Is the bliss gone from your marriage? Panel discusses ways to bring it back and make it last.


By LIZ DOUP, Herald Staff Writer

Published Friday, May 23, 1997, in the Miami Herald

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Four years into their marriage, Angela Hight, 28, and Trevor Walker, 30, spend more time finding fault with each other than having fun. She's too messy, says Walker, who's director of a software company. He doesn't listen, says Hight, a research physicist. But for better or worse, the Gaithersburg, Md., couple want their marriage to work. So they're attending a "Fighting for Your Marriage'' workshop that's part of the first "Smart Marriages: Happy Families'' conference, sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. It's an informal group of more than 100 academics, ardent feminists, conservative Christians and feel-good family therapists, who spent last weekend at an Arlington, Va., hotel, talking about how to keep couples together.

"Marriage is filled with changes,'' says Diane Sollee, a 53-year-old divorcee and director of the year-old coalition. "You may be a tax lawyer who decides to become a minister. You may say, `I changed my mind; I want to have children.' We need to teach people skills to deal with whatever lies ahead.''

Sounds simple. Divorce, though, remains an American way of life, even if the divorce rate continues to drop from its peak years in 1979 and 1981.

So how can we help make marriage work?

At one extreme is conference speaker Mike McManus, a syndicated columnist from Bethesda, Md., who writes about ethics and religion. McManus speaks with one arm draped around his wife of 31 years. He wants a mandatory four-month waiting period for couples to prepare for marriage and the repeal of no-fault divorce laws. He's also against same-sex marriages.

At the other end: New York therapist Peggy Papp, who wants to show couples how gender-based stereotypes strangle marriages. "Our goal is to save people from miserable marriages, not from divorce,'' she says. "If they want to get out of a miserable marriage, we'll help them get out.''

Classes for marriage

Another area of conflict: the benefit of educational courses offered before and during marriage. Marital instruction covers everything from brief, free chats with clergy to intensive, days-long workshops with books, tapes, exercises and a tab of hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.

The people behind these courses often talk of "new approaches.'' Yet, many of the courses recycle techniques such as empathetic listening, pioneered by psychologists Carl Rogers and Thomas Gordon in the late 1960s.

What should be taught in these course? Who ought to be teaching it? And, more to the point, does any of it work?

Many therapists, armed with anecdotal evidence but also some studies, insist it does.

"I'm so convinced, I give courses as wedding gifts instead of china that they can throw at each other,'' says Sollee, whose two sons received marital-skills courses when they got married.

But sound, scientific research is skimpy, even though premarital-counseling programs have been around since the 1930s, says Karen Blaisure, an assistant professor of psychology at Western Michigan
University who has studied the research.

"Most studies only followed couples for six months or a year,'' Blaisure says. "When you're talking about something that's supposed to support a lifetime commitment, six months isn't very long.''

Legislative fixes

State legislators around the country have jumped into the debate. In at least seven states, including Florida, lawmakers introduced bills during the most recent legislative sessions to make premarital counseling a requirement for getting a marriage license. None of those proposals became law.

Rep. Elaine Bloom, D-Miami Beach, who introduced the Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act of 1997 in the Florida Legislature, says she'll bring the bill back next year.

"I don't base my bills on someone's clinical research,'' Bloom says. "As legislators, we reflect what we perceive society wants, and that's fewer divorces.''

More controversial, lawmakers in at least nine states, including New Jersey and Virginia, tried to modify, or eliminate, no-fault divorce laws.

"Appalling,'' says Papp, the New York therapist. "If people have to document fault, we'll be back to hiring detectives and showing pictures to prove adultery, creating the worst kind of hostility. We need to concentrate on equalizing roles in marriage, so it's not as constraining, and people will want to stay married.''

But even "wanting to'' may not be enough.

Talking, listening

At the marriage workshop, Hight and Walker, the Maryland couple, hear a speaker describe a "healthy'' way to discuss differences: One of the couple should briefly describe a concern while the partner listens. Then, the partner paraphrases what was said to make clear it was understood.

Hight and Walker agree to give this a try, but Hight is skeptical.

"You can try new things,'' she says, noting that, in her home, arguments tend to involve Walker talking on and on while she turns silent and walks away. "But you still can't change who you are.''

She's hardly alone in her skepticism. There are plenty of harried couples trying to build a marriage while juggling jobs and child-rearing and often feeling that a good divorce may be a better solution than a bad marriage.

No benefit

"Sometimes, staying together isn't going to benefit you or the kids,'' offers Martha Sosa, 38, an elementary school media specialist in Miami.

A mother of two, ages 8 and 5, Sosa got divorced nine months ago after 13 years of marriage.

"My son says he likes it better,'' she says, "because he doesn't have to hear us arguing all the time.''

Jeremy Segal, 28, a North Miami graphic artist, plans to marry Andrea Klein, a 28-year-old social worker from Hollywood, next month. They've dated for three years and recently took a marital-skills class. They liked it.

Yet Segal, whose parents divorced when he was 3, doesn't think government should mandate premarital counseling. Nor does he believe that people should be forced to stay in unhappy marriages.

"I know in my heart there are couples who don't belong together,'' he says, "no matter how many communication classes they take.''

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