Why wait until pre-Cana? The church needs to teach relationship skills much earlier
As someone who has prepared more than 5,000 couples for marriage over the past 20 years, I certainly find merit in the Vatican’s recent call for an expanded marriage catechumenate. And I agree with Simcha Fisher, who wrote in America that engaged couples should be provided with a broader range of pre-Cana options.
But that is not enough. We are in the midst of a crisis. Catholic marriages are down by 70 percent over the past 50 years, and among those marriages still taking place in the church, too many are of “short duration,” as the Vatican euphemistically puts it. Lengthening pre-Cana to one year is one response to the crisis, but the church needs to think more creatively about how to prepare Catholics for marriage. Why not teach relationship skills at a much younger age?
Many of the couples I work with arrive at pre-Cana terrified of marriage—or haunted by the failed and uninspired marriages of their parents—and few seem to know how to effectively communicate with each other. The recent surge in young adults reporting loneliness in their daily lives makes it all the more clear that we need to start teaching how to form successful friendships, and ultimately a lasting marriage, at an early age. The church should be thinking more “relationship catechumenate” than “marriage catechumenate.”
The recent surge in young adults reporting loneliness in their daily lives makes it all the more clear that we need to start teaching how to form successful friendships.
When I was asked to take over teaching our parish’s pre-Cana program, I read the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, by the marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman (whom I then trained with). The book is written, obviously, for married couples, but I found myself wishing I had read it in high school. I struggled with communicating with family and friends in those years—romantic relationships were the least of my concerns—and the book’s advice would have saved me from so much pain.
For example, it was a relief to learn that it is actually better not to talk when angry. I had been putting too much pressure on myself to express myself when I didn’t know what to say. It was empowering to learn that it is O.K. to calm down first and then find the right words.
It was also liberating to learn that there is always a constructive way to make your point. I had thought “criticize” or “keep quiet” were my only two options when I was upset, and because I am conflict-avoidant, I had almost always chosen to keep quiet. But Dr. Gottman’s book was filled with examples of how to turn a negative statement into a constructive one, and from them I finally gained the comfort I needed to express myself in difficult situations.
It was empowering to learn that it is O.K. to calm down first and then find the right words.
I attended a Jesuit high school in New York City and can attest that a class where students could learn these communication lessons would be quite popular. Students at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco will soon have this opportunity. I shared a draft of this essay with the Rev. John Gribowich, a teacher at that school, and I am helping him prepare a Relationship Boot Camp course to be offered there this coming spring.
If the church is going to lead a marriage renaissance, it will need more people like Father Gribowich and Dr. Kerry Cronin—the philosophy professor who gives a popular annual lecture on dating at Boston College—working with our high school and university students. Pre-Cana comes later.
One reason relationship courses aren’t more widely offered, I suspect, is a widespread fatalism about relationships in our society. When my wife and I struggled early in our marriage, I reached out to a Catholic friend for advice. He told me: “That’s what happens. The initial passion fades, and you end up bickering for the rest of your life. Get used to it.” He tried to help by adding that my wife was “my cross to bear.”
This fatalism about marriage is completely unwarranted. In both my own marriage and with couples I have counseled, I have discovered that learning just a handful of valuable lessons can dramatically improve a relationship: Say “thank you” often, show you’re happy to see each other, call time-outs instead of yelling at each other. But also keep a shared calendar to hold yourselves accountable for making time for each other.
In both my own marriage and with couples I have counseled, I have discovered that learning just a handful of valuable lessons can dramatically improve a relationship.
These are all good relationship habits that should be taught to our youth long before they contemplate marriage. One of the exercises we have planned for the students at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep is to have them develop a ritual for greeting their parents when they come home. It’s a simple practice, but it can transform relationships. And if their family lives are improved, they may be able to date—and marry—better.
One organization that has been thinking creatively about how to reach our young is the Virginia-based nonprofit Communio. It organized a trial program in the city of Jacksonville, Fla., with nearly 60,000 people completing courses offered by more than 50 churches spread across many denominations. Churches had the option to offer marriage classes to parents in one room while their children received relationship instruction in another. Over the three-year run of the program, the divorce rate in the city fell by an astounding 24 percent—with church attendance increasing by 23 percent. Communio recently announced a partnership with the Archdiocese of Kansas City, and I hope their work continues to spread across the country.
If the church wants to “save marriage,” improving pre-Cana is a good idea, but we need to get an earlier start teaching relationship skills. Every church organization involved in the education of our youth—including our high schools, universities and parishes—should be thinking creatively about how they can be a part of this effort.
Our God is a God of relationship. If we fail to teach our young people relationship skills, we are failing to prepare them for relationship success—and we are failing to teach them how to live our faith. The consequences for our society and church, as we can already see, are dire.
[Read next: “What Catholics actually want (and need) from marriage prep.”]