Roisin and Andrew Moranian had little doubt they were ready for marriage: They met when they were both 8 years old and dated for two years in their twenties before deciding to tie the knot. But they’re both Catholic, which meant that they had to take a premarital education course — called “Pre-Cana”— to get married in the church. At first, spending a full weekend talking about hypothetical scenarios they might encounter down the road seemed like an unnecessary and time-consuming inconvenience, Roisin Moranian admitted. But her thinking was about to shift.

The couple spent two days at their local parish, St. Eulalia’s in Winchester, Massachusetts, talking about things like how to manage finances as a couple, the specifics about raising children and how to communicate through conflict. Although the couple had already agreed they wanted to have kids, the class got them talking about the specifics of that timeline. They also went over a list of deal breakers they hadn’t considered, such as how they would react if their partner had a gambling problem. Roisin, now 30, recalls a feeling of relief when, one big question after another, the couple discovered that when it came to the big questions, they were on the same page.

“A lot of our direct conversations about how to solve certain conflicts — maybe we would have had those conversations organically or not organically right before we got married, but maybe we wouldn’t,” said Roisin, who eventually married Andrew in 2020 in a civil ceremony (due to COVID-19), followed by a church ceremony performed by a priest two years later.

In an era of declining marriage rates and increased trepidation about commitment, marriage preparation classes offer couples a chance to examine each partner’s vision of marriage and to test, albeit in theory, how this vision may play out in the day-to-day of married life: the division of labor, parenting philosophies and spending habits, to name but a few.

These conversations are particularly timely amid the changing landscape of marriage. According to Pew Research Center data, in 2021, 25% of 40-year-olds in the U.S. have never been married. A third of Americans described their ideal relationship as one outside of complete monogamy, according to a 2023 YouGov survey. In addition, dual-income marriages with children are on the rise: In 63% of marriages with children, both partners work. “I think these days there is so much more need for this kind of values of alignment and this deeper understanding,” said Alan Hawkins, Utah Marriage Commission manager and former director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. “I think especially these days, people come to marriage with much more relationship and sexual histories, and with children from other unions.”

Your brain on love

Even though the divorce rate has declined in recent years, nearly half of first marriages, and even more second marriages, end in divorce. Premarital education can reduce those numbers, research says. Couples who go through premarital counseling are 31% less likely to divorce than couples who did not receive counseling. With these changing realities, premarital education and the conversations that it catalyzes have never been more important, proponents say.

That is especially true for those in the early throes of love, a time marked by a heightened cognitive and emotional experience called limerence, which tends to wear off after 12-18 months of a relationship, making it challenging for the couple to work through each partner’s differences, according to Carl Caton, president of the San Antonio Marriage Initiative, a faith-based organization in Texas that works with community leaders to support marriage and train marriage preparation facilitators.

“The way the brain lights up when you feel those butterfly feelings is very similar to someone who’s on cocaine,” Caton said. “So when couples are entering this, their biology plays a trick on them — they don’t think [this course] is necessary.”

The belief in “soulmate-ism” is also alive and well, Hawkins told me, which can impede hard conversations about the partners’ differences. “[Young couples] really believe that love is strong enough and will conquer all, and we know that it’s not really the case,” he said. “For those who are deeply in love and are emotionally connected, one of the more important things that you can do is make sure you re-engage the brain,” Hawkins said.

And there is a lot to consider before you get married. In addition to practical aspects of joint life like child-rearing and communication, it’s often in a premarital education where previously ignored or unnoticed red flags may show up. “Your brain makes you pay attention to them, while your heart will tend to try to hide them,” Hawkins said.

‘God’s first institution is marriage’

Faith-based organizations and houses of worship have typically led the charge on premarital education courses, but this trend has been ebbing away. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. churches lack a substantive marriage program, according to a survey by Barna, a Christian research organization. Churches generally don’t allocate any ministry dollars for marriage relationship ministries, the survey found. “We have a lack of leadership in our churches,” Caton said. “They’ve just forgotten that God’s first institution is marriage.”

