Are There Marriage Preparation Classes for Atheists?

A reader sends this email and needs your advice:

I am engaged to be married and both my fiance and I are atheists living in London, England.

We really want to do some kind of marriage preparation course, but can’t afford the fees for the only secular course we can find and we would feel such hypocrites attending the (free or very cheap) marriage preparation courses run by any of our local churches. (One of them advertises as “open to non-Christians” but then says that they focus on making Jesus Christ the centre of your marriage… no thanks!)

Do you know of any secular alternatives to the church-run marriage prep courses? Or any decent workbooks we can buy that aren’t based on Christianity?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!

  • Barbara

    Look online for group alternatives. You might be able to find a source that way.

  • Ben

    I went to a local church one and rolled my eyes the whole way through it. We just did it for a discount on the marriage license.

    Most of the advice was secular, but it was also all common sense, that you could probably figure out on your own or at least get from reading a book together instead.

  • http://missmintyfresh.tumblr.com Emily

    I’ve been enjoying the forums at Offbeat Bride, but you need to register. Don’t be put-off; it only takes a hot second. A Practical Wedding blog is also full of thoughtful articles that are usually non-religious. My antitheist fiancee and I (also antitheist) aren’t planning on doing any formal prep work but we are making a point to get in the habit of taking our arguments/disagreements to their sources, not just smoothing over the surface of them. This is helpful and awesome, and I feel so confident about our marriage.

    cheers.

  • http://ian.bushfield.ca Ian

    I’d suggest contacting the British Humanist Association. I don’t think anything’s established, but there are undoubtedly happily married humanists, and perhaps they could do an experimental first meeting with you and see if there’s a greater demand.

  • Aaron

    My wife and I (of four months) attended pre-marriage counseling sessions with an advanced counseling psychology Ph.D. student (year 4) at the university we both attend. The fees were subsidized by the psych department (we paid $15 per hour session). I believe our counselor was also earning hours towards a requirement for the degree.

  • cass_m

    I went through a religious one as well. A lot of it was effective communication skills. The only part that wasn’t secular was the sex ed. Because it was RCC there was an emphasis on a joyful physical relationship of equals being a celebration of God (to get over that sex is bad thing). Check to see what’s available thru university chaplain services as well. If nothing else, they maybe more flexible about attendees.

  • Tamara

    I can relate as I was just looking into a 12-step addiction-type program, and one of the basics of joining was realizing that God was responsible for all of my healing and at least half of the steps involved some sort of recognition of faith.

    Why do so many good things people do to better themselves have to be tainted with such B.S.?

  • Jim [different Jim]

    Personally, I question the value of such classes. It’s all a matter of common sense and acceptance.

  • http://michelle.lesterbell.com Michelle Bell

    My husband and I didn’t attend a marriage prep course; we ended up kind of doing it ourselves. I was completely unsure about “marriage”, although was perfectly happy to create a life with this guy. We were also ridiculously young (I was 19 when we moved in together and got engaged.) So we explored that and other aspects of what our expectations were.

    It might be useful to put a time limitation on topics (a minimum and/or a maximum: twenty minutes to an hour or something) so that you’re encouraging conversation but there’s a built in break. If the conversation is interesting, there’s no need to quit after a specific time, but it does allow for an out if buttons are pressed and people need a cooling off period.

    Get Rich Slowly had an interesting article that sums up some of the financial aspect of what we talked about: http://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2010/05/05/the-business-of-marriage-five-things-you-should-do-before-tying-the-knot/
    Some of our other topics included: children (have them or not? If so, when/how. philosophies of parenting, schooling, ethical upbringing), extended family (how to deal with dysfunctional family, religious family, etc), work, domestic responsibilities, living preferences, living arrangements, financial arrangements, life aspirations and goals, education aspirations and goals, conflict resolution, relationship expectations (monogamy, polyamory, boundaries and taboos, etc.), philosophical differences. Obviously, that list will change depending on where you’re at in your life and who you both are.

    One of the best things I learned from my queer friends and partners was that EVERYTHING in a relationship should be negotiable and open for discussion. Not that a person shouldn’t have boundaries, but that the assumption of who puts what where or who’s playing what role isn’t a given — same for relationships. It’s better to know early on that where pitfalls and irreconcilable differences exist (and either adjust expectations or partners), than to be surprised after a couple of kids and a decade or two.

    Obviously, not everyone is so comfortable with communication and a freeform learning process, so I can see why a class structure may appeal.

    It may also be more financially available to you to see if there are (secular) counselors in the area that specialise in developing communication, if the above seems completely ridiculous. As someone who’s watch her parents abuse each other and her family fall apart and has a relatively successful marriage, communication and knowing your partner (and how/if they mesh with you) seems to be an important thing.

