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Counseling requirement discouraging weddings

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People don't seem to want to get married in Lenawee County anymore. It's not a lack of romance or a shortage of pastors or anything like that. It's the premarital counseling.

"I've seen my weddings in Vegas and Jamaica double since they made that requirement," said Pam Cook of Pamela's Bridal, who helps plan about 400 weddings each year. "People say they can't get married fast enough or they think they're going to be made to go to a church counselor."Last June, county judges and magistrates began refusing to perform civil wedding ceremonies for people who hadn't gone through counseling together. Several mayors also supported counseling, which clergy have done for years.

That made Lenawee County one of the first in the nation to take such a step, according to the Maryland-based Marriage Savers Institute.

The judges were concerned about the social and economic costs of the high number of divorces. Last year, 508 marriages and 424 divorces were granted in the southeast Michigan county about 50 miles from Detroit. That works out to 42 marriages and 35 divorces each month.

So is it working? Well, from January through May of this year there were 128 marriages and 173 divorces. That's 25 marriages and 34 divorces per month. Maybe folks would rather skip the advice.

"We've been criticized for trying to bring religion into government," said Judge James Sheridan, one of the policy's proponents. "But if you have a husband and wife arguing about wet towels on the floor, that's not Baptist theology. That's just how people are dealing with each other."

Sheridan said he's sometimes amazed to see how little some couples have discussed about each other.

"We're trying to change a whole cultural perspective on something, in terms of trying to get folks to figure out the seriousness of what has happened when they marry," he said. "People tend to see marriage as a static event. But marriage is really a dynamic adventure."

Judges accept various counseling programs, including meetings with clergy or certificates signed by counselors. The counseling must include conflict resolution and communication issues, as well as a premarital questionnaire given by a trained administrator.

If couples use the county's counseling services, they fill out a 165-item test on topics such as children and finances. An administrator discusses the results in three two-hour sessions. The cost is $100.

"The test highlights the couple's strengths and their growth areas. That's kind of a nice way of saying potential problems," said Tiffany Kapnick, a clinical therapist with the county's Family Counseling and Children's Services division.

Judge Sheridan said it's too early to tell whether the counseling requirement is making a difference in the 100 or so civil marriages performed in the county each year.

And because the county does not track which weddings are performed civilly and which are performed by clergy, Sheridan said there was no way to tell whether the rule was discouraging civil weddings.