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Growth Counseling for Marriage Enrichment by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Howard J. Clinebell, Jr. Is Professor of Pastoral Counseling at the School of Theology at Claremont, California (1977). He is a member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, and the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. He is a licensed marriage, child and family counselor in the State of California. His personal website is, and his email address is Growth Counselling for Marriage Enrichment was published in 1975 by Fortress Press, Philadelphia. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Richard and Sue Kendall.

Chapter 6: Preparing for a Good Marriage

We must understand love; we must be able to teach it, to create it, to predict it, or else the world is lost to hostility and to suspicion. 1. Abraham Maslow

Marriage . . . will never be given new life except by that out of which true marriage always arises, the revealing by two people of the Thou to one another. Out of this a marriage is built up by the Thou that is neither of the I‘s. 2. -- Martin Buber

Ministers and congregations have a strategic opportunity to help couples prepare for good marriages. Yet, much so-called premarital counseling is of questionable effectiveness. Because many ministers are aware of this, they’re searching for better approaches. The growth perspective provides a more workable and effective approach. It points to what is really appropriate and needed by the couple -- not "counseling" (in the sense of dealing primarily with problems) but personalized training and coaching in relationship-building skills. Most couples are open to training which affirms their basic strengths and responds to their desire to develop the best possible marriage.

A Pre-marriage Growth Program

The minister and key lay persons -- perhaps the marriage enrichment or family life committee -- should develop a growth-oriented preparation-for-marriage program including a clear statement of what is expected of couples. This plan should be discussed with the church’s lay leaders, both women and men, to get their feedback and support. It can then be shared with the congregation through bulletins or newsletters at least twice a year. Thus the plan becomes generally known in the parish.

The plan should distinguish remote preparation for marriage from pre-wedding preparation. The former includes identity -- and self-esteem -- strengthening experiences for youth and opportunities to learn communication and relationship skills.

The pre-wedding phase of the program -- which ideally builds on remote preparation experiences -- should begin as long as possible before the "rush and crush" period, hopefully at least six months in advance of the wedding. Preparation crammed into the hectic few days preceding the ceremony is largely wasted, wiped out by anticipatory anxiety and fatigue. Such pre-marriage cram sessions may be the best that is possible with couples from out of town or outside the congregation. In such cases, a strong emphasis ought to be put on post-wedding growth experience. Such cases, however, should increasingly be the exception to the generally followed longer-range preparation program. When I was a parish minister, I now realize, I should have been more emphatic in expecting couples to plan their wedding so as to include sound marriage preparation.

Some churches have developed brochures describing their pre-marriage programs and the mechanics of arranging for the wedding. Here are some things to include in such a brochure:

Getting a Head Start in Marriage

Marriage is what you make of it! Building a good marriage takes the loving skill of two persons who are willing to work -- and play -- at it to keep it growing! You undoubtedly want a fulfilling and happy marriage. Your minister and church stand behind you in this desire. A four-part program is available to help you get the best possible start in this demanding, exciting new chapter in your lives. Couples planning to be married in our church are expected to participate in all four parts, unless unusual circumstances make this impossible. As your pastor, let me emphasize that it’s to your advantage to participate in all parts of the program.

First, participate in one of the preparation-for-marriage groups available three times a year in our church. Each group is open to a maximum of six couples planning marriage within the next year. You’ll probably find you have a lot in common with the others. The focus will be on deepening communication, discovering the strengths in your relationship, and using these to develop the kind of mutually-satisfying marriage you both want. The dates for the next group are __________ I suggest you sign up as early as possible by phoning me at ________. I think you’ll enjoy the experience.

Second, read and discuss as a couple these two books on building a good marriage: ___________and___________.

You may borrow them from the church library if you wish. Couples report that this reading stimulates helpful conversations about their relationship.

Third, plan to meet with me as your pastor at least once or twice before the wedding to get better acquainted, discuss any concerns you have -- perhaps as a result of your reading, group participation, or otherwise -- and plan how your wedding can be made most meaningful to you. I’ll look forward to these informal conversations. Phone me and we’ll schedule them beginning, if possible, at least a month before the wedding. Note the dates and times of your scheduled sessions here: ; ; . [One session may suffice for couples who have participated in an effective preparation for marriage group.]

