Shifting Gears : An Optimistic View of the Future of Marriage
Diane Sollee, MSW, Director, CMFCE at the
Conference on Communitarian Pro-Family Policies, Washington, DC, November 15, 1996,
sponsored by the Communitarian Network
There are good reasons to be optimistic about the future of marriage.
Before you dismiss this proposition, I ask you to put aside your doubts – and
certainties – about marriage and divorce, and look at the challenge of family break
down from a new angle. We have before us an optimal set of circumstances – a
convergence of factors – that will allow us to usher in a new era of smart, satisfying,
stable marriages. We can do this in time to welcome the new millennium with something
really big to celebrate if we can get our act together and recognize and utilize
the untapped tools and new information we already have on hand. I believe we are that close.
I say this with full awareness of the divorce statistics – the prevailing 50% divorce rate
and the predictions that things can only get worse. I know that children of divorce are
themselves more likely to divorce and that people have figured out what is causing
divorce – it's marriage! – and so they are avoiding it. People are waiting later to marry
and cohabitation is increasing dramatically.
Richard Cohen, Washington Post critic-at-large, represents the frustrated majority
when he snarls – that although it is no longer possible to ignore, or explain away the
damage divorce does to children – the least those who preach family values and a
tightening of divorce laws can do is to come clean and admit there are no solutions.
Admit that what they are doing is asking people to choose between their own
happiness and the happiness and well-being of their children. As Cohen, and
so many see it, we are stuck – things are awful, but there is no acceptable way out.
He is half right. We have all – liberals, conservatives, feminists, promise keepers,
policy makers, clergy, activists, grandparents, teenagers, teachers, marriage therapists,
and critics-at-large – become discouraged under the weight of the divorce epidemic.
We have made the connections between family breakdown and many of our most
alarming problems including: delinquency, poverty, violence, school failure, depression,
substance abuse, and poor health.
We agree that divorce is too expensive – for individuals and for society. It splits
resources – both financial and emotional – and gives nothing back. We have even
managed to agree that "daddies do matter" and that children do better when they
grow up in stable, two-parent families – and better still if they can grow up with their
two married biological parents.
And, we have also come to the full realization that no marriage is an island – that we are all
affected not only by our own divorces but by those around us.
Yet, as much as we hate the fallout, we've become convinced that divorce is
inevitable – one of life's necessary evils.
This is due to our attitudes about marriage. We think of a marriage as a crap shoot, a
game of chance with 50-50 odds of finding and marrying "the right person".
If we marry "the wrong person", we want the right to exit and try again.
And, we want to preserve this right for our fellow citizens. No one, we have come to
believe, should have to live in an unhappy marriage. We hold this truth to be self-evident.
Cohen sounds like Patrick Henry as he defends the divorces of Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich,
"These guys," he says, "were in marriages that were dead. To remain in such a marriage
would be itself a form of death."
I want to tap Richard and the rest of the discouraged and disenchanted
on the shoulder and turn them around so they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
But first, I want to use them to make a point. They are the majority. They admit
that family breakdown is a serious, sobering problem. They have connected divorce
and family breakdown with societal regression. They are alarmed and in despair and
would welcome practical, workable, acceptable solutions.
I offer their "Readiness" as people's Exhibit A.
Going to the Chapel
Exhibit B, I'll call "Willingness." A current overview of research into American values
and attitudes finds that: 1) we value a happy marriage and family above all else and
2) we believe these are prerequisites for our own personal happiness and satisfaction.
The surveys turn up these results whether they poll teen-agers or adults or are
conducted by popular magazines or academic institutions. Even more interesting
is that over the past twenty years – rough years for marriage – these sentiments
have actually increased.
Those who question the findings offer a range of explanations for why we claim to
so highly value marriage but then divorce like lemmings. The explanations range
from the most benign – we don't mean it and just say we do (to look good) – to
discouraging theories about a general decline in the American character. Social
scientists postulate a diminished ability for self-sacrifice; a lack of commitment;
a loss of a sense of duty; and a pervasive narcissism. Americans are accused of
believing they can "have it all", and worse, in their "overweening sense of entitlement"
believing they deserve to have it all -- success at work, marriage, beautiful children,
fit physiques and happiness.
I consider these high expectations a reason to celebrate. Something to build
on. Think where we'd be if Americans gave up on these ideals and no longer
believed that getting married, working hard, bearing, supporting and raising
kids is the route to happiness.
