Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1997
Volume 9, Number 1

Interdisciplinary Center Studies Marriage and Family

Michael Lawler
Professor of Theology

The Center for Marriage and Family was formally established in 1994 to promote stable marriages and healthy families in the culture of divorce that is contemporary America. It seeks to achieve its goal by interdisciplinary research into marriage and family, by making the results of its research available to the academic and pastoral communities, and by developing and disseminating pastoral interventions on behalf of marriage and family as prescribed by its research. The Center brings together an interdisciplinary team from the diverse specialities of education, psychology, family therapy, pastoral practice, sociology and theology.

Though it was formally established as a research organ only in 1994, the Center's faculty has been researching and writing on marriage and family for many years. In 1994 it contracted with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to carry out a nation-wide study of the impact of marriage preparation in the Catholic Church. That research resulted in the publication of the highly acclaimed Marriage Preparation in the Catholic Church: Getting it Right, the first national study of the impact of marriage preparation in the Catholic Church. The study showed there was much right with marriage preparation. We list its top conclusions.

1. The vast majority of individuals who participated in marriage preparation programs view the experience as valuable early in their marriage. 93.8% of respondents in their first year of marriage agree that marriage preparation was a valuable experience; 74.8% in their second year proffer the same judgment. Overall, almost two-thirds (66.3%) perceive marriage preparation as a valuable experience, 26.6% of them as a very valuable experience. The other third (33.8%) perceive it as less than valuable, 8.2% of them strongly.

2. The perceived value of marriage preparation declines significantly over time. Is it simply that memory fades? Is it that the benefits erode with time? Is it that marriage preparation prepares couples for the tasks they face early in their marriages, but not for the tasks they face later? If the last is the case, and we hypothesize that it is, it indicates the need for booster programs throughout the various developmental stages of a marriage.

3. Marriage preparation is judged most valuable when it is done by a team of clergy, lay couples and parish staff. Clergy working alone with a couple is currently the most common format for marriage preparation, but couples judged this format significantly less valuable than a team format. Their commentary was interesting, if predictable: "Priests who don't marry . . . just don't know what marriage is really like." A team approach which does not include a clergy representative, however, was also judged less valuable than a team with a clergy member.

4. The topics addressed in marriage preparation that were perceived as being of most value were the five Cs: communication, commitment, conflict resolution, children and church (values and sacramentality). A sixth C, career and especially dual career, was among topics perceived as least helpfully covered. This suggests enhancing all six Cs to the maximum, and especially the dual career marriage which is currently so prevalent.

5. Interchurch couples, who randomly comprised 39% of the respondents in the study, are at greater risk than same-church couples for drift from church belonging and practice. They come to marriage preparation with lower levels of belonging and practice, as well as lower levels of expectation of the value of the program. They leave it with a significant positive shift in attitude, indicating that marriage preparation has served them well, and yet they drift further away from the church. Significantly, women drift further away from the church than men, a fact which is disturbing news for the churches given the research that indicates that mothers may be the strongest influence on the early faith development of children. This data offers particularly significant information to the churches, given the current estimate that roughly half of all marriages in the United States are interchurch unions.

The data uncovered about interchurch families led to the proposal of a follow-up study of interchurch families to the Lilly Endowment, Inc., which agreed to fund a three-year project. The research this time will study interchurch couples from a variety of Christian groups, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Evangelical Christian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian etc. It will have two goals: first, to develop an under standing of the unique issues confronting interchurch couples; and secondly, to develop intervention models or programs that churches and couples can use to support interchurch marriages. A unique feature of the project is that the Center has recruited both a local and a national team of consultants from the various congregations expected to take part in the study. These consultants will ensure that the language in which questions are posed is language used and understood in their churches; they will also have a very important advisory role to play in the development of interventions.

The research agenda, which will unfold over a period of three years, has five separate phases. Phase One is a Review of the Literature and a Consultation with Pastors who deal regularly with interchurch marriages. The information developed in this phase is used to develop questions for Focus Groups and Couple Interviews in which, in Phase Two, interchurch couples from a variety of Christian churches are invited to share their interchurch experience to identify the issues they face in interchurch marriages and the strategies they employ to deal with them.

In Phase Three, which may be regarded as the core of the project, the data gathered from the Literature Review, the Consultation, the Focus Groups and the Couple Interviews, are used to develop a Questionnaire, which will be distributed nationally to a random sample of both interchurch and same-faith couples from a variety of churches. The data culled from the responses to the Questionnaire will be analyzed to yield insight into a variety of possible relationships between religious faith and interchurch marriage. A central question the churches want answered is whether the faith of couples in interchurch marriages is in any way different from that of same-faith couples. Various aspects of faith, level of church practice, level of church belonging and affiliation, level of spirituality will be explored. Another critical question is what predisposing factors do couples bring to interchurch marriages? These predisposing factors may influence the slightly higher level of divorce among interchurch couples as much as the interchurch character of their marriage. The Questionnaire data also answer the question whether there are differences in the marital relationships of interchurch and same-church couples. The impact on the quality and stability of the marital relationships of interchurch and same-church couples will be explored, as will the impact of interchurch and same-church marriages on religious faith. The study also seeks to understand better how interchurch couples view their churches, how their churches view them and how their churches can respond to their needs.

In Phase Four the information derived from the preceding phases is used to design, to Pilot and to evaluate intervention models that support interchurch couples and their families. These interventions might be programs for use in marriage preparation, or instructional video, film scenarios or booklets for couples, their children and their pastors. The final phase of the study, Phase Five, is the publication of a report of the results of the entire project.

A project of this scope could never be envisioned without the support of many contributors. The Center for Marriage and Family is delighted to take this opportunity to thank publicly the Lilly Endowment, Inc., for generous funding and Creighton University for equally-generous in-house support. It is such unstinting support that makes possible and gives concrete meaning to the phrase cooperative, interdisciplinary research.