Preparing more than 600 Creighton couples for marriage

Feb 08, 2022

As coordinator of St. John’s marriage preparation since 2013, Kathy Martin has helped more than 600 Creighton couples get ready to walk down the aisle. Here's what she's learned.

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How Creighton marriage prep works

Over multiple sessions, couples complete a FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communications, Understanding and Study) inventory and discuss issues related to marriage with a mentor couple or Jesuit. They later go on a pre-marriage retreat. Couples complete the program sometime between six and 18 months. (Learn more about Creighton marriage preparation here.)

And be sure to read about 12 couples who met at Creighton, a few of whom went through St. John's marriage prep.

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By Micah Mertes

As coordinator of St. John’s marriage preparation since 2013, Kathy Martin has helped more than 600 Creighton couples get ready to walk down the aisle.

Kathy Martin
Kathy Martin

Those couples have included Creighton undergraduate and professional students, faculty, staff, alumni, children of alumni and St. John’s parishioners. Across so many tied knots, Kathy sees a few common threads. (Many Creighton couples, for instance, get engaged on the bench outside St. John’s, the church where many of them go on to get married.)

But the one thing true of all Creighton couples? No two are quite the same. That’s one of the challenges and joys of what she does, Martin says.

“I’ve been married to my own husband for 24 years,” Martin says. “Though all that does is make me an expert on my marriage to John, not an expert on your marriage to your spouse. Every couple is unique.”

Whatever your love story, Martin knows just the mentor to match you with. Her prep team includes 16 married mentor couples and seven Jesuits, each specialized to meet the needs of different kinds of couples.

“We have military couples, interfaith couples, ecumenical couples, couples in the medical and dental schools and the health professions, couples with intense careers,” Martin says. “At Creighton, we’re proud of how well we take care of our students, and the same goes for our couples.”

With Valentine’s Day coming up, we spoke with Martin about the marriage prep program, what she loves about her job and how to talk to your better half about that annoying thing they do.

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Say my fiancé and I walked into your office for marriage prep, and we ask, “How will this make our marriage stronger?” What would you tell us?

Kathy Martin: I would say, “Trust the process, and you’ll walk out affirmed.” Part of our job is to highlight what attracted you two to each other in the first place. God gave you to each other, and we’re going to highlight what drew you together and what will keep you together. We do that by providing you an extensive set of discussion prompts to help you explore your relationship better. 

What’s an example of a question you ask?

One of my favorite questions is, “Are there certain aspects of my future spouse’s behavior that sometimes annoy me?”

If you have known each other a while and are being honest, you will most likely respond with a resounding “Yes!” And you will be able to share what annoys you with each other honestly. The bottom line for many such questions is, “If this doesn’t change or in fact it even gets a bit worse over time, are you going to be OK in this marriage?”

These questions aren’t about problem-solving. This isn’t counseling. It's facilitation.

It’s about acceptance?

Acceptance is a helpful spiritual tool in the toolbox of marriage. But I would say the goal of marriage prep is more so surfacing expectations and creating a model and environment for healthy communication about those expectations. I want them to be able to say, “I know there are times where we’re going to annoy each other, but that’s OK because I love you, and I want to spend my life with you.”

So it doesn’t have to become a fight … it’s just two people acknowledging their imperfections and accepting that, you know, everyone’s at least a little annoying, right?

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, individuals and couples alike. Father Larry Gillick, SJ, one of our marriage prep facilitators, told me the metaphor that we’re all clay pots, and we’ve all got cracks. Some of those cracks — personal weaknesses, character defects — have the power to destroy a relationship. It’s all in how we handle those cracks. The key is being able to talk about them openly.

What’s the bottom line for a good marriage?

It’s the little things, isn’t it? It isn’t glamorous. It’s these small interactions that build friendship and connection over years and years. The passionate love in the early years is eventually replaced by the very deep gratitude you have when you build a life together. That’s not talked about much. To the best of my knowledge, there are no romantic comedies about deep gratitude.

Zoe Reed Dovgan, BS'17, and Jake Dovgan, BSCHM'16, MD'20
Zoe Reed Dovgan, BS'17, and Jake Dovgan, BSCHM'16, MD'20 — married in 2020 — are graduates of the marriage prep program.

As you said, every couple is unique. But are there some unifying themes for all Creighton couples?

One constant theme for Creighton couples is that most people work long, intense hours right out of college. They don’t get a lot of downtime together. We try to give them the tools to use the time they do have together in a way that helps them feel emotionally connected.  

One constant during the pandemic is that we’ve spent many sessions helping couples cope with change and uncertainty. But marriage is an act of courage in any time because life will always change.

I like that description, marriage as “an act of courage.”

At the Marriage Prep Retreat, I share an analogy. I say, “Think of all the money and time and energy you’ve invested in your education and your career. Now think about committing to never changing that job. You have to stay at that place of employment until death or retirement do you part.”  

With marriage, that’s somewhat what we’re doing! But that’s what gives it its thrill.

What do you love most about your job?

I love that people are in love and at a great place in their lives, yet they’re also stressed in a way that leaves them open to ministry and the mission of Creighton. These couples are graduating from undergraduate or professional schools. They’re embarking on their professional careers, planning their wedding, spending a ton of money, negotiating with future in-laws. It’s quite stressful. And yet … they’re also very in love and happy. It’s an incredible opportunity to be a part of their journey.

What do you think couples are least prepared for when it comes to marriage?

They’re usually underprepared in what it takes to run a household. They think everything’s going to be split 50/50, a perfectly even distribution of cooking, cleaning, shopping, shoveling snow, raking leaves and killing bugs. In real life, things don’t often work that way. And they have to accept, and be able to talk about, the fact that things won’t always be perfectly even.

Another big piece of marriage prep is to be aware of the changing seasons of your lives together, these big changes you can never be fully prepared for — new jobs, health problems, having children.

Are couples especially worried about how much having kids will change them?

A lot of times, especially among professionally driven couple, there’s this misconception that having kids is going to make your marriage really hard. They think they won’t be able to be this great couple anymore. But actually, couples whose marriages are built on solid ground come back stronger after having kids. There are growing pains, of course. But you’re growing through those pains together, and it can lead to stronger gratitude and depth in your marriage.

What are some of the topics that show up most during marriage prep?

Personal habits, family dynamics and money. With many issues, there is something else going on underneath the surface. Sometimes it’s a power struggle or a failure of communication. We lead couples in self-discovery of what things might have the power to hurt their marriage.

So it’s more that the couple now has a new framework to address potential problems. No one’s dropping bombshells.

There are very few surprises for the couples in marriage prep, especially if they’ve been dating for more than a year or two. Few surprises, just a lot of depth and a structured way of building on the foundation of your relationship.

So say that Kathy the marriage prep coordinator could hop into a time machine, travel back 24 years and give any piece of advice to Kathy the bride-to-be. What would your advice be?

It would be … relax.

How long did it take you to learn that?

Way too long (laughs).

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Read about 12 couples who met at Creighton.