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Couples address issues in UGA premarital counseling

By Merritt Melancon | merritt.melancon@onlineathens.com
Story updated at 11:47 PM on Thursday, February 14, 2008

When Judy Jackson married her best friend Michael 16 years ago, they thought they knew pretty much everything about each other, but it turns out they had a lot more to learn.

"There's always something that you can do better," Judy Jackson said. "There's always something you can learn."

Last year, she and Michael went through a three-weekend marriage enrichment program sponsored by the University of Georgia. They never had considered counseling, but they agreed to be one of 500 couples participating in a research project called the Program for Strong African American Marriages.

They learned listening and problem-solving skills they wish they'd had as newlyweds, Judy said.

"It was a really good experience," Michael said. "And I would say for young people who are planning to get married, it would really help them to be able to face the problems of that first year - without having to learn everything by trial and error."

Since 2005, the state of Georgia has encouraged engaged couples to participate in relationship enrichment programs like the one the Jacksons followed by giving a discount on the price of a marriage license in exchange for six hours of premarital counseling.

Still, only about half of Athens-Clarke County couples qualify for the $35 discount on their $57 license fee, said Pam Middlebrooks, clerk of marriages in the Athens-Clarke County Magistrate Court.

And the percentage who take advantage of the deal statewide is less than that, said Ted Futris, a UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences Professor trying to spread the word about premarital enrichment classes. Only about one in 10 of the brides he talks to knows about the program.

"But the true benefits of going through the program outweigh the $35 savings," he said.

Futris has started a UGA-based, discounted premarital counseling program for Oglethorpe, Oconee and Athens-Clarke County residents, which will run throughout the spring.

He hopes several counties in Georgia eventually will offer counseling similar to his program. Once more couples have access to comprehensive premarital counseling, the state's marriage license discount initiative will gain a foothold, Furtis said. In the end, fewer couples will get divorced, he said.

During the six sessions, the $30 course covers everything from child-rearing philosophies to money-management styles to dealing with in-laws. "After marriage, you are not going to change your spouse," Futris said. "If someone doesn't want to have children, they're not going to change their mind after five years of marriage. During the course (the couples) identify those things that they agree on, what they may need to make some decisions on in the future and how to communicate about those issues."

Some couples discover that they do, in fact, have serious issues to work out before they get married, Futris said.

"For some couples you want to say, 'Your wedding date's in three weeks, are you sure you want to go through with this?' " he said. "But it's better to identify the problems before you get married. Usually the couple is so committed to each other that they say, 'Hey let's work these things out.' "

Futris recommends that couples take counseling before they send out wedding invitations, so they have time to identify and discuss any problems they might find.

"Once those invitations go out," he said. "It's much harder to back out of it or push the date back."

Couples seeking more information on this program can visit http://www.gamarriages.org/.

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 02/14/08

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