Eighty-five to ninety percent of Americans still marry – in spite of the odds. They
still have children in the face of the predictions that they, themselves, will never equal
their parents' earning power. They take on the difficult task of step-parenting. They adopt crack
babies, handicapped children, and traumatized children from third-world countries.
They go to war for their country, run into burning buildings to rescue strangers,
work all day and go to school at night. And many of these self-sacrificing, committed,
hard-working and caring people end up divorced. Think about Bob Dole – his
commitment and courage in battle, fighting back from his war injuries, his long
dedicated years in the Senate and his grueling run for the presidency. Bob Dole
divorced. So did Ronald Reagan.
I'm optimistic because I don't think divorce has much to do with character, or lack of it.
I believe that it's about something very simple – a misunderstanding about what
makes marriages work – or fail. I believe that if people knew how to
make their marriages work they would keep their vows, raise their children, and no
one would have to point fingers and accuse them of being "entitled narcissists." In fact,
we don't fault people when they aim high and set off to have it all – we toast them,
buy them gifts and shower them with rice. We only call them names when they fail.
Women's increased earning power is also presented as a contributing factor to the
divorce crisis. Their wages enable them to more easily leave their marriages. This is
obviously true. If women have an independent income they can more easily afford
to leave. However, it doesn't explain why they leave. They don't want to leave because
they can afford to leave. If they could stay married, they would reap the benefits
of a dual-income, two-parent family. Or, they could afford the option of taking time off to
raise their children or having their spouse stay home and raise the children. They'd like to
have a partner to bring home some bacon and take out half the garbage and do half the
parenting. They leave because they don't have basic knowledge about the
nature of marriage – what to expect – and the skills to keep their marriages satisfying.
I strongly suggest that if we must continue to discuss theories like these we do it in
hushed tones. The children might be listening.
I also have to get it on the table that I think it is destructive and a waste of time to talk
about solutions that suggest that we lower expectations or turn back the clock.
My confidence in believing we can celebrate where we are, build on our areas of progress
and move forward has to do with my conviction that we have new answers – research,
tools, and know-how – at the ready and simply are not putting them to work. We're not
getting the new information to the couples that need it. Actually, that's an understatement.
It's worse than that. It's not just that we're not putting what we know to work, the new information
about what makes marriage work is actually one of America's best kept secrets.
The Information Age
So, we have Exhibits A and B, Readiness, and Willingness. Exhibit C is "Receptivity."
We live in the Information Age. Our president has identified education as a national priority.
Our citizens understand and embrace the notion of prevention. The majority of Americans
– of any age – can explain the connections between diet, exercise, seat belts, Vitamin C,
designated drivers, bike helmets, smoking, early detection, smoke alarms – and well-being.
Americans are optimistic about the advances being made in science, medicine and education.
They believe in self-care, self-improvement, prevention and mastery. They are eager about and
receptive to more information about how to take care of themselve and their families.
It was announced this week that in only two years Americans have achieved a 30% reduction
in the rate of SIDS deaths – sudden infant death syndrome – through an information
campaign that introduced just one new parenting skill. We told parents not to lay their
infants face down in their cribs, but to lay them on their sides or backs instead. I'm
convinced we can do as well in reducing divorce. Don't lay your marriage face down!
Readiness, Willingness and Receptivity. Add to that Preventive Education – Exhibit D.
I was invited to this meeting to talk about increasing access to marital therapy. I am a marriage
and family therapist who has spent the past twenty years at the national level doing just
that – working hard to increase access to therapy and counseling. I concentrated on
increasing the numbers of practitioners, persuading insurers to reimburse for marital
therapy, and convincing the public of its effectiveness. Until recently, I believed this
was the best way to strengthen marriages and prevent divorce. However, in twenty
years, while the numbers of therapists and access have increased dramatically, the
divorce rate hasn't budged – it's held steady at 50%.
Part of my work at the America Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT)
involved traveling across the country and around the world checking out the best and
brightest the profession had to offer. Over the past ten years I became convinced
that it is the pioneering work focused on skills-based education that offers the
You all know the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him to fish.
The man who knows how to fish can feed himself and his family forever. A couple
who knows how to solve their own problems can keep their love – and their
marriage – alive forever.
You may also have heard the one about the dedicated marital therapist working
the river bank. Day after day he pulls drowning couples from the river. He is only
able to save about 20%, and can bear it no longer. He decides to walk upstream
to see if there is any way to keep couples from falling in.
