Marriage for Keeps program helps couples make their marriage work
by Sheila Myers
Special to the Leaven
“Until death do us part.”
Anyone married in the Catholic Church recognizes those words. Catholic marriage is marriage for keeps.
But that’s easier said than done.
Kathy and Len Nichol, parishioners of St. John the Evangelist in Lawrence, have been married 16 years and have three children. Their marriage was fine but, like many couples past the honeymoon stage, they wanted to improve communication.
They registered for Marriage for Keeps, a marriage education program offered through Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. They saw the class as maintenance for their marriage.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought as long as we just get a little better, that would be a positive thing, and a step in the right direction,” said Len.
The free course — consisting of a marital assessment, six two-hour workshops and an online survey — provided the couple with communication tools they now use to solve issues that crop up in their relationship — issues like disciplining their children.
“We learned new ways of talking to each other that disarms whatever situation is going on,” Kathy said.
Marriage takes work
Catholic Charities began offering Marriage for Keeps (MFK) in 2006 as part of a broader campaign to promote awareness of the importance of marriage and its benefit to society.
“Children raised by parents in a committed and loving relationship will be happier, more secure, less likely to drop out of school and fall prey to risky activities,” said MFK regional director Christina Sell. “They’ll have a better idea of what marriage is and they’ll see that as an attainable goal in their life.”
But today’s society doesn’t encourage long-term, committed relationships.
“It’s very countercultural,” Sell said. “We want instant gratification, instant reciprocity. We want everything to go fine all the time.”
Couples soon discover that “fine all the time” is not at all how marriage works in real life. But that doesn’t mean the marriage has to fail. Maintaining a marriage takes work. It requires a commitment from both spouses. It requires good communication.
That’s where Marriage for Keeps can help.
“I think most couples want to make their marriage work, but they don’t know how to do it,” said Kathy Calvert. Kathy and her husband Chris, parishioners of Curé of Ars Church in Leawood, are trained MFK facilitators. “Classes like this can help give you the skills to communicate effectively, safely and to problem solve.”
Kathy is a social worker specializing in couples therapy. Chris is a banker. The Prairie Village couple has been married 27 years and understands the challenges married couples face.
What to expect
In addition to completing an initial assessment by a family support specialist and taking an online survey, couples attend a six-week, two-hour workshop. That may seem like a big commitment, but it’s a component couples enjoy.
“They say date night is important,” said Kathy Nichol. “This class is two hours. That’s two hours we were conversing, and not necessarily about the kids. It was about us.”
The workshops follow a curriculum called PREP (Prevention and Relationship Education Program), designed by Drs. Howard Markman and Scott Stanley from the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. Markman and Stanley are considered the gurus of marriage and relationship education.
Each workshop begins with dinner, which provides couples the opportunity to socialize and bond. After dinner, the facilitators explain the week’s communication lesson to the group. Couples then break off to complete exercises that reinforce that week’s lesson.
The workshop wraps up with a group discussion to share observations and ask questions. Couples are encouraged to practice what they learned during the week.
During the group discussion, couples discover that their issues are not unique.
“The class gives couples a perspective on universal problems,” said Kathy Calvert. “It becomes much clearer when you see other people talking about the same things, things every couple has to work through.”
These universal problems stem from the fact that men and women are wired differently and communicate differently. For example, women want men to validate their feelings; men want to feel appreciated.
“If you go by the golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — you’re missing the boat,” Kathy said. “What I want from you is different than what you want from me.”
The MFK program helps spouses accept each other and understand their differences so they can meet each other’s needs.
Open to all
Workshop participants are racially diverse and come from all cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. They have been married just a few months or many years.
The program is open to married couples of all faiths, not just Catholics, but Sell believes Catholics should be at the forefront.
“Everybody equates Catholicism with enduring marriages and the sacramentality of marriage,” she said. “We’re probably in the best position to provide this to our community.”
Although 75 percent of the couples that take the class are Catholic, MFK has no spiritual component, a restriction of the federal grant that funds the program.
Rachel and Stan Walker are Baptists. The Kansas City, Kan., couple took the class last spring to work on communication issues they have experienced throughout their 16 years of marriage. They appreciated learning communication tools to help resolve their arguments and have recommended the class to several married friends.
“I think so many people can benefit,” Stan said. “Think about it. Marriage is the foundation of our society. When that breaks down, you can expect society to break down.”
Yes, marriage is difficult, but few things in life are as rewarding as a long-term, committed relationship grounded in faith and love.
“It’s hard for all of us,” Kathy Calvert said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance or help. It’s the best thing you can do for your marriage, your family. Do whatever it takes to make that marriage work. It can work.”
Warning signs your marriage needs a tune-up
1. Spinning your wheels. Revisiting the same argument repeatedly, no resolution on recurring issues. You think to yourself: “Here we go again . . . the same argument!”
2. Avoidance. Unwillingness to engage in discussion about important issues, reluctance to deal with issues directly. Can also involve physical distancing and emotional detachment from spouse. “Two ships passing in the night.”
3. Trivial detonators. Overreacting to or being easily upset by minor issues that trigger an eruption. Small things are blown out of proportion and cause intense emotional reactions. Walking on eggshells.
4. Keeping score. Keeping account of slights and disappointments and bringing them up later during arguments. Dredging up past hurts to use against your spouse.
— Adapted from the Prevention and Relationship Education Program