow-up discussion about that lecture’s subject. The author and his wife quickly discovered that the attending young couples resisted meaningful dialogue.

“How is your communication?” the writer asked the couples.

“Fine,” each replied. “We love each other,” added one.

“Do you have any questions about financial issues?” All shook their heads.

The author’s spouse later observed, “They are reluctant to admit – in front of their peers – that they have any issues. It is deadly to encourage intimate dialogue in a group setting.” Therefore, he announced to the couples: “We have a premarital inventory that we could give to help you assess your own areas of strength and trouble spots where you need to talk through relational issues. You could come to our home, take the inventory and then meet privately with us to discuss issues it surfaces. Would anyone be interested?”

The three couples seated with the author and his wife responded affirmatively. “Beth” and “John” were one of the couples, whose mentoring story is told in author’s citation (1993, 1995) in Chapter 6. (Their story is also summarized below.) With their permission, the author took notes and shared drafted chapters with them.

The mentor couple reviewed every item on the inventory, even if the mentorees were in agreement, so they could have their relational strengths affirmed (as well as become aware of and discuss problem areas). “Both of you say that your `friends and family think this is a good match.’ Great!” the mentors would say before moving on to the next item. By including communication exercises such as “Ten Steps for Resolving Couple Conflict,” with discussing every item on the inventory, there were four feedback sessions of 2-3 hours each, which later grew to five sessions.

The next spring the author announced to a dozen new couples, “We have a premarital inventory which we can administer to any interested couple. It gives an objective view of couple strengths and areas needing improvement. Is anyone interested?” No one was. Apparently, engaged couples feared learning they might not be well matched. However, when the author and his wife met with three new premarital couples and developed trust, each couple individually took PREPARE. In May, 1992, the counselor overseeing classes told the author she was leaving, and asked, “Would you like to run the Marriage Workshop in the fall (of 1992)?”

He replied, “Yes, but on two conditions. We want to require the taking of a premarital inventory by each couple. Couples won’t voluntarily take it, but the choice should not be theirs. It is the only way a couple can become aware of and address their unique issues. Second, we want to train a dozen mentor couples to accommodate every couple preparing for marriage in our church. No mentor should be assigned more than one couple at a time.” The church agreed to both conditions.

Recruiting and Training Mentors

Before the fall of 1992 classes began, Fourth clergy provided the “Lead Mentor” a list of couples who appeared to have good marriages, that might be recruited as mentors. The couple called each prospective mentor couple and asked to speak to both spouses – a very unusual conversation. They were invited to attend a one-day training event. They were asked to consider being a “potential mentor couple,” which gave both the couple and the Lead Mentors the freedom to back away, if either felt this was an inappropriate ministry. There were always more refusals than acceptances. Ultimately, the Lead Mentors trained a dozen mentor couples to administer PREPARE. They also taught six exercises to improve couple communication and conflict resolution skills.  

Part of the training also included giving each potential mentor couple ENRICH, a marital inventory. Each couple then met privately with the Lead Mentors, using ENRICH as a tool to review their relationship. Over time one couple in ten either decided on their own – or the Lead Mentors concluded – that their marriage was not strong enough to be mentors. Thus, the marital inventory was a screening tool that also gave an in-depth view of each couple’s marriage, making it easier to match them to premarital couples.

When the mentors began couple mentoring, premarital inventories were only being administered by clergy or professional counselors. Dr. David Olson, creator of the PREPARE inventory, estimated in a 1992 interview that only 100,000 of the 2.3 million couples marrying annually took an inventory. Pastors would review results in an hour or two, delving into relatively few of the 165 items on the inventory. Clergy are overworked and lack time to discuss all items. However, there is an untapped resource in every church: older couples in good marriages, who have time and marital wisdom to share with a young couple.

An Alternative to Cohabitation

When Fourth’s Marriage Preparation Program began using mentor couples, all of the attending couples were engaged. However, the Lead Mentors encouraged seriously dating couples to attend the program as part of their decision regarding whether to marry. With so many couples cohabiting before marriage, they believed the church should provide an alternative, a better way to test the relationship. Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:21-22), wrote: “Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” Couples often live together as a way to test the relationship. However, both Scripture and sociology suggest they are embracing evil, since they are 50% more likely to divorce than those who live apart. By contrast, offering an inventory and an older, wiser couple to talk through issues – churches help couples test their relationship while holding onto good and avoiding the evil. Those taking an inventory (that all couples call a “test”) are indeed testing the relationship. Discussing results with a mature married couple is a second, appropriate form of testing. This is a vastly better way to decide whether a relationship has the ingredients of a sound marriage. From the outset at Fourth Presbyterian, more than 15% of couples decided not to marry. As noted earlier, studies show they were avoiding a bad marriage before it began.

