“Many couples prepare for the wedding, but not for marriage even though the latter is more important,” says wedding solemniser Joanna Portilla, who has solemnised about 3,000 marriages over 15 years.
She continues, “I strongly believe that attending the marriage preparation programmes (MPPs) will be beneficial to new couples. By going for these programmes, couples can learn tips and solutions on managing and overcoming the issues that come in a marriage“.
An educator by profession, the 51-year-old has been married for two decades and has a 15-year-old-son. She is a member of the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships’ (AFAM) Focal Area 2, which supports young couples through marriage preparation and enrichment programmes, as well as conversations on issues such as fertility.
She’s also a council member for the Families for Life (FFL) Movement, which aims to build strong and resilient families, and rallies like-minded individuals, families and organisations to strengthen family bonds through large-scale events, national celebrations and online digital campaigns.
That’s not all — she’s also one of the licensed solemnisers participating in the Journey with You (JOY) pilot programme by the Registry of Marriages (ROM), chosen to mentor newly-wed couples in their first year of marriage. She meets with couples before their solemnisation to share advice on marriage and family life, as well as encourage them to attend a marriage preparation programme. “I also stay in touch with them after their solemnisation to see how they are adjusting to married life,” she adds.
We glean more insights from Joanna on the most important conversations to have before marriage, why she’s an advocate of marriage preparation courses, her thoughts on prep-nups, and her best marriage advice.
JP: I have had two couples who were married to each other, divorced over differences and
misunderstandings and years later, decided to marry each other again. I have also counselled several couples who had some issues while planning for their wedding day. One even had a fight in front of me, and I had to talk them into thinking if they really wanted to go through this marriage or to hold it for a while until they think it through.
Many of my couples still keep in touch with me and it is really heart-warming to see how they have progressed and grown together. I see them getting keys to their first matrimonial home, their journey towards parenthood and the birth of their firstborn, and then seeing their children grow. I get invited to their various milestone celebrations, and even invited back to preside the solemnisation ceremony of their siblings or relatives.
I am elated when couples tell me that they took up my advice to attend a Marriage Preparation Programme (MPP). They share that the MPPs – which are organised by FFL through its network of partners in the community – have been useful as they have learnt so much about making their marriage last a lifetime. Prior to attending an MPP, these new couples did not realise that there was so much to learn about marriage and were glad they knew about this first step through the FFL portal.
Preparing for a wedding takes time and effort, but it is even more important to prepare for marriage. A good marriage needs a good foundation and it takes commitment, effort and skills. MPPs will help couples understand marriage-related issues and learn skills that help them prepare for life together — we seek to provide a platform for couples to discuss all the most important decisions, values and expectations that they need to agree on before they get married. MPPs also bring in other married couples and family life educators to share valuable insights and tips with the couples to build a strong lasting marriage.
To find out more about Marriage Preparation Programme (MPP); couples may visit Families for Life and register directly with the appointed Course Provider of their choice. They will receive a $140 rebate if they attended the evidence-based Prevention and Relationship Education Programme or PREP for short, or $70 if they attend other approved MPPs.
JP: Communication breakdown or miscommunication are usually the causes of strains in a relationship. Families for Life (FFL) has recently launched a series of bite-sized marriage tips, named Mini Marriage PREP Tips, and couples may find these tips on the FFL Portal and social media pages. Some of these tips highlight the four communication patterns to avoid.
These common destructive patterns couples may fall into include Escalation, Invalidation, Negative Interpretations, and Withdrawal.
I remind couples to never guess what the other person is thinking, to be open with each other, and to never leave an argument unresolved or let anger fester before going to bed. If things are getting too heated, consider using the Time Out Tool to compose ourselves so that we can resume the conversation in a healthy and productive manner.
I also advise couples to settle the argument before going to bed, so that your relationship doesn’t get stuck in stasis or a loop. When a new day begins, so does the growth of your relationship.
The two Cs of a relationship – Commitment and Communication – are important in a relationship.
Many couples also worry about living under the same roof as their prospective in-laws, and the potential friction that would arise from living in the same household. They see themselves as a ‘new addition’ to the family with different lifestyles and habits, and fret about whether those traits would be accepted among the in-laws.
I tell my couples to BOW:
Be sincere – speak with sincerity, go with the flow, and treat everyone with respect.
Open your eyes and observe – As the saying goes “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. If you observe what everyone in the family does, you should be fine adjusting to new routines and practices; and be open to adapting.
