Ron Hall has a reputation at Valley Forge Christian College (Assemblies of God) in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and it has nothing to do with his work as graduate program director. The talk around campus for students headed toward marriage is that Hall will be the one - as premarital counselor - to slam on the brakes.
"Most people would forgo doing premarital counseling with Hall because he was open and honest, and had a reputation for telling couples that they didn't have the components for compatibility in a godly marriage relationship or that they were moving too quickly," says Valley Forge alum Jason Fullerton, 27, of Poughkeepsie, New York.
Hall has good reason to be cautionary.
Nearly half of first marriages end within 20 years, according to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics. One way to improve that statistic, Hall says, is to prevent incompatible or immature couples from marrying in the first place.
"My starting point is to try to talk a couple out of getting married," Hall says. "One of the ways I can feel like I accomplished something worthwhile in a semester is by talking a couple out of getting married who had no business being together. When Christians get divorced it reflects poorly on the community of faith."
Warning signs that a couple isn't ready for marriage include an inability to resolve conflict, a controlling attitude, hesitancy from people who know the couple well, and an unteachable spirit or lack of self-control.
To couples that believe physical attraction will carry them through a marriage, Hall says temptation won't disappear after the wedding ceremony.
"I dispel the idea that getting married solves temptation issues," Hall says.
"Premature physical connectedness skews and distorts the ability of a couple to see whether or not building blocks are present for a lifetime companionship."
Couples are marrying later in life than ever before (average 28.3 years of age for men, 25.8 years of age for women). Yet the added years of life experience before the wedding date are doing nothing to improve marital longevity.
Do the odds of a marriage lasting really compare to a coin toss?
According to experts, marriage isn't so much a gamble as it is hard work - and that work begins before the wedding day.
"Proper mate selection is the most important decision you'll ever make outside of your decision for Christ," says Barb Rosberg, co-author with her husband, Gary Rosberg, of 6 Secrets to a Lasting Love and other marriage books. "If you choose a spouse who loves God as much as you do, then you can achieve a great marriage if you're both on the same page.
"But we'd still talk about the need for understanding proper conflict resolution skills, the power of serving, the need to persevere, why we need to guard our hearts and minds, why we need to celebrate and renew our love. Each principle is based on an understanding of why you want to marry someone who loves Jesus Christ as much as you."
Research from the National Survey of Family Growth shows that factors in marriages reaching a 20-year anniversary usually include not cohabiting before marriage and spirituality being an important part of daily living. Couples who attend church together have more stable marriages, according to Bradford Wilcox, director of the national marriage project at the University of Virginia and the author of When Marriage Disappears.
While Hall agrees that marrying a Christian is a top requirement in mate selection, making that the key factor isn't enough. The building blocks of a lifetime companionship must be present. Chief among those, according to Hall, are how family is viewed, friendship, forgiveness, spirituality and philosophy of finances.
"One of the greatest things Dr. Hall did with us was to make sure we were aware of who we were individually, and how that impacts our relationship with each other," says Fullerton, who married his wife, Rita, in 2008. "He gave us the realization that we are both sinners saved by grace, and that we keep that in mind when we react and respond to each others' actions and words in our day-to-day relationship.
"That alone helped to make sure we don't just jump to the attack when we feel misunderstood, ignored or disrespected. It created a foundation from which we could more effectively and nicely communicate with each other."
Mark and Meagan Nicolet of Des Moines, Iowa, married in 2010, but the relationship work they did before didn't end on the wedding day. In fact, one of the most valuable lessons they learned, Mark says, is that investing in your marriage shouldn't stop.
"To learn the habit of talking about your marriage, praying through it, consulting with a third party, going through Scripture-based material - if you can invest in those habits early, you'll reap a lifelong, fulfilling marriage," says Meagan, 25.
The Nicolets and Fullertons are part of only a small slice of their generation (22 percent, according to the Pew Research Center) who are married. Only 30 percent of millennials (Americans born after 1980) rate successful marriage as very important to them, and 44 percent of millennials say marriage is becoming obsolete altogether.
Gary Rosberg says no-fault divorce that began in the 1960s and eventually became standard in every state helped denigrate marriage.
"Today's young people don't believe successful marriage can occur," Rosberg says. "They have few role models for healthy marriages."
That's something the Rosbergs are trying to change in part by coaching couples to tutor younger couples.
"Mentoring couples who are vulnerable, and who share their stories of hurts and successes in their own marriage, give the next generation the desire and courage to break through their fear of failed marriages," Gary Rosberg says.
Becky and Mark Rhoades, the national administrative couple for Assemblies of God Marriage Encounter, have noticed a trend among churches to use more mentoring couples for premarital counseling, rather than relying on the pastor alone.
"Many times the mentoring may continue several months past the wedding day," Becky says.
She likens failure to obtain premarital counseling to a baseball player skipping spring training.
"There are things about love that come naturally, but so much of it doesn't," Rhoades says. "That doesn't mean you can't stay married if you've had little instruction, but the learning curve can be not as steep. It can be easier."
"If we had skipped premarital counseling, we would have done a lot more fumbling and fighting, and probably struggled to stay invested," Rita Fullerton says. "Godly counsel is imperative when making life-altering decisions, and marriage changes your life."
Author: Jocelyn Green, Pentecostal Evangel