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I should've told you so: if you think your daughter's fiance is a future felon, should you speak your mind or hold your tongue? Don't clam up but proceed with caution, advise the experts.

Ellen and Barrett are engaged to be married, and their families are happy about it. Both of them have been engaged before, though, and both families had problems with the former fiances. "My folks didn't trust her," Barrett says. "My folks hated him!" Ellen adds.

Fortunately these two did not continue the relationships to unhappy marriages, but too many couples do, and too many families and friends find it hard to speak up about their concerns. It's a big problem, especially as mounting research indicates that the first years of marriage are the most divorce-prone. How do you tell your child or sibling or friend that you see problems in the relationship they have with their intended?

Ann married her college boyfriend. She's a "can do" woman and believed her energy and enthusiasm was enough to drive the marriage. And it might have, if her new husband hadn't cheated on her and given her a sexually transmitted disease.

Her parents were never crazy about their son-in-law because they didn't think he cherished their daughter. When asked what was good about him, her mother's response was, "He takes a shower."

But she never shared her feelings with her daughter because she wanted to support her daughter's decision. It ended with a lot of heartbreak, expense, and guilt on the part of the parents who did not speak up. "Our friends told us that kids don't listen to their parents anyway, so it's best not to say anything," her mother says. "I would do it differently if I had it to do over."

Dennis was bright, strong, good-looking, and capable. He was also five years younger than Amanda and not as emotionally mature. Amanda thought she could bring him along. Her friends saw the maturity difference between them as a difficult gap to bridge but hesitated to tell her because she seemed so happy and optimistic about the relationship. When it did end, it was hard to be properly sympathetic because it seemed Amanda had been fooling herself all along.

The postscript is that Dennis and Amanda got back together, and now the friends who told her what they thought of him after their breakup are having to backpedal. They still believe the relationship is doomed, but until Amanda thinks so there's not much more they can do.

Love can be blind

Bridget Brennan, a marriage educator from St. Louis, leads discernment classes for couples who are trying to figure out where their relationship is going. The classes help couples determine if they have a future together and if their requirements for a relationship are being met. Brennan defines "requirements" as the nonnegotiables, the things that, if missing, will cause trouble down the road.

For example, if you want someone to share your faith life and your dating partner isn't interested in church or spirituality, that could be a problem. Or if you love the outdoors and your partner prefers being inside, you need to decide if you can live with that. Some couples are compatible but not on the same page when it comes to marriage. If that is the case, then you either have to decide you're willing to wait or you need to leave. Getting married when one person doesn't want to is a chancy proposition.

Whether or not to have children is another important thing to agree on. Some couples go into marriage disagreeing on how many children to have, but that can be negotiated along the way. (Some of that is out of our hands, anyway. Consider the husband wanting one child who winds up with twins.)

Many marriage educators believe it is important for others to reflect what the relationship looks like from the outside. A person who believes he or she is in love can be blind to things that are obvious to others. The person they are in love with may be a fine person, just not a good match for them.

If a woman who says she's looking for a kind, intelligent, good-humored man finds those qualities in a person, she may be tempted to overlook incompatibilities because he meets her stated criteria for a mate. He may have a hard time telling the truth or be a sports fanatic or eat only junk food. Too many differences may be hard to ignore, and it's wise not to close your eyes to them.

Brennan points to the "Lone Ranger" phenomenon, refering to couples who spend all their time alone together, cutting themselves off from friends and family. This sometimes is a way to avoid facing what others think about one's partner. This isolation can also be a sign of an abusive relationship. If this is a concern, it is important to find a way to address it.

"In a healthy relationship," Brennan says, "friends and family can see that the person you are dating brings out your positive qualities. In a healthy relationship we are loved into being who we would never be apart from each other."

Cause for concern

Wendy was engaged to Theo, a man she'd met in college. They were a few years out of school when they reconnected. Wendy thought she knew him well because of their time in school. Her mother, Alice, didn't think they were a good match. She didn't like the way his father dominated his mother, but she found no particular behavior in Theo that she could point to.

As the wedding neared, though, Wendy came to her mother and said she was alarmed by Theo's possessiveness. One day she bumped into an old friend, a man she had never dated. They had coffee together. When Wendy came home and told Theo about it, he went into a rage. Alice could then tell Wendy about her feelings, and how the pattern she had seen in Theo's parents worried her.

"I wanted to be accepting," Alice says. "I was afraid I was just being snobbish because his family wasn't as educated as ours."

