Dioceses in England and Wales are gearing up for the introduction of new guidelines on marriage preparation which are expected to recommend extended and more comprehensive advice for engaged couples. We asked five Catholic couples to share their experiences of preparing for married life.
The Wells: Sarah, 24, and Joe, 27, were married in 2015
We went on a residential weekend as part of our marriage preparation. The weekend was split into short presentations given by different married couples on a variety of topics, including communication, money and forgiveness. After each presentation, we were encouraged to go away as a couple and have an open discussion, using a set of questions as a guide.
It felt tricky committing to a whole weekend in the run up to the wedding, but I’m glad we did as it really helped having the space to properly think and reflect. We were encouraged to have lots of open conversations and to share our thoughts on quite a deep and personal level. I think the main thing I took from the weekend was the importance of communication, in every situation.
We chose to do our marriage prep weekend along with a couple of our friends who were also engaged. We had a good laugh together, and that took some of the intensity out of the weekend. Some parts of the weekend were a bit cheesy (and I don’t do cheesy!), but there wasn’t anything we couldn’t look back on and laugh about afterwards. Most of it was helpful, but I suppose it really comes down to learning on the job!
One of the activities we were given during the weekend was to discuss different household tasks and decide who we thought should be doing each task. This was a revelation for us both, as we had quite different ideas! We realised that our expectations were strongly based on our own family experience, so we had a good laugh about that.
The funniest part of the weekend was when we drove into the village to pick up a few bottles of wine. The shop assistant refused to serve us, as one of our group didn’t have any ID - it was quite ironic that we were all on a marriage prep course and yet unable to prove we were above the legal drinking age!
As part of our prep, we also met with a priest friend who was marrying us. I remember being really inspired by his explanation of the sacrament of marriage. He was explaining how marriage is a sign of God’s love for humanity, and so marriage isn’t just for the couple but also for their friends, family and community. It’s meant to be a witness, and a blessing to others, not just the two people getting married. I came away feeling inspired but also thinking ‘wow, no pressure then!’.
The Collins: Kelly, 29, and Tom, 30, got married in 2008
Marriage preparation for us happened in two parts: sessions with a couple from my husband’s church, and meetings with my parish priest. It gave us the opportunity to chat together, usually digging deeper into things we'd previously discussed. The two activities we most remember were when we had to describe an image for our partners to draw. Mine was quite close to what we were aiming for; his was nothing like the picture I was meant to be describing. This simple exercise still teaches us so much about the different ways we communicate with one another.
The other activity involved us putting images of things like a key, people and a meal in priority order. The discussion around what the images could mean and the types of things that would be important to us in married life was as interesting as the challenge of agreeing on how to prioritise them.
The main thing we felt was lacking was guidance on living our faith together as a couple and some discussion of the real value the Church places on marriage. Since having a child, and after the recent Synod on the Family, we have begun to reflect on this more deeply and it seems a shame not to have been invited into a deeper understanding of the value and importance of marriage earlier in our relationship.
We recently completed "the marriage course” described as an MOT for couples. The materials are produced by the Anglican church, Holy Trinity Brompton. We actually found this much more useful than our marriage preparation - perhaps because we had more experiences to draw on and discuss by this point. It’s a well-rehearsed course that has been finely tuned over the years and we were able to keep the booklets to refer back to, unlike the many sheets of paper from our marriage prep which are now lost, of course. Sometimes it’s practical things like that which make a difference.
Jeremy, 58, and Mary, 57, married in 1979
We had two hour-long marriage preparation sessions with our parish priest. The sessions were pretty informal. We sat in armchairs in one of the presbytery rooms and had tea and biscuits, I seem to remember.
In addition to discussing the sacrament of marriage, we spoke about the challenges that might arise and the responsibilities that come with being a couple.
Father wanted to ensure we knew what some of the challenges might be – how to get through the hard times – as well as enjoying the exciting times ahead, particularly in the early days of the honeymoon period. I remember feeling awkward when Fr mentioned sex – we were fairly young so the idea of a priest speaking about sex was a surprise!
Marriage preparation did offer a different perspective on getting ready for a big change, and allowed us to think and reflect on the enormity of that shift. I would think that with weddings being such huge business now, both in terms of cost but also the pressure to have ‘the perfect day’, it gives you an opportunity to think about what marriage will mean for you.
Today, couples often take over a year to plan a wedding, but I believe that not all couples put the same level of energy into planning what their life will be like the day after and for the rest of their lives. Done well, I think marriage preparation can help some couples gain another perspective on what marriage means.
The Greenwoods: Richard, 34, and Kasia, 30, married in 2008
We had our marriage prep a few months before our wedding in the summer of 2008. It was one evening at our home and it was extremely informal. A priest we knew, Fr Michael Fitzsimons, came to our house and we chatted for a bit and then had dinner together.
We talked about practical things, managing money, that sort of thing. We also watched a couple of clips from the Robin Williams film License to Wed. We talked about our reasons for wanting to get married in a Catholic Church and Fr Mike asked us what habits annoyed us about each another. I remember mentioning that it annoyed me that when Kasia ate a yoghurt, she always left the pot in the living room when she had finished. Eight years later, she is much better at tidying up after herself, so I guess that worked well!
I enjoyed the informality of the evening, but did one evening prepare us for married life? No, of course not! I think the first eight years of our marriage has helped us prepare for the next eight. We have a child, a mortgage and are both in work now; a completely different situation to the place we were in back in 2008.
One thing I remember clearly was Fr Mike’s prayer before we started our meal together. He began by saying: 'Thank you God for friendships' and I had never in my own prayer thanked God for the friendship of Kasia at that point. Now, it's probably what I most frequently thank God for.
Teresa Caldecott and Philip Ciliani are getting married in Philadelphia this year; they currently have a long-distance relationship
There are many logistical problems with a long-distance engagement, not only in arrangements for the wedding, but also in preparing for actually being married. Since we've been engaged, my fiancé and I have only been in the same country for a couple of weeks at a time, even if you count Christmas. It made it impossible to attend a diocesan Marriage Day together, either in the UK or in America, where he lives. But with divorce rates though the roof, and the Church increasingly at obvious odds with mainstream culture, we owe it to ourselves to really get to grips with what we’re entering into.
Since we are getting married in the States, we asked his spiritual director to help us. As well as meeting in person a few times we're doing Skype meetings and using materials he's suggested from the US – workbooks and online videos – to give focus to our discussions. We’re also meeting with a trained couple to discuss some more practical aspects of Catholic marriage, and using new apps like Kindara to get to grips with fertility awareness.
Although this is the first time he’s done it this way, Father has prepared many other couples for marriage and knew where to find resources. Thankfully, he’s technologically savvy enough to make it work. The parish where we’re getting married was happy with the arrangement when we explained the unique situation – it simply wasn’t feasible to go through their usual track. Of course in-person meetings will always be preferred, but we’re grateful for the new technologies that allow us to continue the journey together despite being thousands of miles apart.
We’re only in the early stages, but I have been struck by the differences between the UK and US in the field of marriage preparation. Unlike most of my friends in the UK, we’ve been overwhelmed by the amount and rigour of resources American Catholics have on offer. There may be other problems (the price tags for example, or the cheese-factor), but they certainly have you covered in all the practical, psychological and spiritual areas of your preparation.
Often in the UK, couples seem to get lumped with well-meaning priests who only find books that are naff or dated. They get offered a one-day course to talk about conflict resolution and chores, and the contact details of an over-stretched volunteer who can tell you about natural family planning. There are resources out there, but more often than not you really have to dig and ask around.