Preparing for Marriage: A Bride’s Checklist of Questions and Answers

Princess-Grace & Prince Rainier Wedding 1956

June, they say, is the month for weddings.  If you’re involved in one this summer, as mother, father, bride, groom, or friend, you’re probably buried in lists.  There are: the cakes to be baked, the flowers to be cut, the guests to be fed, the speeches to write, and (some of) the aunties to avoid.  For the bride, I’d like to add one more.

If you are one of the lucky ones about to set sail on the high seas of matrimony you know already how bold you seem to the eyes of many, like a sailor from some far off country, or maybe like a princess from some far away time.  A good marriage is hard to find these days—and everybody knows it.  Cohabitation has increased 1100% in forty years.  Career brides have replaced teen brides (in 1960 the average age was 20, now she’s typically 27).  About one in two marriages will fail.  Despite all this, you’re a proud romantic.  And you should be.  Unfortunately, you’ll need also to become a sharp critic.  Not that you or your fiancé need to be critical or cranky.  But as marriage becomes less a public institution and more a private choice, you’ll have to get used to defending yourself (and your children) before those who will oppose your happiness.

This is not a “to do” list.  Having helped couples prepare for their weddings these past few years (we were married 13 years ago, and have six boys!), the following is a list of questions that commonly run through the minds of the couples we meet.

Q: A lot of couples seem to be happy just living together.
What does marriage add to the deep commitment we already share?

Marriage adds a great deal!   Don’t be fooled by appearances.  Couples who cohabitate now are far less likely to stay together in the future (see below).  The durability, visibility, and publicity of the marriage vow adds a laundry list of benefits to you that cohabitating and single people likely won’t receive.  I cite just a few.

For women:

  • Married women are more likely to report that they are happy than are women in other states of life (widowed, divorced, or single).  According to a recent study, 50% of wives versus 27% of single women describe their emotional health as either “very good or excellent.”[1]
  • Women are more secure in marriage.  Marriage normally decreases the likelihood that a woman will suffer domestic abuse.  Only 5% of married women report abuse compared to 14% of cohabitating women.[2]
  • Compared to unmarried women, married women are far less likely to live in poverty.[3]

For men:

  • Married men (and women) stay in better health.  This advantage is higher for men than women.  And you can see why.  When a problem with their health arises men often are slow to take action.  Wives pay closer attention to these things.  If he is sick, you will send him to the doctor.[4]
  • Married men earn more.  In fact, these men earn 10-40% more than unmarried men with similar education and training.[5]  This is a well established fact, but the reasons behind it seem more elusive.   One plausible explanation is simply: married men feel more pressure to provide.  If you both have two kids at home, and a third cooking in the oven, when the opportunity for promotion arises, he’s likely to be an aggressive contender.

Q: We plan to get married soon—in a few months.
I’d like to save up for the wedding and we’re spending so much money on separate apartments. Wouldn’t it make sense to get used to living together now?

A growing number of people mistakenly believe that cohabiting makes financial sense.  In 1970 about ½ million Americans were cohabitating.  That figure has increased to around 5 million.  It’s not worth the cost.  Far from strengthening your relationship, if you live together prematurely, you are more likely to end it.  A cohabitating couple is 2x as likely as is a married couple to break up.  Even if you stay together till the kids come, you are more likely to end up as a single parent.  One recent study found that 50% of children saw their cohabiting parent’s relationship end compared to only 15% of children born to a married couple.[6]

The simple truth is: living together is hard work—especially during the first years.  Without a public, permanent, and exclusive vow you’re less likely to be able to stick it out.  Spend a little more on rent now.  It will save you a fortune later.

Q: When I mentioned to my doctor that I was getting married this summer,
she offered me a package of contraceptives.  We’re planning to wait for a year or two to have kids.  If both Natural Family Planning and the pill can be used to postpone pregnancy, what’s the difference?

