Hitched: Should We Go To Premarital Counseling?

The State of Texas, beautiful and God-blessed land led by the white conservative men Jesus always intended it to be led by, rewards people who go to premarital counseling. The prize? You get to waive your license fee and don’t have a three-day waiting period between obtaining the license and getting married.

I discovered this fun new law while checking out marriage licenses generally, and learned that as of March 1, 2011, Texans getting married can either pay an increased fee for a license or get their asses to a counselor for an eight-hour course that will allow them to waive it.

The program is called, barfily enough, Twogether in Texas. I figured hey, if we can waive the fee and get counseling, that might be kind of cool. Of course, it’ll have to be free counseling because otherwise, there’s no money saved in waiving the fee. And we’re sure not paying a stranger hundreds of dollars to tell us we love each other and agree on major life issues like children (not for us, thanks), money (let’s make a reasonable amount of it and share it with each other) and religion (we’ll pass). Duh. That’s why we’re getting married.

So no, we hadn’t really considered premarital counseling before, at least not after that one time Patrick’s mom suggested we go to Catholic premarital counseling because if there’s anybody who knows a bunch about building strong marriages, it’s people who’ve taken lifelong vows of celibacy, am I right y’all?

But seriously. Patrick’s mom, who for the record is a lovely woman and I’m really looking forward to being her daughter-in-law, does not attend church. For reasons she couldn’t totally articulate, she just wanted us to go to church counseling, even though she also knows neither Patrick nor I attend church. She said it did a lot for her marriage to Patrick’s dad. They’re divorced.

Patrick and I had a good laugh about it, shrugging it off as just one of those things people feel like they can get all up in your business about because you’re getting married. No harm, no foul, no religious premarital counseling for us.

Until the State of Texas was all, hey, how about some religious premarital counseling? To be clear, the Twogether in Texas program is not explicitly religious, but the vast majority of free providers are ministers and pastors.

I looked up every free provider within 40 miles of our home and e-mailed every last one of them, explaining that we had just five weeks until our wedding but we were still interested in taking the course if they could fit us in. No low-cost or free non-religious counselors could see us — one community-based family counseling service told me they’d just lost their grant for this precise thing. But a few religious institutions said they could help us.

And one really sweet lady from a church politely chewed my ass out for not contacting her sooner and suggested I move my wedding date to take her course, that is, if I wanted my marriage “to be durable and fulfilling.”

So, off to a good start.

Throughout the process of e-mailing with various pastors of Edgy Font Christian Church and Sunrise Bible Explosion Fellowship and the like, I started to get kind of a creepy feeling. Because I couldn’t imagine religious-based premarital counseling being much more than a series of arguments with a probably very well-meaning Christian person. If we can’t agree with a counselor on the fundamentals — say, that the Bible is a good place to go to for advice on marriage — how could we move forward to talking about anything else?

Patrick and I are not anti-religious folks. We’re not even atheists. We’re firmly agnostic. We both were deeply religious as teenagers and as adults, found that our respective organized religions had little to offer us. Right now, most of the religious teaching in our lives comes from one Dr. Gaius Balthar.

I didn’t want to go through premarital counseling for the hell of it, or even do it just to get a great Hitched column out of it. I especially did not want to do religious premarital counseling just for the hell of it, wherein it would become clear, very quickly, that not only are Patrick and I not on the same page as someone who believes in a Biblical base for marriage, we are not even on the same planet. Unless I haven’t showered, I don’t consider myself unclean because I menstruate, and submission sounds like a fun sex game, but I don’t consider it an integral part of the role I will play as Patrick’s wife. New Testament or Old, even in the most liberal interpretations of the Bible, I am not a huge fan of what the big book says about women. I know there are feminist Christians out there, and I respect their theology and beliefs. But I’m simply not one of them.

In fact, I felt like I had too much respect for everyone’s beliefs — mine and Patrick’s, as well as the religious counselors I was e-mailing with — to go through some farce of a counseling program just to get a $60 marriage discount. I mean seriously, one place wanted us to sign a “Purity Covenant” before attending counseling. If the first thing a premarital counselor wants to tell me is “Stop screwing your fiancé,” we are not starting from a place of mutual understanding. We are starting from a place of “give me a fucking break. No, not that kind of fucking break!”

But I was genuinely disappointed that I couldn’t find free resources as easily as Christian folks could. Premarital counseling sounded like it might be kind of fun and eye-opening — however, if Patrick and I wanted  it fast and free , we’d have to go the church route. And the more we looked into it, the ickier that became. Many churches I talked to use curriculum called PREPARE/ENRICH, from “Life Innovations,” which is affiliated with all manner of extreme conservative folks, including famously homophobic Focus on the Family. (And because Life Innovations is so romantic, they also produced this helpful brochure directed at corporate America wherein they educate companies on how married workers will increase their corporate profits. I’m not saying I’m surprised that happily married people do better at work, but I am saying please, please, do not ply me into marriage by making me part of your corporate plot to increase Chick-Fil-A’s revenue. There are so many good reasons to get married, but more chicken tenders is not one of them.)

These churches wanted us to pay $30 for the PREPARE/ENRICH curriculum, so we’d be giving money to religious groups that actively go counter to our deepest personal and political beliefs. Thanks, but no thanks.

I was stumped. If the (presumably secular) government wants people to get premarital counseling, shouldn’t they load us up with some secular counseling options? If they want to strengthen marriages, shouldn’t they want to strengthen all marriages — Christian or otherwise? Is the point of “Twogether in Texas” to strengthen marriage, or is the point to shore up conservative Christian values and beliefs so that people who share those beliefs reap governmental benefits more easily than those who don’t?

In practice, it really feels like the latter — especially since the sponsor of the “Twogether in Texas” bill is one Warren Chisum,  a champion of conservatism and anti-gay rights in my fair state. In fact, he’s been called our “most powerful fundamentalist.” In Texas, that’s really, really saying something.

At the end of the work day on which I’d discovered the “Twogether in Texas” program, Patrick and I sat down with a couple of beers and a cheese plate and admitted that we’d both felt increasingly skeeved out by the implications of the program, despite our early openness to its possibilities.

Might we do a counseling thing in the future? Maybe. But we won’t do it because the State of Texas rewards us for it. We’ll do it with a counselor we trust whose beliefs are aligned with our own.

In the meantime, we’re going to go finish “Battlestar Galactica.”

I do? So say we all.

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