Thirty years ago, a handful of therapists, discouraged at how tough it was to revive
the marriages which made it in for marital therapy, set out to find an approach that
made better sense. One they could live with. These marriage education pioneers (Mace,
Guerney, Miller, Olson, Gordon, etc) decided they had to teach couples how to keep from
falling in the river. Or, how to get out if they found themselves drowning – or starving.
Teach them the survival skills. What to expect as they walked along the river bank; how
to fish; how to do the marriage walk without losing thier balance or getting too close to the
edge; or if they slip in, how to tread water, and how to climb back up the bank – how to
be skillful about maintaining a successful marriage and family.
At the same time, marital researchers (Gottman, Markman, Notarius, etc) not so much
frustrated as curious, set out armed with the ever more sophisticated tools coming on line – video
cameras, computers, portable heart monitors, stress hormone analysis, etc. – to
see if they could figure out what made some marriages work while others failed.
These pioneers amassed a compelling body of information about how to keep
people from falling in the river and taking their children down with them. Or, climbing out
if they fell. They identified skills that strengthen marriage and prevent divorce. More importantly
they have demonstrated that these skills can be learned – and of greatest interest
for our purposes – they have developed, refined, and tested courses that teach
the skills in a time and cost-efficient manner.
The most crucial new finding is that successful marriage turns out to be a
* Skill is "an ability or dexterity that comes from training or practice." Some
of us are lucky enough to learn this dexterity at our parents' knees. The rest of us
can gain mastery through classes and course work.
* The skills can be taught to any race, culture or economic class and to couples
at any stage of relationship – dating, engaged, newlywed, long-married, or remarried.
The skills also help cohabiting couples gain the confidence to marry.
* The earlier the skills are learned, the better – the greater the chances for long-term
success. Couples work out ways of relating – and whether these ways are skilled or unskilled,
effective or terribly ineffective and destructive – they become the patterns and habits
of the marriage. Successful behaviors build mastery, self-confidence, and appreciation
of one's partner. Failure – ineffective behaviors – lead to anxiety, self-doubt, blame,
boredom, withdrawal, shut-down, violence, break-up, despair and divorce. And, custody battles.
* Applications are most obvious for early intervention – for premarital preparation and
for newlyweds, but are effective at all the identified marital stress points – becoming parents,
entry of children into school, parenting teenagers, the empty nest, retirement – and so on and
also for couples facing serious problems or crisis – illness, unemployment, substance abuse,
deployment, etc. Skills are helpful at any stage. You can, it turns out, teach an old dog new tricks.
And a couple can learn new behaviors that can actually help them fall in love again – get the feelings
back. After all, love is a feeling - not an absolute and feelings can come and go, and come again.
* The courses are presented in churches, community centers, health maintenance organizations,
high schools, extension offices, on military bases and in county court houses. They are presented in classroom
formats using white boards, videos and workbooks. This is not group therapy or an encounter
group. No one is asked to share feelings or reveal personal relationship issues. As one pleased male
participant said, "No one learns your business." Think drivers education or parenting education classes.
* Nor is this approach simply about preventing divorce. Less than half of all married couples
describe their marriage as truly happy. We can – and must – do much better than this.
* If couples learn skills and gain mastery, their relationship will remain a continuing, reinforcing source of pleasure
and satisfaction. The relationship will be more adaptable to change and to stress from both internal
and external sources – children, illness, unemployment, fame, infidelity, war, pestilence, politics, sexual
revolutions, women's liberation, substance abuse, remote controls, Monday night football, and the
internet – porn or otherwise. Through sickness and in health.
* Couples who learn the skills will model the behaviors for their children, thus reducing the divorce
rate in future generations.
* The skills – once learned – generalize to parenting, extended family, the workplace, schoolhouse,
neighborhood and civic relationships.
* The marital relationship is the foundation of the family and the family is the foundation of society – if we
strengthen marriage, we strengthen the family, we strengthen the children, we strengthen the community,
we strengthen the nattion and the economy. It's true that it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes
many strong marriages to create the village.
Therapy – the Art of Healing
Before I tell you why I'm so encouraged about the potential of marriage education, I want
to revisit the issue of therapy.
Though there is not a lot of research on marital therapy, the little there is confirms the obvious. Only
fifty percent who make it to therapy are "helped" if help is defined as saving their marriage. Of these couples,
30% relapse within two years. That means that only 20% of those who will even consider – and who can
afford – the expensive, labor-intensive, one-therapist-to-one-couple approach called "marriage
counseling or marital therapy" show lasting "positive" results.