If you really believe there’s no difference, why not simply use the natural method?  But, of course, there are differences: medical, moral, and social.  Artificial contraception has been around for a long time.  Prior to 1930 no Christian group would allow it (many countries kept it illegal too), because people realized that mechanically separating sex from babies would encourage men to look at women as mere objects.

But to your question: people often wonder how the two methods differ when both attempt the same end, namely, the avoidance of a pregnancy.  Quite simply: the end matters, but so do the means.  If you consider other cases, you’ll realize you already believe that.  The distinction is how we tell the difference between a nurse and a thief, for instance.  One works (means) to pay her rent (end); the other steals (means) to buy her convertible (end).  There’s nothing wrong with apartments and cars.  The nurse and the thief differ in the means they used to get them.  Likewise, there is nothing morally objectionable with occasional abstinence in marriage.  There is something morally objectionable with permanently or temporarily sterilizing a healthy part of your body.

I don’t even want to talk about the health risks involved with the pill.  In this case there is some truth in advertising.  If you want to know the gory details about the strokes, obesity, and lack of libido that come with the pill, you can read the packaging.

I mention only one startling fact about Natural Family Planning: users almost always stay married.  Whereas the divorce rate in the general population is between 40-50%, among those who use nature’s own method, it hovers between 0-3%, depending on the study.  What? A confusion of correlation for causation, you say?  Perhaps only people who are good at being married use NFP?  Even if that were true, presumably you too would want to become the kind of person who is good at being married.  If you’re interested to know more, I’d start with Janet Smith’s talk Contraception: Why Not?

Q: I grew up going to church, but fell out of the habit during college.
Now that we are getting married I wonder if we should start attending again?

Follow that instinct.  Going to church will help you get to heaven.  It will help you have a better marriage, too. The old adage “the family that prays together stays together” captures an important truth.  When you are both on your knees, you stay shoulder to shoulder and face the same direction.  God is pro-life.  He’ll help your marriage thrive.

And, social science confirms the same.  According to information gathered from the 2010-2011 Survey of Marital Generosity, regular church attendance is linked to higher levels of marriage success.   Married couples with children where both agree that “God is at the center of our marriage” are at least 26 percentage points more likely to report that they are “very happy” than those couples who do not share this belief.[7]

Q: To tell the truth, I’ve always hoped for a large family.
My aunt keeps telling me, though, that if we have more than two kids
I won’t be able to manage.

This is probably false.  Because of contraception and abortion, birth rates in America are at an all-time low.  The birth-rate stands at around 1.9 births per woman (there were 3.96 million births in the US in 2012).  That’s edging closer to European rates and far below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.  This is bad news for the economy; it also means less happiness for couples.

That’s literally true.  Women seem to be created to nurture.  The world of MTV, NPR, Hilary Clinton, and likely your high-school guidance counselor, feeds misinformation.  Women typically do not derive their greatest happiness from their life at the office.  According to surveys, their greatest happiness comes from the life of the home.  This preference is all the more marked for women with children.

  • In a recent study, when mothers with children under 18 were asked about their most important source of fulfillment, this is what they said: 51% cited their relationship with their children; 29% cited their relationship with their husband (or common-law husband); a mere 1% cited their career.[8]

I mentioned above that married women are happiest of all.  Let me add one more distinction.  In the movies and advertising the perfect family is usually represented as the “family of four”: mom, dad, boy, girl.  As it turns out, for mothers, more is better.

  • A recent study out of the University of Virginia compared the happiness of three classes of wives and mothers: those who are religious with lots children; those who are religious with few or no children; and those who less religious with few or no children.  Religious mothers with large families came out on top.[9]

It turns out your aunt was wrong.  One of the best things you and your husband can do to promote your marriage is to go to church and fill the pew!

Q: I’m only 25, but already two of my girl-friends have divorced.
They keep telling me that it is better for the children to live
with separated parents than parents who are unhappy.
I’m not quite convinced that this is true.

