Would you volunteer to save your marriage?

MARRIAGE ENRICHMENT IS A POPULAR TOPIC THESE DAYS. Couples want to have the best marriages possible especially because with longer life spans we can anticipate that we will spend more years with our partner.

But marriage grows and becomes richer in indirect ways. It happens while a couple is involved in projects together. You'll often hear couples married for many years say they're not sure why their particular relationship lasted while other couple's did not.

We would like to suggest that your marriage can be even richer than it is now, and while an enrichment weekend such as Marriage Encounter would benefit many, becoming involved in helping couples prepare for marriage might be even better. We have found our involvement in marriage preparation to be enriching on a personal level and also for us as a couple.

Claude and Denise believe that their involvement in Catholic Engaged Encounter saved their marriage. "Our marriage was in trouble," they say. "We thought we knew it all when we first married, but soon we were drifting apart. Money was a big problem for us, and we found ourselves arguing all the time. When we were asked to become involved, we were too embarrassed to say no. After a little while, the talks we were presenting helped us focus on the strengths of our marriage rather than the problems."

Claude and Denise discovered what many couples involved in ministry to the engaged and newly married ministry realize: you don't have to have a perfect marriage to help others. You just need to be willing to share honestly the joys and sorrows of your sacrament.

When a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, tornado, or flood, threatens a community, people come together to defend what is valued, and in so doing, draw closer to one another. Our deep concern for the precipitous drop in priestly and religious vocations can distract us from an equally serious threat to the vocation of marriage. In fact, the fundamental causes may be the same in each case—fear of commitment, focus on individual fulfillment, and materialism.

Whatever the reasons, the statistics in regard to marriage are not good. Not only are divorce rates high, but fewer people are choosing to marry. Illegitimacy is commonplace, and fatherliness is one of the most serious social problems facing our nation with 40 percent of our children spending at least some part of their formative years without a father around.

The decline of the institution of marriage has been directly linked to juvenile delinquency, poor academic performance, physical and mental abuse, and a host of other problems. It also creates the conditions for future marital woes. The most significant factor in the success or failure of a marriage is the marital satisfaction of one's parents. A recent study at the University of Wisconsin predicted that 63 percent of couples marrying today will end up separated or divorced. If that doesn't constitute a crisis, nothing does.

The Sacramental and Spiritual Dimensions of Marriage

As you work with engaged and newly married couples sharing your life experiences and information about the elements of married life, another dimension of your volunteer activity will become apparent—the couple before you will be preparing for a religious vocation. They will not often think of their marriage in this way, just as many of us were not aware of the vocation we took on when we married in the church. It is in looking back that we see more clearly that God is leading us, and that God is with us on our journey to help us deal with the inevitable struggles of life.

Some couples recognize that God has brought them together, and they often marvel that they have found a soul mate. What will become apparent later on is that God has also given them a special job to do through their love for one another. That job is to be a sign and a sacrament of God's love. We, all married couples, are a living sign of God's covenant with his people and of Christ's love for the church.

The reality of that love is discovered in the everyday reality of a couple's love for one another. It is revealed in the thousand-and-one little sacrifices we make for each other, and if given the opportunity, for our children. We are called to lay down our lives for one another in so doing to discover a greater love still. We help shape our married lives, but we are also shaped by it. Marriage is a growth in holiness and wholeness. By giving of ourselves we grow spiritually, and we give witness to the love of God.

What is needed is a huge volunteer response, sandbaggers on the shores of marriage, building up defenses against the downturn in the supports for the institution. The situation can be turned around by the efforts of established married couples who bring their skills and their example to those about to embark on the vocation of marriage. The flexibility and understanding couples develop over the course of marriage are the tools young couples need to forge their own committed, healthy, lifelong relationships. In this crisis, unlike natural disasters, there is no federal disaster relief fund. We have only the encouragement we can give one another to pull us through.

And as experienced couples offer a helping hand to younger couples just starting their married life, the older couples find that the work they do changes the quality of their own relationships.

"How often do you get a chance to sit around and talk about your marriage with another couple?" asks Betty, a volunteer. "Doing marriage prep has allowed Bob and me to focus on the positive things in our own relationship. We had no idea we'd learned so much about getting along with each other until we started working with engaged couples. We're proud of ourselves now because we see that we have grown and compromised and changed."

"When we were first married, I would read Sports Illustrated, but I never would have picked up an article on marriage," says Bob. "I figured everyone knew how to be married—it would just take care of itself. I know better now, but it brings me back to see these young guys starting out. I want to say to them, it's really a great joy to be best friends with your wife, but I know they have to find out for themselves. It makes me happy to be where I am, though."

Many couples have had the experience of feeling a renewed appreciation of their own marriages through participating in marriage preparation that can't be a coincidence. In our culture there is a reluctance to speak about our marriages, and that makes it difficult to encourage people to work on their relationships. We are very likely to improve our computer skills or golf game, spend money to reform our eating habits or exercise, but working to improve our relationships is like making a public statement that the marriage is on shaky ground.

It's sometimes hard to even get people to talk about their happy marriages. Perhaps they're afraid of jinxing themselves, or it may just be an unspoken taboo against speaking about marriage. Whatever the cause, it's a phenomenon that needs to be overcome if the engaged and newly married are to benefit from the community's collective wisdom.

Jerry and Frankie are a couple in their mid-60s. They have worked in Marriage Encounter, and they currently work in Engaged Encounter (their talk always gets high marks when evaluations are turned in). In addition, they are a sponsor couple for marriage preparation in their parish. Despite the fact they are at an age when many couples are retiring, these folks are still giving their unique, good-humored slant on marriage to the newcomers. "We know that we'd be a lot older if we weren't doing this work," says Jerry. "We're constantly looking forward to the next couple, talking about the last ones, worrying about the ones who got married last year. It's like part of our family. This work has been a gift to us. We know many people our age who are tired and bored. We're not bored with each other, and we're not bored with life. We just hope our stamina keeps up. We'll keep doing this as long as we're allowed to."

There are couples like Denise and Claude, Betty and Bob, Jerry and Frankie across the country. They work for their parish or diocesan program, or they work in Engaged Encounter. They enjoy working with other couples who value their marriages and are not afraid to say so. They enjoy having time with one another, focusing on something positive. They enjoy being around young couples who are in love and looking forward to starting their lives together.

They love seeing how their own lives have become intertwined and the strength they've gained from going forward together. And those who work in the parish have the added benefit of seeing the couples afterward as they join the parish family for worship.

So if you're thinking that your marriage could use a little attention, consider offering your services for marriage preparation. It's an elixir for your marriage, a self-help, and an outreach opportunity all in one. It costs nothing except some time, it introduces you to some great people, and it enriches your marriage. Marriage preparation by seasoned married couples is more than a thumb in the dike preventing a flood of future divorces. It is a conservation effort in the true sense of the word. It renews the marriages of the providers, gives witness to the value of marriage to the young couples, and forges a link between the generations. 

Steve and Kathy Beirne are publishers of Foundations, a newsletter for newly married couples.

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