The widely accepted explanation for this lack of success is that couples don't seek therapy early enough.
A recent study confirms this. There is an average six-year delay between the time a couple first discusses
the possibility that they might need therapy and the time they actually make an appointment.
This would suggest it might be a good idea to work at improving access – to try to get couples to therapy earlier,
while there is still time to help them – while there are marital strengths remaining. However, even if we were
able to develop a scheme that could pay for widespread and increased access (and in the face of the shrinking
health care dollar this is hard to imagine), it is important to remember that what we are talking about is "therapy."
Websters, the professions, and our culture – including couples – define and understand therapy to mean
"the treatment of mental disorders or maladjustment." Therapy requires a diagnosis for third-party
reimbursement. It requires a treatment plan designed to eliminate or "cure" the underlying pathology
identified by a particular therapist as the cause of a particular couple's distress. Its purpose is the
"healing" of a disorder that is damaged.
When newlyweds fight over who should do the dishes or how to spend money or what to do on the week-end
they don't feel the need for therapy. "WHAT are you trying to say? You want to go to a marriage counselor?
I guess, because I don't agree with you, you're trying to say I'm crazy!?" They are in love, hopeful, and as
they see it they are having a disagreement – a fight.
And they are right. The researchers find that fighting is normal. It's not whether or not couples fight, or how loudly,
or how much, or what they fight about, that predicts divorce. Conflict, disagreement and change are as predictable
in marriage as the sun coming up in the morning. Research even confirms that all couples fight over all the same issues.
If you walk in on a fighting couple there is a 94% likelihood that they will be fighting about money, jealousy, in-laws,
communication, housework, sex or about how to spend their leisure time. What predicts divorce is the presence or absence
of certain positive and negative behaviors during the disagreement process and during the periods between the fights. Put
another way, there are certain behaviors a couple needs to learn to do more of and certain behaviors a couple needs
to learn to do less of. The courses teach these step-by-step.
Without this knowledge (the understanding that disagreement is a normal part of marriage – it's a team, after all) and without the skills, couples struggle and may decide to throw in the towel. By the time the minority of these couples do seek
treatment and agree to see a therapist, they are often feeling quite crazy and there is plenty of maladjustment and disorder to go around. Enough for a diagnosis and a treatment plan. It isn't an underlying mental disorder that causes marital distress and divorce, it is marital distress and threats of divorce that causes mental disorder. In the process of marital failure there is likely to be anxiety, depression, despair, rage, emptiness, angst, loneliness, disappointment, contempt, blame, lying,
philandering, criticism, substance abuse, violence, and/or mistrust. Couples usually report feeling like fools and failures.
In fact, most seek therapy for the crisis they face when they find they no longer feel love for the person they promised
– and expected – to cherish for the rest of their life. When they are contemplating quitting – leaving. And, this is before we factor in the distress they feel about their children and their responsibilities as parents. There is also, by this end stage, plenty of anxiety, rage, emptiness, hopelessness and depression in the children. Enough that they often are sent for therapy. For their own mental health diagnosis.
What's Love Got to Do With It?
One of our problems is that in spite of all our readiness and all our revolutions – women's liberation; the sexual
revolution; the self-help, information and divorce revolutions – we are still operating with an old, outmoded
premise about marriage. We believe it's love that will keep us together. The five million of us who get married
each year do so because we believe our love is special, different, stronger and more passionate than that
of the people who divorce.
Then, at the other end of this tunnel-of-love, we decide that this great, special, unique, beautiful love
has simply up and died. "I just don't love you anymore." And, according to the prevailing "love logic,"
that means we should end it. If it isn't working I must have "picked the wrong person," or, it must mean we
weren't really in love, or saddest of all, we were in love but love went and died. This logic is so pervasive that it is
accepted as the reason for marital failure. We want to end it as quickly and painlessly as possible and help
the victims get out there and renew their search for true love and personal happiness.
The next revolution needs to be one that introduces the concept of smart, educated love. We can do this
in a way that is compatible with our existing notions about romantic love. Romantic love is, after all, a
powerhouse – it inspires people to reach great heights and overcome impossible obstacles – we only
discredit it when it doesn't work. We can expand on and enhance, ennoble, our notions of love. Find a way to harness
it and make it work for us and with us. And, while we're at it, continue to raise expectations.
The way I suggest we go about this is to pose the following question. Which sounds more romantic?
Is it more romantic to say, "Beloved, I see that the divorce rate is 50%. Let's get married anyway and
let's assume that our love is so special, so passionate, that we'll make it. That we'll stay together till death us do part."