Your skepticism is well founded.  By the 1970s lawyers had sold legislators on the idea of “no-fault” divorce, which nearly every state enacted by 1980.  Over this same period the divorce rate in America doubled (there are about 1.5 million divorces in the US each year).

In the 1990s the idea of a “good-divorce” for kids was also sold to parents.  Today only 45% of teenagers live with their married biological mom and dad.  The prevailing wisdom of a lot of pop psychology seems to be: adults have needs, children will get over it.  For instance, after a review of research a recent article from Scientific American admitted that:

people whose parents split when they were young experience more difficulty forming and sustaining intimate relationships as young adults, greater dissatisfaction with their marriages, a higher divorce rate and poorer relationships with the noncustodial father compared with adults from sustained marriages.

All true.  And yet, it’s all too uncomfortable.  Apparently, the authors didn’t want to leave readers feeling like the kids ought to get in the way of the sexual habits of the adults.  The article concludes oddly, with this trite bit of Operatic advice: though divorce is hard, most children, they say, “bounce back and get through this difficult situation with few if any battle scars.”[10]  Huh? I suppose it all depends upon what you count as a scar?

We’ve created a society that now treats adults like kids and kids like adults.  For kids there is no such thing as a good divorce.  Here is why:

  • Children of divorce are poorer than other kids: A child raised by a never-married mother is more than 7x more likely to be poor than a child raised in an intact marriage (to put this in other terms, children of single families comprise 27% of all US children, yet account for 62% of all kids in poverty);[11]
  • Children of with a single mom are less safe than other kids: a child living only with its mother is 14x more likely to suffer abuse than a child living with married parents; a child whose mother cohabits with a man who is not the child’s father is 33x more likely to suffer serious physical abuse than is a child living with both biological parents who stayed married.[12]
  • Parental divorce increases the odds that the kids will divorce when they grow up by at least 50%;[13]
  • Daughters raised outside of intact marriages are about 3x more likely to become young unwed mothers than are children whose married parents stuck it out;[14]
  • When parents divorce, their kids are about 2x as likely as children from intact families to have a bad relationship with their mother and father;[15] and so on, and so on…

If you’re on the way to the altar, you’ve got a lot of lists to go through.  You’re also a romantic and a rebel!  Except, rebellion these days, has taken on a new form.  If you want to rebel against that part of the world that works against your love and happiness, the best thing you can do is follow this advice: get married, go to church, and have lots of kids!

Editor’s not: The photograph above depicts the wedding of Princess Grace (actress Grace Kelly) and Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956.


[1] Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 72.

[2] L. Waite & E. Lehrer, The Benefits from Marriage & Religion in the U.S.: A Comparative Analysis, Population & Development Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, June (2003): 255-276.

[3] Witherspoon Institute, Marriage and the Public Good: 10 Principles, 2006 (New Jersey, NJ: Witherspoon Institute, 2006), 20.

[4] Witherspoon Institute, Marriage and the Public Good: 10 Principles, 2006 (New Jersey, NJ: Witherspoon Institute, 2006), 20.

[5] Popenoe and Whitehead, National Marriage Project: The State of Our Unions 2005 (New York: Institute for American Values), 16.

[6] Brad Wilcox et al., Why Marriage Matters (2nd ed.): Twenty-Six Conclusions from Social Science (New York: Institute for American Values, 2005), 13.

[7] The National Marriage Project, The State of our Unions 2011: How Parenthood Makes Life Meaningful and How Marriage Makes Parenthood Bearable (Charlottesville, VA, 2011), 30.

[8] See the study cited in Topping, Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape our Common Life (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2012), 194.

[9] The National Marriage Project, The State of our Unions 2011: How Parenthood Makes Life Meaningful and How Marriage Makes Parenthood Bearable (Charlottesville, VA, 2011), 55.

[10] Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Liienfeld, “Is Divorce Bad for Children,” in Scientific American, 19 March 2013.

