Building a better marriage

November 8, 1998

BY MICHAEL GILLIS STAFF REPORTER

Their kids were gone, their nest was empty and after 30 years their marriage had reached what Michael Meshenberg described as a ``plateau.''

``We had fallen into a routine, and we wanted something to invigorate, to refresh, to strengthen our marriage,'' said Meshenberg, 56, of Hyde Park.

Meshenberg and his wife, Katherine, 55, signed up for a class that teaches relationship skills--an approach that is gaining a reputation as an effective way to keep couples happy and combat America's high divorce rate.

Although the Meshenbergs were worried about their relationship, they weren't contemplating divorce. But they vouched for the skills they learned in the class, skills that researchers say can help keep marriages intact.

``I'd say that our relationship in lots of areas improved dramatically,'' said Katherine Meshenberg. ``I'd say we fell in love again.''

Engaged or married couples probably would be surprised to learn that relationship experts can predict, with remarkable accuracy, if they are bound for divorce. That's the bad news.

The good news is that the factors that make it easy to predict divorce--like how couples communicate and manage conflict--are factors that can be changed.

And not only are courses available to teach couples to change those factors, there's plenty of evidence that changing them works wonders on a marriage. Such courses, they say, can benefit couples about to be married as well as couples who have been married a long time.

``It's not really divorce prevention per se,'' said Dr. Howard Markman, director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, and co-author of Fighting for Your Marriage. ``It's to help couples have great relationships. We think it's possible but it's typically not happening, and it's not happening for reasons that are fairly simple.''

With his colleagues, Markman designed a course that teaches couples how to communicate and manage conflict. Other researchers have designed similar programs, some of which are available in the Chicago area.

Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, said the courses represent the cutting edge of research into relationships. The coalition, which serves as an information clearinghouse on skills-based marriage education, held its second annual conference last month in Washington, D.C.

Like many people who are preaching the benefits of marriage education, Sollee spent much of her professional life involved in marital therapy, serving as associate executive director of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. She says she left that group, however, when she realized the best way to reduce the divorce rate was not through therapy but through education.

``It's the difference between going to a surgeon to have your arteries unclogged and teaching you as a young man to eat right,'' she said. ``One is to cure the mess you've gotten yourself into, the other is to teach you to not get into the mess.''

While therapy still has a role for couples facing crises such as an unfaithful spouse or the death of a child, Sollee and others say marriage education is a better tool for preventing divorce.

For one thing, most people don't like going to a therapist. Those who do usually put it off too long for the therapist to do them much good.

And despite the growing number of marriage therapists, there hasn't been a corresponding plunge in the divorce rate. Although the 1996 rate of 4.3 divorces per 1,000 people is down from the rate of 5.3 in 1981, nearly half of all marriages still end in divorce.

The classroom setting, where most marriage education courses are taught, has proved to be a far better conduit for help than the therapist's couch.

``We create a very safe climate for people, where nobody is going to invade their privacy,'' said Dr. Michele Baldwin, who for the last nine years has been teaching a course to Chicagoans, including the Meshenbergs, called the Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills.

``What happens over a period of time is that people open up to the group. They find that as human beings we all have the same sorts of issues. We all want to be respected by partners and be treated respectfully.''

The No. 1 predictor of divorce, researchers say, is not arguments over sex, money or the children. It's the avoidance of conflict--stonewalling and distancing between couples--that gives researchers one of the biggest clues that a marriage is in trouble.

``You can't avoid conflict forever,'' Sollee said. ``Couples that make it disagree exactly the same amount as couples that fail. Disagreement just means you have two normal human beings.''

It is how couples handle that conflict that counts, researchers say. And that's where the courses come in, teaching people the skills to help them improve their communication. The skills are taught to people preparing to get married, as well as to people already married. Clergy in suburbs such as Waukegan are even banding together to require premarital education classes.

Couples ``learn very specific structures about how to go into a fight and come out of a fight where both parties get some of what they want met,'' said Meg Haycraft, who teaches PAIRS in Evanston. ``They also learn how to fight without doing additional damage.''

The courses also teach couples how to listen. Most of them include exercises that require couples to listen to their partner, then paraphrase what they've just heard to assure they've understood.

Do the courses help? The studies done so far say yes. The most extensive studies have been done on Markman's course. In a study done in Denver, couples who took the course were a third less likely to break up than couples who had no counseling or traditional premarital counseling.

Other studies, however, indicate that the benefits of the course weaken after four or five years, indicating the need for refresher courses.

* * * * * * * * * *

How can you have a Smart Marriage®?

Diane Sollee, the founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, an information clearinghouse on marriage-skills education, has some advice.

The following is excerpted and adapted from her group's Web site:

* It's not conflict, it's how you handle conflict that separates successful and unsuccessful marriages. Disagreement and fighting aren't predictors of divorce, but stonewalling, avoidance, defensiveness, contempt and the silent treatment are.

* Repair attempts are crucial. They can be clumsy or funny, even sarcastic, but a willingness to make up after a fight is central to every happy marriage.

* All couples have about 10 issues they'll never resolve. If you switch partners, you'll still have unresolvable issues. (More than 90 percent of all arguments between couples are over money, time, kids, sex and jealousy and in-laws and friends.) Learn how to live with and accommodate your differences.

* Love ebbs and flows depending on how you treat each other. Learn new ways to interact, and the feeling can come flowing back.

* Remember marital satisfaction drops with the birth of a baby. It's normal. Hang in there.

* Sex ebbs and flows, too. Enjoy the flows.

* Welcome change. The marriage vow is a promise to stay married, not to stay the same.

To improve communication, Sollee urges couples to practice simple skills. Share things you appreciate about your partner. Express your wishes, hopes and dreams. Update your spouse about changes in plans and circumstances.

Clear up little mysteries before they become suspicious. And when you have complaints, don't just criticize--describe what bothers you and suggest how you'd like it done.

Information on marriage education classes in the Chicago area can be found at the Web site of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education: www.smartmarriages.com

Copyright, 1998 Michael Gillis

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