Win them (in-laws) over – show appreciation for what your spouse or in-laws do for you. Treat yourself as a family member and play your part. Chip in to help with household chores, cook for the family, be respectful and use kind words. Never take your in-laws for granted and also remember your manners.
JP: Important conversations include finances, expectations and roles, parenting styles, and who to live with if they have not bought a house or the flat is not ready. I strongly believe that attending the marriage preparation programme will be beneficial to new couples. Many couples prepare for the wedding, but not for marriage even though the latter is more important and goes on for life. Marriage is not just about love, but also about sustaining that love and growing it deeper every day over the course of your lives.
It is also about understanding the pitfalls in marriages and how to avoid them. By going for short workshops or courses such as the marriage preparation programme, couples will be exposed to the issues and situations that can come up in a marriage, and learn tips and solutions on managing and overcoming them.
JP: Couples should always be honest with each other so that they can build trust that is strong enough to anchor their relationship and help elevate it to greater heights. My husband and I both agreed on open communication in our family and that there would be no secrets among us.
That applies not just to us but also to our son as well, who is comfortable sharing his day and happenings in life with us so that we can celebrate his achievements and work through any problems as a unit, without fear or the need to cover them up.
JP: Personally, I do not think that pre-nuptial agreements are necessary because I feel they can add strain or pressure to a union even before a couple takes their first steps off the aisle and into life together.
A prenup would suggest that a couple may be considering a potential divorce down the road, which is not a healthy start for a marriage.
When two people say yes to each other, it means that they see their partner as someone with whom they are committed to navigating the highs and lows of life together, and they accept their strengths and weaknesses in the course of building a life together. I believe keeping a marriage going should be what a couple should focus on, rather than being prepared for a potential split down the road.
Also, it should be important to note that not all pre-nuptial agreements will be upheld and enforced in a court of law.
JP: It is ironic that long-term relationships lose a bit of romance when a child enters the fray because that is the start of a family nucleus. With that said, there is a tendency for either one or both parents to devote a large portion of their time and attention to the child, in turn neglecting their partner and the relationship.
Love takes effort, and both parties must put in the commitment to make it work.
For starters, couples should never take their spouses for granted, no matter the situation or circumstance. When communicating with each other, maintain eye contact to show interest and sincerity, as how you did at the start of your courtship. Eye contact does have the power to keep the spark alive in a romance.
Couples need to commit to spending time with each other to fulfill their emotional needs and nourish their relationship and the bond that holds them together. Set a day aside at least to do the things you would both do back when you guys were dating – be it window shopping, having a simple meal together, or going on a short getaway.
For couples with children, develop a routine to send the kids to bed early. This aids in their development to help them understand routines and follow them. More importantly, it allows couples to have ‘us time’. When the kids are in bed, couples can have time to connect with each other through simple conversations like how their days went.
Right from the start, my husband and I insisted that our son went to bed by 7pm, which was then extended to 9pm when he got older. We also made the collective decision to leave him with my parents for almost every weekend ever since he was six months old – and he’s 15 now – which allowed us time to escape the bustle of work and family life, and reconnect and bond as a couple.
I encourage couples to dress to impress for date nights, like how you did on the first date. I have noticed many couples becoming casual and even sloppy in their dressing, especially when they reach parenthood, but that should not be the case. Doll up to impress each other to keep the flame burning.
Couples can also keep their love flame burning bright by being spontaneous. Life can get boring and predictable, especially if we fall into habits or routines that are hard to break. Instead of planning for a date, try a spontaneous decision to just spend time or embark on a new experience together.
Exclusive “me-time” is also important. Allow each other the time and space to pursue your own interests and life. This helps to recharge your emotional and mental batteries so that both of you are rejuvenated and have more to bring to the table. It also helps alleviates stress or tension in a relationship.
Spouses must learn to not micro-manage the family and to allow their other halves to play an active role in parenting even if you may not quite agree with his or her style. Let it be. Do not be afraid to throw some curveballs at your everyday life.
All that helps breaks monotony, which will nip the concerns of a relationship losing its spark in the bud.
JP: Whenever I solemnise a marriage, I always share with the couples an acronym that I coined – TRUFFLES – to serve as a guide for them to keep their marriage going for the many years ahead.
T – Trust, Truth & Time
Trust is an important element in the foundation of every relationship, and marriage is no different. Married couples must continue to whole-heartedly place their trust in and speak the truth to each other. Only then can they ensure a firm footing for their relationship to stand on and blossom.
We live in an era where everyone is so busy and often hard-pressed for time. But no matter how busy you get, prioritise time for each other. I always remind them to tell each other that “I choose family time, I choose couple time.”
