Premarital counseling can decrease divorce rates, psychologist says

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Americans receive education and training before receiving a driver’s license. Yet when those same people seek a marriage license, relatively few of them receive education about how to establish a successful marriage.

BYU psychology professor Scott Braithwaite said the analogy is real — people who are planning to marry need to go into it with some kind of education.

Braithwaite, a clinical psychologist trained in couples therapy, has been studying marital distress and divorce prevention for over 10 years and is a strong advocate for premarital counseling.

“Premarital counseling is a great way for people to do their homework about the most important decision they are ever going to make so that they can go into it armed with skills that are going to be very helpful,” Braithwaite said.

Braithwaite said some premarital counseling studies show the practice decreases the likelihood of divorce by 50 percent.

However, he also said those who take advantage of these programs are usually wealthy, religious and educated — in other words, those who statistically need premarital counseling the least.

Braithwaite created ePrep, an online premarital program, to increase accessibility to premarital resources.

Alan Hawkins, a professor in the BYU School of Family Life and the chair of the Utah Marriage Commission, helped make ePrep more available to people in Utah. Now, all engaged couples in the state of Utah can email eprep@utah.gov to get a voucher to take the course for free.

During this year’s legislative session, legislators proposed a bill  that would have increased fees for a marriage license. Couples that could provide proof they completed a premarital education course would have received a $20 rebate. The bill failed to pass, but it underscores the importance public officials attach to the issue.

Hawkins said the early years of marriage can be a rough transition for some couples. The highest rates of divorce are within the first three to four years, and half of couples who divorce do so within 12 years of getting married.

He also said 10 to 15 percent of couples who invest in premarital education decide to not get married, which is part of the reason premarital counseling effectively decreases divorce rates.

Although ePrep does not provide as much coaching as in-person consultation, Braithwaite said couples don’t need in-person consultations for the methods to be effective, and couples can choose from many different kinds of premarital counseling.

For BYU student Ola Gdanska and her fiancé, Luke Summers, this meant participating in a premarital program instituted by the Catholic Church.

BYU student Ola Gdanska and her fiancé, Luke Summers, participated in a premarital program instituted by the Catholic Church. (Ola Gdanska)

Gdanska said the Catholic premarital program invites engaged couples to go through a workshop book called “A Decision to Love,” by John and Susan Midgley. Afterwards, the engaged pair visits a deacon and his wife and another couple that has been together for many years to get counsel from them.

She and her fiancé also participated in a weekend retreat called Catholic Engaged Encounter with other engaged couples, where they went through different scenarios that could happen in a marriage and wrote down what they would do. 

After her experience, Gdanska said she would recommend premarital counseling to other couples.

“It forced us to talk about things a lot more,” Gdanska said. “We already had really good communication, and we had already discussed most of the stuff, but there were little tiny details where we realized, ‘Oh, I didn’t know this was important to you.'”

According to Braithwaite, premarital counseling confronts the well-known patterns researchers use to predict rapid distress in a marriage.

“We are incredibly good at predicting divorce,” he said. “Most of these predictions can be calculated prior to marriage.”

Braithwaite said the most robust indicator of whether a couple will divorce is how they handle conflict. Although conflict is normal and provides opportunities for a couple to grow, premarital counseling can help prevent couples from establishing negative patterns of managing conflict in their relationship, he said.

Current statistics show about 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce, but Braithwaite said the statistic is now probably closer to a 40 percent divorce rate. This is not because there are more successful marriages now, but rather because millennials are forgoing marriage or getting married at later ages.

According to 2010 Census data, cohabitation has increased 138 percent since 1990. The average age of marriage is now 27 for women and 29 for men.

Hawkins suspects the number of people who seek premarital counseling is dropping because cohabiting couples may feel like they have everything already figured out, but he believes there is an even greater need for premarital counseling because of how widespread cohabitation is.

Braithwaite said he wishes there wasn’t a stigma about reaching out for help for those who are married and might be struggling. Although he isn’t suggesting couples therapy is for everyone, he said it can be an effective tool if utilized early on.

“Even the most distressed of couples can improve the quality of their marriage,” Braithwaite said.

BYU students have unique access to a variety of premarital classes. BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services offers workshops for engaged couples throughout the school year, and the BYU Comprehensive Clinic holds a class a couple of times a year. The School of Family Life also offers a premarital class, SFL 223, that teaches marriage preparation from an LDS perspective.

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