It's the issues engaged couples fail to work out when talking about their future married life that can cause big problems later on – just the kind of issues the FOCCUS Couple Inventory seeks to bring out into the open well before the wedding day.
By being awakened to unresolved and potentially relationship-damaging issues – whether regarding finances, in-laws, religious faith, attitudes toward having children, or other potential conflicts – the bride and groom have a chance to work things out.
A small percentage will decide it's best to call the whole thing off.
This year, nearly 500,000 engaged persons will take the FOCCUS Couple Inventory as they begin the marriage preparation required by the church in which they will be wed. The inventory asks each person to agree, disagree or indicate uncertainty regarding a battery of statements about their relationship and concerns about the impending marriage.
FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding & Study) is in use by at least some parishes in every Catholic diocese in the United States, and the results have been "kind of amazing," says Notre Dame Sister Barbara Markey, director of the Family Life Office for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, and director of FOCCUS, Inc.
Since its introduction in 1986, FOCCUS has crossed denominational boundaries, international borders, and language barriers. Versions have been developed for use by Protestants and by speakers of about 14 languages (not just translations, but with adaptations for cultural differences). A version for use by Muslims is in the works.
The questionnaire is "an inventory – it's not a test," said Sister Markey. The questions seek to "hook into" people in order to "maximize the ways for them to get in touch with their own issues, attitudes and agendas." For greatest benefit, she recommends the inventory be taken one year to six months before the wedding (eight months is typical), and before the couple takes part in an Engaged Encounter or begins pre-Cana instruction.
There is a basic set of 156 questions, with three special sets of additional questions designed to zero in on issues that might affect couples involved in an interfaith relationship, couples that have been co-habitating, or where it will be a re-marriage for one or both persons.
Taking the inventory with less than six months before the wedding "doesn't mean it's useless," Sister Markey continues. "They won't be blindsided on things, but they won't have as much time to work on them."
After scoring, a trained facilitator will go over the responses with the couple to assess areas of agreement and areas needing discussion, but just the experience of responding to the statements will prompt the couple to begin the conversation even before that, she says.
The issues an engaged couple has never discussed can be surprising. Sister Markey recalls two trial lawyers who had never shared their intentions regarding children: "He really wanted children, and she didn't want children."
Andrew Lyke, coordinator for marriage ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago, says he "had to spend a good portion of time" convincing many engaged persons that marriage preparation classes were not just some arbitrary requirement imposed by the church before he started having them take the FOCCUS Couple Inventory beforehand.
"FOCCUS is an excellent first step in marriage preparation," says Lyke, and a pre-Cana instructor himself. "We're introducing FOCCUS in the archdiocese, but some parishes are already using it, and it's making a dramatic impact."
Lyke has considered other programs, but "what I liked about FOCCUS was that it was developed within the Catholic Church, and its concentration on faith and values."
Jay Wonacott, director of Marriage, Family Life and Aging Ministry for the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, says, "We really encourage all of our parishes to use the FOCCUS program. It's been very beneficial."
Wonacott says they emphasize that the survey is a communications tool: "Once they have this self-knowledge, they can discuss these issues."
It is not just issues of money, child-rearing or faith that can cause dissention within a marriage, Wonacott says. It can be something like where they will spend Thanksgiving.
"Sometimes, the couple tells us they were surprised they hadn't discussed these issues, but I realize there's so much that overwhelms a couple in the months before a wedding," he says.
But having taken the FOCCUS inventory, they begin their marriage preparation with their eyes wide open. "I think it's very valuable that they own their own issues, first of all, and then move into the educational component, where they can learn about strengthening their relationship," Wonacott adds.
Engaged couples are not the only ones to use an invitatory to trigger helpful discussion about issues, attitudes and agendas in a relationship. REFOCCUS is widely used for enrichment of ongoing marriages.
REFOCCUS was written in l989 by the authors of FOCCUS in response to a call for more attention to the growth of marriage over the life cycle. It provides married couples a self-help or small group process for exploring what they have learned in their marriage and where the relationship is today.
There are five sections to REFOCCUS with a total of 87 questions for reflection and discussion: Marriage As Process (e.g. "Change and crisis in the lives of the children in our family cause difficulties in our marriage."), Intimacy (" I am concerned that at times my spouse uses sex as a way to control the relationship."), Compatibility ("My spouse and I sometimes have problems because we differ in our need to talk things out or keep things to ourselves."), Communication ("We find ourselves disagreeing about the same things over and over again".), Commitment ("I think that even in a good marriage, a person might sometimes question whether or not he/she wishes to remain in the marriage.")
Many churches and organizations use REFOCCUS as a part of preparation for Mentor Couples or those working with the engaged. Others set up series using it as the basis for couple retreats or series of marriage enrichment evenings. Sister Markey says she suggests that "married couples take REFOCCUS or something like it every five year or every 20,000 miles, whichever comes first."
More information on FOCCUS inventories can be found at www.foccusinc.com.