James Healy, a marriage therapist and director of family ministry of the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, suggests that when addressing a family member or friend's troubling relationship, tell them, "I'm not seeing the same happiness in you that I'm used to seeing." It could be an aspect of the person's personality that you find has been diminished in the relationship, whether it is their sense of mission, their creativity, or any other positive qualities.

Another approach is to say, "I have some concerns about the relationship you're in. Do you want me to share them with you or keep them to myself?"

This puts the ball in the other person's court; they can choose to hear your concerns or not. In the meantime, you have already indicated your concern.

Siblings may share the same concerns as parents, especially in a close family. In one situation, a man was dating someone his siblings were concerned about. His sister said, "If she's Dave's choice, we'll learn to love her."

Choose your words wisely

Of course, for parents, sometimes there is no one good enough for their child. Other parents might resist a partner who may take them far away. So it is important for those who are looking at the relationship to examine their own motives. After that, if you still think that you are looking at an unhealthy relationship, here are some principles to consider when speaking to your child, sibling, or friend.

Be respectful: Remember that the person you're addressing is an adult who has every right to make his or her own choices. So choose your words carefully. You don't want to trigger a defensive response such as, "I don't care what you think. I know what's best for me."

When her brother announced that he was planning to be married, Susan was concerned. Not only was he just 21, but he'd known his fiancee for just six months. Though they were a very private family, Susan took him aside and told him she thought he was rushing into marriage. She added that she really liked the young woman he was planning to marry but that she thought they needed more time to get to know each other. "I know how great it is to have someone to play harmonica to your kazoo," she told him, "but it won't hurt to take time to make sure you're playing the same tune." A little corny, perhaps, but her message was honest, caring, and brave.

Be positive: Telling someone that you never liked their current partner is not the best approach, even if it's true. Zero in on the qualities you admire in the person you're speaking to. Your subtle message is that the person they're dating does not seem to feed those qualities. You might also name some positive qualities in the partner. She may be smart, hardworking, and talented but still not be a good match for him. He may be funny, helpful, and brave but not necessarily mature. Relationships are not just about keeping score of good attributes. They are about the whole picture, which is sometimes hard to define.

Be concrete: If you can, detail events that have led to your misgivings: the time she left him at her family's house while she went to see an old boyfriend, the time he drank too much then wanted to drive home. Even less dramatic events, like the way he corrects her grammar and interrupts her, can be illustrative. Using specific events builds your case.

Use "I" statements: Just as you do when addressing sticky situations in your own relationship, use "I" statements. "I'm concerned by what I'm seeing ..." By telling the person what you observe or feel, you come across as less judgmental. The best any of us can do is report what we are thinking, seeing, or feeling. We don't know the relationship from the inside. We can only report what we see.

Offer a suggestion: Find out if a discernment workshop is offered nearby and suggest that they consider taking time to examine their relationship in that kind of setting. Also, there are several premarital inventories, such as FOCCUS and PREPARE/ENRICH, that help couples focus on specific aspects of their relationship. Churches often provide them, but family counseling agencies may also do so. These assessment tools ask a series of questions that help couples to explore areas they may not have addressed while dating.

Finally, let your friend, child, or relative know that it's never too late to change their mind. The "runaway bride" story last year about a Georgia woman who Left town a few days before her wedding illustrates what can happen when a decision about marriage is based more on how much money has been spent or how embarrassing it would be to pull out than about the strength of the relationship. She chose an extreme method of letting everyone know she wasn't ready to get married. The news reported that the groom's father advised him not to rush into marrying the young woman--mild advice considering the pain she had caused him. Engagement used to be considered a time of discernment. In the marriage preparation program we run in our church, couples are asked to consider it that way.

Every year, it seems, at least one couple will decide to call off or postpone their wedding during the course of the seven-week program. Sometimes they begin to realize what it takes to have a lifelong, committed relationship and recognize that they aren't there yet. It causes much less pain to have the decision made before the wedding, even if they are already engaged.

Not unlike a more familiar adage, it takes a village to raise a marriage. Honest, respectful feedback couples get from those who know and love them is essential for them to better see and understand their own relationship. A person may be able to hear from a friend what they cannot hear from a family member.

Keeping the best interest of the couple in mind, don't be afraid to speak up. Even though one or the other--or both--may be hurt for a while, it beats the pain and disillusionment of divorce. Nobody profits when people who aren't ready for marriage or who aren't suited for one another marry.

KATHY BEIRNE and her husband, Steve, are the founding editors of Foundations Newsletter for Newly Married Couples, which they have published since 1993 ( The Beirnes also have established a marriage education coalition to support marriages in and around Portland, Maine. Last names of sources in this story have been omitted at their request.
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Author:Beirne, Kathy
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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