I’m currently four months deep in an 8-month engagement. As I write this, my fiancé is in a U-Haul moving across the country, where he’ll stay until I move and join him after the honeymoon.
As we are back again in a long-distance relationship and because he is not Catholic, much of the planning and prep still remaining — from picking flowers to arranging Pre-Cana — now falls more on my shoulders, despite our best efforts to share the load.
You don’t have to tell me twice: engagement is an i.n.s.a.n.e. time.
There’s enough to do regarding the logistics of the big day alone — it’s no surprise that many couples find themselves tempted to coast through (or even disregard) the emotional and spiritual marriage prep that the Church requires.
But the wedding doesn’t mean a lot if the marriage won’t last.
Thanks to many blessings God has given me, including my theology degree, I know to prioritize marriage prep over wedding planning, so we are dedicating the majority of our energy to the former while still having fun with the latter.
This doesn’t mean we scheduled all the pre-Cana stuff first and we’ll get to decorations if we have time. It means that every step, process and accomplishment is inundated in reflection and ultimately serves the mission of building our relationship.
Here are five examples of how we are using the wedding planning process to get more out of marriage prep:
1) We’re praying for and with one another.
Admittedly, we’re really bad at this part, but it’s so important! Due to his upbringing, praying doesn’t come naturally to my fiancé, and asking him to do so out loud is like asking a hermit to perform a tap number on Broadway.
Being long-distance will actually be a blessing in this regard. For praying together, there’s Skype and phone calls. The phone provides a layer of comfort for him in this somewhat new vulnerability, and we can chat and pray while working on our hobbies during the call.
As for individual prayer, we’ve been committed to using this prayer daily since we started dating: God, reveal your plan for us and give us the grace to cooperate.
The regular aches that comes with long distance will be a great reminder to intercede for each other and our future together. Mundane tasks make a great space to pray while my hands are busy with repetitive wedding work.
If you’re not long distance like us, though, opportunities to pray together abound and aren’t reliant on a WiFi connection. Pray as you stamp envelopes. Pray while you balance the wedding budget. Pray at the end of an evening together as going home alone gets more and more difficult. On your own, pray when you go for a dress fitting without him or on the way to rent tuxes without her. Remember to pray for the big things, too, like discerning Mass readings and apartment hunting!
2) We won’t settle for less.
Many dioceses and parishes do their best to provide marriage prep despite limited resources and complex internal politics, but it’s often not enough.
We’re trying to satisfy the requirements of two separate dioceses (long story), neither of which have particularly remarkable formation. But thanks to some inquiries, we were able to replace some of their mandatory programs with alternatives of higher caliber (which were, interestingly, also less expensive). Beyond that, my dear friend and our main celebrant, Fr. Steven, is accompanying us as we read through Ven. Fulton Sheen’s Three to Get Married and helping us to enhance our preparation in other ways.
Comply with your diocesan requirements, but be courageous enough to seek out more! Find a really solid, effective program at a nearby diocese that goes deeper than your standard prep (here are some ideas!) Seek out online resources for marriage prep, or just Theology of the Body in general. Find a book study on a classic like Three to Get Married and indulge as a couple (or just read it together).
During all this, keep in touch with the diocesan marriage coordinator. They may appreciate the tips about some of the resources and even waive certain requirements if the extra efforts you’re making could replace one of their preferred programs.
3) We’re giving NFP a chance, even though it’s not required in our area.
It helps significantly that I work for CCL, so I’ve got the resources to convince my fiancé that NFP is important. But I planned to practice NFP long before I was hired here. I’ve been charting for five years and have been empowered by learning my body and understanding its beauty.
It was intentional, then, when I would bring it up in casual conversation while we were dating — like mentioning ahead of time that I knew I was about to enter an emotionally difficult phase, or when a date night would be best because I’d have the most energy to get prettied up and go out. I wanted him to realize how familiarity with my cycle could be useful for him.
NFP has taken on new significance during wedding planning. We’d already discussed things like sexual ethics, contraception, family size and what NFP would look like in marriage by the time we got engaged. With these topics already opened, we are able to spend time delving deeper during conversations with Fr. Steven as he prepares us for the sacrament.
