Competence for Marriage

Why does marriage require greater relationship competence now? How can marriage education reach more people? And how can we develop a strategy to do this?

 The Need for Greater Relationship Competence

The use of the word 'competence' in this context probably strikes some readers as a little jarring. Is it really an appropriate word to use? It might bring to mind those who advocate limiting marriage to those whom society 'deems fit' to be married. In any case, how much competence does anyone really have for such a thing? There is something to be said for such objections, but nevertheless there is a reality that needs to be addressed, whether one uses the word 'competence' or some other.

In the Catholic Church, most places now require couples intending to be married to do some kind of marriage preparation course. This usually tends to be quite limited, but it nevertheless sends a signal that marriage is something serious and is not to be undertaken lightly. But even with the most well developed pre-marriage education there is only so much that can be learned in advance. Most marriage education has to be 'on the job' training.

So why does marriage require greater competence now?

There are two key reasons. The first is this - a significant measure of what was once supplied by the closeness of community and the strength of culture now needs to be supplied by the spouses themselves. People are thrown back onto their own resources to a greater extent than was common in the past. The second reason is this - people now have higher aspirations for the relational-emotional-sexual dimension of marriage than was customary, even in the fairly recent past.

The first of these requires that married couples engage more intentionally in the communal-cultural contexts that could provide greater support and encouragement for married life. The second requires that married couples seek more intentionally to develop the knowledge, skills and habits that more strongly foster the growth and sustenance of intimacy.

The first calls for greater involvement and the second for greater competence. The two are closely related, because most couples are unlikely to be able to find all they need from within their own resources. The development of greater 'relationship competence' depends on the help and support of others.

All this means that as a community, and especially as a church community, we need a much clearer and higher awareness of this changed situation. This realisation needs to permeate the social consciousness so that people come to simply take for granted the need for such higher involvement and competence.

In order for this to happen, those called to be leaders in this mission will need resourcing. The first stage of this involves new ideas. Once enough people start thinking differently then common action can emerge.

Celebration is the Key

Those currently involved in the field of marriage education are usually kept very busy preparing and running workshops, retreats and courses for engaged and married couples.  In the terms I've used above, they are predominantly focused on the 'competence' question, which I am using broadly to include theological and spiritual matters as well as practical relationship matters. Their great hope is that more people would avail themselves of these services.

Yet the numbers are fairly small, and the amount of involvement fairly limited, at least compared to the scale of the need as identified above. So what is needed to move things forward?

I am convinced that the key to much greater involvement is celebration.

What do I mean by that?

Education exists as one part of the dynamic relation between education and culture. Culture is primary, and is 'the thing itself' and education exists to serve culture. Culture is the ordinary way of being of a people, and at its heart is celebration. Celebration is an expression of the joy of being. What is it that makes us happy? What makes us feel that life is good and meaningful? What is the beauty that embodies the hope of life?

Even though education contributes to culture, especially by sustaining and guiding its essential meaningfulness, it is also limited by the culture as it exists. The principle that gives rise to culture is different from that which gives rise to education. Not only that, the broader meaning of 'education' is in fact simply the richness of the soil of culture which leads to 'learning through celebration'. The richer the soil of the culture the more people will learn 'by osmosis'. It refers to what is 'caught' rather than 'taught'.

The more overtly educational mission helps to make up for what might be lacking or diminished in culture, or in danger of being lost. Education helps to save a culture from falling into mediocrity and superficiality. Nevertheless, for education to be successful it needs a reasonably healthy culture as its 'dialogue partner'.

The Need for a Culture of Complementarity

In order for marriage education to find its rightful place there needs to be, not only a 'culture of marriage' but a 'culture of complementarity'. This culture will exist mainly in and through celebration. This will include customs and manners, dance, music, theatre, poetry and all forms of art. A culture of complementarity will attract people because of its beauty, its humour, its vitality, its meaningfulness.

It is this kind of culture that we need to develop so that marriage education can fulfil its proper role and reach many more people. As the culture develops and becomes more enriched it can also open up more targeted opportunities for education. People are more motivated to seek new skills and understanding when they have more concrete reasons for doing so.

Simply trying to 'sell' people on how important it is won't make much headway.

But when people are already enjoying something they can more readily be led to ask the questions that create the openings for education.

When I speak of the 'culture' I am not speaking primarily of a national or world-wide mass culture. I am speaking of the culture that people create themselves in local communities. It should look to draw on the best of what is available from elsewhere, but it needs to be made one's own. As an aside, we can note an existing example in local musical societies that take on a well known musical production and produce it locally. Musical theatre is a marvellous way to foster a culture of complementarity, provided suitable musicals can be found or composed. The same goes for theatre of other kinds, as well as varied forms of 'after dinner entertainment' that could be performed at couples' dinners.

Outline of a Strategy

Let us say that in a particular community, such as a church parish or congregation, a 'couples group' is established to try and foster a culture of complementarity and a habit of ongoing marriage education. One of the big challenges such a group faces is - what will we do when we gather? What will we talk about?

A common approach is to try and hold a regular gathering of some kind, perhaps a BBQ or a dinner. Let's say such a group begins holding a series of such dinners. At first there is a certain novelty that keeps the momentum going, but after a while it's likely to become difficult to think of how to make it interesting. If this question is not solved the group will most likely die out.

The first step that could be taken is to move beyond the simple socialising stage and begin a more intentional sharing process. This can begin simply enough by having some kind of 'sharing game' at the dinner. For example, each couple is asked to share how they first met, or an embarrassing moment from when they were dating, or a quiz to test each spouse's knowledge of his or her spouse's interests and preferences. (There is a whole TV show based on this very premise.) This type of thing is a good start, but of course it depends on leadership, and ideas.

A second step would be to introduce a time for dancing after dinner. This can be very informal, and held in the host couple's house easily enough. It only needs to be some quiet waltz towards the end of the evening.

A third step would be to introduce some form of 'after dinner entertainment'. It is usually best if it tends towards light-hearted, and can often draw on the perennial differences between men and women that cause some tension in marriage, as well as being somewhat amusing when portrayed happening to some characters in a skit, for example.

A fourth step would be to have some more serious talks in which a particular couple shares something of the challenges they experience in their relationship. This is more difficult, but if there are some who are prepared to do it, then it can be quite powerful. If it is not possible at the time to find someone willing to do that, an outside speaker can be invited.

There are other ideas too. On a special occasion such as St Valentine's Day each of the men could stand up and recite a love poem to his wife. Or it could be a short statement professing his love for her. Doing this in a public setting adds to its power. Importantly it opens up opportunities such as a men's get together in preparation, where they can help and encourage each other.

A couple could act out a humorous skit representing some common situation in marriage. This can lead on to discussions, both in the group, and privately by couples later on. If no one can be found to perform such a skit, or as a variation, an outside troupe could be invited. If this kind of thing develops, such troupes could become another option for those drawn to acting and performing.

As such practices develop the demand would help to increase the supply of suitable material and people. There is also scope for singers at such occasions.


I hope this brief introduction to strategy gives the reader enough ideas to see how such an approach could work to attract many people who would otherwise not turn up to 'educational events'. Such dinners can also be done periodically on a larger scale to draw in more couples, who can then be encouraged to further involvement.

From a core group and simple beginnings such a strategy can expand to include dances, theatre and all kinds of cultural gatherings. It can also lead on to more specifically spiritual events such as retreats and church celebrations.

The more specifically educational events can then be seen in this fuller cultural and spiritual context, and draw on a larger pool of people. Even if many couples never become 'regulars' they can still benefit from feeling welcome, and from being involved from time to time.