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Helping Couples Prepare for Marriage

By Sheila Myers

Married 38 years, Charles and Sue Laird have a great deal of helpful advice to share with a younger generation.

Q U I C K S C A N

The Beginning of a Ministry
Uncovering Problems
Sticking Out the Tough Times
Reaping the Joy

Helping Couples Prepare for Marriage

Illustration by
Mona Daly

On a balmy Saturday morning at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, Kansas, 14 engaged couples in a marriage-preparation class sit in a circle nervously discussing the recipe for a happy marriage. Some sit attentively, but many would prefer to spend the day doing anything but fulfilling this mandatory requirement for marriage in the Catholic Church.

At the head of the class, Charles and Sue Laird coax from the reticent participants responses that eventually fill two sides of a blackboard. The ice is broken, thanks to Charles's lighthearted humor and Sue's warm demeanor. That's not bad for a married couple in their 60s, leading a room full of 20-year-olds.

U.S. dioceses began conducting marriage-preparation classes in the late 1960s to stem an increasing divorce rate, says Father Charles McGlinn, vicar general of the Kansas City, Kansas, Archdiocese. Currently, every diocese in the United States requires engaged couples to complete an approved marriage-preparation program.

According to census statistics for the year 2000, 43 percent of first marriages failed within 15 years. The divorce rate for U.S. Catholic marriages is 25 percent (Barna Research Group). Whether the difference is attributable to the marriage-preparation classes is open to discussion. One thing is certain: The program wouldn't be possible without dedicated couples, like Charles and Sue Laird, who share their time and experience.

The Lairds are masters at preparing couples for marriage. Over 27 years, they estimate they have helped over 1,200 couples with one of the most difficult but potentially rewarding decisions of their lives. The Lairds are great role models. Besides the longevity of their marriage—they celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary last November—they share a deep commitment to their Catholic faith and a respect for the Sacrament of Marriage.

By the end of the weekend at Bishop Miege, the 14 couples will have shared attitudes about communication, finances, sexuality, spirituality, in-laws, friends, careers, parenting and substance abuse. Ninety-five percent will say the weekend is worth it.

Eric and Angela McHardie from Topeka, Kansas, took the Lairds' class before getting married last August. Angela, 26, is Catholic. Eric, 32, is Methodist. He wasn't particularly excited at having to attend the class.

"I thought it would be preachy, or they would try to convert me," says Eric. "But it wasn't anything like I thought. Some of it was actually helpful. I liked the interactive exercises and the discussion on finances. And the Lairds were great. They knew exactly what they were doing and how to keep things interesting."

The Beginning of a Ministry

The Lairds joined the ministry in 1975 after attending Marriage Encounter, a program that helps married couples reconnect. They liked the idea that they could participate together and would be helping young people in love.

"I also felt blessed because we have a good marriage, and I know a lot of people who don't," Sue says. "I feel it's important that you don't hide your candle under a basket, that we share our marriage with others."

When the Lairds joined the ministry, the Kansas City Archdiocese had introduced a marriage-preparation program utilizing married couples as moderators. Until then, marriage preparation consisted of a series of presentations to the engaged by various experts. The format didn't allow for much interaction between the engaged.

The new program, co-authored by Finian Meis and Tara Markey, was called "When Families Marry" (WFM). It explored the attitudes engaged couples bring toward areas that will affect their marriage. The program is now used in 40 dioceses in the U.S. The Lairds attribute the success of WFM to the questionnaires couples complete about their attitudes. The couples share the results, discuss any differences and complete a covenant that details how they are going to handle those differences.

"It gets the engaged couple talking about spirituality, sexuality, how they communicate, how their parents communicated," says Charles. "You need to work these problems out before you're married."

Initially, the Lairds followed the program outline explicitly, to the extreme of reading the text word-for-word from the book. They gradually began sharing experiences from their own marriage and incorporating outside material to stimulate the discussion. The Lairds say couples most enjoy hearing the personal stories.

