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COLUMN ONE

It Must Be Love, but Let's Be Sure

Couples these days are undergoing counseling to see whether they should get engaged. In the divorce-heavy South, churches recommend it.

May 21, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

DUNWOODY, Ga. — It was almost romantic when Doreen McDonald and Lee Rainwater sat down to take psychological tests together.

Some things they knew. He knew he was smitten the first time he saw her, at a church-sponsored lecture on "Love, Sex and Relationships." She knew she loved talking to him so much that once they stood in a parking lot for a full hour, unable to end the conversation, while cars came and went around them.

So after six months of dating, they went to their church to begin a systematic inquiry: Should he ask her to marry him? Should she say yes?

Increasingly, couples are seeking out "pre-premarital" or "pre-engagement" counseling -- the opportunity to sit down with trained advisors to examine, dispassionately, whether their love is a passing fancy. This step, though still rare, is on the rise across the country. In the South, the most religious and divorce-prone part of the country, many churches have begun to recommend it.

In seminar halls or living rooms, dating couples practice the art of the painful conversation, face cold realities about sex and money, and catalog childhood traumas that might leak into their married lives. They examine printouts summarizing their psychological makeups and the weaknesses -- sorry, "growth areas" -- of their relationships.

It may not be the kind of love story found in Hollywood movies, but pre-premarital counseling responds to a yearning for a more reliable path to marriage. Using tools from social science, it aims to prepare the partners for conflict, prevent unions based on blind impulse -- and, ultimately, reduce a divorce rate as high for religious couples as for other Americans.

"What we're trying to teach couples is: This is romantic," said Rob Eagar, an Atlanta author and lecturer on Christian dating.

For Lee, a dark-haired, gregarious former Marine, the relationship raced along like quicksilver. The 28-year-old spotted Doreen in a crowd, surrounded by hundreds of people, and watched her, thinking he might never see her again. She was ivory-skinned, green-eyed, friendly and shy at the same time. He knew he wanted to marry her before he knew her name.

Doreen was the one who hesitated and wondered. In one conversation soon after they met -- a joke between them now -- Doreen, 31, explained brightly that there were a lot of pretty girls in their church group and it would be premature to focus his attention on just one. She dismissed him coldly in church one Sunday and spent the next week worrying that he would not approach her again.

Lee ignored Doreen's standoffish comments. He had a feeling there was room to maneuver.

"I wasn't pursuing her nonstop," he says, "but I just didn't really listen to what she was saying."

The following Sunday, he asked her with a twinkle in his eye if this was the week she would talk to him. Not long after that, she stepped in shyly to watch him play basketball at the church and got hit in the face with the ball, leaving a cut on her nose and her glasses swinging wildly from one ear. She remembers babbling nervously through their first date, at Starbucks.

Six months later, around the time that Lee half-seriously invited her to elope with him to Las Vegas, Doreen floated her own suggestion -- counseling. Before long, they were signing up to take the Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis and the PREPARE Relationship Inventory, psychological tests designed to measure such indicators as Idealistic Distortion, Sexual Relationship and Equalitarian Qualities. PREPARE has 80% to 85% accuracy in predicting which couples will eventually divorce, according to David Olson, the University of Minnesota researcher who developed it.

Lee wrote out a check for $75 and they sat down in front of the answer forms. It felt, somehow, like they were jumping off a cliff.

"We just kind of looked at each other," Doreen said. "This was a moment. It was like, 'This is real, we're going to take this step to see if we want to get engaged.' "

*

All over the country, social conservatives are examining marriage with a scientific eye. While the Bush administration touts traditional marriage as a centerpiece of its social policy, the country's highest divorce rates are in Bible Belt states such as Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas. The lowest rate -- 2.4 divorces a year per 1,000 inhabitants -- is found in Massachusetts.

A movement is afoot to rethink the structures around marriage. Lawmakers in Arkansas, Louisiana and Arizona have passed bills creating "covenant marriage," a contract between bride and groom that limits grounds for divorce to extreme conditions including adultery and abuse. Lawmakers in Florida, Arizona, Tennessee, Maryland and Minnesota have passed bills offering a financial incentive for couples who attend counseling or marital education before they marry. In the conservative heartland, couples counseling, offered at many churches, has become ordinary.

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