The fact that you both love God does not automatically qualify you to love each other.Grown Zone Relationship Education Co-Creator Alfred A. Edmond Jr.

In the Grown Zone, we often challenge conventional wisdom, including overvalued and ineffective beliefs about how to create and sustain healthy relationships. One of these beliefs is the idea that church-based premarital counseling alone can provide engaged couples with enough preparation to establish a healthy, sustainable marriage.

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Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that this is not the case, beginning with the reality that marital outcomes among self-declared people of faith (including pastors and other religious leaders) are not much different than that of those outside the church. (Alfred notes that the pastors of both churches of which he’s been a member in adulthood eventually divorced, including one [now remarried] whose former wife was the church’s associate pastor.)

Our previous failed marriages (two each) happened in the context of our respective church memberships (and/or that of our former spouses), and we both had premarital counseling through our churches in the months prior to our weddings. While that counseling was provided in good faith (as were our respective intentions of commitment to our marriages), they simply were inadequate as a means of establishing the healthy relationship foundation (and the skill to nurture and maintain it) necessary for a strong, loving and fruitful marital partnership.

It’s not that premarital counseling (whether within or outside the context of religious doctrine) is of no value. It’s that such short-term, deadline-driven counseling too often fails to provide the information, training and coaching necessary to prepare people to create and sustain the heathy relationships that make strong marriages work. This pressing need for ongoing relationship education, rooted in self-love and personal growth (and not tied to a wedding date), is the primary reason why we created Grown Zone Relationship Education and wrote our book Loving In The Grown Zone: A No-Nonsense Guide to Making Healthy Decisions in the Quest for Loving, Romantic Relationships of Honor, Esteem and Respect (Balboa Press).

There are at least three reasons why church-based premarital counseling, in the absence of ongoing relationship education (whether within or outside the church), does not prevent divorce:

It does not reach those most in need of relationship education, when they need it most. Church-based premarital counseling is no substitute for the education and training that must take place long before the marriage proposal. Unfortunately pre-marital counseling is often the only such education most people are likely to experienceuntil marital troubles lead to couples therapy in a last-ditch (and often futile) effort to avoid a divorce.

Relationship education is most needed not after a couple has committed to getting married, but long before, while they are single and, ideally, focused on their own personal growth. A person who is not happy, healthy and whole in single life won’t be happy in a marriage.

It is biased in favor of the marriage happening, whether the relationship is proven to be healthy or not—and often even when there is ample evidence that it is unhealthy. The fact that most premarital counseling takes place at the same time that wedding plans are being made and executed does not help, nor does the zealous, unconditionally pro-marriage stance taken by many religious people. Additional conflicts of interest can emerge when, for example, the church providing the marriage counseling also happens to be the location for the wedding.

Instead of an unbiased assessment of whether two people are actually ready for marriage, many counselors and marriage ministries are predisposed to not disrupting wedding plans, in the absence of graphic evidence of a couple’s unsuitability for marriage—and, too often, even when such evidence is apparent.

Also, many ministries surrender to the fact that many couples will leave the church to get married elsewhere, despite a recommendation to call off or postpone the wedding. The well-intentioned thinking is that it’s better to support the couple’s desire to wed (especially if they have children) in hopes that the church can provide the support necessary to sustain the unhealthy union.

It is usually too little, too late without the solid foundation of a healthy relationship. Five to 10 premarital counseling sessions in the months or weeks before a wedding is no substitute for the ongoing relationship education that should begin during the teenage years and in early adulthood, long before marriage becomes a consideration in a person’s life. While there are absolutely exceptions, most premarital counseling is not designed to prepare people for marriage, only to assess, and relatively quickly, whether plans to marry should be supported by the church. And while it can be argued that such counseling is better than nothing, too often, it is not nearly enough to establish the long-term health of the relationship.

By contrast, Grown Zone relationship education, training and coaching programs focus not on a wedding date, but on the promotion of healthy practices and standards regardless of current relationship status or marital intentions and prospects (or lack of such). If marriages are to succeed, such relationship education is a prerequisite to premarital counseling.