Yet there is no shortage of independent pre-marriage education offerings that churches will often rely on. One, run by a private ministry, Prepare/Enrich, is “a gold standard,” according to Caton, and has taught 4 million couples with 100,000 facilitators across the world. The program offers couples a readiness assessment with a catchy tagline: “Save your marriage before it starts.” The facilitators offer coaching with the couple, using data from the couples’ assessment.

Another is the Pre-Marriage Course, both an online and in-person faith-based experience, which launched in 1985 in the United Kingdom, and has been used in 117 countries, with about 1.5 million couples who went through the course. “Prevention is better than cure,” said Nicky Lee, who co-developed the Marriage Course and Pre-Marriage Course with his wife, in a recent online training for course facilitators. “We want to make it completely normal for the couples to invest in their relationship before they’re married and after they’re married.” The course is offered to couples regardless of their religious beliefs; half of the couples who participate are not churchgoers.

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In Utah, the Utah Marriage Commission, a 17-member advisory board, has been spearheading efforts to spread and incentivize premarital education. Utah is among 10 states that have passed legislation promoting premarital education participation; others include West Virginia and Texas, according to the Institute for Family Studies. Utah offers a $20 discount on a Utah marriage license (normally $50) for couples who go through a marital preparation course.

Couples can take classes through Utah State University’s Healthy Relationships Utah, which is part of the university’s extension program. The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City also offers a course through the Catholic Engaged Encounter, a program within the 50-year-old Marriage Encounter program used across the country. Even though it’s rooted in Catholic teachings, the program’s focus is not on converting people, but on preparing couples for marriage, said Crystal Painter, a member of the Utah Marriage Commission and director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life within the Diocese of Salt Lake City.

None of these programs, of course, offer the guarantee of marital success. “It’s just a start,” said Painter. “It’s meant to get the conversation going.”

Two people, two lives

For Grady and Allison Wright, who live in Pensacola, Florida, that conversation in a marriage preparation class started with exploring how their upbringings shaped their expectations about marriage. The son of a Reformed Presbyterian pastor, Grady, now 22, grew up in a family where his mom took care of most of the chores, so he said he expected the same from his wife. Allison, 24, on the other hand, wanted a husband who did more around the house. Their sessions with a mentor couple through the Florida-based Start Smart program helped the couple address the gap in their expectations. “It could have caused a lot of conflict had we not communicated about it,” Allison said.

At Start Smart, couples can choose a “happily ever after mentoring” option, where they select a mentoring couple and go through up to five individualized sessions, or opt for a four-hour class, where they learn conflict resolution, go through a personality assessment and interact with others in a group setting. “Do you want the 5-year plan or the 50-year plan for your marriage?” the program’s website asks.

Understanding that he and his wife were “two different people with two completely different lives” has been an important realization for Grady, and one that he says he wouldn’t have arrived at without the coaching of his Start Smart mentors. The couple dated for two years and were engaged for 5 months before getting married in 2021. Grady, now a college student, is training through the Army ROTC program to be commissioned this spring for full-time service. For Allison, one of the most helpful tips she learned in marriage preparation is the “request for change” tactic, which includes a polite ask and a suggestion on how to fix something in your partner’s behavior. “It’s not just telling him what he’s doing wrong, but having a solution; that has been super helpful,” Allison said.

‘The system is broken’

Regardless of the format, premarital education sets a positive pattern for working out problems when they arise in marriage, according to Hawkins. “Relationships are about learning, about growing and working — it’s not just about living happily ever after,” he said. “This is a learned behavior and we set the pattern before we get married.” Research shows, he said, that those who invest in premarital education are more likely to later seek out marital counseling, if needed. “And if that’s the only thing we get from premarital education, to me it’s worth it,” Hawkins said.

This year, he’s working with the Utah Marriage Commission on developing an online premarital education program for first marriages, as well as a healthy dating course and a “dating after divorce” course. But to really tackle the crisis of falling marriage rates, Hawkins said, it is dating that needs fixing. “It’s not just an attitude about marriage. It’s that the system is broken to get there,” he said. “And people need help.”

Ultimately, the marriage preparation course at St. Eulalia’s in Massachusetts helped Roisin Moranian get confirmation that she was marrying the right person, even though she had known her fiancé since childhood. “Knowing someone and knowing how to be married to them are two different things,” Roisin said. “You really don’t know until you get married to them or you take a class and find out.”