Within a few years about a third of Fourth’s premarital participants were seriously dating couples. The classes grew from a dozen couples in the fall to 15-17 and from 15 in the spring to 22-25. Most of the new couples came from outside the church. They heard about the mentoring program from friends or colleagues at work and sought out serious marriage preparation. Half were unchurched, and a third were considering remarriage, and feared making another mistake. More mentors were recruited who had experienced a divorce and were currently in a stable remarriage. It is vital to match Mentors with mentorees with similar marital histories.

From 1992-2000 the Lead Mentors recruited 52 mentor couples. More had to be trained, regularly since some died or retired. Twenty-five couples were needed in the “mentor bank” at any time, because the number of couples registering in the spring grew to 22-25 couples.

Four Components of a Rigorous Premarital Program

Marriage preparation needs to be rigorous enough so that it surfaces conflicts in a relationship before the couple marries, so that the weak relationships either improve or break apart -- while the rest are strengthened to go the distance (author citation, 1999, 2003). In financial contracts people want information to be fully disclosed before agreeing to it, yet many marriage covenants break because the involved parties assumed there was agreement or did not want to disclose differences before the wedding.

The Premarital Program developed by the Lead Mentors was one of the first in America in which mentor couples (rather than pastors) administered an inventory. However, the program, involved more than mentoring. It included four components:

1. An Inventory: Initially the inventory used was PREPARE;
2. Mentoring:  Five to six sessions to review all inventory items and many exercises.
3. Classes: Lectures were given by experts and clergy, increasing from 6 to 10.
4. A Workbook: Couples completed workbooks involving Scripture study.

Consider those four components of Fourth’s marriage preparation in more detail:

1. The Inventory

PREPARE covers 165 items for discussion... -- issues research reveals will surface in most marriages. Communication, Conflict Resolution, Finances, Parenting and other issues are covered via a series of one-sentence statements that the premarital individuals respond to, indicating agreement or disagreement.

 Scores are given on the percentage of positive couple agreements in each category.

The inventory provides an “X-ray” of the couple’s current relationship, revealing strengths and “growth areas.”  It is an invaluable bridge across the generations. As one mentor couple observed, "It almost always identifies the problem areas in the relationship."

An inventory accomplishes two functions: First, it gives an objective assessment of a couple’s strengths and challenges. As one mentoree observed, "There are two parts of the inventory. One is the fundamental fact-finding part, in which you find out more about yourself and about your fianceẻ." Secondly, it promotes dialogue and facilitates conversation. It is an invaluable tool to air every issue. In the words of a mentoree who broke up, “(In relationships) we can go a long way to overlooking things.” A male, now happily married, said that it created a "good environment… to not shy away [from discussing issues] even if you wanted to."

Does the inventory evoke honest answers? Yes, because the item statements purposely ask about a future spouse’s attitudes, not about the person completing the inventory: “My future spouse is often unhappy.” Or “I am concerned that my future spouse will become too involved in career/work.” If an individual is concerned about an issue, there’s an incentive to be truthful.

Fowers & Olson (1986) found that the 10% to 15% of couples who break an engagement have scores that are “very similar to those who later got divorced….This indicates that couples who canceled their marriage made a good decision,” avoiding a bad marriage before it began. However, most couples learned to strengthen their relationship after becoming aware of problem areas. They were more empathic after marriage and less controlling. As noted below, more than 50 of Fourth’s first 302 couples broke up before there was a wedding. Therefore, the premarital preparation helped perhaps 18% of couples avoid a likely divorce.  The rest of the couples identified couple strengths and recognized and addressed problem areas. They also learned skills from exercises like PREP’s Speaker-Listener Technique to help their marriage go the distance.

After publication of the author’s book, perhaps the first to describe the value of an inventory administered by mentors – there was a major increase in the number of churches offering one. Numbers rose from about 100,000 couples taking an inventory in 1993 to about 750,000-800,000 in 2003. However, that represents only a third of 2.3 million couples preparing for marriage.

2. The Mentor Couple: The Core Reform

The core reform of Fourth’s premarital program is the mentor couple. Years after the Lead Mentors trained their first couples in their home church and in scores of cities, the author stated this foundational principle in a manual (2000, 2003)

In every church and synagogue there are couples with strong, vibrant marriages who could be of help to other couples, but have never been asked, inspired or trained to come alongside another couple and be helpful.

