An Rx to help couples make marriages healthier

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, January 1, 2012

Healthy marriages are good for adults and children, creating an atmosphere of love, support and stability in which all members of a family can grow and thrive.

But marriage can also be hard, because it takes effort and skills that aren’t often modeled in popular culture: commitment, communication, problem solving. Those are things that a lot of people don’t consider when they get married, all starry-eyed and hopeful.

Several years ago, when the archdiocese’s Family Ministries Office was looking for ways to support marriage by teaching those skills, it found Family Bridges, a Wheaton-based nonprofit that works with underserved communities to enhance marriage skills, said Elsie Radtke, associate director of Family Ministries.

“We wanted to fill in the gaps,” Radtke said. “We knew that not everybody would be coming to the 50th anniversary Mass because not everybody was making it to the finish line.”

Practical advice

Family Bridges got a federal grant to work with people who otherwise might not have access to the kind of resources it brings: ongoing classes aimed at teaching the skills people need to choose a good marriage partner and then to make a marriage work, and parenting help, especially for single parents.

“We’re trying to increase awareness of healthy marriage and access to healthy marriage education to people who would not otherwise have it,” said Alica La Hoz, Family Bridges’s executive director. “Having the know-how of how to be successful, what is it you should know about your partner, just real practical day-to-day stuff.”

A partnership was born, and it brought Family Bridges to dozens of parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago, including several of the archdiocese’s larger Hispanic parishes. In fact, about 85 percent of the couples who have attended Family Bridges programs for married couples are Latino.

Programs also are offered for single parents, and for teens as they start thinking about dating and marriage. Overall, they have served more than 40,000 families.

Among the archdiocesan parishes that participated was Our Lady of Guadalupe, a predominantly Mexican parish on the Southeast Side of Chicago.

Claretian Father Carl Quebedeaux said the program was well received when it came to his parish about four years ago, with sizable turnouts each week.

“I think the fact that people kept coming speaks to the value of it,” he said.

While it’s difficult for him to know how much of an effect it had on any particular couple’s marriage, the general reaction was positive enough that he’d like to have Family Bridges come back and do it again.

Working together

La Hoz said the group’s programs generally are welcomed in parishes and in other organizations that partner with the group.

Part of that is because of the procedure Family Bridges follows, working with established community institutions such as parishes. When it is offering classes at a parish, La Hoz said, Family Bridges asks the parish to designate a specific host or hostess, whether it is the pastor or a lay leader, to make sure the classes are announced not only in the parish bulletin but also in neighborhood schools, at the local police station, anywhere people from the neighborhood who are interested might see it.

Because the classes are funded with the help of federal money, they are not religious in nature. They do still fit with the Catholic understanding of marriage, Radtke said.

“You can pray all you want but if you can’t talk to one another it doesn’t mean a lot,” she said.

Classes meet for a total of 10 to 12 hours, over the course of three to six weeks, depending on what the parish thinks will work best. At the end of the workshops, Family Bridges staff try to identify someone in the parish who will take the lead on promoting healthy marriages and continue holding meetings, and those volunteers receive additional training.