“Well, at least it’s not a nice day,” I said, as my husband Steve and I drove downtown on a cold, spitting-rain morning in May to spend a full spring Saturday in Pre-Cana. Pre-Cana, for the uninitiated (pun intended), is like group marriage counseling that couples who intend to marry in the Catholic church must attend.
“Okay, so what are we going to say again if they ask if we live together?” he asked while we walked to the Catholic Charities building where our day of marriage training would take place.
“I’ll just say I live with my parents, if they ask,” I said. As liberals who live in Chicago, we weren’t sure what to expect from the day’s events. Would we have to pretend to agree that premarital sex was wrong? Would we have to recite long-forgotten prayers and be exposed for being less-than-devout? What if they discovered that Steve had stopped receiving sacraments after First Communion? And since we had bought a house together just a month before, how would we explain that whole cohabitation thing?
We need not have worried. Once we took our seat at our table of eight other couples (in a room with about six ten-people tables), we quickly learned that we were not the only non-model Catholics in the room. Most of the couples at our table volunteered that they already lived together. One already had a child together. Many seemed to be having a Catholic wedding largely to please their parents.
Eventually, a middle-aged married couple I’ll call Don and Joy (because their real names are long forgotten) entered the room and began the day’s affairs. I bought a book before we got married called Don’t You Dare Get Married Until You Read This!, wherein a couple is supposed to answer tough-but-important questions on topics like money, death, fidelity, and sexuality. Pre-Cana was sort of like that, actually. Fortunately, Steve and I had already answered a lot of the questions in the book, so Pre-Cana seemed like a breeze, a lot of common sense information that amounted to “Do you actually know this person, and have you gotten around to talking about the boring, adult, scary stuff yet?”
We doodled in the workbooks we were supposed to be filling out throughout the day. Expecting a lot of fire and brimstone, were almost disappointed in the lack of WTF stories to take back to our secular friends except, during the section on family planning, Don and Joy informed us that they regretted “only” having two children due to the evil convenience of birth control pills. “So take in some foster kids,” I whispered, full of self-righteous anger. Then, Steve wrote “GROSS” in our workbook when Don proudly told us that their daughter was currently on vacation with her spouse where they were working on giving him and Joy their first grandchild. Why were Catholics so up in everybody’s sex business, anyway?
We were a little cocky and a little bratty, but we had this. All Steve and I had to do was pass the rest of the day looking like good Catholics and we’d emerge with a certificate that we could give our priest and advance to the next square in the game board that is having a church wedding.
But we weren’t done yet. Before we could move on from the family planning section of the program, Don and Joy informed us that we’d all be taking fifteen minutes to talk one-on-one about our sex lives.
All sixty of us looked at them for a moment like they were joking. “Go!” they encouraged us. Sixty chairs scraped back very slowly and reluctantly. Some couples went to the hallway. Others grabbed a corner. Steve and I sat down by an unused catering door (sadly, Pre-Cana was not catered. We only had a lousy half-hour to get lunch, in fact.)
“So…” I said. “I guess we might as well talk, while we’re here.”
“No, we don’t,” he said. “This is dumb.”
“It’s not dumb,” I said.
“Let’s talk about it in the car, later.”
“Well, no,” I said. “I don’t actually see what’s so wrong with this. We don’t have to get, like, explicit. But, yeah, let’s talk about sleeping together. What can we do better?”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” he said, averting his eyes.
“I think the fact that you don’t want to talk about this means we probably should talk about it,” I said. After some back-and-forth, for a few minutes we discussed various wants and needs and “it would be nice if”s before we were summoned back to our tables. Apparently there was an iceberg under our placid relationship lake and we had just found the tip.
I certainly didn’t expect anyone from the Catholic Church to have much useful information for me on how to have a better sex life, but I guess God works in mysterious ways, or what have you. Until this point, neither Steve nor I had really addressed the fact that we were both reluctant to talk plainly and clearly about sex, but then again, people who are reluctant to talk plainly and clearly about sex don’t typically talk plainly and clearly about that situation. We were two people who loved each other very much and had a great relationship, but between various late-blooming situations, hangups, and shyness, the lone thing we couldn’t really talk about was our lives in bed.
We’ve been married now for five-and-a-half years and we’re still working on communicating clearly about being intimate. It’s hard! For us, anyway. Even with my best friend and partner, it’s difficult to talk about a subject where your thoughts can either feel ridiculous or selfish or messed-up or just crazy-hurtful. But it’s worth discussing, even if — probably because — it’s hard. Thanks to Pre-Cana, I learned that it’s better not to save the weird conversations for the drive home. Especially because then you get to talk about how weird it was that Don and Joy were talking about their kids’ sex lives.