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2 October 2003
Pre-Marital Counselling Makes A Happy Marriage
by George Atkinson

The average couple that attends a premarital education program tends to experience about a 30 percent increase in measures of marital strength, according to a review of 23 studies on the effectiveness of premarital education programs.

Study co-authors Jason Carroll of Brigham Young University and William Doherty of the University of Minnesota announce their findings in the journal Family Relations.

"After participating in these programs, couples reported or were observed to be better at resolving problems using effective communication styles, and on average, they reported higher levels of relationship quality," said Carroll, a BYU assistant professor of marriage, family, and human development. "They feel a higher sense of partnership and report a higher level of adjustment to married life than couples who did not receive premarital education."

Carroll and Doherty's meta-analysis used statistical measurements to combine the effects noted by 23 studies spanning the past 30 years. Most studies compared engaged or dating couples who participated in various types of premarital education with control groups of similar couples who did not.

"The evidence indicates that premarital education is a good investment for couples who are serious about preparing for a lifelong marriage and not just a one-day wedding," said Doherty, professor and director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota. "It also supports state legislation such as Minnesota's statute that gives a waiver of marriage license fees for couples who participate in a high-quality premarital education program."

The impact of premarital education programs is similar to the effect of other types of marital intervention like counseling for couples already married. The similarity is surprising to Carroll, though, since most of the studies he analyzed measured outcomes only six months to a year after marriage and studied couples who felt their relationships were already strong.

"Couples didn't come into these programs believing they needed a major overhaul - their motivation for change is even a bit muted, yet they are still experiencing a measurable level of improvement," Carroll said. "Despite being oriented toward long-term preparation, these programs had an immediate, positive effect on relationships."

Carroll discounted the possibility that couples that sought premarital education achieved an improvement because they were more motivated. One of the studies included in the analysis found that couples that participate in premarital education are similar to couples who do not.

Noting that 93 percent of Americans rate a happy marriage as one of their most important objectives in life, Carroll believes there is a need for an increased emphasis on premarital education among couples, government and society.

"The evidence is compelling enough that we should move forward with what we know, and that could happen at a number of levels" Carroll said, recommending any or all of the following to couples considering marriages:

  • Participate in a formal premarital education program or class.
  • Together, seek premarital advice from a counselor or religious leader.
  • Complete a couple assessment questionnaire to evaluate relationship strengths and challenges
  • Read a book together about how to build a successful marriage.

"Communities can provide premarital education, whether through church groups, universities, high schools, employers or health care providers," Carroll said. Citing numerous other studies that establish marriage's emotional, economic and health benefits, Carroll believes the union is important enough to the nation to warrant increased government funding of premarital education programs and further research to improve them.

"Marriage is a bedrock institution in our society that we rely upon to train children, socialize citizens and care for the needs of our communities," he said. "While we still have work to do to more fully refine and improve marriage education programs, we now have strong evidence that it is worthwhile for couples to get involved with educational programs aimed at helping their marriage get off to a good start."

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