Generally, mentors have the young couple for dinner the first evening, during which they become acquainted and the inventory is administered. The couple returns for five more biweekly sessions during which every item on the inventory is reviewed and exercises are administered, such as PREP and a Step-By-Step Plan for Solving Problems to improve conflict resolution skills.

The mentor couple has three great gifts to offer a premarital couple, according to the  author’s wife. “First, they provide premarital couples with their unconditional love, a love that grows out of a joy in their own marriage, and out of gratitude to God for that blessing.

 “Secondly, they offer their time, often lavish time. A couple with grown children has more time to offer. A mentor couples will typically spend 2-3 hours each meeting with one couple for six sessions.” Twelve to 18 hours allows ample time to discuss many issues in depth. Compare this major investment by one couple in another – with the fact that two-thirds of clergy offer no premarital inventory, and those who do, devote only an hour or two discussing it.

Third, the author’s wife asserts, “Mentor couples offer the gift of their own marriage -- an imperfect but healthy marital role model for a premarital couple. They are a walking parable of keys to marital success as well as pitfalls to be avoided.”

With widespread divorce and the decline of the extended family, wisdom of the older generation is no longer routinely passed to the next generation. Many divorces are due to a lack of life skills gleaned from an older generation. One engaged women interviewed by a co-author of this paper, said, “In our society there’s usually some distancing. You don’t know when to say things (to others); you feel like you are intruding. But the mentors are given a license – the agreement up front is that they will get involved….It’s not that the good role models aren’t there. It is that there is so much distancing.”

Training couples in healthy marriages to prepare couples using an inventory was virtually unknown when introduced at Fourth in 1992. Mentors can be spiritual parents. As one mentor, married for 46 years, sagely told mentorees, “Before you tie the knot, let us show you the ropes!”

Furthermore, studies of PREP have found that clergy and lay leaders are as effective in teaching relational skills as psychologists and marriage professionals (Halford et al, 2002). This is not surprising because a lay couple can open up their heart, sharing mistakes they made in their own marriage that they do not want the young couple to repeat. A professional, by contrast, keeps a distance, and never shares personally. Also, mentors are doing the work for free, and are generally loved by their mentorees for pouring out their lives for no reason but love of the Lord.

The need for marriage modeling in Christian churches is more acute than is generally recognized. A Barna poll reported “Christians are more likely to experience divorce than are non-Christians” (Barna, 1999). Understandably, couples who marry in a church expect to have a higher chance of marital success. This misperception is also widespread among pastors.

The presumption that those who marry in church are inoculated from divorce can be valid, but only if couples take an inventory with mentors and learn communication skills. One mentor routinely asks couples, “Do you want to emulate your parents' marriage?” Surprisingly, all 12 couples they’ve mentored said NO. Few have seen a good marriage up close.

3. Lectures on Marriage

Fourth Presbyterian requires premarital couples to attend 7-9 lectures on core relational marriage topics. Each week a key issue is covered: Communication, Conflict Resolution, Finances, Marriage as a Covenant, Sex in Marriage, the Importance of the Vows. Initially, lectures were given by experts in the church. A financial planner would talk about money; a therapist, on listening skills. However, since 1998, Glen Knecht, Pastor of Care and Counseling, has taught all marriage classes from a biblical perspective (Knecht, 2002).

One lecture was inspired by Mike Mason, a newlywed who wrote The Mystery of Marriage (1985). The book debunks the common myth that marriage is founded on love. “True, we do not enter marriage without love. But once that step is taken, and commitments are made, lasting marriages are founded on the vows `for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part. Healthy marriages are based on this commitment to remain together even when the feeling of love may not be there,” said Knecht.  

In another lecture in his series, “Spiritual Foundations of Marriage,” Knecht revealed how marriage makes war with one’s “single mentality” – that marriage is an actual “dying to self,” a sacrificing of the freedom of one’s singleness. This spiritual foundation of marriage is seen in Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” God sharpens husband and wife through their love, pruning each other’s pride.

4. The Workbook

Completing a workbook is another ingredient of the premarital process at Fourth

Presbyterian. Two are used at the church: Before You Say “I Do” by Wes Roberts and H. Norman Wright (1965, 1987), and Preparing to Marry Again (1999) by Dick Dunn. Couples are assigned chapters coinciding with weekly lectures. Couples look up Scripture on the key relational and marital issues, learn them, and share their reactions privately with each other. Couples learn the “mind of the Lord” on key marital issues.