Fourth, following the wedding, I would like to invite you to meet with me after three months, six months, and a year, to chat about how things are going as you experience new joys and pressures during the first year. Most couples find these sessions worthwhile. The date for your first post-wedding meeting will be:___________

As you think about your busy schedule, this program may seem heavy to you. It will take time, but afterwards I think you’ll feel that the time was well invested in your future happiness. I’m looking forward to being a part of this important milestone in your lives. Phone me if you have any questions.

Your Pastor


A Preparation-for-Marriage Group

Pre-marriage couples tend to be less strongly motivated than many married couples by a sense of need for enrichment. Therefore, a less demanding format for pre-marriage groups is likely to result in better participation. One California church held several well-attended marriage enrichment retreats, but a weekend pre-marriage retreat "fizzled" from lack of registration. This church subsequently has had well-attended and effective pre-marriage seminars meeting weekly for five evenings.

A church near a Midwest college had several growth groups "for anyone thinking about getting married," co-led by the

weekly sessions. A four-hour mini-marathon (for example, from 7:00-11:00 P.M.) near the beginning of a weekly premarriage series helps deepen group relationships and accelerate effective growth work by the couples.

Since as few as three couples can constitute a workable group, most churches can attract enough participants for two or three premarital groups a year. Or several churches can cosponsor groups with teams of male-female co-leaders from among their ministers and laity. If a premarriage seminar or group must be larger than six couples, it’s well to begin with brief seed-planting talks -- for example, on resolving conflict, sex, men-women roles, values, and spiritual growth -- and to follow these talks by three-couple sharing groups.

Whatever else occurs, it is essential to include communication exercises in which the couples can participate. The enrichment tools described in chapters 4 and 5 are useful in premarital groups. One important principle in all premarriage sessions is to focus mainly on things the people present have experienced: "In what areas do you find it difficult to communicate?" "How do you resolve the conflict when you disagree over something important?" "What are the major assets of your relationship?" This focus is more productive than speculating about what might happen after the wedding. It’s also helpful to include a couple married less than five years as catalysts in pre-marriage groups.

A Sample Agenda

This sample agenda also gives some of the key topics to cover in pre-marriage groups and/or counseling:

Session I. Two hours

Getting acquainted: Introduce your partner; tell how you met, recount your wedding plans, etc.

Male-female co-leaders dialogue on the purpose of the group; participants say what they expect and want from the group.

Co-leaders review principles for keeping marriages growing.

Couples experience the IMM, then discuss mutual need satisfaction.

Homework: Practice the 1MM on your own; read an assigned book chapter.

Session 2. Four-hour mini-retreat

Share what you learned from the homework.

Communication skills: Practice responsive listening, using the PAC terminology and understandings of Transactional Analysis to strengthen Adult-to-Adult relating.

Resolving conflict constructively; role play a typical premarriage conflict.

Film: "Sexuality and Communication," followed by discussion on methods of enhancing sex.

Children: discussing whether to have or not? how many? their likely impact on our marriage; preparing for parenthood.

Homework: Take and score the Sex Knowledge Inventory*; discuss the experience. Read an assigned book chapter together.

Closing affirmation circle.

Session 3. Two hours

Feedback from homework. What did you learn from the Sex Knowledge Inventory?

The importance of our inner freedom and growth; use the box and meadow fantasy (see above pp. 29 -- 30). Balance time together and time alone; respect each other’s varying needs for closeness and for solitude and distance.

The impact of money issues on our relationship.

Homework: Take and score the Marriage Role Expectation Inventory~ compare your attitudes about what is "right" behavior for men and women in marriage.

Session 4. Two hours

How traditional or "liberated" are our inner role images? Changing roles and mutually-fulfilling marriages. Two-career marriages.

What does "holy matrimony" mean to you? Discuss the marriage ceremony in terms of a relational or interpersonal theology.

Invite couples to write their own services expressing their

own commitments, insights, and hopes, while eliminating sexism and such inequalities as the father giving the bride away.

Growth in spiritual intimacy and values in marriage.

The outreach to society in your marriage: avoiding ingrown-ness.

Finding your caring community: the church and your marriage.

Evaluating the four sessions: Plan for possible "reunions" of the group. Explain the importance of the postwedding conversations with the pastor. Set up one or more premarriage sessions for each couple.

Closing worship-celebration and affirmation circle.

