AN AVERAGE of about 400,000 divorces have been granted annually in the United States alone during the past decade, roughly the equivalent of the population of a city as large as Louisville, Kentucky, or Newark, New Jersey.
Flow many marriages end in the divorce court every year that may have been saved through premarital counseling? There is no statistical data in this area to prove anything one way or the other, but it may be safely assumed that premarital counseling is a positive factor and is essential to the stability of a marriage. Not that counseling is a guarantee for success in marriage, but no one can deny that it will help the future spouses to face the marriage situation with a greater degree of maturity and insight than do those not receiving counseling.
It is precisely in the area of premarital counseling that many ministers of the gospel are failing. In too many cases there is no effort, or perhaps too little effort, made on the part of the pastor to adequately counsel those in his church who are contemplating marriage. It is taken for granted that they have made the right choice and that their marriage will be a success.
What exactly is premarital counseling? With what does it have to deal specifically? J. Kenneth Morris offers the following definition:
Premarital counseling is that form of counseling which centers around the interpersonal relationship of a man and a woman, helps them evaluate their relationship in view of their approaching marriage and acquaints them with ways by which they may build a happy and successful marriage, or in the light of the evaluation of their relationship, results in their deciding against the marriage'
The main objective of premarital counseling within the church is "to help lay the foundation for a happy and successful marriage within the framework of Christian faith." This objective should be highlighted all through the interviews the minister might have with the future husband and wife.
Premarital counseling differs from other forms of counseling in two respects: those couples whom the minister counsels will receive advice at the minister's insistence rather than on their own initiative, and further, a considerable amount of instruction is involved. The minister must be prepared to give counsel in the following areas, considered by a number of psychologists and marriage counselors to be the areas of greatest difficulty in working out an adjustment: spending the family income, sex relations, religious activities, in-law relationships, social activities, and mutual friends. Let's take a look at each of these areas.
I. Spending the Family Income
One couple in five has never satisfactorily agreed on finances. The situation, of course, has worsened owing to the fact that so many women now work outside the home and have an income of their own. As of 1963, women constituted 33.2 per cent of the total working population. About all the pastor counselor can do in this area is to outline some basic guiding principles the couple can follow in their attempt to arrive at a sound economic or financial plan for their future home. The necessity of a budget should be underscored. Some ministers have sample family budgets on hand for purposes of illustration
2. Sex Relations
The rising tide of divorce and marital complications within the Seventh-day Adventist Church itself should be enough to shake us up and awaken us to the realization that all is not well. The situation has been aggravated by the so-called new morality and sex revolution which, whether we want to admit it or not, has to some degree infiltrated our own ranks. Prenuptial sex experience and sexual promiscuity are commonplace in our modern society and they threaten to become so even within the church. The problem is a real one, and we must face it realistically, not sentimentally. Even in this area our youth are asking, "Is it wrong?" We must be prepared to give a relevant answer. Puritanical platitudes will not do.
Perhaps the scarcity of premarital counseling in the church is due in part to the pastor's shyness or reluctance to discuss sex matters openly. He himself may have been brought up in an atmosphere where the subject of sex was taboo. Such a minister would be at a definite disadvantage when it comes to premarital counseling, since this subject is bound to arise. Let us not reach the conclusion, however, that this matter of sex is all there is to premarital counseling. But it is well to be prepared to face it maturely and with aplomb. This reluctance, or shyness, to discuss sex matters, by the way, is true also of many members of the medical profession, strange as it may seem. In the November, 1964, edition of Newsweek, Dr. Harold I. Lief, of Tulane University School of Medicine, was quoted as saying that even the most mature intern is apt to be anxious about sex and both ashamed and embarrassed to talk about the sexual aspects of a patient's life, and that he would be happier if he could deal with each patient as if the patient were a machine. The New Orleans physician was further quoted as saying that even many of the instructors in medical schools approach the subject as reluctantly as bashful parents. This bashfulness on the part of clergyman or doctor is unwholesome and must be overcome if he is to minister effectively to those who come to him for counsel.
The minister's basic task when approaching the subject of sex is to impress the couple with the idea that sex is but a single part of a total personal relationship and that it is most satisfying when it is the expression of a genuine affection. The future husband and wife must be informed that sexual adjustment in marriage does not come overnight. The dangers and sinfulness of premarital sex relationships must be pointed out and emphasis given the fact that the best code for a Christian couple is that which limits sex relationships to marriage. The pastor should have access to certain good books on the subject of sex, reproduction, birth control, et cetera, that he can recommend for specific information.
If the couple reveal any problems of a physical or biological nature, the pastor should refer them to a competent Christian physician from whom they can receive special help.
3. Religious Activities
Religion in marriage is a most important and powerful factor. It can unite a home or miserably divide it—and even destroy it. It appears from research studies that those couples who participate regularly in religious activities such as attendance at church and Sunday school make a better adjustment to marriage than those who never attend or who stopped attending before they were eighteen years old.' The Seventh-day Adventist position, of course, is that in order to promote harmony the marriage of persons with different religious or denominational backgrounds should be discouraged. This, it should be added, includes marriage with the irreligious as well.