"We can tell couples it's good to communicate, but if we tell about a time in our marriage when communication broke down, then it really brings the point home," says Sue.

Jean Humphrey, director of Family Life Ministries for Johnson County, the largest region in their archdiocese, has known the Lairds for 25 years. They have continually helped her improve the program, she says. The region utilizes 45 lead couples to prepare over 700 engaged couples each year for marriage.

"I am in contact with them every other month," says Jean. "They have been so wonderful and generous with their time. I just pick up the phone. They can handle any size group or situation."

Uncovering Problems

In their 27 years as a lead couple, the Lairds are still amazed at how couples can get so close to marriage and not discuss their feelings on important issues. The purpose of marriage preparation is to stimulate this discussion between partners. It can bring a couple closer together or uncover a serious problem.

Twenty-five years ago, one confused couple approached the Lairds after class. The woman was pregnant and the man didn't want to get married. They agreed to call off the wedding. After the baby's Baptism, the couple mutually agreed to marry and are still married today.

On another occasion, Sue recognized a gentleman in class but couldn't place the face. "He had attended our class the previous year with a different girl, but decided not to marry her," says Sue.

"Another gentleman told the group, in front of his fiancée, that he would continue to take his girlfriends on dates after he was married," says Sue. "My mouth dropped open and I told him if it worked for him, fine, but I would not be able to tolerate that in my marriage. We think the minute that session was over, the two had a little talk."

Communication has always been one of the biggest problems in marriage, say the Lairds, and communication skills are no better today than they were 25 years ago. The Lairds use interactive games and anecdotes to illustrate the difference in how men and women communicate.

For example: One morning, Charles asked Sue if she needed any money. Sue said she had a can of soup in the cupboard. At first, Charles didn't get the connection between the statements. "To me, that's a yes or no question," he says. "I finally figured out that she skipped a few steps in the conversation."

"I had told Charles the night before that I was going to start taking a can of soup for lunch," says Sue. "When he asked me if I needed any money, I knew I didn't need money for lunch. I was taking the can of soup."

While communication problems haven't changed, almost everything else has. Take attitudes about cohabitation, for instance: "In the beginning, even if they were living together, every now and then they would slip in conversation but they would be ashamed," says Sue. "Now, it's very blatant."

While the Lairds aren't out to convert anyone, they feel it is their duty to educate couples about the Church's stand on such issues. "As representatives of the Church, we tell them the way the Church feels and give them statistics," says Sue.

Couples are also more financially savvy than they were 25 years ago. "A lot of couples aren't just coming from Mom and Dad's house," Sue says. "They have a great deal of knowledge about their finances, their goals. They are very set in their ways."

When the Lairds married in 1964, they had never discussed finances, division of labor, sexuality or any of the areas couples are asked to discuss today. Fortunately, the couple's long friendship and shared Catholic values provided a stable foundation for a successful marriage.

Charles and Sue dated once at Hayden Catholic High School in Topeka, but Sue always had her eye on him. When Charles announced his plans to become a priest, Sue abandoned her hopes for their future together. They remained friends while Charles attended St. Thomas Seminary, and Sue attended Loretto Heights College, both in Denver.

Charles left the seminary after a year. They dated for five years and, with Sue's nudging, became engaged when Charles graduated from college. Charles joined the Air Force shortly after graduation and the two lived apart until their marriage.

Sticking Out the Tough Times

They attribute the success of their marriage to their deep commitment and their willingness to compromise. For example, Sue is a doer, always on the go. Charles is a homebody, content to sit for hours watching television or reading. But they have an arrangement that meets both their needs. "One weekend we just go like crazy," says Charles. "We'll go to all kinds of movies, plays, whatever outing she wants. The next weekend we have to stay home and relax."

Flexibility and adaptability are qualities the Lairds find crucial to any successful marriage. Otherwise, disagreements can lead to divorce. Couples should be honest about their attitudes and beliefs on matters as trivial as taking out the trash. These feelings don't often surface in the dating phase because both parties are too concerned with making the right impression.

