Learning to Love Right

What do you love about your partner? On a recent Saturday morning in the rectory of the Our Lady of Good Council church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Christopher Mueller asks soon-to-be spouses to yell out answers in front of more than 100 strangers. After some moments of hesitation, a young woman offers, “his sense of humor,” and a man says he loves his fiancée’s patience.

Mueller is the coordinator of marriage preparation programs in the Archdiocese of New York, and the shout-outs are his way of making the 60 engaged couples at his marriage preparation class feel like they’re part of a conversation rather than enduring a lecture.

The tradition started in 1946, when the Chicago Archdiocese offered the first Pre-Cana class. But as divorce rates in the U.S. grew the idea behind such classes took hold. In 1960 there were only 2.2 divorces per 1,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 1970 the number had jumped to 3.5 per 1,000 and in 1979 reached a peak of 5.3. The U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a family ministry document in 1978 that strongly suggested, but did not require, marriage preparation classes for engaged couples.Mueller runs a number of “Pre-Cana” classes, so named because the first miracle Jesus performed was turning water into wine at a wedding in Canaan. Instead of spirits, the couples this morning can choose between juice and coffee with their donuts and bagels. The breakfast buffet is the carrot; the stick is that without attending two six-hour classes, the couples cannot get married in a Catholic church.


Today, few Catholic priests will perform a marriage without the couple having a Pre-Cana certificate, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Other religions are also mandating such pre-wedding preparations. While marriage prep classes aren’t mandatory for Lutherans, Pastor J. Elise Brown at the Advent Lutheran Church in Manhattan says more couples are asking her for them. And in the Orthodox Jewish community, pre-wedding classes are often a mix of group sessions, conversations between the couple and a rabbi, and individual sessions where the man talks with the rabbi, and the woman talks with a female counselor. Called Chosson Kallah classes (Hebrew for groom and bride), they are required by almost all rabbis and found throughout the orthodox community in New York, says Marc Goldman, the founder of the Jewish dating website SawYouAtSinai.

Today, fewer Catholics than ever are getting married. While the total number of Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York has increased from 2.2 million in 1988 to 2.6 million in 2008, the number of marriages officiated in the church has fallen by half over the same period. In 1988, there were 10,766 marriages, or one per 205 Catholics; 20 years later, that number is 4,937, or one per 522, numbers that are mirrored in dioceses across the U.S.

Mueller and his wife, Constanza, have been teaching Pre-Cana classes for six years. In their class this morning, some couples sit with arms linked and leaning forward, clearly enthralled, while others doodle or play with cellphones.

As the Muellers’ class progresses, they get down to nitty-gritty issues like financial planning and the use of natural family planning instead of artificial contraception. After five hours, participants are free to go, but not before giving their beloved a one-minute hug. “This is going to make your marriage stronger!” Constanza Mueller says.

Before their 2010 New Year’s Eve wedding, Rachel and Jonathon McCarthy, both 25, of Appleton, Wis., attended not just the mandatory Pre-Cana class in their home diocese of Green Bay, but also a natural family planning class and a seminar called God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage. While they enjoyed the other classes, they found the mandatory prep class unhelpful, because it focused mostly on secular topics like how to argue well with your spouse.

“We’ve been in a fight before,” Jonathon McCarthy remembers thinking at the time.  “We know how to get through it. That’s why we’re getting married.”

Yet both say that marriage preparation was a good idea. “As a whole, it was a great experience,” Rachel McCarthy says.

For Kalina, 25, and Harrison Cavallero, 26, of Downey, Calif., their weekend-long marriage prep in January 2011 was valuable, said Harrison Cavallero, even though he isn’t Catholic.

“Leading up to a wedding, so much of it is just planning that one day,” he says. “For that one weekend, we put the wedding out of our mind and focused on the marriage.”

Brown, the Lutheran pastor, runs individual couple sessions rather than large classes, and will officiate only at weddings where the couple has had four to six sessions of counseling with her. “I have had experiences where I had to tell couples I can’t marry them after counseling them,” Brown says. “There’s been a couple of times where there’s been evidence of domestic violence.” Other deal-breakers for her are substance abuse by a partner, or too much conflict in a couple’s relationship.

Do marriage prep classes work?  Absolutely, according to Ryan Carlson, project director at the University of Central Florida Marriage and Family Research Institute.

“Research is pretty clear that people who attend pre-marital classes have longer-lasting relationships,” he says. “And a lot of times, it is because couples are addressing topics in these classes that they don’t address on their own.”

Yet some skeptics see a self-selection bias. “People who choose to take the classes are perhaps more likely to have successful marriages in any case,” says Scott Labby, of Greenfield Labby, a New York/Boston law firm focused on family and matrimonial practice, in an email. “It is possible that the main benefit of marriage classes might be to make some people decide they probably shouldn’t get married at all.”