Four months before their February 2003 wedding, Mary Sapeta and her fiancé, Dan Helfrich, thought they had already discussed all the “important issues” regarding their lives together. But when they attended two weekend Pre-Cana marriage preparation sessions at St. Louis Parish in Clarksville, the couple realized there were several topics they had never touched upon.

“We never really talked what would happen during our retirement, what our goals were,” says Mary (now Helfrich), a first-time bride at 40. “And we never discussed what was going to happen to our parents if they became ill. If my dad got sick, was he going to come live with us? If something were to happen to Dan what would happen to his children [from a previous marriage] in the long term? Were they going to live with me? Until how old? We were able to come up with a plan as a result of Pre-Cana that we can refer to throughout our marriage.”

With nearly half of new marriages ending in divorce, according to recent statistics, it’s certainly wise to talk over the big issues before tying the knot. According to the experts, the value of marriage preparation is that it facilitates discussion and illuminates potential problems before couples walk down the aisle. In fact, structured premarital preparation- whether religious or secular- is a form of “marriage insurance,” says Michael McManus, a nationally syndicated religion columnist and founder of Bethesda-based Marriage Savers Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to lowering divorce rates. “There are an awful lot of issues that people don’t know to discuss- for instance, if she has college debt, or his mother plans to live with you- that you have to come to some consensus about before you get married,” says McManus.

From informal group “coaching” sessions to relationship questionnaires and religious retreats, here’s a look at what’s available in the Baltimore area.

Relationship ‘coaching’

“What do we like to do to have fun together?”

“Is it permissible to open each other’s mail?”

“If I had body odor or bad breath, would you tell me?”

These are just a few of the probing questions that certified life coach Mimi Azoubel Daniel has couples pose to each other in her marriage preparation class, called the Y Workshop. (The “Y” is both a play on her practice’s name, XY Outlook Inc., and a reference to critical questions discussed in the workshop, such as, “Why do you want to get married?” and “Why did you choose your partner?”) The four-session program aims to help couples explore their expectations of marriage, identify potential pressure points, strengthen their relationship skills and enhance intimacy.

“Coaching is not about problems, it’s about goals,” says Daniel, who holds a master’s degree in business from Johns Hopkins University. “That’s the distinction between therapy and coaching. Coaching is looking forward and looking at couples who have goals in mind. Perhaps their goal is simply, ‘I don’t want to get divorced.’”

The idea for the workshop came five years ago when Daniel and her then-fiancé were looking for a non-denominational premarital program. “We were looking for someone who would ask us questions we hadn’t thought to ask each other and talk to us about the common pitfalls of marriage- what comes up in marriage that seems to have it end so poorly for so many?”

The couple found value in a course offered by the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement in Washington, D.C., but it didn’t have the depth they were looking for. So, after five years of research, Daniel launched her own relationship coaching practice in Reisterstown in early 2003. She offers the Y Workshop five times a year on a group or individual basis to couples who are engaged or married less than two years.

“[These couples] are in a place in their relationship and in their lives where they’re really looking forward. And that’s why I think this workshop can be influential- in helping to determine what expectations are realistic, what people deserve from a loving relationship, or really, how to be a true partner in a marriage,” says Daniel.

Though she admits that she does encounter some reluctant participants, most are soon won over by the upbeat, non-threatening atmosphere. One of the tools Daniel uses to facilitate communication is a “relationship wheel,” made up of such categories as mutual support, friendship, sexuality, intimacy and trust. Each partner rates their current level of satisfaction, then compares answers. The question-based format is designed to encourage discussion and deeper understanding.

One of the questions Daniel has couples ask each other is: “What’s the best way to show your love for me?” “The reason that’s such a powerful question,” she says, “is that so many times the answer is completely different. What I might do for my husband and think is the greatest act of love might not be that big of a deal to him. But if we can show the other person what we consider an act of love to be, we have more tools in our toolbox for a successful relationship.”

So does it work? That’s not really for her to say, says Daniel, who has not had any participants call off the wedding in the year she’s been offering the workshop. “My personal philosophy is that relationships can work and work really well in all cases except where there is abuse. I simply believe that there are tools and techniques that can make it easier, and that knowing some things upfront can make it easier to work through issues when they appear.”

Family matters and Jewish mothers

“The most important thing for a couple to realize is that the psychodynamics do change once they marry,” says psychotherapist and rabbi Gavriel Newman of Beth Jacob Congregation in Park Heights. “During the dating and engagement periods, there’s a lot of star-struck romance, a lot of joy. For the most part, the actual family dynamics don’t kick in until after marriage.” Newman confirms many engaged couples’ greatest fear: You’re not just marrying your spouse, you’re marrying your beloved’s family as well.

“What therapists like to say is that when two parents are standing in the nursery of their child, there are actually six people there besides the baby- his parents, her parents and the two of them,” he says. “In other words, we always bring the dynamics of our relationships with our parents into the new relationship. And young couples who are getting married usually have no clue of this.”