The value of the workbook? As one now married woman noted, “The workbook was a wonderful way to bring the true nature of marriage to the forefront.”

Frankly, however, many of the couples did not complete this element of marriage preparation, given the time demands of other requirements. It is the least important of the four aspects of preparation at Fourth, but is helpful to those who do it.

The Issue of Time

An engaged man expressed doubts about marrying to the Lead Mentors. Privately, he asked for their personal advice. They replied, “We never tell a couple whether they should or should not marry. That is for you to decide. However, since you are experiencing doubts, postpone the wedding date until you have resolved those differences.” He refused, but as the date approached, he became more apprehensive. Ultimately he broke the engagement – but only two weeks before the wedding. Unfortunately, he’d already paid for the bride’s parents to fly from Australia. That money was lost. But better the broken engagement than a broken marriage.  Time is an essential ingredient in making life’s most important decision. (As lay people, mentors are trained never to tell a couple whether they should or should not marry. However, professionals such as a pastor or a therapist have the authority to be more candid.)

It might be noted that mentors ask the premarital couple to sign a “Mentor Consent Form” in which they acknowledge that mentors are not professionals and are trained only to facilitate dialogue and share their own marital history. There has never been a lawsuit involving mentors or clergy by the millions who have taken a premarital inventory. However, we live in a very litigious society. The Mentor Consent Form, which goes to the pastor, is extra protection.

After mentoring 48 couples, nine of whom broke up before a wedding, the Lead Mentors recommend that no wedding date be set until marriage prep is finished. If that is unrealistic, pastors should demand six months until the wedding day. Why? The process requires at least three months, assuming the couple meets biweekly for six sessions. Some sessions are inevitably postponed, stretching the time to four or five months. If there are doubts about marrying after three months and wedding invitations are mailed, the pressure to marry is daunting.

If couples postpone the wedding, mentors find couples are more likely to focus on the relationship and the differences the inventory surfaces because they are not feeling rushed. Some couples enrolled in the program only months before their wedding wished they had had more time to devote to working on the relationship beforehand. One couple who broke their engagement three weeks before the wedding admitted, "We were trying to push the process with the mentor couple. We just had too little time."       

One mentor observed, "The couples that we helped the most were all seriously dating couples. The engaged couples were just too anxious to get it done. They just wanted to brush past any uncomfortable issues. They didn't seem to absorb much." Another young man noted “Once you are engaged, you’ve sort of made the commitment already. If you go through the course before you get engaged, you haven’t gotten down on your knees yet, so if it doesn’t work, there aren’t as many feelings of shame or guilt.”

The Process Works: John and Beth

One of the first couples agreeing to take the premarital inventory with the Lead Mentors was John and his girlfriend, Beth. They scored high on religious issues, but not conflict resolution. The inventory indicated that John was giving her the silent treatment when they were in conflict. The author said, “John, the silent treatment doesn’t work in a marriage. Let’s try ‘Ten Steps for Resolving Couple Conflict.’ Step one, set a time and place for discussion. Often arguments surface at an inconvenient time. It is all right to say, ‘I don’t have time to discuss that now. But then you should set a time and place to discuss it – tonight after dinner, for example. However, you are at this mentoring session; let’s talk right now. Step two, define the problem.”

Beth: “There are times when I get the silent treatment, when I bring up a problem. Or he will say something is `fine’ to put off dealing with it.”

John: “She takes a lot longer to say what she means than I do – 500 words to my 50. The rest sounds like nagging….Sometimes I need to think about what she says. I’m not sure what to say. Also she tends to bring up these things at 8 p.m.

“What’s wrong with that?” the female mentor inquired.

“I have to get up at 4 a.m. for my work, so at 8 p.m. when she is full of energy, I am ready for bed.”

The author said, “Beth, Step 3 is: How do you contribute to the problem?”

She sheepishly confessed, “I contribute to it when, angered by his silent treatment, I put on my answering machine and pretend I am not there when he calls.”

“So you give him the silent treatment?” The young couple laughed.

The author asked them to “brainstorm” the next step, writing down all possible solutions, and then read them to each other. John wrote down, “I need to talk when I don’t feel like it. I promise never to be silent again. I will always say something.”

Beth wrote she could postpone tough issues to weekends. And “I can speak in fewer words.”

