We may learn about character building and how to relate to each other with respect in school. We may even learn how babies are made in a “matter-of-fact” manner in science classes. But from whom do we learn relationship skills that will help our marriage last forever?
Carroll & Doherty (2003) conducted a meta-analysis of 13 studies of premarital programmes and found significant improvements in couples who received such education. Knutson & Olson (2003) conducted a systematic study of couples who took the PREPARE programme and found that it improved their couple satisfaction. Alexander Graham Bell said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”. The same can be said for marriage.
PREPARE/ENRICH is a programme that includes a relationship inventory assessment and a feedback process with a workbook containing over 20 exercises designed to help couples process and deal with issues raised by the assessment. The goal is to help premarital couples prepare for marriage (PREPARE) and for married couples to enrich their marriage (ENRICH) by increasing their awareness of relationship strengths and growth areas by providing them with skills such as communication and conflict management.
Let me use my work with three couples to illustrate how PREPARE/ENRICH uses their relationship strengths as strategies to deepen in intimacy and their growth areas to overcome challenges of the relationship.
(1) Ming & Ling*
This couple in their mid-30s were assessed to be a Vitalised Couple – with high satisfaction scores for their relationship and skilful in communication and conflict management. One of their relationship strengths was their shared spiritual beliefs, cementing their shared values and commitment. The couple did not think much about their shared beliefs, but through this assessment, realised that it was an excellent resource that helps them build a long lasting marriage.
When we looked at the Personality scores, Ming had a high score in the ‘Pleasing’ dimension while Ling had a low score. This meant that Ming might sacrifice his own feelings and opinions to please others. On the other hand, Ling could be seen as too assertive. Throughout the discussion, Ming revealed that he had wanted to visit his parents more often, but Ling did not like the long travelling time. In the end, they visited Ling’s parents more often than Ming’s. This was the first time Ming had brought this desire up, and Ling was surprised. By helping the couple express their needs openly, they came to a satisfactory solution. The conversations brought them closer to each other as they opened up their strengths and weaknesses to each other.
(2) Al & Jess*
Al and Jess in their mid-20s were assessed to be in a ‘Harmonious’ relationship, which meant that they enjoyed high levels of satisfaction across most areas of their relationship. The closeness with family members was one of the highest strengths of the couple. They felt that they could always rely on their family members for support. By discussing what good values and practices they could bring from their own families to their new life together, they had greater confidence in building the warm family they hoped for.
One growth area for the couple was on ‘Partner Styles & Habits’. They felt that they were critical and negative to each other. Upon further discussion the couple discovered that their low view of self had caused them to be sensitive to words from their partner. They realised that their partner did not intend to criticise, but the choice of words had led them to feel criticised. As they shared later, they were angry with each other for “nothing”. By helping them learn reflective listening and assertive speaking skills, the couple was able to make deeper emotional connections with each other.
(3) Darren & Jing*
The couple in their late-30s were assessed to be a ‘Conventional’ couple – highly committed to one another but not as skilled in communication or conflict resolution. Their greatest strength was having strong shared decision-making and responsibilities in their relationship roles. As I processed this strength with them, they could see how they used this relationship strength to work out their growth areas in financial management and conflict management.
As reflected in their assertiveness scores and social dimension, they admitted that they were very introverted and kept to themselves. They also tended to avoid conflicts. While they were comfortable being independent and having their “me” time, they realised that not having enough “we” time together had caused them to remain at a superficial level of intimacy and understanding of each other. In working with them on a few exercises to increase their assertiveness and to enjoy daily dialogues and compliments, the couple became open to new possibilities and started exploring more activities together. I also helped them to set marriage goals and financial goals so they could have concrete plans to work together.
Marriage is probably the most complex in human relationships, and some may find it the most perplexing. It requires HARD work because joining two different persons to become WE from ME involves tremendous effort to develop and maintain. It also requires HEART work as the emotional connection between husband and wife is the most intimate. To become soulmates demands heart-to-heart attunement to each other’s needs and feelings. Couples who continue to invest in their marriage, whether using PREPARE/ENRICH or other resources, will reap the reward of security, satisfaction and significance in their lives together.
Written by: Timothy Thong, Counsellor, Fei Yue Community Services
Carroll, J. S., & Doherty, W. J. (2003). Evaluating the effectiveness of premarital prevention programs: A meta-analytic review of outcome research. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 52(2), 105–118.
Knutson, L., & Olson, D. H. (2003). Effectiveness of PREPARE Program with Premarital Couples in Community Settings. Marriage & Family: A Christian Journal, 6(4), 529–546.