Meet the marriage mentors - solemnisers who journey with newlyweds in new initiative

Solemniser of 16 years Thirunal Karasu Palaniappan continues to offer couples a listening ear, advice and guidance under the new programme. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Solemniser Thirunal Karasu Palaniappan, 60, makes it a point to get to know the couples he is marrying and let them know they can turn to him if they need someone to talk to after their wedding.

And some do - sharing with him the woes and issues they face.

Mr Palaniappan, who has been married for 33 years and has two grown-up children, said: "Building the relationship with couples is critical and they will open up if they trust you and are comfortable with you."

Now, under the new Journey With You (Joy) programme, the solemniser of 16 years continues to offer couples a listening ear, advice and guidance.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) launched the pilot programme in December last year, with 20 solemnisers roped in to mentor about 40 newly-wed couples in their first year of marriage.

The solemnisers will invite couples whose marriages they solemnise to be part of the programme and encourage them to attend marriage preparation courses.

Ms Sun Xueling,  Minister of State for Social and Family Development, said on Jan 10 in Parliament: "Many licensed solemnisers develop good relationships with the couples and have a wealth of helpful tips."

The initiative is championed by the Registry of Marriages and the Alliance for Action (AfA) to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships, under its focal area 2 - support for newlyweds.

The MSF is partnering with the community, religious groups and Singaporeans to find ways to strengthen marriages and family ties through the AfA. It focuses on six groups, such as newlyweds, parents and single parents.

Speaking at the AfA's launch in August last year, Ms Sun said there has been concern over the falling number of marriages and the trend of married couples breaking up sooner.

For example, 16 per cent of couples who wed in 2006 ended their marriages before their 10th wedding anniversary - almost double the 8.7 per cent of those who were married in 1987.

The first year can be challenging as couples adjust to married life, Mr Palaniappan said, which is why the Joy programme caters to newlyweds.

"When you are dating, you try to please the other person. When you are married, you become yourself and some find that their spouse has become very different," added Mr Palaniappan, who runs a consultancy firm.

"I always tell couples, marriage is like riding a bicycle, you have to keep pedalling. Once you stop, you fall. So don't take your spouse for granted."

Mrs Joanna Portilla, 50, a solemniser of 15 years, is also part of the Joy programme. Like Mr Palaniappan, she has couples who turn to her for advice when they run into marital problems.

They include a woman who discovered her husband's infidelity and another whose husband has a sex addiction.

Mrs Portilla, an educator who has been married for 20 years and has a teenage son, said: "Some people find it very hard to talk to their families, as they don't want their families to worry.

"So it may be easier for them to talk to a third party like a solemniser, especially if they have a good relationship with us. We can provide advice and perspective."

Both Mrs Portilla and Mr Palaniappan volunteer their time to solemnise marriages and mentor couples in the Joy programme. They are also members of the AfA's focal area 2 - support for newlyweds.

Mrs Joanna Portilla solemnising the marriage of Mr Bryan Cheong and Ms Shannon Lim on Oct 15, 2021. PHOTO: ST FILE

Mr Palaniappan, who is mentoring a couple who got married in December last year, said: "I tell them they don't need to have a problem to call me for a chit-chat.

"I'm not a counsellor nor a problem solver, but more a friend who is there for them," he added, noting that he can always refer couples to professional help if he feels they need it.

He always shares more about himself and the challenges he faces with married life with the couples he is marrying.

One topic he often raises: the importance of finding the right time and space to talk to your spouse about differences or difficult issues.

"If your spouse is not in the right mood, the message will not sink in," he said. "I tell them not to scream or shout, but find a time when both can talk calmly."

The latest available data show that 22,651 marriages were registered in 2020 - a 10.9 per cent fall from 25,434 in 2019.

The MSF spokesman said: "We will review the progress of the pilot, including future plans to expand the initiative to bring more solemnisers onboard and reach out to more newlyweds."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.