[11] Patrick Fagan et al, The Positive effects of Marriage: A Book of Charts (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Institute, 2002), 6-7.

[12] Patrick Fagan et al, The Positive effects of Marriage: A Book of Charts (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Institute, 2002), 28.

[13]Brad Wilcox et al., Why Marriage Matters (2nd ed.): Twenty-Six Conclusions from Social Science (New York: Institute for American Values, 2005), 14.

[14]Brad Wilcox et al., Why Marriage Matters (2nd ed.): Twenty-Six Conclusions from Social Science (New York: Institute for American Values, 2005), 14

[15] Brad Wilcox et al., Why Marriage Matters (2nd ed.): Twenty-Six Conclusions from Social Science (New York: Institute for American Values, 2005), 12.

Ryan N. S. Topping

By

Ryan N. S. Topping is a Fellow of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. A native of Saskatoon, Canada, he earned his M.Phil. and D.Phil. in theology from Oxford University. His latest book is Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2012). He and his wife have six children.

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  • Deacon Frank

    Outstanding and very useful article. I prepare about 10 couples for marriage every year, about 1/2 of whom cohabit. The difference in the way cohabiters and non-cohabiters view marriage is clear: the non-cohabiters approach it as covenant – the cohabiters approach it as a 50-50 contract.
    I wish we could reach more couples with this info before they “move in together.”

    • msmischief

      Fatal. Everyone weighs our own inconvenience more than others, and many of the inconveniences of marriage will never be known to the other. If you give up cooking a dish your spouse can’t stand, and your spouse cuts back on a beloved hobby that takes too much time, half the value is lost if you ostentatiously point out that you’re doing it — but you end up fantasizing that you give up so much more.

  • ColdStanding

    I hope you are cooking up a real barn-burner of a speech for your mid-July presentation! Looking forward to hearing it.

  • Deirdre Folley

    This is a great resource and I will definitely bookmark it to share with friends who are approaching marriage.

    However, I am always a bit troubled when I see Catholics condoning the idea of beginning a marriage with the *intention* to postpone children. I cannot think of one solid Catholic source that backs up this decision as wise or holy. Putting aside the exceptions (e.g., perhaps some cases where health is a factor), married couples should be free and open to children as soon as they take those vows. Marriage is for family. We would not consider “postponing” as a norm (whether it’s done artificially or with NFP) if we did not live in a contraceptive culture. Before this cultural change, it was presumed that if you were getting married, you would be ready for kids — if you’re not ready for kids, why are you marrying? I get upset because I think that, when couples use NFP this way, they really are falling victim to a practice of “Catholic birth control.” Maybe the means itself is not sinful, but the practice seems antithetical to fulfilling the goal and vocation of marriage. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that it’s evil to not have tons of kids right away; but I am saying that openness to life should start at the altar.

    I’m a big fan of NFP and all the good it can do. I just think we need to bear in mind that Humanae Vitae 10 discusses “more” and “additional” children. It’s quite another matter to avoid a first child.

    • guestguy

      I agree whole-heartedly with your post, and here is a quote from JPII for you, “the use of the “infertile periods” for conjugal union can be an abuse if the couple, for unworthy reasons, seeks in this way to avoid having children, thus lowering the number of births in their family below the morally correct level. This morally correct level must be established by taking into account not only the good of one’s own family, and even the state of health and the means of the couple themselves, but also the good of the society to which they belong, of the Church, and even of the whole of manking.” Pope John Paul II (General Audiences, September 5, 1984).

      Enjoy.