Or, can we get to the place where people will realize that the true romantic would say, "Beloved, the
divorce rate is 50%. I want to marry you and I love you so much that I want to learn everything the experts
know about what makes marriage succeed or fail so that we can work to make sure our love and our marriage last."
Romantic love – educated, skill-full, smart AND enduring.
I believe that in the near future – if those of us in meetings like this do our job – couples will come to
accept that the most romantic thing they can do is to walk hand-in-hand into a course on making marriages
work. That taking such a course will become as much a part of the wedding tradition as the bridal shower
or the bachelor party. That not taking such a course will come to be seen as foolhardy, reckless, uninformed,
and unsophisticated. That the time will come when none of us would dream of giving our children a big
wedding and not also giving them a marriage education class. That we will also know what to give them at the
first baby shower. That along with prenatal classes a couple will also sign up for a booster course on
keeping love alive. And that employers and insurers and governments will come to recognize that such courses will
easily pay for themselves.
And, that changing marketplace demands will move marital healthcare into the 21st century.
It's the Economy, Stupid
We've all heard about the village where the doctor is only paid if he keeps people healthy. We
would like the same deal for marriage. Only pay the experts and helpers if the divorce rate goes down.
The marrige healthcare landscape has long been dominated by the medical model and its focus on pathology,
diagnosis and treatment. Mental health providers have had to spend their time and resources fighting for
their position in an on-going battle for parity – for their piece of the healthcare pie – for equal recognition,
licensure, and reimbursement as diagnosticians and healers of pathology. As the health care
revolution progresses, and as physical healthcare providers move towards education and prevention,
mental health providers will follow.
And the public will get only what it is willing to pay for. If, somehow, we stall in our tracks and continue to pay
for approaches that aren't working – then the Richard Cohens will be proven to be right. We will be stuck with
no real solutions. If, however, we continue the shift toward empowerment and marriage-mastery – toward teaching
couples how to fish and how to do the work of keeping their love alive and marriges and families intact and healthy – then there are great reasons for optimism.
In January, 1996, martial therapists. counselors, researchers, clergy and policy advocates who are passionate
about the marriage education approach and its potential, joined me to organize the Coalition for Marriage, Family and
Couples Education (CMFCE). The coalition's mission is to create awareness of the new information that
can change the odds for marriage.
In May, 1997, in Washington, DC, the Coalition will present "Smart Marriages/Happy Families" – the first national
conference devoted to marriage education. The program will feature more than a hundred workshops and seminars.
It is my hope that many of you will attend. Here is some of what you can expect to see.
John Gottman, PhD, from the University of Washington, will present "Why Marriages Succeed or Fail:
A Research Update." He has spent twenty-five years and thousands of hours videotaping couples to
determine just what it is that is different about the couples who stay married and happy. He now is able to
observe interaction between an engaged couple and predict with 95% accuracy whether or not that couple
will eventually divorce. His week-end course, "The Marriage Survival Kit," teaches newlyweds -- or
long-married couples with or without problems – a range of marriage strengthening behaviors.
Here are two of the dozens of skills from the course.
* It seems that men's ability to accept influence from their partners is one of the most significant
predictors of marital success. Gottman has developed tapes and exercises to help men learn this skill.
(Woman, he finds, naturally accept partner influence and suggestions.)
* All couples disagree and fight. What is significant is that no matter the fighting style, and no matter the couple,
a repair attempt is made approximately every three minutes. Successful couples can utilize
repair attempts to exit a fight. His course teaches couples to recognize, value and use repair attempts.
David Olson, PhD, from the University of Minnesota, will present his 195 item questionnaire,
PREPARE, which predicts marital satisfaction with 80 - 85% accuracy and ENRICH, an inventory
which assesses the relationship strengths of those who are already married. ENRICH is
useful for anniversary check-ups and booster sessions – a concept, like that of an annual
physical check-up, that could go a long way in improving the overall health of the nation's marriages.
Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg, PhDs, from the University of Denver,
will present PREP – the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program – a 12 hour
course on skills and rules for speaking clearly, listening accurately, separating problem
discussion from problem solutions, building commitment, expressing appreciation, and
developing a "team-marriage" orientation.
A recent study found that only 2% of PREP trained couples had divorced after three years,
while 17% of couples who received traditional premarital counseling had divorced.
Blumberg explains why she suggests that the courses should be advertised in Field and
Stream rather than Good HouseKeeping. Men especially appreciate the guidelines and
rules – the user's manual – for having more effective relationships and more efficient fights.
