Marriage prep class takes an in-depth look at life after “I Do”
By Vanessa Denha Garmo
A wedding is a day consisting of a beautiful ceremony and a joyous reception filled with your closest family and friends. A marriage, however, is a lifetime commitment to one person. That person you say, “I do,” with is now your partner for life, through good times and bad, in sickness and health. But all of those circumstances can be easily compromised if we do not invite God into our marriages. That is the resounding message from the newly revised marriage prep course.
The need for change
Some couples spend months preparing for the wedding day and very little time for the life they will share after the celebration – the marriage. And most engaged couples will gladly make time for their wedding day appointments, but complain about the time they have to invest in marriage preparation classes. Many engaged couples focus on preparing for the wedding day more so than the wedding, but the Church encourages them to spend their engagement preparing for a strong, lifelong marriage—and the responsibilities and challenges that come with it. For any major sacrament of the church, there is preparation.
First communicants spend two days a week for almost a year preparing. Men spend seven years in seminary to become priests. By contrast, engaged couples have it easy. In the Chaldean diocese, some churches would have one marriage class, and others would have a one-on-one meeting with the priest and still others required couples attend three sessions. The Chaldean church found there was a need for a new program, and the new marriage prep course will better prepare couples for whatever comes their way.
How the program was established
In 2018, the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle of Detroit in collaboration with the Eastern Catholic Re-evangelization Center (ECRC) launched a new marriage preparation program. Prior, each church had its own requirements, but the Diocese wanted one program for all couples that was in depth and reflective of the modern times and struggles married couples face. Sadly, divorce is on the rise in our community. Some priests say it is 50 percent, or one in two marriages is ending in divorce. Viewed as an absolute tragedy by many, something needed to change.
A committee was formed consisting of priests, and married members of ECRC. They met regularly over a year’s time to create the current program. “We looked at other existing programs from the Latin Rite and we thought we would be able to plug in one but we couldn’t find one that really addressed everything we wanted to feature in a Chaldean program,” said a committee representative. “So, we customized a program tailored to our community.”
The team came together and decided what topics were most important to cover. These topics include: communication, conflict resolution, finance, understanding the family of origin, In-laws, unrealistic expectations, understanding the differences between what men and women want, God’s plan for sexuality, and having a Christ centered marriage.
Values and fruits of the program so far
The new and improved program currently consists of four three-hour sessions. The themes of each night are: Communication, Expectations, Sexuality and Faith. The nights are dynamic and include a mix of videos, live presentations, one-on-one time for the couples, and small group discussion.
Faith is an important topic for this new marriage prep class. It gives couples the opportunity to evangelize, which is the core of what ECRC does. “We talk about the importance of and have couples participate in Eucharistic Adoration and some have never heard of it before the program,” said Jeff Kassab, ECRC board member and a presenter of the program with his wife Ahlam. “It’s amazing to see these couples so moved by adoration. It is such a strong experience. Some of the couples go into small groups after wiping their tears. It is amazing to see how Jesus can change their lives in just three or four minutes.”
To give couples the opportunity to pray together is profound, Kassab further explained. Having a Christ centered marriage is not as difficult as it may seem. If you don’t know where to start, pray for your spouse and family, then take the next step by praying with them. Try harder to make Christ centered decisions. Your spouse and children will pick up on it as you grow together with Christ as the center.
The program also includes a workbook for each couple that accompanies the program. The workbook has extended notes and references on each topic and shares questions that can help facilitate conversation between the engaged couple outside the classroom. The discussion questions can open topics couples would never address if not prompted to do so such as finances and openness to having children.
Each week also includes a video of several Chaldean couples sharing their own experiences regarding the topic at hand. The heart of the program is the last part. At the end of each night, the couples spend a significant amount of time in small discussion groups. Instead of listening for the duration, the couples are encouraged to open up and ask questions as well as share their own perspectives and experiences. The goal of these classes is not to solve your problems, but to better help you deal with them.
The feedback so far has been positive. “People are giving great feedback; they are loving it,” said one of the presenting couples.
“We had one woman who said she dreaded attending the four weeks but told us that after the first week, she and her fiancé couldn’t wait for the next session. They loved the talks and hearing what other couples had to say about marriage,” said Kassab. “However, the first year of the program is crucial and we are paying very close attention to the feedback.”
