You've got the ring. You've agreed to make the lifelong commitment. Wedding plans are in the works.
But have you thought about what marriage really will be like? Have you considered how to handle finances, religion and how to resolve conflict?
If not, you'd better, suggest area pastors, counselors and even a married man who wrote a book on the subject of sorting out pre- marriage issues.
"It's absolutely a smart thing to do before marriage," said Michael Averbuch, is a licensed professional counselor in Rock Hill who works with clients on a range of issues, including marriage counseling.
Whatever problems exist before the marriage will not go away after the wedding, he and others warn. It's much easier to break up before the wedding than after, when you must spilt assets and possibly the custody of children.
Counseling can help those who have problems but need to work them out before they go through with the long-term commitment. And it can help couples determine if doubts can be worked through or if the doubts are a warning sign about marriage.
Sheila Graham, 39, of Rock Hill, didn't acknowledge the troubles before her first marriage, which lasted nine years. The issue that divided them was one that was a conflict even before they said their "I do's."
They belonged to different churches that had different views on what was right and wrong. When they had children - now 7 years old and triplets, another factor they felt "unprepared for" - she wanted to attend church as a family, but they couldn't because of religious differences.
The problem that had been there all along never was remedied. And it eventually led to the demise of their marriage.
Proponents of pre-marital counseling urge the need for such counseling to prevent divorce. The divorce rate was 3.8 individuals per 1,000 population in 2003, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That's more than half of the rate of people getting married for 2003, which was 7.5 individuals per 1,000 population.
Children, divorced couples and society all suffer because of the high rate of divorce, according to Marriage Savers, a program proposed by Harriet and Mike McManus. He is a nationally syndicated columnist on religion and morality.
"Divorce is the root cause of a number of other social ills," said Harriet McManus, who spoke to area church leaders recently. That includes juvenile delinquency and abuse of children, she said.
The counseling method Marriage Savers proposes is one in which churches designate mentoring couples - those who have lasting marriages - to help other couples before marriage and throughout it, to lessen the likelihood of divorce.
It's the form of pre-marital counseling used by Kelly Campbell, 28, of Rock Hill. She and her husband, Troy, were assigned to be mentored by another couple in their church who had been married for 30 years.
Before their wedding, Kelly and Troy met with the couple several times after they'd had a session with a senior pastor, watched a videotape and filled out a pre-wedding inventory, which was a series of questions or statements they each answered to see if the marriage was realistic.
"It was very, very helpful to sit and talk with a couple married more than 30 years," said Campbell, whose own parents are divorced.
The couple talked about their own hardships and the lessons they learned from them. They shared ways to deal with the early years of marriage and encouraged them to get on their feet financially before having children, said Campbell.
The talks kept the Campbells grounded in reality. A lot of people get caught up in the "let's get married type of thing," Kelly said. Some might think they want to get married because they are the right age, or they are ready to have kids, she said. Doing the counseling helped them realize their true intentions.
"This is for life," she said. "Our heads weren't in the clouds."
When Averbuch counsels couples, he meets with them anywhere from once to sessions conducted over a period of several months. He'll also give them exercises to do outside the office. Those include things to do to increase communication or ways to assess your own needs.
"I've seen couples who have gotten nowhere and break up," Averbuch said. And he's seen other couples come through stronger.
If couples aren't comfortable talking to other people about their own issues, they should at least sit down and discuss with one another their goals, values and issues that might come up in marriage, encourages Corey Donaldson, author of "Don't You Dare Get Married Until You Read This," published by Random House.
The author wrote the guide to help couples maneuver the pre- marital talking territory. The book is full of questions he suggests broaching.
It includes chapters on sex, romance and love; religion and spirituality; self-worth; expectations; the past; trust; annoyances; the future; communication; and money.
Donaldson said in a telephone interview from Utah that couples don't necessarily have to agree on all the things they talk about. But he said the questions will help them identify the things they don't agree on, and they can then decide whether they can live with their differences or they can at that point determine how they will work through it.
Donaldson said many couples might be reluctant to talk about these issues because it's not very romantic. His reply: "Neither is divorce."
He came up with his book of questions after interviewing 1,500 people from across the country, 600 of whom had experienced divorce.
He asked those who had divorced what was the cause. All said it was an issue they had before marriage.
Jarilyn and William "Bump" Roddey, both 39, married in November 2004 in York after a 14-year courtship. They didn't do any formal counseling. They went on the success of their many years together.
"We know what this person likes, what this person doesn't like," Jarilyn Roddey said. "We let each other be each other."
But they did know where their relationship needed help - with finances. So they went through investment counseling. With the rest, Jarilyn said they put their faith in God.
Sheila Graham is about to marry again. In April, she'll wed long- time acquaintance and year-long boyfriend Ezell Smith, 40. She has made sure they're more in sync on some issues this time around.
They already have children, and have agreed to have no more. They have talked about money issues, too. In his first marriage, he didn't keep track of the money; his wife did. But this time, Graham wants Smith involved.
She said they also communicate better than she and her first husband did. In the previous relationship, the two would argue and she would stay angry for days, with the problem unresolved. With her fianc, she said, they deal with problems immediately.
They are also going to go to counseling sessions with their minister every week leading up to the wedding. When she did church counseling with her former husband, she often came out angry.
But she says it's different this time.
"Neither of us wants to go through divorce again," she said.
Lauren Hoyt 329-4079