Because, as the research points out, "in a sea of conflict woman swim and men sink."
Men's evolutionary journey has equipped them for action. Presented with a problem – a
wildebeest, a gang of marauders, or a complaint from their wife – their instincts have equipped
them to quickly size up the situation and stand and fight – or, run like hell. Fight or flight. Men who
decided to sit and talk about the problem didn't live long enough to pass on their
"Think about how men operate," Blumberg says. "Their games have rules. There are the rules
of football and rules of war. Time outs. White flags. A Geneva Convention to avoid war. The
Prep course gives couples a "convention" – agreed upon protocols – for avoiding divorce."
Men are more able to enter into and effectively participate in what women call a "discussion" and
what men call a "fight" or "argument" if agreed upon structures are in place – if they know they can
take a "time-out" if things get too heated; if they can establish up front how long the discussion is
going to take; and if they can have some control over where and when it will start. Women who
can learn to go to bed angry but confident that the discussion will take place tomorrow night at
8pm after the kids are in bed get in return a partner who will sit down and talk out the fine points
of the situation. Which is often all that is needed. Men, for their part agree to participate in the
discussion and not withdraw. Male withdrawal or "stonewalling" is highly predictive of divorce.
In the early learning stages of the PREP program couples use a piece of linoleum which they
pass back and forth to mark who has "the floor" – whose turn it is to talk and whose to listen.
To people who say, "How ridiculous," Blumberg says, "Think how ridiculous a man feels
driving four hours each way to visit his children two week-ends a month."
Mike McManus, will convene a Community Marriage Policy for the Greater Washington
area as part of the conference. Although churches and synagogues perform most of the marriages
in America, half of these church-blessed unions end in divorce. Community-based marriage
policies offer a solution. They establish community-wide standards of marital preparation which
include programs to teach skills, mentor newlyweds, and support and strengthen all the marriages
in a congregation, even working for reconciliation of the separated and divorced. McManus has
also found that the media plays a significant role – when media supports the policy the marital
"climate" change is dramatic.
In addition to the McManus Marriage Savers/Community Marriage Policy model, the conference will
also feature a dozen church-based programs; six school-based curricula; military applications of the
PREP program; court-mandated models for premarital and divorce education; a range of courses which
address the special issues of stepfamilies, urban poor and never-married families, sexuality, spirituality,
and social support and forums and roundtable's on what needs to be done to bring the skills-approach
to the greater attention and service of the country.
The Road Ahead: Through the Portals
We have optimal conditions – readiness, receptivity, willingness, high expectations, and a
practical new body of skill-based knowledge.
Our challenge – the responsibility of policy makers, the media, and family advocates – is
dissemination. We must make widely accessible this new, optimistic, empowered and responsible
approach to strengthening marriage and preventing family breakdown. We must contact our
friends in high places in both private and public sectors – in corporations, government agencies,
foundations, media, think tanks, and the community and enlist them in this effort.
Here are suggestions to get us started:
Target divorce as the major public health problem that it is. Set federal milestones for the health
of the nation's marriages and attack the problem through a massive education campaign.
Establish as primary goals the reduction of the divorce rate from 1/2 to 1/4 in ten years with
an accompanying increase in marital satisfaction in those who stay married.
The government offered prizes this year to the states that make the greatest progress in
lowering their out-of-wedlock pregnancy rate without increasing their abortion rate. They
could do the same for the five states that did the best job of reducing their divorce rate
without lowering the marriage rate or increasing the cohabitation rate.
Develop state demonstration projects – model programs and blueprints for other states
to implement. "Virginia is for Lovers." Why not, "Maryland is for Marriage"? Concentrate
on one state and see what we can achieve with targeted public information campaigns,
statewide Community Marriage Policies, and programs in the schools, on public television,
and community-based seminars for the public.
Target our efforts to the most obvious settings by providing marriage education programs
in the social institutions which give us natural access to the largest numbers of citizens.
I think of these as the major social "portals" through which most of us pass. These institutions
have staff who naturally provide education and who can be readily trained to teach marriage
education. Training of marriage educators takes one to three days. This will give the most effective
return on our investment
Churches, high schools, and prenatal health care programs are the most promising places
to begin. In fact programs in these institutions may be all we need. If we could teach effective
communication, conflict management, marriage partnership and goal-setting skills in the majority
of premarital, high school, prenatal, and marriage strengthening classes across the country
we could reach our divorce-lowering milestones. These settings:
• Provide access to most Americans including minority and disadvantaged populations.