Although formal marriage preparation is not required in the Jewish faith, Newman wishes it were. “I have a lot of passion about the necessity for it,” says the rabbi, who has been married for 25 years and maintains a private marriage counseling practice. Newman emphasizes to couples that in marrying, they are creating a new family unit and their new spouse must take priority even over their parents. “One of the Ten Commandments is to honor your parents, and Jewish people can be very good about that- sometimes too good!” Newman points out. Before the wedding, he also conveys this point to the couples’ parents. “Every decision the couple makes now has to be in concert, and the parents should step back to allow that marital unit to develop its strengths as they make decisions together,” he says.

Aside from avoiding in-law-induced angst, what other marriage advice does the rabbi impart? “Most people need to understand that you can’t both be taken care of by each other at the same time,” says Newman. Say both partners come home after a hard day at work, expecting a glass of wine and sympathy from their spouse. “That is usually when couples get into trouble, because they both have expectations of the other that are not being met,” says Newman. “The simplest piece of advice that I think couples benefit from tremendously is to understand that you have to take turns. … I also try to convey that in taking care of the other person, you are to an extent taking care of yourself.”

Marriage preparation and the church

According to recent research, 43 percent of Americans attend church or synagogue regularly, and organized religion marries 86 percent of all Americans. Yet, half of those marriages fail, cites Marriage Savers’ McManus. In order to address the problem at its source, Marriage Savers partners with mostly Protestant churches in 40 states to both prepare couples for lifelong marriage and to strengthen existing marriages.

The program trains happily married couples to serve as mentors to younger couples in their congregations. Part of the marriage preparation process includes filling out a FOCCUS inventory- which stands for Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding & Study- more than 150 questions related to such topics as expectations, interests, problem-solving, religion and values, personality, sexuality, parenting, financial issues, interfaith marriages and remarriage. Couples must agree or disagree with such statements as “We are in agreement about how we will make financial decisions between us” and “I sometimes feel that this may not be the right person for me to marry.”

“It’s an attempt to try to give marriage insurance to each couple,” says McManus, who has trained more than 2,000 mentor couples and personally mentored 47 couples in his own church since 1992, none of whom have divorced.

A version of the FOCCUS inventory is also used by the Catholic Church, which considers church-led preparation a prerequisite for marriage. “[Couples] are required to contact their priest six months in advance of the wedding, although we recommend sooner than that,” says Lauri Przybysz, coordinator of marriage and family enrichment for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. One option is Pre-Cana, a group program in which engaged couples meet with clergy and listen to talks by married “team couples” and a priest.

Other options for Catholics include Engaged Encounter, a weekend retreat led by sponsor couples, as well as one-on-one meetings with a sponsor couple or clergyman who administers the FOCCUS inventory. Couples complete the inventory separately, and it is then sent to the archdiocese to be processed anonymously. The results highlight areas of agreement and areas in need of discussion.

For Lou Kollar of Baltimore, a church-led weekend retreat didn’t reveal anything new. In the nearly four years that he and his then-fiancée, Clair, had been dating, “We had already talked about most of the issues before,” he says. However, he was pleasantly surprised to find that the workshops dealt more with relationships and less with religion. “It was more focused on how to open up to each other, which I found more helpful than people preaching about the Roman Catholic faith.”

In addition to one-on-one or group discussions with sponsor couples, all engaged couples who wish to marry in the Catholic Church must also meet several times with a priest, who counsels them about spiritual matters and determines their freedom to marry. (The intention to stay married for life and to be open to having children are requirements for marriage in the Catholic Church; vowing to raise children Catholic is not.)

“A marriage preparation leader is just a facilitator of a couple’s discussion, not a therapist that says ‘you must change this or that.’ We are all volunteers- we don’t claim to be professional counselors,” says Przybysz, who together with her husband of 30 years has served as a sponsor couple for 15 years.

Diane and Jorge Alvarez of Havre de Grace will be married 10 years this August. They say they benefited from a premarital weekend retreat through their Catholic church, where they discussed such issues as having in-laws move in, relocating for a job, and finances. “I think it did help early in our marriage because we went into it with the knowledge of how each of us felt about some pretty big issues,” says Diane. “Fortunately, there weren’t too many issues we felt differently on.” However, she recalls that at least two of the 15 couples on the retreat decided not to get married.

What marriage preparation doesn’t do is transform people into perfect partners or guarantee marital happiness- that part is up to the individual couple. And the smart ones know that sometimes you just have to let things go.

“What annoys you now will annoy you 30 years from now,” says Barbara Filar of Elkridge, who has mentored engaged couples through her church and admits that her husband Mark’s deafening sneeze irked her early in their marriage. “But we laugh about it now.”

Free-lance writer Abigail Green has been happily married since October 2003.

Mimi Azoubel Daniel, XY Outlook Inc., , 443-956-4292
Rabbi Gavriel Newman, Beth Jacob Congregation, 410-466-1266
Lauri Przybysz, coordinator of marriage and family enrichment, Archdiocese of Baltimore, 410-547-5417
Michael McManus, Marriage Savers Inc., 301-469-5873

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