David Busby illustration
Jim and Heather Covais were raised very differently. Jim comes from a strong nuclear family; Heather's parents divorced when she was 6. That's one reason the two decided to go through marriage mentoring.
"We wanted to firm up our beliefs on how we would raise children," Heather explains. "We wanted to set our values as a couple and talk about issues that might affect us down the road."
The Covaises aren't alone in their thought process. More and more couples are opting for premarital counseling or mentoring as a way to help ensure a long, healthy relationship. Recently, the Rev. Joel Morgan of Westminster Presbyterian on Monument Avenue has had more couples come to him for premarital counseling than to have him officiate their weddings. "They want to start off well, and they want someone to help them do that," he says. "I think that is pretty noble."
In their sessions, the Covaises were mentored by Pam and Gilpin Brown, who have been married 44 years. The Browns became mentors after going through two training programs, one of which was presented by First Things First of Greater Richmond, a nonprofit that offers pre-marriage and marriage enrichment education.
The Browns have mentored more than 30 couples in the last 10 years using an online relationship inventory called Prepare/Enrich that covers all aspects of marriage. They meet with a couple six to eight times.
"We point out what the inventory shows as far as strengths and growth areas," Gilpin Brown explains. "We will go through exercises where they practice communicating. Pam and I share our struggles with them and how we handled those struggles as we go through the process."
One of the factors in a relationship that many couples overlook is the impact of in-laws. "You are not just marrying the person, you are marrying a family and the expectations in the family," Morgan says.
In counseling, couples learn not only about family interactions but also about intimate communications — not only sex, but the feelings and thoughts you share only with your spouse. "Because we are intimate beings, we need intimacy on all kinds of levels," Morgan says. "If we are not meeting those needs at home, we will find them somewhere."
In some instances, counseling can reveal roadblocks. Pastor Wayne Mancari of Cornerstone Assembly of God in Chester has recommended to some couples during premarital sessions that they wait another year before marrying.
The majority of couples Mancari counsels get married and stay married; only six out of 237 decided to part ways.
Couples who want Rabbi Martin P. Beifield Jr. of Congregation Beth Ahabah to marry them are required to go through premarital counseling.
"We talk mostly about their parents' marriage," he says.
Beifield also discusses subjects such as arguing, conflict and affection, focusing on "areas where there is divergence."
Heather Covais confesses that she found premarital mentoring to be demanding because it goes into such depth. "It shows you the heart of the issues and the strengths you have," she says. "It does involve effort, but it is well worth it."