This couple reached across their differences to one another and made meaningful changes to satisfy their future mate. Each was thrilled with options their partner had listed. Almost joyfully they committed to try a blend of their solutions. Within weeks of that mentoring session, equipped with a new tool to resolve differences, John asked Beth to marry him.   

He was successful at managing the silent treatment during the engagement. However, three weeks after their wedding, Beth called the mentors to complain about new instances. John picked up the phone defending his behavior. The author’s wife said, “Put down the phone, and come over and argue in front of us.” They did so, and the female mentor reminded the couple of the “fair fighting rules” which had been taught in a lecture: No name calling or put downs, etc.

A year later the author asked John to describe the value of mentoring. “The issue of the silent treatment was a major barrier for us,” he replied. Those “Ten Steps To Resolve Conflict” were like a stepladder over the wall for us.” The steps are now on their refrigerator.

Thirteen years have passed since their mentoring. Beth told her mentor recently, "Our marriage is still here today because of your mentoring, but also because we had someone to go back to even after we married. We have that support to plug into whenever we feel we need it, and we certainly needed it. You are the key in making our marriage what it is today."

Fourth Presbyterian Results-- Marriage Insurance

What are the results of Fourth Presbyterian’s rigorous marriage preparation? While working as an intern for Marriage Savers in 2001, a co-author of this paper conducted a survey of 302 couples who had registered for marriage preparation at Fourth Presbyterian from 1992-2000, when the program was directed by the author and his wife. Following is her summary of what happened to the 302 mentorees over a decade as of September, 2001:

  • 14 couples who signed up, could not be located
  • 21 couples dropped out of the program, mostly to break up; one eloped, two changed churches
  • 34 couples completed the course, but broke their relationship or engagement
  • 222 couples completed the process, married, and are still married
  • 5 couples married and divorced; 2 married and separated
  • 3 couples were still engaged and scheduled to marry in 2001, while 2 were dating but considering marriage in 2001 and one couple was being mentored.

The total is 304 because two couples were counted twice. One couple broke up and later reunited and married; another couple broke their engagement but is still dating.

Thus, more than 50 couples either dropped out to break up or completed mentoring but did not marry. That’s 18% of the 288 couples with known results.  Of the 222 who married, there are only seven divorces or separations in a decade. That is only a 3.1% failure rate, or a 97% success rate. This is more than marriage preparation. It is marriage insurance.

Furthermore, some churches whose mentors were trained by the author & spouse, have virtually eliminated divorce. Killearn United Methodist in Tallahassee has prepared 150 couples for marriage, none of whom have divorced. Christ Lutheran in Overland Park, KS has had no divorces of 38 premarital couples. Bread of Life, an African-American church in Kansas City, KS has had only one divorce. Such churches can tell couples, "If you will do serious marriage preparation, we can say with 95% certainty your marriage will last.” (author’s citation).  

Our conclusion is that any church which does not have a rigorous premarital program prompting 10% to 20% of couples to break up, is not offering meaningful marriage preparation.    

Pilot Mentoring Program Inspires a Movement

Based in part on the success of Fourth Presbyterian’s program, the authors created Marriage Savers, a non-profit organization that has planted these premarital reforms and other marriage-saving strategies, across the nation ( The author and his wife have personally trained about 3,000 mentor couples in scores of cities.

They have also created “Community Marriage Policies” (CMPs) in which a cross-section

of local clergy in 183 cities in 40 states (by December, 2003) have pledged to implement five reforms, only the first of which is to give “marriage insurance” to the engaged. They also pledge to enrich existing marriages, restore troubled ones, help the separated to reconcile, and stepfamilies to be successful. An independent study by the Institute for Research and Evaluation found that in the first 114 CMP counties, divorce rates fall an average of 26% over a decade – double the 13% of similar counties without a CMP. The Institute estimates that 77,600 divorces are being avoided by the initial 114 of 183 Community Marriage Policies.  

Conclusion: The Mentor Couple’s Great Potential

This case study demonstrates that there is a new strategy that can be adopted by America’s 350,000 houses of worship. That reform is to recruit and train solidly married couples to be mentors who can come alongside premarital couples, using an inventory to identify relational issues to discuss. Mentors can also teach conflict resolution skills, helping 95% of couples to build a lifelong marriage. A couple whose marriage has thrived for decades has a gift of marital wisdom and practical experience that can be passed on to the next generation. Every congregation has such couples. They are an untapped resource willing to make a difference --couple by couple, congregation by congregation and community by community.

Mentor couples can change the face of marriage and divorce in America.


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