  • musicacre

    Just focusing on the dilemma of so many couples already co-habitating before marriage prep, we found when we were doing marriage prep- the NFP part- that the majority were actually together already. SOME of them seemed to be surprised and excited about NFP and wanted to give it a try. My own understanding of these couples living together before marriage is that there is not only immaturity but a huge lack of trust which is a main ingredient in love. They seem to want to only put one toe in the water, very non-committal and a bad sign for their future. Chesterton had his own way of vividly describing that behavior, of one who is not willing live, to get on the horse and go for the wild and unpredictable ride that is life. It seems there is so much insecurity, that these couples don’t want to take any risks, so they bow out of total commitment and bow out of real life. I don’t think you can call that love, when your gift of self is only partial. Maybe self-preoccupation and easy living has caused this crisis of not only faith in the Church teachings but in themselves.

  • William P Murphy

    Is the picture, Grace and Renior? What ever, it gives another unrealistic picture of marriages and weddings. Many people avoid ‘church’ marriages because of the perceived costs: do you want to encourage that idea?

    • Crisiseditor

      I was looking for a picture from an identifiably Catholic wedding and successful marriage–though admittedly tragic due to the death of Princess Grace in a car accident. Unfortunately, pictures from your wedding were not available…

      • William P Murphy

        What are you saying? Successful marriage? Is an expensive Catholic wedding necessary for a successful marriage? Did the expensive wedding guarantee martial fidelity?
        Do pictures from my wedding (or anyone else’s) have any impact on a successful marriage?
        The Catholic Church is telling a story, spend a lot of money on a Catholic Wedding and live happily ever after: is that story accurate?

        • Crisiseditor

          So you are against weddings because they can be expensive. Got it. Just elope to Las Vegas. The Church does not teach that weddings must be expensive. Nor does this article. Nor does the photograph. As I said, it was NOT chosen for the purpose you ascribe to it. I’m afraid you are arguing with yourself.

          • William P Murphy

            Millions of Catholic Weddings per year through out the world and you are too lazy to find a picture of average or lower income couple getting married: you just did a web search of Grace Kelly: Got it, you are lazy.
            What I am saying is that Catholic Church has chased off a great of people from Catholic Weddings because of the expense and extravagance.
            I wonder how big Mary and Joseph’s wedding was?
            How many ‘Catholic’ women would marry a guy like St Joseph any more? Could he provide the basics: food, clothing, shelter, a nanny, Lexus, vacation home, ect?
            As far as civil weddings, my Mother was a Judge’s Secretary and sometimes served as a witness> As she said, how do we know the couple with almost nothing at the start will not do just as well as the people expecting the perfect wedding and perfect marriage?

            • Crisiseditor

              Mr. Murphy,
              I can see this is an obsession of yours. If you insist on arguing with a mirage, that’s your choice. However, you have no right to attack innocent bystanders with baseless insults. I wanted an IDENTIFIABLE Catholic couple. Photos of Mary and Joseph’s wedding were not available.

              • William P Murphy

                The mirage is that all Catholics should expect a Wedding like Grace Kelly and who is pushing that?

                How about a picture of one of the millions of Catholic Weddings that have taken place since the Monaco Wedding? If the Priest was clearly in the picture, I think the Wedding could be identified as a Catholic Wedding? Or does a Priest not indicate a Catholic Wedding as well as the number of Bridesmaids and Flower Girls and their dresses? You can see the Bridesmaids and Flower Girls more clearly in the picture then the Priest.

                • Micha_Elyi

                  The “mirage” is all in your mind, I fear. Nobody but you is claiming “all Catholics should expect” such a wedding as expensive as Grace Kelly’s.

                  The editor’s choice of a picture of the marriage of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier indicates that every sacramental marriage in the Church is a fabulous event, even if none of the external accidents of royal pageantry and finery are actually present. Furthermore, the editor’s choice of illustration for this article emphasizes that Mr. Topping’s points about the mental, moral, and religious preparation for the married life are some of the real marks of a proper marriage; the white worn by the bride does not make her pure, it only represents the purity she should already have. And so on.

