Planning for marriage, not just a wedding


The average Canadian wedding costs about $20,000 and the American wedding industry pulls in about $72 billion each year. When stressed-out brides are frantically planning for the dress, the flowers, the cake and photographer, who is planning for the marriage?

“It’s so much about the fairy tale,” says Rev. Wes Denyer, minister at St. Andrew’s, Brampton, Ont. “There’s so much effort put into making it a fairy tale day, and so little time and money put towards making it a healthy, strong relationship that will withstand the years.”

As couples become more driven and stressed-out, and society puts more demands on a family’s time, taking steps to ensure a lasting, healthy, fulfilling marriage and a stable, happy family are imperative. This month, the month of love and romance perpetuated by Valentines’ Day, the Record offers a marriage planner.

Step One: The perfect soulmate

You can meet your soulmate at Bible studies, church picnics and fellowship hour, if you’re lucky. You can meet her at work, through a friend, on a mountain top while hiking or in a ravine while canoeing. And, you can meet him online.

Sojourners magazine reports that 17.2 million people viewed online personal ads in 2004, and an article in Maclean’s reports that the North American dating industry cashes in at a whopping $1.2 billion a year—although this also includes traditional match-making agencies and companies that facilitate introductions through things like speed-dating, dinner and lunch parties and singles vacations.

Dating sites—like Lavalife, the No. 1 dating site in Canada with $100 million in annual revenue—exist for the general population, and many others for specialty markets, including Jews, Christians, gays and lesbians. There is even a site based in South Africa linking people who are HIV-positive.

Sam Moorcroft, creator and president of, said that as more and more people try internet dating and tell others of the normal people they meet there, stigmas surrounding this method continue to disappear. He said online dating is great for just about anyone—whether you live in a small town with few available singles, or a big city and have no idea how to narrow the field, the specific profiles on dating sites can help in the search. “We’re increasingly connected because of technology, but we’re also more disconnected,” he said. “I’m living proof that it works.” Moorcroft met his wife Pollyanna online. They are now the parents of twins.

Step Two: The perfect beginning

While cohabitation rates have shot up in the past decade or so, marriage rates have dropped substantially. In Canada, the marriage rate peaked at 10.6 per 1,000 population in 1941, but dropped to 5.0 in 2001, according to Statistics Canada.

By contrast, in 2001, 16 per cent of all Canadian couples were cohabiting. Quebec has Canada’s highest common-law rate, at 30 per cent. (Quebec also has the country’s highest divorce rate at 50 per cent.)

Despite popular opinion, living together before marriage is not a great test run before tying the knot. Anne-Marie Ambert, a sociology professor at York University and researcher at the Vanier Institute of the Family, recently published a report stating that couples who live together have lower expectations of sexual fidelity, are less supportive of each other, have a lesser ability to problem solve, are less religious and have a higher approval of divorce. She told the Record these attitudes increase the likelihood of divorce, and these findings are the same the world-over. According to her research, more than half of cohabitational unions dissolve within five years.

Denyer estimates about 90 per cent of the couples he marries are already living together—something he admits doesn’t always bode well for the long-term. “If you’re living together, it becomes problematic to call off the relationship, so you drift towards marriage. If you’re already sharing things and everyone expects you to get married and you’ve created dependencies, it’s hard to walk away from.

“Love is wonderful,” says Denyer, “but you need to take a good look at the relationship and analyze it in the cold, hard light of day. Too often, it seems like people are thinking, ‘we’ve been going out for so long, this is just the next step.'”

Barna Research (based in the United States), found that 25 per cent of born-again Christians and 37 per cent of Christians not classified as born-again lived together before getting married.

Step Three: The perfect relationship

Denyer said he probably marries an average of 20 couples each year. He does not offer marital counselling, but strongly recommends they take a pre-marital course and have a couple of sessions with a marriage counsellor. “There is a great deal of interest when I mention this,” he said, “but then many of them don’t do it—which is really stupid. They’ll spend a zillion dollars on the wedding, but they won’t spend the time and money on getting to know each other.”