  • http://liberalfaith.blogspot.com/ Steve Caldwell

    Some Unitarian Universalist congregations offer a couples enrichment course that would work for couples who are getting married soon and couples who have been together for a longer time:

    “Principled Commitment”
    http://www.uua.org/religiouseducation/curricula/tapestryfaith/principledcommitment/index.shtml

    Since many individual UU folks are atheist, agnostic, humanist, etc, this may be an option for you.

    Good luck.

  • Chas

    An interesting question, Hennepin County in Minnesota offers a discount on the marriage license fee to couples who have a notarized certificate showing they’ve attended pre-marital classes. As a secular officiant for weddings, I’d love to be able to refer some of the couples to local secular classes.

  • Danish Atheist

    I am just wondering what it is for? I mean, don’t most people live together for several years before they marry? And shouldn’t it then be relationship preparation classes instead of marriage preparation?

    I would have felt rather silly learning about communication and sex after having been sexually active for years (and I had several sex partners before I moved in with my first husband) and after having lived with the guy I was marrying for years as well …?

    Maybe it is a really good idea — we just don’t have anything like that here in Denmark, to my knowledge. As far as I remember all you get as a member of the state church is a talk with the minister before the wedding … not much in the wedding preparation league, I should say.

    You might be able to have more talks if you like … but I dont know if the ministers have any kind of counselling experience of that sort here.

    Certainly a secular course in communication and how relationships work could be a good thing.

  • http://noadi.etsy.com Noadi

    @Danish Atheist: I don’t know about in England but even among many non-religious couples in the US living together is often something that doesn’t happen until the couple is at least engaged.

  • http://snowbaby.viviti.com Lin

    There is a book about ‘Questions to Ask Before Marriage’, but I can’t seem to find the right one on Amazon. It’d be a quick search at a bookstore to find one that’s useful!

    My husband and I had a blast flipping through the book and trying to guess what the other one would answer for the questions. We were usually right, but had lived together for 6 years before marriage so that has made everything easier.

    YES I think you should ask the big questions before you get married. I was shocked how few people had discussed important things before they committed to each other (not that you can’t get divorced, but why not find out if you’re a perfect match before going to all the trouble of marriage?). Stuff like money, kids, sex, where you’ll live, who will do what, etc. should all be touched on before you dive in.

    So I think a good book and an open communication style can do most of what a class can. If you’re having more trouble than that, talk to a couples therapist!

    Good luck, and congrats! :)

  • Richard Wade

    I’m glad that you’re doing this, and I wish all couples got premarital counseling or training. Even if it’s more costly than you’d like to pay, it’s probably a good investment. About half of all marriages end in divorce, and I’d venture that premarital counseling could prevent much of that by either giving people skills to solve their relationship problems, or by discovering right at the start that they aren’t suitable for each other. Either way, there would be less heartache.

    For those who are wondering why couples don’t just use common sense, keep in mind that each person brings into the relationship all sorts of attitudes, ideas, rules and regulations from their family of origin. Each family has its own sub-set of commonsensical ideas, and each has some missing. Each family has its own permissions and taboos about what should be talked about and what should be kept hidden. It’s very unlikely that all those parameters are optimal for a good marriage, and it’s very unlikely that both people will bring perfectly matching sets of these rules and injunctions into their marriage.

    People generally learn communication skills by simply watching their parents. It isn’t usually discussed in families in an educational way, it’s simply unconsciously imitated. So most young adults are limited to the communication pluses and minuses, the good habits and bad habits that their parents had.

    So it can be surprising how many important things two sensible people do not discuss during courtship and their early time living together. All that hidden stuff is potential trouble down the road.

    Premarital classes or counseling is an opportunity to make conscious those learned habits, so you can freely choose to continue them or to alter them. It also introduces the useful skills learned from thousands of families rather than just the two families of the couple.

    Finally, it can establish permission to discuss topics that otherwise might be left hidden because of old parental injunctions or old familial unspoken taboos.

    So find what premarital counseling or classes you can afford, and just like dancing lessons in a dancing school, practice at home. Then every few years, or whenever you reach another important landmark in your journey together, take a refresher course. People change as they grow and age. If you get communication skill “booster shots,” you will increase your chances of keeping those changes from becoming wedges between you.

    I won’t say good luck. I’ll say work hard. That’s what makes a marriage successful.

  • Jamssx

    You mean we could have had lessons? I thought we had to wing it all! Seriously though, other than some really common sense things, the number one thing is to communicate. Number two is don’t let anything drive a wedge between you, in other words unless you discover your other half doing something totally unacceptable (your call on what that might be) compromise! So you can’t watch football in your underwear anymore, is that really a deal breaker? The guy that married us basically said the same thing. Of course he was Rev Billy of the Church of Life after Shopping (Goggle him) so it was Loveallujah!

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    @Danish Atheist: I don’t know about in England but even among many non-religious couples in the US living together is often something that doesn’t happen until the couple is at least engaged.

    Really? I would have thought that was mostly reserved for conservative religious couples. This might depend on location and generation, though. I’m in California, and I don’t think I know anyone (younger than 50) who got engaged without living together first.