                  If your real gripe is that in today’s Western and Westernized cultures across the globe weddings are prized more than marriages, I’ll agree that you have a point. I certainly do believe this is the case for most American females today. If your gripe is that far too much money is spent on weddings, I certainly agree with you on that! But you’re not discussing those points and what you are saying comes across poorly.

                  • William P Murphy

                    No I think that Editor’s choice of a Royal Weddings indicates ignorance or laziness.
                    I will agree that many American women have an unrealistic idea of weddings and marriage.
                    Maybe Parishes need to have more openness about what a ‘Catholic Wedding’ is?
                    By the way, in which direction are the number of Catholic weddings going? More couples getting married in the church? Or less?

                    • thefarmersdaughter

                      You need a life. Seriously.

      • William P Murphy

        Will Jesus only love you if you have a big expensive Catholic Wedding?

      • William P Murphy

        By the way, where Grace and Renior both faithful through out their marriage?
        Is fidelity no longer required in a successful Catholic Marriage? The Catechism has been changed?

        • Micha_Elyi

          You’re disappointed, are you, that Jesus only redeemed us and did not also make us sinless, eh?

          I wish you success in your search for the Church whose members are all sinless this side of the Final Judgement. As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord and remain in the Church founded by Him.

          • William P Murphy

            Why would I be disappointed in Jesus?
            My comment concerned a well known, wealthy ‘Catholic’ couple and whether or not they were faithful to each other during marriage: it has been questioned. The Editor for some reason could not find a more appropriate picture of a Catholic wedding taking place in the last 50 plus years. Lazy?
            If the article was about Priests would the Editor just post a picture of one of the Priests convicting of child molesting since their pictures might be the easiest to find? Should I refrain from Judging those Priests since according to you I need to find a sinless Parish?

  • Michael Shaw

    It is not correct that married men live longer than single men but it sure seems that way.

    • William P Murphy

      Do married men enjoy their life more than single men? It does not seem that way when you talk to them.

  • Lyn Flowers

    From what planet were these”married women from… ?? The divorce rate for catholics is very close to the US national Divorce rate… All these statements on marriage are very generalized… Marriage is a serious matter..but hey…let’s be honest…no need to sugar coat it..lol.

  • Facebook User

    Fantastic article! So much good common sense, as well as great references and citations. The pro-family organisation I help to run has just put out a couple of videos on Youtube which use many of the same statistics. http://www.youtube.com/user/IndexOfInjustice/videos

  • Alecto

    Charles Murray did a much better job on this subject matter in his excellent book, “Coming Apart”, and he managed to do it in a way that was much more respectful towards women.

    • Micha_Elyi

      Mr. Topping was more than “respectful towards women”. He was downright gynocentric. For example, he was quite concerned about women’s happiness. Men’s happiness didn’t rate a bullet point. Men did get a bullet point for earning more. But who spends it? Uh huh, the women. And economic power is measured by who does the spending of the money, not the slaving for it.

      Try again.

  • Mary Lee

    My father left my mother when I was about two. I grew up with my fathers last name, but my mother had remarried so I was constantly asked “why is your last name different from your mothers?” This was the late 40s into 1950 so divorce was not so common. I hated it so much that when I was about ten, I determined that no matter what happened I would NEVER get a divorce and do that to my children. Fortunately, I married a man who made that promise to myself, very easy to keep. We were married for 54 years and only parted by his death. Oh yes, we had eight children and were/are regular Catholic church goers.

    • François De S. Labrecque

      Love you story.

      François de S. (Quebec City, Canada)

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  • Caly

    I agree with everything you said in this article, but it is really not very well-written. It contains several logical errors and at least one place where the quoted statistic doesn’t actually support the premise it was intended to support. I’ve come to expect better from this publication, and I hope this article isn’t an indication of lowered standards.

  • That Was Then

    Why just a checklist for brides? Should it not be for grooms as well?

  • linred

    I just posted my comment as linred. Where is my post?

    • Crisiseditor

      I have no record of your post. Try again and don’t include links.

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