Bishop James A. Pike, in his book If You Marry Outside Your Faith, refers to the "Maryland Study," sponsored by the American Council on Education with the title "Youth Tell Their Story" and authored and compiled by Dr. Howard M. Bell. It is a study of 12,000 young people. The object was to learn about the religious connection of their parents and "whether their parents were living together or not." The results were significant: (1) Where both parents were Protestants, 6.8 per cent were separated; (2) where both parents were Roman Catholic, 6.4 per cent were separated; (3) in the case of mixed marriages, 15.2 per cent of the youth represented broken homes; (4) where the parents had no religion, 16.7 per cent of the homes were broken. In summary, says Bishop Pike, in the case of mixed marriages there was 21/4 times as much separation and divorce as in the families where there was "religious homogeneity." "With one out of four marriages today reaching the courts, this differential of 21/4 to 1 as to the chance of success is not an unimportant consideration," reasons Pike. So we see that a religiously mixed marriage is a dangerous proposition, and it behooves us to do all in our power to guide the thinking of our youth in this respect. Too many of our young people are marrying outside of their faith, and this results either in their making serious compromises that emasculate them spiritually or in their finally leaving the church. This situation is both real and serious. The pastor must do something about it. Premarital counseling is a big step in the right direction.
4. In-Law Relationships
The mother-in-law has been referred to by some as the person who causes more trouble than any other family figure in our culture. Others refer to her as a notorious figure in the family life drama. "She need not be," says J. Kenneth Morris, "if she can be made to realize that the marriage of her son or daughter is a crisis in her life and that in order to meet the crisis she needs counseling." This implies that the pastor may have to counsel not only the son or daughter who plans to get married but also mother and father, for whom the marriage of their offspring may be a considerable emotional blow. The matter is made worse if the son or daughter is still tied to mother's apron strings. If the weaning process has not taken place, it can cause serious difficulties. The minister must be aware of the fact that a person who must still be taken care of economically, emotionally, or physically is not old enough for marriage, and he should seek to make this amply clear to those looking forward to matrimony. In-law relationships can be worked out satisfactorily when the couple start their marriage on the principle of "our home must come first." In every marriage there should be a third person—Jesus Christ; no one else.
This is not to imply, however, that all in-laws are a problem to married couples. There are many sweet in-laws who have a wholesome attitude toward life and toward their children and who are never a problem to them in any way. Furthermore, we must remember that our responsibility toward our parents does not end with marriage. We must somehow provide for their welfare and not neglect them, for they, too, like all normal human beings, crave and need love and affection. The counselor's responsibility, then, is to have the couple consider the possible problems their in-laws can or may create and how they can best solve them. Should there be any objections to a marriage on the part of future in-laws, the couple must not immediately assume that they are therefore selfishly and unreasonably trying to prevent the happiness of their children. Many parents are correct in their judgments, and their opinion and counsel should be taken into consideration at all times. This is especially true in the case of God-fearing parents.
If need be, the pastor-counselor should make arrangements to confer with the parents of the groom and bride-to-be in order to obtain a more balanced view of the whole situation. When we marry we not only marry the one person, but in a broader sense marry into his or her family also, and for that reason the in-law situation should be seriously studied and evaluated, for it will most definitely affect the couple for better or for worse in their future relationship as husband and wife.
5. Social Activities
Fellowship—doing things together—is essential for the survival of any family. The minister should encourage the couple that comes to him for counsel to do things together. Some suggested activities are picnics with other couples, golf, camping, games, and sports. The end result of doing things together and going places together is increased unity and harmony in the family circle. The pastor's job, therefore, is to awaken the couple to the value of social and recreational activities as a tool for promoting peace and harmony in the home. The need of including their children in their recreational plans must also be emphasized. This will promote confidence on the part of the children toward the parents and will aid in reducing tension and conflict in the home between both.
6. Mutual Friends
This is considered the least difficult area of adjustment and does not require extensive discussion. There will be no problem here when the couple comes from the same social group and shares the same religious faith, but when this is not the case and there is a decided difference in the socio-economic and religious background, conflicts will arise. Suffice it to say that people of approximately the same social and educational level and of the same religious background will generally be the happiest.
In regard to the educational factor in marriage, Dr. Sylvanus M. Duvall offers the following comment: "The higher the educational level, the greater the chance for success in marriage. High school graduates divorce less frequently than those of less schooling. College graduates stay married longer and more happily than others." Couples of the same basic background will have no particular problem in choosing friends who are at their level and agreeable to both. A sound social life will contribute much toward making their marriage a success, and this the counselor should emphasize when interviewing future spouses.
"The happiness and prosperity of the marriage relation depends upon the unity of the parties," 6 wrote Ellen G. White many years ago. Unity, understanding, and the ability of husband and wife to communicate intelligently and effectively are basic for the success of a marriage. This is what premarital counseling should seek to promote. It should lead them to ask and answer candidly these fundamental questions: Are we compatible? Do we understand each other? Am I willing to overlook the nonessential in my partner? Am I a good listener? Do I honestly try to understand my partner's opinions? Do I react in a mature fashion when there is a difference of opinion? Do we pray together about our mutual problems? The latter is a most pertinent question, for nothing promotes oneness in marriage more than a gathering around the family altar. It has already become a hackneyed slogan, but is it not true nevertheless? "The family that prays together stays together."
No preacher in his right mind can fail to see that premarital counseling is a field of vital importance, yet so neglected by many. Choosing a lifelong partner is one of the most important phases of a person's life. The wrong choice could ruin a man or woman spiritually, morally, mentally, and physically. Eternal perdition could be the result. There are many youth of marriageable age in our congregations who need our help and counsel. Seek them out. Be a friend to them. Be approachable. Make it possible for them to confide in you. The future of society and the church depends on the stability of the home. Preacher, there is much you can do in this area. Do it!
1 Kenneth Morris, Premarital Counseling, p. 15.
2 Ibid., p. 42.
3. Ibid., p. 154.
4. Ibid., p. 150.
5 Sylvanus M. Duvall, Before You Marry, p. 37.
6 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 174.