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    rushing in unread:

    the only marriage advice you’ll ever need is this: you are in it to win it, or not. make up your mind, now. it’s “forever,” or it’s just another date. save yourself a great deal of headache and money if you are not Ultimately Romantic about it, right now and forever. otherwise, meh. it passes. yes, i’m cruel.

  • MH

    The idea of going to a Unitarian Church is a good one, as an atheist wouldn’t feel uncomfortable there. As is the idea of reading a self help book together.

    Couples therapy before marriage would be expensive, but could be worth it in the long run.

  • David W

    Relate may well offer something?

  • Pensnest

    I don’t think it’s necessary to have pre-marital counselling—you could just talk to each other! You should already know each other reasonably well, but you need to discuss how you will manage your money, how you deal with housework and day-to-day household admin issues, how you feel about having children, and any other major issues that matter to either or both of you. Make your own list. The most important… is probably the money. Figure it out.

    Essentially you will find that when you’re married, you have to work together through most of the problems that life will throw at you. As long as you’ve established real communication, you’ll be able to do that, and it doesn’t matter whether you have an ‘expert’ to start you off or not.

  • Tony Konrath

    I wrote the original courses for “Relate” (AKA THe marriage Guidance Council)

    Contact your local branch.

    You’ll find yourselves in a group of extraordinary people with well trained group leaders, a multi, non-sexist and GLBTF friendly culture.

  • Ayesha

    Hi everyone,

    I wrote the original email to Hemant. Thanks for all the replies, it’s been very useful. I’m about to rush off to class now (I am still at university) but will definitely be firing off some emails tonight to various places!

    Just briefly… we are quite young (you might have guessed from the university comment), both 22, and although I agree a lot is common-sense, I want to be able to talk through some issues that might come up which I don’t know will come up. For example, looking after a parent if they are sick. There are going to be other issues, but I don’t know what they are yet, if you see what I mean!

    We do live together, but got engaged about a month after we moved in together so it’s not been long :)

  • Julie

    Live together first.

    Seriously, you don’t need counseling, you need to determine if you can stand one another on a 24/7 basis, 365 days a year. I’ve had way too many friendships destroyed once we were sharing a living space that I insisted on it before marrying my husband. Six years and counting. :)

  • Suedomsa

    Whats the rush to get married anyway? Is there some great reward in such an endeavor? Live life have fun, give yourself time to figure out the world and yourself. You will be much happier in the long run..

  • Nerdette

    #1 Communicate
    #2 Communicate
    #3 Communicate
    #4 Enjoy activities together but also enjoy activities apart
    #5 Communicate
    #6 Be practical 95% of the time, go crazy 5% (or some other ratio of your comfort).

    My husband and I also began our relationship at early ages (I was 17, he was 21), and nearly six years later, we couldn’t be stronger. Pair-bonding (why, yes, I am an ecologist) is an ever-learning process.

    Best of luck!

  • Ste Rowley

    If your already living together then you know what marriage is going be like. Just with a bit of paper attached. If your not living together move in for a few months prefect training/testing.

    Pre Marriage training how very middle class and sounds like a waste of time to me.

  • Rex

    My wife and I read what I guess would be a catholic marriage preparation book. We disregarded anything that was contrary to our beliefs, but we did a majority of the exorcises it suggests. Mostly they forced us to think and talk about things that hadn’t necessarily come up in the year or so that we had been living together. And it also had us talk out those things that we might not have been in total agreement about, that could have been deal breakers in the moment of truth. There were also lots of good “shoe on the other foot” exercises that helped us with some little “turf” issues we had already experienced in our small apartment. It was a good experience to read it together, even though it was painfully obvious that a priest was writing sometimes as he’d mention some horribly stereotypical and sometimes outrageously stupid anecdotes. But as guidance counselors they have a lot of experience in giving advice in their respective communities and often see the full effect of said advice. Even if some of it is a little misguided. By the way, we also just skipped over the couple of sex chapters as they were laughable at best and down right appalling at worst.
    It really just taught us to do what Nerdette says above: Communicate.

  • Camus Dude

    I’m with those who wonder why bother with marriage prep classes, but then I don’t really get why people get married in the first place. I tried it once, and probably wouldn’t do it again, unless my SO really wanted to. Just live together and do what you do with other friends – communicate honestly without lying. If you can stand living with each other, it’ll probably work out.

    I think having a non-romanticised view of relationships is also important. There is no ONE PERSON WHO IS MEANT FOR YOU, and I think the idea of lifelong partnerships, while perhaps feasible for some, probably shouldn’t be the ideal everyone strives to achieve.

    Just focus on the now, and enjoy life with your SO!

  • Unlin

    Ya, I know one, “Know Thou Self and Each Other” service. Seriously, what better way of getting married by getting to know each other more deeply.

  • Lexi

    Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch.

    Or most books by John Gottman.


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