Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 25, 1999
'Training' for marriage
Long involved in marriage preparation, Mona-Lee Feehan decided to discover what works best
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
After 20 years of ministry to engaged couples in Edmonton, the subject of marriage preparation is near and dear to Mona-Lee Feehan's heart.
"Marriage is something for which there is no training, other than mimicking the actions of those around us," she says.
"But there are all sorts of indications that marriage preparation courses can help prevent marriage breakdown, and subsequently family breakdown."
So when Feehan chose a topic for her master's thesis in adult education, there was no question what it would be.
"I wanted to ask what common themes should be covered in a marriage preparation course, what format the course should be in, and whether there should be ongoing support in the form of a program for newlyweds."
Her research not only answered those questions, but revealed a widespread interest in the topic of marriage preparation. More than half of the 215 individuals surveyed responded to Feehan's questionnaire, and 75 per cent included extensive written comments.
From the responses, Feehan identified the six most common topics that individuals from all walks of life felt would be important to include in a marriage preparation course. Communication was number one, followed by the sacrament of Marriage, conflict resolution, God and marriage, finances and expectations of marriage.
The survey group was compiled from the archdiocese's synod assembly list, and included clergy, single and married Catholics from across the archdiocese.
Feehan says she wanted to talk particularly to people with "the lived experience of marriage," rather than focusing solely on what engaged couples wanted to see in the program. "That would be a bit like asking a kindergarten student what they want to be when they grow up."
Her research further revealed that there is not one theme common to all marriage preparation courses offered in the archdiocese. Some 15 parishes run their own courses, in addition to the one operated by the archdiocesan Family Enrichment Centre.
"I would love to see some commonality, even if each parish then developed the different themes individually to suit their parish," Feehan says. "Right now, each parish is isolated."
To that end, Feehan has begun putting together a suggested common course outline, using the themes identified by respondents to her survey. As well, she is involved in organizing a workshop for people involved in marriage preparation ministry. The first such workshop was held by the Family Enrichment Centre in January 1998.
"It was the first time we had all come together, and we found we really needed that opportunity to talk, to say that we are providing a service that is really needed," Feehan says. A second workshop is in the planning stages.
Another initiative in the works through the Family Enrichment Centre and the Commission for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations is a joint program to avoid duplication with courses offered by other churches.
Engaged couples would study common themes such as communication, finances, and conflict resolution as a group, but the discussions about the sacrament of Marriage would be specific to each faith.
"Eighty-five to 90 per cent of couples being married in the Church today are interfaith couples, or non-practising Catholics," Feehan says. "But most of what we cover in the course is the same as it was 20 years ago."
Feehan says when she and her husband Kevin began running the marriage preparation program at St. Theresa's Church in Millwoods, they vowed to make one change in the program every year. This year, they began a formal presentation of each couple to the parish.
"We've also fine-tuned the finance part of the course, so that it's focused more on practical questions like will you share a bank account, rather than talking about investments, which most newlyweds aren't in the position to consider."
Feehan says one of the reasons marriage preparation courses work is because engaged couples are asked to confront issues they normally wouldn't talk about, and are given tools to deal with those issues.
"The topics we open up as married couples, usually wouldn't be opened up by engaged couples," Feehan says. "We can see how happy they are to have an opportunity to talk about these things."
She says it's a good thing the Catholic Church has been an instigator in demanding that couples who are married in the Church be prepared. But she believes the couples she has met don't take the course just because they have to.
"I feel those couples have a real interest in their relationship; otherwise they wouldn't be there."
As for her next step, Feehan is looking at developing some data to back up her claim that marriage preparation courses really do make a difference in the long term.
"I'd like to follow up with a doctoral thesis, maybe by doing a study on a national basis," she says, adding with a laugh "but that could be a little grandiose."