Premarriage Growth Counseling with Couples

It helps both pastor and couples if these realistic goals of the prewedding sessions are clearly understood by both: (1) Building or strengthening the minister-couple relationship is the most important single goal! (2) Providing the couple -- if they choose -- opportunities to discuss problems or anxieties, and the pastor opportunities to provide personalized instruction relevant to their felt needs. This is called "educative counseling," and since I’ve discussed elsewhere its methods as applied to premarital interviews, I won’t repeat them here. * (3) Affirming the couple by helping them recognize their strengths and assets; encouraging them to use these assets in developing a mutually-actualizing marriage. (4) Helping the couple plan and understand the wedding ceremony so that the experience will be for them a celebration of the new reality they are creating -- their relationship! A wedding opens the door to holy matrimony if spiritual growth becomes real and ongoing in the marriage. (5) Setting up one or more postwedding sessions.

If a couple has participated in an enrichment group, the pastor can build on that by asking "What in the group experience was most important for your relationships?" If couples haven’t been in a group, it’s helpful to teach them the 1MM and open up the topics listed in the sample agenda above. In either case, it’s important to use the growth approach so that

they do not feel "on trial" in any sense. Help them look at their problems in the context of their strengths and rich potentialities! The message to emphasize throughout premarital work is this: Your relationship probably is fulfilling in many ways already; it has many exciting additional possibilities which you can bring into fuller reality in your years together. Your church, through its growth group program, and your pastor, as friend and counselor, are your allies as you work to actualize these beautiful potentials.

Premarital Sex and "Living Together"

Since the research of Alfred Kinsey a generation ago, premarital intercourse has seemingly become much more widespread and acceptable in American society. * The changes are particularly striking among women, with a virtual abandonment of the dual standard. According to a recent national study,f by age twenty-five, 3/4 of all single women have had intercourse (as contrasted with 1/3 of Kinsey’s sample). Males are beginning sex earlier: 3/4 of noncollege and 1/2 of college males (as compared with 2/3 and 1/4 respectively in Kinsey’s study) have had intercourse by age seventeen.

What are the implications in these changes for premarital counseling? It’s important for pastors to feel and to create a climate of acceptance of persons that respects their right to differ on sexual standards. This will free couples to discuss whatever positive or negative feelings they have. Many young people feel freer today to talk openly about sex and to practice sex, but this does not mean that they necessarily have accurate knowledge, constructive attitudes, or the capacity for full enjoyment. (The study cited above does show that the rate of orgasm has increased drastically among single women since Kinsey’s time.)

In premarriage growth groups and counseling I usually begin a discussion of sex with, "I realize that you’re probably well informed in this area but I make it a practice to review some basics so as not to miss important things. OK?" The minister’s openness in discussing sex helps couples feel free to discuss whatever is on their minds. One shouldn’t assume that

couples who practice permissive approaches to sex either have or do not have the guilt feelings that the minister might have under similar circumstances.

Premarital sessions with couples who’ve been "living together" in a committed relationship have many similarities with marriage enrichment or counseling. If either or both have had previous "mini-marriages," problems similar to remarriage may be present -- for example, unresolved feelings about the previous partners. Some persons fear that formalizing a relationship by a wedding will make them feel trapped. It’s crucial to encourage them to discuss and work through such feelings. Couples who are living together may expect judgmentalism or put-downs from a minister. They’ll be refreshed if instead they discover warm acceptance of them as persons, and a viewing of the past as prologue, as a foundation of valuable -- though sometimes painful -- experiences on which they can build!

The Pregnant Couple

If the minister knows a couple is pregnant, it’s important to do several things during the pre-marriage sessions. Encourage them to explore whatever feelings they have about this fact -- anxiety, blame, guilt, joy. Check to see if they’re being pressured to marry -- by either of them or by well-meaning but misguided parents. Help them evaluate their own readiness for marriage so that, if they’re not ready, they can consider alternatives such as adoption or abortion. If you suspect that a couple is pregnant, try to create an opportunity for them to say openly whether they are, so that the issues can be discussed frankly. Otherwise their feelings about hiding this fact may alienate them from the minister and from that church after the wedding.

The affirming human potentials approach to premarriage work is never more salutary or important than when it is used with couples who feel self-criticism and guilt, or expect rejection by the minister. Surprise them with acceptance and affirmation!



1. Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), p. 236.

2. Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Scribner’s, 1958), pp. 45-46.

3. This Inventory is available from Family Life Publications, Box 427, Saluda, N. C. 28773.

4. Ibid.

5. H. Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Counseling, chap. 11.

6. Albert C. Kinsey et al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1948); idem., Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1953).

7. Morton Hunt, "Sexual Behavior in the 1970s," The Research Guild, Playboy, October 1973, pp. 85, 88.


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