The divorce rate of married couples in the U.S. has been declining for the past 25 years and reducing even faster during the past decade. As last week’s article reported, the people involved in farming have fewer divorces than the general population, even though agriculture is among the most stressful occupations.

Today we look at marriage preparation courses and how they influence couples’ marriages, drawing on research about couples in general, and farm couples in particular. Couples who engage in farming and related agricultural careers have similarities, but also unique characteristics that warrant consideration.

Do preparation courses offered by churches help couples prepare for and sustain their marriages? This article is aimed at presenting research information without bias concerning religion, cohabitation and other factors considered by persons planning marriage.

A study of 50 marriage preparation courses by Brigham Young University professor Alan Hawkins found that course participants said pre-marriage programs improved communication skills but didn’t affect the quality of their relationships.

Some religious denominations, such as the Latter Day Saints and Roman Catholics, discourage sex and cohabitation prior to marriage, and encourage completion of pre-marriage courses that teach their church doctrine and family life values to persons planning to marry. Couples who affiliate with these two religions have somewhat lower divorce rates than the general U.S. population.

The divorce rates for members of most Protestant, Jewish and Islamic faiths are slightly higher than the overall divorce rate of U.S. couples. Moreover, several studies found that when the married partners practiced different faiths or when one partner didn’t practice a faith, their divorce rates were higher than average.

The evaluations of church-based pre-marriage courses by researchers affiliated with their denominations sometimes appear to be influenced by ideological views that color their conclusions. They also often don’t separate out the effects of marriage preparation courses from the marriage partners’ commitment to their faiths.

People seeking mates, especially farm residents, are increasingly turning to matching services and online websites for assistance finding marriage partners. Matching services that include assessments of personality, values and compatibility have mixed outcomes, with some studies reporting lower than average divorce rates for persons who used the services, while other studies report slightly higher divorce rates.

Online dating services that allow users to contact whomever they want have a higher than average divorce rate for couples who used these services, according to two published reviews.

Many land-grant university Extension programs and other nonprofit organizations, such as the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota and Practical Farmers of Iowa, offer educational courses to couples planning marriage, as well as to those already married and engaged in agriculture. Typically, these courses include content about business plan development, legal issues concerning farming arrangements, prenuptial agreements and/or cohabitation agreements, financial management, retirement and farm transitions.

The course evaluations of these programs are positive to date, but long-term outcomes are mostly lacking. A 2012 survey report concerning Norwegian farmers said that couples planning marriage who undertook such educational preparation reported a smoother course in their relationships. The subjects also reported that living together before marriage benefited them.

The two factors most predictive of marital happiness, regardless of how the couples met and how they prepared for marriage, are: 1) Age at marriage—the older the partners were, the lower their divorce rate, and 2) the quality of their interactions prior to marriage—couples who reported quarreling or other negative interactions, such as abuse, before marriage were more likely to divorce after marrying.

Cohabitation before marriage also was linked with fewer divorces. The effects of age are difficult to sort out because cohabiting couples average 31 months together prior to marriage, thus increasing their age. Moreover, one or both partners may have lived with marital prospects that didn’t work out or were married previously.

Among the matters that cohabitants claim to learn is how their prospective mates handle money, communicate, manage family relations, behave around children, their sexual desires, recreational practices, political, and religious views.

Stress, especially economic stress, remains the primary factor that increases partner relationship problems of farm couples and unravels their marriages. Relationship problems such as bickering, blame, inadequate anger control, and physical or emotional abuse are often the main manifestations of stress within farm families, as noted in the four-part Farm and Ranch Life series earlier this year about how the farm population differs from the general population in their behavioral health.

Farming-related stress is more resolvable when farming partners prepare to manage their relationships and their business ahead of marrying. Both partners, however, must acknowledge their special roles on the land and its operation, for they are married not only to each other but also to the land.

Farming is unique, a noble calling! It demonstrates an agrarian urge to produce essentials for life: food, fibers and biofuels.

I thank my wife, Marilyn, for helping sort through the issues in this and last week’s articles. Comments are welcome.