Reprinted from The Tennessean newspaper
According to the Department of Health, at least 7,000 couples will tie the knot this June in Tennessee, funneling into a total of 64,000 weddings for the year. After lavish weddings giddy newlyweds will run off to exotic places for romantic honeymoons and return to settle in the Volunteer State, where statistically their divorce is more likely to occur than Vanderbilt’s football team winning the SEC championship. If you think I’m using hyperbole, keep reading.
Tennessee grants a $60 discount to couples who apply for their marriage license with a signed document from their pastor/counselor confirming at least six hours of premarital counseling. It’s not only a kind gesture on the state’s part but sends an important message about marriage—that committing to a life partner ought to take at least as much forethought and preparation as passing the exam for a driver’s license.
If only the premarital sessions were effective in producing the desired results. If recent years are an accurate prophet, this year alone 34,000 couples will file for divorce, impacting 66,000 children. The per capita divorce stats annually place Tennessee in the Top 5 in the U.S. Now there’s a ranking we can all be proud of.
To be fair, Tennessee is not at fault. The state doesn’t cause divorces any more than it creates marriages. I do not hold the state liable for the high divorce rate or responsible for its reversal. That responsibility lies squarely at the feet of dating, engaged, and married couples. Although the national divorce rate hovers around 50% couples still storm the wedding altars believing they are the “exceptional” couple with little idea what they will do differently and consistently that will make them the exception.
I’ve been a licensed and clinically certified marriage therapist for almost 30 years (and an assistant pastor for many of those years) and I have done more sessions of obligatory premarital counseling than I care to count. Years ago I ditched my original premarital policy. Currently I will not counsel an engaged couple unless they commit to a series of follow-up sessions during their first year at three-moth intervals.
Newlywed counseling is actually more effective and productive than premarital counseling because engaged couples are 1) more guarded about their relationship and 2) are more focused on preparing for their wedding day than they are for their wedded years. Newlywed couples are more transparent and the counseling more fruitful. It is timely given that couples establish many of their relationship patterns, especially communication style, during their first year. Furthermore, newlywed counseling reduces reluctance to seeking out help later when problems arise and before the marriage resembles the final scenes of Titanic.
The hard truth is that a few sessions of check-it-off premarital counseling will not equip a couple to weather marital storms in their 15th year any more than correspondence courses can train a cyclist for the Tour de France. Here’s hoping that couples will invest a fraction of their wedding costs into proactive newlywed counseling. Here’s hoping that couples will learn to think of preventive marriage counseling as normal as preventive dentistry, and consider marriage enrichment a form of marriage insurance. Here’s hoping that parents will consider blessing their children with a wedding present of newlywed counseling, a gift more valuable and enduring than anything on the couple’s registry at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Here’s hoping that pastors and counselors like me have more opportunities to deliver more healthy newborn marriages and subsequently are forced to perform far fewer marital autopsies.