Some engaged couples at first are skeptical and concerned about the commitment. “Couples who are coming into the program are hearing it’s a one-month program, a total of 12 hours and they are dreading it,” said Dalia Atisha, Marriage Prep Coordinator. “After the first class, they are transformed. We are reading the surveys and testimonials and it has been so positive in terms of the wealth of information they are getting and what they are learning. They have commented that the speakers are captivating and the topics are interesting.”
The marriage prep course is a true eye-opener for some couples. “So many people go into marriage without thinking of it as work,” said Atisha. “They realize during the course that it is not all fun and games. It is a roller coaster. There are some great moments and some hard moments. How you handle those hard moments will determine how you get through them and if you can make a marriage successful. They are learning that marriage doesn’t just happen and that it’s not automatically successful because you are in love. It is work.”
Atisha has been instrumental in organizing of the weekly classes, coordinating the speakers, distributing the books, assisting with the refreshments and administering the videos. As an event coordinator, Atisha has planned many weddings and not all have happy endings.
“Unfortunately, in our own Chaldean Community, our divorce rate is high and rising,” said Atisha. “I see it as a planner. I have seen the red flags. This is a great program because it’s helping the couples. I know couples who broke off their engagement after taking marriage prep. Not to scare people, but it can give the confirmation that a relationship won’t work. Or, marriage preparation can help them see how to overcome obstacles or deal with some red flags that can be resolved. It is about building a good foundation. We want to reduce the divorce rate. Marriage is about giving and not just receiving.”
The program is also designed to get at the root of the high divorce rate. “We hope to prevent future divorces,” said Kassab. “During my opening talk, I explain that we are not here to solve their problems. They are going to have problems. If they think they are not going to fight about something, they are mistaken. There is no such marriage. We are here to help them to learn how to fight. You have to pick your battles.”
Research shows that the divorce is high and that finances often contribute to marriage problems. Money is a topic being addressed during marriage prep and Atisha agrees it is an important issue. “It’s unfortunate because you will sometimes see girls who want to be brides but not wives,” said Atisha. “It’s about the wedding day for them and not the marriage. If that is the case, you don’t want to get married. I always help my couples focus on leaving the stress behind and focus on each other. It is about the faith and the sacrament itself. The planning is fun and falls into place, but couples need to focus on the sacrament.”
Why Christ-Centered Marriages
Some couples view the Church’s marriage preparation requirements as an unfair burden; they “just want to get married.” But according to one study, most couples (nearly 94 percent) who completed a marriage preparation program found it to be a valuable experience, especially in the early years of marriage (see “For Your Marriage”). There is also growing evidence that marriage preparation programs significantly reduce the risk of divorce.
Some might not see why it is important to marry in the church or to even consider God within your marriage. Statistics show that for those who were married only in court, 50 percent will end in divorce, for those married in the Catholic Church 33 percent will divorce, for those who marry in the Catholic Church and practice Natural Family Planning the divorce rate falls to 3.5 percent. Couples who do both of those and also attend Mass lower the odds to 2 percent and if you add praying together the divorce rate is 0.09 percent. (Source: Times Review, La Crosse, Wis., Feb 15, 2001)
The committee is also evaluating the program throughout the year and is currently looking to modify it after feedback from the more than 100 couples who have gone through it already.
“In the beginning, we got complaints that four weeks is too long,” said Kassab. “Even though most change their opinion after the first week, we are asking couples to come with an open mind and an open heart. We are asking them to let the Holy Spirit work through us so we can deliver the message of Christ about the importance of having a Christ-centered marriage and leading your spouse to heaven. That is ultimately the end game. We must all lead our spouse to heaven.”
The program does need more couples to volunteer their time and talents. They need couples to present topics or facilitate small group discussions. They ask that couples pray to see if God is calling them and their spouse to serve in this ministry to strengthen marriages. Married couples interested in volunteering for marriage prep can do so if they are married for at least five years and are living a faith-based marriage that includes attending mass at least every Sunday. Volunteers will receive the necessary training, and the team will do their best to help accommodate schedules.
“Marriage and family are the cornerstone of society,” said committee member. “If our marriages are failing, we need to strengthen them. We need the entire community to pray for a successful marriage prep program and for strengthened marriages. If you feel the nudge of curiosity, it may be the Holy Spirit calling you.”
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about the program and setup a shadow day to observe.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Luke 10:2)
Patrice Abona contributed to this article.