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Engaged couples fight divorce rates

By Jacque Wilson, CNN
Couples should do a lot more talking between getting engaged and getting married, experts say.
Couples should do a lot more talking between getting engaged and getting married, experts say.
  • Premarital educators get tough in preparing engaged couples for their lives together
  • Young couples more hesitant to get married because of divorce rates
  • Couples discuss uncomfortable subjects such as money, religion, children and sexuality

(CNN) -- "If it's your first marriage, you've got a 50-50 chance," Doyle Hamilton said, looking around the room. "If it's your second, you've got less than that."

A few couples shifted uncomfortably under his unwavering gaze. One woman kicked her fiancé under the table.

"The No. 1 indicator of divorce is not conflict," Hamilton continued. "The No. 1 indicator of divorce is the AVOIDANCE of conflict. Marriage is hard work. We want you to program that into your brains."

If it sounds like an intro speech at boot camp, there's a reason. Hamilton, a pastoral counselor and family therapist, was preparing these eight engaged couples for the rest of their lives together. And he wasn't about to soften the facts.

It really freaked me out that a lot of people in our age group weren't making it.
--Rachel Moreno

"All married couples have unsolvable differences. ... Change can happen. But you can't change him and he can't change you."

Hamilton spends one Saturday a month leading this nondenominational premarital workshop in a bare classroom at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, Georgia. Couples like Rachel Moreno and Joshua Williams spend the day exploring issues such as communication, relationship balance, family origins, expectations and life goals.

"We agreed upon getting engaged that premarital counseling would be a must so that we could get a head start on preventing potential major problems," Moreno said.

For Moreno and Williams, both 26, the workshop was a carefully planned step in their relationship. The University of Georgia graduates had been taking it slow since meeting in 2002, postponing their engagement for nearly eight years.

"It really freaked me out that a lot of people in our age group weren't making it," Moreno said. "Until I could get a better handle on it and be more secure in [the idea of marriage], I didn't even want to go down that route."

It's a common outlook for young couples, according to California psychotherapist Lisa Brookes Kift. She's seen a big increase in her premarital counseling practice, as well as sales of her online premarital workbook, in recent years.

"For people in their mid-20s, even early-30s, there's been a dimmed view of marriage... they're seeing divorce everywhere and I think that might be a part of it."

Five premarital steps
1) Strengthen your communication skills

2) Increase the levels of emotional safety

3) Explore your relationship balance

4) Explore your marriage expectations

5) Develop your goals

  • Divorce
  • Marriage
  • Relationships

Participation in Hamilton's workshop has more than doubled since 2005 -- from 44 couples to 108 in 2009. Marriage prep education appears to be increasing nationwide, said Dr. Alan Hawkins, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University. While many couples in decades past have been required by clergy to attend, premarital counseling is becoming more popular among the nonreligious as well.

Some may wonder about the value of premarital education, Hawkins wrote in one of his research papers, but with changing gender roles, economic independence for women and no-fault divorce laws, "there is an increasing need for greater knowledge and relationship skills for contemporary marriages to succeed."

Six states -- Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Georgia and Tennessee -- have passed legislation that encourages couples to attend premarital counseling by offering reductions on marriage license fees. These laws are likely to strengthen marriages and reduce the divorce rate in the states where they're implemented, Hawkins wrote.

Hamilton said relationship skill-building is a major movement in the marriage therapy field as well. The theory is that couples can learn to better relate and communicate their issues before it's too late, he said.

"We try to encourage them to talk about the things that really matter," Hamilton said. Most are uncomfortable subjects for couples to discuss, including money, religion, children and sexuality. Some couples come in unsure if their issues are insurmountable. Others are in denial and have so many unresolved issues that Hamilton questions their upcoming nuptials.

"If you don't deal with what you need to deal with, it will go underground and it will eventually raise its ugly head," he said.

Joshua Senneff has seen this firsthand. The married man of three years has several friends who didn't go through premarital counseling.

"It is interesting to see how 'little' things in their relationships have become 'big' things because they were not addressed prior to marriage," Senneff said.

Senneff and his wife, Kathryn Senneff, did private couples counseling on the recommendation of their family and church. They said they wanted to do everything they could to start their marriage on the right foot.

Until recently, the Senneffs used Joshua's parents as the foundation for their ideal relationship. But the elder couple's divorce last month shook Joshua Senneff's view on how a marriage should work.

"That will really cause you to question the sacredness of marriage," he said. "I feel that the tools we learned in our premarital counseling have significantly helped us through these trying times as our 'baseline' has disappeared."

Kift feels for couples in similar situations who, with the high divorce rate, no longer have strong role models to look to. Yet the therapist is hopeful that the happy couples she sees coming to her for premarital counseling will make it.

"Maybe there's a trend in reversing it -- let's do this so that we do survive, we want to survive," Kift said. "I think if more people did this work, I think they would be better able to weather the storms that come in."