Elizabeth Huss, a member of the Ontario Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and author of Love that Lasts: Personal Stories of Lasting Marriage, believes marriage can last a lifetime. In her book, she reveals her “secret ingredients” to make marriage work. Love, communication, intimacy, sex, passion, resolution of conflict, equality, shared values and humour are all imperative. “[Marriage] pulls and pushes you to grow as a person and as a couple,” writes Huss. “Marriage is for the brave, for people willing to risk the intensity and hard work of making a life together.”

With such noble requirements, it isn’t any wonder that couples are searching for help along the way. The Presbyterian Church does not offer its own pre-marital course. “The national church was involved in marriage enrichment programs in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Rev. John Henderson, minister at St. Andrew’s, Newmarket, Ont., and a licensed marriage and family therapist, “but now it’s right off the map.”

However, many ministers have either developed their own preparatory programs, or recommend an existing course. “I’ve made mine along the way,” said Henderson. “I’ve pulled ideas from everywhere!”


Henderson said there are three main areas that should be covered: attitude, behaviour and communication. He said if good communication is learned, couples are more likely to seek help if they run into difficulties later. “The process of talking and sharing are one of the most important things that happen. Teaching people to communicate on these issues is the long-lasting thing. It’s more important than the content.”

“Given the culture around the wedding day and the idea in society of the supremacy of romantic love, pre-marital counselling can help people step out of that ethos of our culture and begin to discuss with one another the things that are critical,” said Denyer.

Step Four: The perfect ceremony

In The Alternative Wedding Book, Mark and Eileen Summit list questions for a couple to consider when planning a ceremony that reflects their values:

  • What religious or spiritual symbolism conveys our belief about marriage and our joining together as a couple?
  • What beliefs, ideas or philosophy do we share?
  • What traditions are part of our family histories?
  • How can we best and most fully celebrate this spirit-filled decision?
  • Are there friends, support groups or faith communities we want to include?

Many devout couples are opting to highlight their faith in the ceremony—foregoing romantic notions of love for God-focused vows and incorporating what’s truly important to them as a couple. In The Bride’s Handbook: A Spiritual and Practical Guide for Planning your Wedding, author Amy J. Tol advises couples to celebrate God’s love for them and acknowledge His hand in their relationship.

Tol writes that vows should reflect commitment, loyalty, fidelity, respect and honour, a promise to fulfill marital roles and acknowledging they need God to accomplish these things.
Some wedding ideas that highlight the importance of faith, family and friends include:

  • Instead of tossing the bouquet to singles, give it to the couple who has been married the longest
  • Have a talented friend or family member write and perform an original song
  • Invite a congregation member to make a banner or quilt for the ceremony
  • Show your concern for the environment by making your own invitations from recycled paper and enlisting the talents of an artistic friend to decorate them
  • Ask guests to make a charitable donation in your name instead of giving gifts
  • Use potted plants to decorate the church or reception location—they last longer than flowers and can be donated to a hospital or nursing home after the event

Step Five: The perfect marriage

Christian marriages (particularly between evangelical Christians) have the same incidence of divorce of secular couples. According to 2001 figures from Barna Research, 33 per cent of married born-again individuals have gone through a divorce, which is nearly identical to the 34 per cent incidence among American non-born again adults.

Conservative Christian marriages that often focus on traditional roles for man and wife may run into conflicts. In such situations, Denyer said there is the possibility of the relationship becoming about power. “To think the relationship will get better because one has dominated the other person seems like a fallacy to me. Marriage is about intimacy and vulnerability and having a deeper relationship with each other. It’s about talking and truly listening to one another.”

Because about 38 per cent of marriages are expected to end in divorce by the 30th wedding anniversary, according to Statistics Canada, John Henderson believes that post-marital check-ups are an excellent resource for couples. The major shift that occurs after marriage is enough to shake up even strong relationships, and post-marital enrichment can help iron out any problems.
Couples generally seek counselling when there is already a problem that needs to be resolved, while marriage enrichment is used as a preventative measure to teach skills and to enhance the quality of the relationship. The church can play an integral role in this enrichment process.