R – Respect, Responsibilities and Romance
Respect each other as individuals, but also respect everyone else in your spouse’s family. And more importantly, each other’s culture, customs and practices, especially if your marriage is cross-cultural.
Coming together as a married couple means added and shared responsibilities. It’s important to discuss and iron out how you wish to share these added responsibilities as you build a life together.
Couples often spend a lot of time with each other in the dating phase before and in the first few years after tying the knot. However, the focus is often then placed on children when they come along and romance takes a backseat. I encourage couples to leave their kids in the good hands of grandparents or family members who would be more than happy to babysit. This frees up time for you to spend together, whether for a simple meal, a movie, or perhaps a short weekend getaway. It is important that children get the care they need, but your own emotional needs must also be met.
U – Unity and Understanding
Unity is strength, so couples must harness the strength in their union to make collective and united decisions. They should be consultative with each other.
We live in a fast-paced world where it seems we have lesser patience for things around us. Never stop being understanding towards each other, especially when you have different or demanding work commitments from time to time. Communication is key to this; never stop engaging yourselves so that you can always be in line and in sync with one another.
F – Friendship, Family and Fun
Every married couple starts off as friends before going into courtship and then marriage, which is probably the highest state of any friendship. Treat each other as BFFs, so you will always want to do as many things as possible together, thus constantly strengthening your bond. Marriage takes hard work, but it is fun too, and having fun helps keep the spark alive.
Each union is more than just two people committing to stay together; it is also the merging of two worlds that include families and friends. In cross-cultural marriages, couples also have to embrace different cultures, customs, and practices. It’s important to love your spouse’s family dearly as you would your own, and in return, you’ll get their love too.
F – Faith, Faithfulness & Finances
Have faith in your relationship and marriage, no matter how difficult the going may be. Remember that you chose each other to walk through a lifelong journey together and that you should continue to remain faithful.
Some people often joke that their spouses’ money is theirs to spend as well, but their own money is theirs alone. But I believe it is very important to talk about money and how each party will contribute towards household expenses. Young couples often feel stressed about finances when they move into their love nest and have to account for expenses like the home mortgage, utility bill, and household necessities. Take time to talk through your income and expenditure, and plan on budgets as a couple. Otherwise, this may lead to stress that can compromise a marriage.
L – Love, Learn Together And Listen
Love is how it all began and it should continue to grow deeper. Love each other dearly, be loved and also spread the love to everyone else in the families around you. Most importantly, remember to say the three words to each other every day – “I love you”. It may seem little, but those words have a significant impact in making your partner feel loved, and helping them either start off a wonderful day, or get through a difficult patch.
When couples learn together, they grow together. There will be changes over time to one’s character and outlook in life. A weakness from before may no longer be there, or turned into a strength even, or they may no longer like a certain hobby. There is always something to learn.
Spend some time sharing your day with your partner. Through these conversations, what you pick up in listening will help you understand their life better.
E – Everlasting, Eternal Love, Empathy And Encouragement
Couples must keep their love everlasting and remain committed to walking this journey together as husband and wife to eternity. Couples must learn to develop empathetic listening skills, which means putting themselves in the other person’s position, understanding and seeing from a different perspective.
Always encourage each other to do better, or to take it easy and hang in there when the going gets tough. A little encouragement goes a long way towards bringing your relationship to a more intimate level as you know they’ll always have your back.
S – Support, Sincerity And Security
Support each other in your personal growth, and never stop being the pillar of support for their individual families and this family that you are building together. I also call upon the extended family members to continue supporting newly-married couples, to continue to love them, and guide them. Parents should share with the couple their own life and marriage experiences so that the couple can learn and build a strong foundation of love and blissfulness for the many years ahead.
Sincerity allows for easier acceptance into each other’s families, so couples should always be sincere to each other and all in the family.
Couples must foster a sense of security at home so that everyone in the family – especially the children – will know that there is a safe harbour for them to return to, no matter how difficult a situation they find themselves in.
JP: I don’t agree when people say, “after marriage, they will change for the better”.
A marriage is a journey for life and also of lifelong learning. As a couple, you have to learn how to become a better spouses for each other or better parents to your children. Learn to give and take, live and let live, and never harbour ill thoughts of each other.
Learn to accept each other‘s flaws while celebrating each other’s strengths. Never be stingy with compliments for your partners, and never forget to thank each other for the things that they have done, no matter how small they may be. Be appreciative of each other for the initiatives your partners have taken to be better, and always love each other for who you are.