It’s also done a lot for my understanding of how sincerely committed to our relationship my fiancé is. I’ve been surprised at how quickly he’s learned the method and how willing he is to do what we’ll need for it to work. He caught me off guard when he wasn’t disgusted at the concept of cervical discharge (although it’s still not his favorite subject) and he’s even charting the data as I send it to him every night.
Could his heart be any bigger?
The biggest thing about NFP, though, is knowing that it will continue to prepare us for each other and for Heaven years and years after we marry. Unlike wedding planning, learning and practicing NFP isn’t about a single day. It’s about our entire lifetime as a couple, and it will shape us in virtue and sharpen us in self-sacrifice long after the reception music has faded.
If you want more out of your preparation and out of your marriage, seriously consider learning and practicing NFP, even if it’s not required in your diocese. But don’t just take a class, spend a few months haphazardly charting, and then say you’ve given it a chance. Dive into Church teaching and try to understand it. Let it help you learn about the irreplaceable dignity of each sex, let that mutual reliance strengthen your marriage, and let all this wonder and awe lead you to deeper trust in your Creator — even trusting him with your fertility.
After you’ve done all that, you’ve really given NFP a chance.
4) We picked out and rely on a mentor couple.
One of my dioceses requires a mentor couple and the other doesn’t, so the powers that be allowed us to pick our own. We chose our good friends, Nicole and Danny, who’d been there throughout our entire relationship.
The most important reason we chose Nicole and Danny is that they have a strong, beautiful marriage with a lot of similarities to our own relationship. They’d also been long-distance between the U.S. and Mexico (I moved to Mexico three months after we began dating), come from very different family settings (same), different faith experiences (duh), and have all the same morals and values we have. Even our personalities are very similar, which has been so helpful as they guide us through disagreements and frustrations — they really get it.
While Nicole and Danny are technically only mentor couples during marriage prep, we have every intention of relying on them long into our marriage. The difficulties don’t end when you tie the knot, in fact they sometimes increase. It’s been invaluable to be able to talk to a close married couple we already know and trust about real issues during this time of final discernment.
If you find yourself wanting to look for a mentor couple (especially if your church assigned you one and it isn’t working out), there are a few important things to look for:
- Faith and values: Make sure you have them in common!
- Happily married: It doesn’t make sense to pick a couple on the verge of divorce.
- Seasoned: Find someone with at least five years of marriage and preferably someone older than you.
- Experienced: Try to find someone who has circumstances and goals in common with you — ones they’ve achieved or are achieving. For instance, if you’re a military couple, consider finding a veteran. If you want a big family, look for someone who’s been there.
5) We each chose a third party confidant.
Two of the most common mistakes couples make when facing frustration in their marriages are 1) not telling anyone, and 2) telling too many people. Marital frustrations can fester dangerously when they’re bottled up, but it’s equally hazardous to a marriage when one spouse speaks poorly about the other to friends and family. So what’s a couple to do?
One of the best pieces of marital advice I’ve ever heard is to pick one — and only one — non-family member to turn to as a sounding board regarding marital ups and downs. It’s critical that this person is trustworthy, not family, and the same sex as you. (It’s more relatable this way, plus they won’t be perceived as a threat by your spouse.) They have to be able to provide sound advice and root for your marriage in both good times and in bad, always in a spirit of discernment rather than gossip. Conversations with this person stay with this person, especially if they’re negative — no one else is to hear you speak poorly of your spouse.
This allows you to have a safe place to work through issues with a third party in a respectful, healthy manner without feeling betrayed by words spoken and spread behind your backs. Each of you will need someone like this. I chose my Maid of Honor based on these criteria, and now as we stuff invitations and paint centerpieces together, my best friend of eight years has both a special role in my wedding and in my marriage.
How did you or are you getting the most out of your marriage prep? Feel free to comment below with your own tips and experiences.
Let’s continue to pray for and with each other as we approach the altar!
— Forest Hempen (but soon to be Barnette!)
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