Rules of engagement: Cathy Aitchison reports on how couples are being helped to prepare for marriage

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Krystina Kozlowska and Tony Collins will be married in August in the Polish church in Bradford, near where both grew up. As Tony is away in the Army and Krystina works shifts as a nurse, her parish priest said he wanted them to prepare for their marriage by attending an Engaged Encounter weekend that he was running for couples like themselves.

Both are Catholics, but only Krystina had been brought up in the church. 'I'd been to a Catholic school and on retreats, so I had some sort of idea what it would be like,' she says. 'My concern was how Tony was going to cope. I knew he felt uncomfortable with intense religion.'

The weekend took place at a retreat centre in County Durham, with 11 other couples. Engaged Encounter weekends are led by three married couples and a priest, who gives a series of talks and presentations about relationships and faith: looking at yourself, being engaged, sex in marriage, life as a Christian, and so on. It is a very private time for each couple, with no discussion in the group; after each topic has been presented, everyone is given time alone with a set of questions, followed by time together to discuss each other's answers.

Tony really enjoyed it: 'I thought it was brilliant - it made me think about a lot of things I'd never thought about before.' Krystina felt that the experience drew them closer together, 'like having an umbilical cord between us. By the end of the weekend I felt it was the most marvellous experience I'd had in my life. I'd recommend it to anybody.

'We were quite lucky, because we get on very well and there was nothing that was a big surprise. But it was good just seeing your way your partner thinks about things.'

Tim Allsop, who went on an Engaged Encounter weekend with his fiancee Catherine Marr, says: 'I'd give it eight out of ten.' Catherine is Catholic, whereas Tim is the son of an Anglican vicar. 'At first I got the impression that it would be a bit religious and over the top, but in the end it did more good than harm. It gave us the space to discuss things together.'

Currently separated because of work and studies, they were able to sort out problems such as where they would live after they got married. 'On a normal weekend we'd be doing so many other things - shopping, seeing friends - that the important questions get pushed back.'

The Church of England also runs Engaged Encounter weekends, using a similar pattern to that of the Catholics. There are, however, enormous variations in the kind of preparation offered by Anglican vicars, who have a legal obligation to marry any couple who have not been married before, if one partner is resident in the parish.

'We had two brief visits to the vicar,' says Sarah, who married Paul in her local Anglican church last year. 'The first time we filled in some forms, and he went through the service a bit; then he shuffled over to his cabinet, brought out this old-fashioned booklet and said, 'You might find something of use in here.' I think he was a bit embarrassed by the whole thing.'

Both in their thirties, they did not feel they had missed anything by not being given more detailed preparation. 'If we had been 22 we might have felt more abandoned.'

Julian Reindorp is part of an Anglican team ministry in Richmond, Surrey. 'We offer marriage preparation to everybody and almost all of them take it up. Nowadays people are generally fairly positive because they're used to doing various communication exercises in other areas of their lives.'

Working with one other person (a woman, to provide a balance) he offers a series of three evenings to small groups of couples about six to nine months before the wedding. Topics covered help couples to think through their similarities and differences - whether they want their marriage to be like their parents' or not, whether they are spenders or savers, how they would handle arguments and conflicts, redundancy and so on. 'What one is trying to do is enable them to learn from each other, not teach them,' Mr Reindorp says.

His style developed from work done in conjunction with Relate, the marriage guidance organisation. Other church-based movements, such as Flame (Family Life and Marriage Education) and the Church Pastoral Aid Society also provide support in many churches across the country.

But what arrangements are there for couples who are not getting married in church? Karen Knapton, registrar in Swindon and president of the Society of Registration Officers, does not feel that registrars are in a position to offer counselling to people. She finds that, more often than not, couples coming to her to get married both give the same address. 'People are preparing themselves by living together.'

Mary Adamson, director of the Somerset branch of Relate, says: 'Relate has always opened its doors to couples who want to talk to a counsellor before they get married, usually when one partner has been divorced.' She has recently begun 'Start together, stay together', a scheme for groups.

Janet Laithwaite, Relate's director of education and training, would like to see education for relationships being done in schools. 'It's all about understanding that you may have different views because of your different life experiences - it's not that one's right or wrong, just different. It's only when expectations are not met that conflicts arise; one of the tasks of going into a committed relationship is negotiating those differences.'

Engaged Encounter (Catholic): 0926 428399 (West), 091-584 2559 (North), 0375 641427 (South); Engaged Encounter (Anglican): 0689 821233; Relate: 0788 573241, or see phone book.

(Photograph omitted)

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