By Jessica Wiant - firstname.lastname@example.org
Couples have lots to think about when planning a wedding: the cake, flowers, bridal party, dress, hairdo, guest list and more.
Across denominations, local religious leaders stress that couples need to think not just about the wedding but also the marriage.
"It's what I will tell anybody, anywhere," St. Paul Lutheran Church interim pastor Russ Siler says: Get in touch with your church or pastor at the very beginning of the planning process.
In most cases, engaged couples will have their wedding ceremony officiated by a pastor or other religious figure. These leaders also often provide some type of pre-marital counseling, ranging anywhere from a conversation before the ceremony to a series of sessions or a weekend retreat with other couples.
Siler says it's important to start that process before even setting a date or announcing an engagement to the rest of the world.
It's up to each couple whether to go through with marriage, he says, but he usually encourages them in three to six sessions to examine themselves and ask the right questions to determine if marriage is right for them.
Some of the things he'll go over are the shared interests and values of the couple, how they relate to each other, what their plans and dreams are and how they plan to handle differences and difficulties that will occur in the marriage.
"As much as we love marriage to be all about romance, it's not," he says.
The key thing, he stresses for couples, is to begin asking those questions early on and not wait until the opportunity passes.
Rabbi Scott Sperling, of Beth El Congregation in Winchester, agrees that when meeting with engaged couples, it's less about telling and more about asking questions, exploring basic issues to gauge whether the couple is ready for marriage. Do they have common values, aspirations and goals? Have they explored the big issues, like when to start a family, what their professional goals are, and where they'll live?
Sperling also points out that it's important to have a discussion about the spiritual dimension of the future marriage, including whether the couple share the same basis for their faith and how that faith will affect their family.
Sperling says it is important that a couple think about issues like the "December dilemma," or how holidays will be celebrated, perhaps especially when there is more than one religious background involved.
Topics like these can be "complicated, emotion-frought rocky shoals," but must be addressed, and it is better to establish a pattern of communication early on in a marriage, according to Sperling.
A lack of communication, he says, can later lead to serious, divisive issues.
Meeting with a religious leader before marriage, he says, gives couples a chance to address those big issues and spot any early trouble.
Father Wilhelm Ettner, of St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Woodstock, also stresses the importance of communication. Preparing for marriage at his church usually involves about six months and a weekend getaway with other couples, as well as a compatibility test and meeting with the priest, according to Ettner.
Potential problems he points out include lack of emotional maturity and ignorance of the church's teachings or lack of participation in church life.
For Keith Warren, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church, the most important thing for engaged couples to hear is that they need to know Christ as their personal savior. Marriage is built on that, he says, and from there the most important thing is commitment.
"Secondly is honor," he says. Men should honor their wives, as the Bible says, he points out.
Like the other religious leaders, he says communication is an important factor for marriage. In his experience, he says, couples go through phases of communication -- starting with a honeymoon period where they tend to avoid conflict, followed by an intimate stage and then a conflict stage.
"Probably No. 1 thing is don't play the blame game," he says, and finally, "Forgiveness is very, very vital."
The Bible says love keeps no record of wrongdoing, he says.
While communication is a key force, Warren also points to finances as the "second germ that will kill a marriage."
He says he does discuss how to control finances with couples, giving two rules to live by: the first, to never borrow money for a depreciating item. Second, "It's not a bargain if you don't need it."
At the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Shenandoah Valley, the interim pastor, the Rev. Lyn Plumb, says choosing the wedding ceremony helps couples think about what marriage will mean to them. In talking with couples before marriage, she stresses commitment, and gives them several choices for different elements of the wedding ceremony, putting the responsibility on them to figure out what readings and rituals are best suited for them.
Sometimes couples get lost in the logistics of a wedding and forget about their core values because of it, she says. Two pieces of advice she gives include to always be open, honest and respectful, and to always be willing to seek help when it's needed, be it from a minister, relative or marriage counselor.
"It's hard for people to remain in a good marriage without a lot of help," she says.