"That's why cohabitation doesn't work," says Sue. "You're on your best behavior because you want to keep the relationship going. You are when you're married, too, but eventually somebody is going to relax a bit."

Even marriage preparation doesn't prevent some couples from splitting up. Sue says our throwaway culture discourages couples from working through their problems. Couples think the honeymoon will last forever.

Whether it's illness, financial problems or family issues, the Lairds say that, sometime in their marriage, couples will need someone bigger than the two of them. That is where spirituality comes in. "We think it's a whole lot better if you have some relationship with the Lord before your challenge arrives," says Sue. "God will be there for you, but it will be easier for you to jump into his arms if you're walking with him at the time the challenge occurs."

The Lairds had their challenge when their fourth child, Patrick, was born. Sue's prayers for a girl quickly evaporated. Not only was Patrick a boy, but he was also covered with oozing blisters. "The first thing we did was laugh because we thought he had chicken pox," she says. "But we got serious when they shipped him off to the University of Kansas (KU) Medical Center."

A biopsy of Patrick's organs and lymph nodes confirmed the illness as histiocytosis, a rare, cancer-like blood disease. Doctors said Patrick would have oozing lesions for the rest of his short life. The facts were discouraging.

"He had it in his organs, which is more fatal than having it in the bones," says Sue. "Boys die from it more often than girls. And the sooner you contract it, the more apt you are to die."

Every week for five years, the Lairds made the three-hour round trip to the KU Medical Center for Patrick's chemotherapy. The Lairds felt strapped in every way—financially, in their careers and in their marriage. The couple found it difficult to communicate with each other.

"When Charles was depressed, I didn't want to talk to him, I had been crying all day, and vice versa," says Sue.

The experience tested their faith and brought them closer to God. "There wasn't anything the doctors could do about it, so we prayed for God to intervene," Sue says.

Patrick continued to grow and gain strength. After nine years, the condition disappeared. Patrick, now 27, married last August and is applying to medical school to be a heart surgeon.

Reaping the Joy

Though it hasn't always been easy, the Lairds are now reaping the joy of staying married, remaining best friends through it all, thick and thin. They say all marriages evolve through three phases.

"First comes the romance, the honeymoon, the excitement of getting married," Sue says. "The second phase is disillusionment. You get into the children and challenges and think, ‘This is a lot more work than I thought it would be.' And the end is the joy, the light at the end of the tunnel."

The Lairds are in the joy phase now. Their four boys are grown, married and have families of their own. Sue's prayers for a girl were finally answered: They have five granddaughters and one grandson. Charles retired from the state government six years ago and is now a substitute teacher. Sue, an R.N., works in a doctor's office. They entertain their children and grandchildren in their suburban Topeka home on 10 acres with a swimming pool.

The Lairds still conduct marriage-preparation classes one weekend a month because it strengthens their own  marriage. "Every time we do marriage preparation, we grow closer," says Charles. "After 27 years, we still enjoy it. How often do you have the opportunity to spend a weekend with your spouse, discussing these things, seeing other people in love?"

When it's time to move on to another ministry, Sue says they will miss the warm feelings they get from conducting marriage preparation. No matter what ministry they choose, they will continue to work on their marriage by attending workshops or Marriage Encounter. "It would be very easy for us to take each other for granted, even at this age," says Sue.

They offer this advice to couples who may be experiencing disillusionment within their marriage: "Work at your marriage," says Charles. "Go to workshops, read articles about marriage, go to church."

"Hang in there," says Sue. "Things will get better. It's about building character, building a relationship. Anything of great value takes a long time, whether it's a painting or a poem or whatever. It's going to be valuable and it's going to be much more joyful if you work at it."      

Sheila Myers is a freelance writer from Prairie Village, Kansas, with articles published in local Missouri newspapers. She and her husband have been married 14 years and have three daughters.


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