• Have instructors, teachers, clergy, and family-life educators in place that can easily and
affordably be trained to include preventive couples education in existing programs.
It isn't necessary to bring in therapists or counselors to teach the courses. The
school-based programs are designed to for use by classroom teachers. An ongoing
million dollar, NIH-funded research project is testing the marriage-strengthening results
of courses presented by trained clergy and lay instructors as compared to results achieved
by psychologists and mental health professionals.
• Are accepted in the community and won't face the resistance that would challenge the
delivery of services through court-mandated or mental health programs.
Other applications are currently in place and will be expanded – you can't keep the supply-and-demand
- Health Care Delivery: We have all come to realize that not only are divorce and marital
conflict bad for our health, marriage is good for our health. It's been identified as being
as important in predicting health and longevity as smoking, exercise and diet. Conflict a
nd divorce compromise the immune system of all involved – even the kids and grandparents.
(And, probably the neighbors and the family dog.) One study examining heart attack
recovery rates found that men who believed their wives loved them lived longer than
men who "weren't sure."
- At the Healing the Heart Program at Duke University, a re-education course for heart-attack
survivors and their partners, Director, Martin Sullivan, MD, found that exercise, relaxation, a
nd a low-fat diet weren't enough. They have to also be taught skills for retooling their
relationships if they wanted to regain their health. The patients, mostly retirement-age e
xecutives, now learn exercises adapted from the PAIRS program -- Fair Fights for Change,
The Dialogue Guide, and Daily Temperature Readings in which they express appreciation a
nd share their Wishes, Hopes and Dreams. This course is also especially good for those men
who love their wives so much they almost tell them.
- HMOs, EAPs, and insurers: As the public becomes aware of the programs, health care
- companies will advertise the courses as a major benefit to attract customers and keep them satisfied.
- In the military, several commanding officers -- who can make mandatory any program they
- believe will improve the well-being, efficiency, and moral of the fighting force -- have
begun to require relationship skill-training courses for married personnel. The programs have been
so well received that the military is researching whether, as it appears, the training reduces
domestic violence and divorce; and increases rates of re-enlistment.
- Managers of any business -- large or small -- will tell you that marital problems and divorce
- are the number one cause of reduced worker productivity. There is research to back this up.
Millions of worker hours are lost each year due to family break-up, whether it's from being b
leary-eyed and exhausted from fighting all night or taking off time to testify at a co-worker's
custody hearing. There is a significant economic pay-off in teaching employees how to
keep their marriages happy and intact.
- Promote Pre-Commitment vows that include skill-based premarital preparation courses,
- a booster course during the first year of marriage, and one on each anniversary. There
are enough courses that a couple won't run out of options or get bored. I have taken most
of them and find that each course teaches some new angle or exercise, some new concept
or tool that helps anchor the learning. Those who wanted to make extra-strong, pre-commitment
vows would agree to join organizations like the Association for Couples in Marriage
Enrichment (ACME) and participate in an ongoing Couple's Enrichment groups. If there
isn't yet such a group in their community they would commit to starting one.
- Support Community-based programs like Marriage Encounter, Marriage Enrichment,
- and Retrouvaille. Run by volunteer couples, these programs are inexpensive and
support marriages over the long-haul.
- The list of applications is endless. Provide courses on public television with follow-along
- workbooks. Subsidize courses for clergy and their wives (a non-profit organization has
begun this effort.) Send script-writers to classes so that we might begin to see a few movies
and sit-coms which incorporate the new approach. Get Richard Cohen to take a course.
- Support the inclusion of skill-based training in any and all mandated marriage, family and
- divorce education. A current survey of 144 divorce education programs found only one
that includes skill-based training. That program is also the only one to show a reduction
in custody readjudication. When you realize that 75% of those who divorce remarry, usually
to form stepfamilies, skill-training is all the more necessary. And it is crucial that any mandated
premarital counseling include skill-training.
Those who take the courses are convinced. Therapists who learn to teach the skills-courses often report
feeling guilty if they work with a couple the old way --using the traditional format and models. They say
they realize they could help their patients quicker, faster, and more effectively if they could get them into
a skill-based course. A large HMO offers the PREP course to all the couples who come in for marital therapy.
Even those couples who have already separated. The most troubled sometimes take the course a second
and third time or get special coaching to master the skills. This HMO also offers traditional therapy for those
with special problems, but few require it.
