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Every couple can use these four lessons from pre-marriage counseling

Whether you’re celebrating your fifth date or fiftieth anniversary, take this advice.

Photograph from Associated Press; globe staff photo-illustration

Any Catholic planning a wedding knows about the church’s “Pre-Cana” premarital counseling — and among the more lapsed members of the flock, it’s sure to elicit a groan. Ten years ago, my fiancee (now wife) and I were no different. In the midst of locking down a venue, booking vendors, and dealing with a million little decisions, 12 hours of forced premarital education seemed an inconvenient chore at best. And yet, a decade of happy marriage later, Pre-Cana stands out as one of our most important wedding preparations.

We’re not alone. “There’s some scientific evidence that premarital counseling can lower the risk of divorce down the road,” says Steven Sandage, a staff psychologist who provides couples therapy at Boston University’s Danielsen Institute. And counseling isn’t just for Catholics: Many Protestant denominations, as well as individual churches, synagogues, and mosques, expect engaged couples to take their equivalent of Marriage 101. “I think religious communities are wise to make it part of the process,” Sandage says.

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Our class took place over four weeknights. We dragged ourselves into the church basement — a scene that conjured up childhood memories of CCD — and prepared to be scolded about living in sin and the evils of birth control. But week after week, the sessions — led by an older married couple, with some inspired cameos by the parish priest — were surprisingly secular and incredibly insightful. And while we were certainly encouraged to welcome God into our marriage, I’ve realized most of the core lessons are valuable for any couple, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof). The lessons stuck.

For example, we spent a lot of time learning how to fight fairly. Disagreements are natural and can be resolved productively; but they can also be allowed to fester or explode. So when arguing, we were told, refrain from fighting dirty — don’t attack your partner’s character or bring up past mistakes or disagreements — and stick to the issue at hand. Sandage says another key is to ask yourself whether it’s actually a good time for discussion, or whether you’re too upset to talk about it productively. “I think couples can learn to use timeouts and try to get themselves emotionally balanced enough to talk about difficult issues.”

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Another concept I’d never considered: It’s your job to protect your partner from his or her in-laws. After all these years, you’ve probably grown pretty deft at dodging slights and guilt arrows your family fires your way, intentionally or not (um, except in my family, of course). Your partner is more vulnerable. And while your own family will love you no matter how you react, they’re under no such obligation to forgive your partner. When it comes to your family, it’s your job to take the barbs and blame for your spouse — who should, in turn, shield you from your own in-laws. “It actually strengthens a marriage when each spouse feels they can count on their partner in those situations,” Sandage says.

Next, we dug into deeply held values, goals, and expectations to expose discord and learn how to express and work through those disagreements. Many couples kick the most important issues down the road, but they’d be better off discussing them upfront. “Potential conflict areas like finances, children, navigating the in-laws, sexuality — those are four areas where you can’t always just agree to disagree,” Sandage says. “Some of the programs really help couples see whether their values and expectations are in line with one another.”

Good premarital counseling doesn’t just reveal those gaps, but helps couples practice talking through those difficult areas. “Many people would say marriage boils down to communication, but I don’t really agree with that,” Sandage says. Some of his married clients communicate fine — they just don’t like what the other’s saying. “A lot of it has to do with whether a couple can come together and bond and respect one another, even in disagreement. That requires emotional maturity.”

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Our final lesson from Pre-Cana was about setting realistic expectations. Marriage, even when you’re deeply in love and committed, takes a lot of effort, and it’s OK to feel frustrated or reach out for help. Don’t despair when challenges arise and it doesn’t feel like a Hollywood rom-com.

Of course, some traditional Pre-Cana teachings — thankfully glossed over or modernized during our session — aren’t as helpful to many young couples today. If you’re looking to improve sexual intimacy, for example, you might be more comfortable looking elsewhere for counsel. But other faith-based lessons hold wide and enduring appeal. “There’s a lot of research now on practices like forgiveness and a capacity for humility,” Sandage says. “These are classic religious ideas that are really showing scientific support in helping couples be healthy.”

In the frantic excitement leading up to your wedding, it’s easy to forget such things. But 10 years from now, you might realize that a dingy church basement full of strangers was every bit as important to your marriage as a glamorous reception hall packed with friends and family.

Jon Gorey is a writer in Quincy. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter at @BostonGlobeMag.
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