NEW YORK – With America's divorce (search) rate hovering steadily around 50 percent, some couples thinking of walking down the aisle are getting guidance before they say, "I do."
Marriage mentoring – counseling by married couples for those considering tying the knot – is a national trend, though no official numbers are available.
A Bethesda, Md., faith-based group called Marriage Savers tries to prevent divorce – either for not-yet-wed couples or those whose marriages are in trouble – by pairing them with successfully wed couples for advice on communication and conflict resolution.
"We're trying to make marriages a high priority because we're concerned about the devastation divorce has wreaked on children," said Mike McManus, who runs the organization with his wife.
Though Marriage Savers was the pioneer organization in marriage mentoring, according to McManus, other groups have followed suit, including the Center for Relationship Development (search) in Seattle. Many places of worship also offer mentoring.
Marriage Savers works with church congregations and synagogues, training lay-couples to help others through the decision to commit to one another. The pre-marital couples don't have to be engaged – in fact, the preference is that they're not because the sooner couples work through their issues, the better.
"We try to resolve the differences they have before the wedding and make sure there are no surprises," McManus said. "This puts all the information and attitudes on the table."
Conflict resolution is the main reason Philip Cofer and his then-girlfriend Terri sought mentoring in early 2000. They'd been dating for six years but were at an impasse over issues like finances and to which church they should belong.
"It was extremely helpful," said Cofer, 29, of Bowie, Md. "It enabled us to talk about subjects we hadn't been able to talk about at a greater level. Our communication deepened."
During the first of the minimum required six mentoring sessions, both members of the couple complete a relationship "inventory" to identify sources of conflict, then work through problems under the guidance of the mentoring couple.
To tackle their financial differences, Philip (the saver) and Terri (the spender) were advised to document all their expenses and draw up a budget. Eating out was a major culprit, so they began cooking more.
They also got help in choosing which churches to attend. Both had strong ties to their own parishes, so they were told to go to each other's churches for a while and take time to come to a decision. Ultimately, they picked Terri's church.
The couple got engaged less than a year after they'd undergone mentoring and said "I do" in the summer of 2001. Philip Cofer said the mentoring was crucial to their happy union.
"It gave us a foundation for our relationship," Cofer said. "I'd recommend it for every single couple."
Mentoring is part of a larger, pro-marriage movement (search) that's grown in reaction to 30-plus years of high divorce rates. State and federal governments have even gotten involved in promoting marriage. Last month, the White House asked Congress to approve a $1.5 billion "marriage promotion" package; President Bush earlier asked for $300 million in marriage incentive funding.
The movement has been controversial, with critics arguing the government shouldn't be spending tax dollars to manage people's private lives and saying divorce is necessary in certain cases, especially when violence is a factor.
"There are some marriages that should never happen and those marriages should split up," said National Marriage Project co-director Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. "It would be a terrible thing to get rid of divorce entirely. But if you have too much divorce and too many kids involved, it becomes a social problem."
McManus says Marriage Savers has an 80 percent success rate and has helped reduce divorce in more than 100 cities. But Whitehead cautions against such claims, saying the program would need to be tracked for at least 20 years to determine effectiveness.
"It's very new and very selective," she said. "There is no magic bullet."
She does think couples considering a walk down the aisle will likely find mentoring useful.
"It's helpful to focus on some of the issues that can be marriage breakers," Whitehead said. "I'm not sure it saves marriages, but it's better than feeling like you're heading into this big decision without knowing what to expect."