And I have been put to the ultimate test. When a close friend or relative calls to tell me their marriage is in
trouble and asks me to recommend a marital therapist I invariably try to persuade them to take a skill-based
course. I believe it is the most ethical advice and the most likely to save their marriage.
Practical, Romantic Optimism
Gottman makes the point that we have to "over-learn" the behaviors so that they will kick in even when conflict
is high and we are likely to revert to our old, ingrained, knee-jerk responses. However, just knowing about the skills
shifts a couple's attitude and adds a measure of protection. A couple that in the heat of the moment forgets to use the
skills is like a football team that loses a game. The team can analyze the loss and say, "When the pressure was on we
forgot to use the new pass play and the double loop fake, we'll get it right next time." They don't talk about disbanding
or say they weren't meant to play together. A couple who blows a fight and realizes they forgot to use the skills has
a similar attitude. Instead of feeling that they aren't meant to be together or they wouldn't be disagreeing and fighting,
they can say, "Next time we disagree we'll use try to remember to use the time-outs and the dialogue guide
and we'll do better." They have a shared understanding and hope and confidence that there is a way to "get it right."
They understand the problem is not about their lack of love or that they are not suited for each other. They understand
that they have not been behaving skillfully around their areas of disagreement.
Our current approach actually expects the marital "team" to win based on love, commitment and team spirit. We hold
a big rally, shower them with gifts and rice, and send them off with no skills. Not a single pass play. After they lose game
after game we offer them therapy. Maybe it was something in their childhood? Maybe it's a character disorder? Maybe
they aren't well-matched? Eventually they quit only to join another team, still without skills -- hoping to win through
determination, new players, and love of the game. And as more and more couples fail, and we see the terrible social fallout,
we're proposing changes in the rules -- we'll make it harder to switch teams. Tighten divorce laws.
I want to assure Richard Cohen and anyone who worries about individual freedoms and preserving the right to divorce
that the skill-based education approach is not against divorce. It is about making widely and inexpensively available
the skills education that make marriages stronger and more satisfying. The skills work equally well for cohabiting,
remarried, and gay and lesbian couples.
We have a serious problem. We need a dramatic change. A paradigm shift. An educational approach hasn't been tried.
There is every reason to expect that such an approach will make a difference. But it is the message behind the method that
will make the real difference. The realization that couples can gain control of their relationships will change the way we think
about -- and approach, and set policies around -- love, mate selection, marriage, and divorce.
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Bray, James H. (1995). Treatment of marital conflict and prevention of divorce. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy , 21, 461-473.
Carville, James (1996). We're Right, They're Wrong. New York: Random House.
Catron, David and Sarah, compiled by (1996). Starting an A.C.M.E. Chapter: A Community Marriage Enrichment Network. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment.
Cohen, Richard (Oct. 20,1966) Between Marriage and Divorce. e Washington Post Magazine.
Cohen, Richard (Nov. 3, 1966) The Dated Game. Washington Post Magazine.
Gallagher, Maggie (1996). The Abolition of Marriage. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Books.
Glenn, Norval D. (1996). Values, Attitudes, and the State of American Marriage. In David Popenoe, Jean Elshtain, and David Blankenhorn(Eds.), Promises to Keep: Decline and Renewal of Marriage in America. (Ch.2, pp.15-33). Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield.
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Gottman, John M. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gottman, J.M., Notarius, C., Gonnso, J., Markman, H.J. (1976). A Couple's Guide to Communication. Champaign, Ill.: Research Press.
Guerney, Bernard, Jr. (1982) The Delivery of Mental Health Services: Spiritual vs. Medical vs. Educational Models. In Theodore R. Vallance and Ru M. Sabre (Eds.), Mental Health Services in Transition: A Policy Sourcebook. New York: Human Sciences Press.
Markman, Howard J., Stanley, Scott M., Blumberg, Susan L. (1994) Fighting for Your Marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
McManus, Michael J. (1995). Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Avoid Divorce. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House.
Miller, Sherod, Wackman, Daniel B., Nunnally, Elam W., Miller Phyllis A. (1988) Connecting With Self and Others. Littleton, CO.: Interpersonal Communication Programs, Inc.
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Sullivan, Kieran T. and Bradbury, Thomas N. (1996) Preventing Marital Dysfunction: The Primacy of Secondary Strategies. The Behavior Therapist, 19, 33-36.
Weiner-Davis, Michele (1992) Divorce Busting. New York: Summit Books.
Copyright Diane Sollee/CMFCE
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