The Presbyterian Church’s resources focus on parenting and overall family life. Dorothy Henderson, associate secretary for Christian education and ministry with children, youth and families, is also trained as a marriage enrichment facilitator. She recognizes the importance of supporting couples “at any stage and age” but sees the difficulties in this. “One of the things we must wrestle with is the awareness that, as a small denomination, we cannot do everything, so we simply focus on some things and try very hard to do them well.”

She realizes that when clergy are left on their own to find resources that will help couples, it may be easier to simply do nothing. She did say, however, that she would be happy to create some resources that pertain to married couples, and insert them in the May edition of the PCPak (the mailing sent out to congregations from the national church) and post them on the church’s website.
Denyer said he would like to see training in marital counselling at the church’s colleges, where the topic is virtually absent. He said while the colleges rely on internships to teach such things, this often becomes a case of “the blind leading the blind.” He also wondered if the annual courses offered to ministers as continuing education couldn’t be used to train clergy in pre-marital counselling and enrichment.

The United Church of Canada has developed several resources on marriage for clergy, congregations and individuals. Passion and Freedom is a marriage preparation and enrichment resource, and is available in a leader’s edition and a couples’ edition.

According to Jackie Harper, who works with family and seniors’ ministries at the United Church, Passion and Freedom is intended to provide worship leaders with resources to support couples through all the stages of their relationship: marriage preparation, marriage enrichment and loss and grief after death or divorce.

The church also publishes a family ministry kit containing a photocopy-ready resource entitled Marriage Matters. It is affiliated with United in Marriage—a weekend workshop intended to deepen and strengthen the relationships of married couples.

In the United States, couples can attend Presbyterian Marriage Encounter, which, according to their website, is “a weekend experience designed to give married couples the opportunity to examine their life together. The emphasis is on communication between husband and wife, who spend a weekend away from the distractions of everyday life, concentrating on each other.”

In conclusion

Marriage has always been complicated, but it is worth fighting for. According to the Christian Commitment Research Institute, married couples and those with a high level of religiosity report higher levels of happiness and wellbeing. CCRI also reports that virtually all forms of civil engagement are higher for married people, noting that the safety of a marital relationship gives a couple the desire and ability to extend one’s self into the community.

“If you want to bring the relationship back to a faith perspective, you have to think of Jesus of Nazareth,” said Denyer. “He was anti-power, and was about loving, caring and being compassionate. Jesus made himself vulnerable.”

Resources for families and parents from the national church:

STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting): Can be presented in a workshop format over several weeks. It comes in a series of videos which can be rented from the library at church offices

Family Table Talk: Things for parents to talk to their children about during meals

Advent devotional for families

Family resource table: Monthly resources for congregations to enrich family life

Learning Together: An intergenerational Sunday school program

Spirituality retreats for children and their parents or grandparents

Weekends Away: Intergenerational church retreats

The Family with Memory project: Ways that families can playfully memorize the great truths of the Christian faith

Dorothy Henderson, associate secretary for Christian Education and Ministry with Children, Youth and Families, is available to varying degrees to help congregations conduct workshops and seminars.

Visit the church’s website at and click on Christian Education for more information.

Counselling options

Ontario Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
will direct you to a therapist in your area.

Marriage Prep
a pre-marital weekend course in the Greater Toronto Area.

The RELATE Institute
an online questionnaire designed to help you understand how factors in your family life, personality and values, social interactions and relationships can affect your marriage.

Enrich Canada Inc.
provides questionnaires that can be administered to couples, and a program to help overcome identified challenges.

Marriage Encounter
for couples who are already married and want to deepen and strengthen their relationship.

FamilyLife Canada
for couples wanting to learn more about strengthening their marriage.

Family Life Ministries
offers seminars on all stages of marriage and family life for couples and clergy, and also offers resources targeting men.


About Amy MacLachlan

Amy MacLachlan is the Presbyterian Record's managing editor.