May 12, 1997

It has been connected to our most disastrous problems-delinquency, poverty, violence, depression, poor health, and suicide-just to name the obvious ones," says Diane Sollee, and she doesn't mean drugs or gangs. She means divorce, the downfall of nearly half of all marriages in America today. In Sollee's eyes, it's a social disease that can be cured: "People think they're not in love anymore, but sometimes love is just a side effect of good communication-we can teach them that."

To that end, Sollee, a 53-year-old aerobicized divorcee who looks and sounds more like the head cheerleader than like the grandmother she is, recently started the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, and has organized the "Smart Marriages: Happy Families" conference to take place in Washington, D.C., this month. She has enlisted more than 100 radical feminists, right-wing Christians, academics, lawyers, and New York shrinks to attend in the hopes of developing a psycho-educational divorce vaccine: "marital-skills training" for the masses, without the messy, soul-baring ordeal of traditional therapy.

"People attribute growth to their divorces," Sollee says, "but they have no way of knowing how much they could have grown together! A permanent marriage is a chance to mature together and experience satisfying, lasting personal fulfillment."

Growth and satisfaction? Personal fulfillment? Haven't we heard this somewhere before? Yes. As a matter of fact, some of the same women's-rights advocates and family therapists who were until lately coaching us out of unhappy, co-dependent marriages are now getting into the marital-education game. Sollee herself spent ten years at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, leaving because she "wanted to promote marriage education instead of marriage therapy."

The attendees of the conference have wildly different agendas for the future of the American family, but most of them insist that the divorce-prevention movement is apolitical and that they're willing to make compromises to keep it that way. Dr. Peter Fraenkel of Manhattan's Ackerman Institute for the Family hopes that "maybe this will be the issue that brings liberals and conservatives together in an exciting way." Les Parrott, who co-directs the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University with his wife, says, "We believe in the traditional value of marriage; the religious aspect is a priority, but I really don't emphasize it-I don't want to alienate anybody."

The usual argument against divorce is that it's bad for the kids, but Sollee is passionate about preserving the family for the sake of adults. "I hate that we can only talk about an issue if it affects children," Sollee complains. "What about us?" She and others are quick to catalogue just how destructive divorce is, linking it with everything from decreased worker productivity to increased suicide rates; some even claim a connection between divorce and illness. David Larson, president of the National Institute of Healthcare Research, has gone so far as to argue that "being divorced and a nonsmoker is only slightly less dangerous than smoking a pack or more of cigarettes a day and staying married. Every type of terminal cancer strikes divorced individuals of either sex, both white and non-white, more frequently than it does married people."

There are, of course, skeptics of the divorce-as-social-disease model. Constance Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce, argues that the tests used to determine the consequences of divorce are biased and unreliable. She points out that studies of divorced people often use a control group of happily married subjects when it would make more sense to have unhappily married people as a basis for comparison. Without such research, we only know that it is better to be married and liking it than to be married or divorced and hating it, which you don't need a study to tell you.

But focusing on the potential pleasures of marriage and the supposed health hazards of divorce is a way to keep the issue from straying into the contentious realms of faith and politics. The trick is repositioning marriage not as a matter of social or financial obligation, as it was for centuries, but as a matter of self-interest-reclaiming the very ground out of which some charge the divorce epidemic of the past several decades sprouted.

"We have to revise our ideas about marriage and the roles of men and women so that people don't want to get divorced," argues Peggy Papp, a feminist scholar and a family therapist at the Ackerman Institute. "If there was a kind of marriage that didn't oppress women, then we wouldn't have as many divorces."

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead,the newly famous spokeswoman for the nuclear family and a participant in the conference, believes that Americans have been therapeutically empowered to be selfish, all too quick to have "expressive divorce"-divorce that we think we need to be "true to ourselves."

It has occurred to the new breed of anti-divorce enthusiasts that they need to concoct the expressive marriage. "It's really a very shrewd reading of the culture," says Whitehead. We'll never stay together because we ought to; we won't even do it for the sake of the kids. This is America; these are the nineties; what we want to know is, what's in it for us?

You'll get a drastically different answer depending on who under Sollee's very big umbrella you talk to. At one end of the spectrum is Mike McManus, a syndicated columnist and anti-divorce activist in Bethesda, Maryland, who quotes scripture as easily as he rattles off statistics. He charges that "the liberal approach-any sex, anywhere, anytime-has obviously been a gross failure," and calls for mandatory six-month waiting periods for couples to prepare for marriage, and for repealing no-fault-divorce laws.

McManus will address the conference on "How to Become a Marriage Saver," outlining a program that includes encouraging couples who live together and are considering marriage to move to separate locations and undergo counseling before they can marry. McManus draws the line at helping gay couples, because he believes that "homosexual sex is promiscuous, uncommitted, shameful, and degrading."

In sharp contrast, Peggy Papp is "trying to make people aware of stereotypical gender assumptions and the expectations they impose upon each other and how they affect relationships. I only want to help people stay together if they want to." She is presenting at the conference and participating in the movement because she believes that "family values have only been the domain of the right wing because they've co-opted it. Who are they to define the family and relationships? We would like our voices to be heard."

In a chilly classroom at new york university, Dr. Peter Fraenkel is leading a Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (prep) course. Six couples sit around a table watching the young psychologist sing along with a medley of Chicago; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and Carly Simon songs that he plays to "illustrate some varied romantic expectations people have." The more serious business is the teaching of the "speaker/listener technique,"the cornerstone of prep. The method is simple: couples are told to alternate holding "the floor," expressing their frustrations in "I" statements ("When you play me crummy soft rock, I feel annoyed"), and paraphrasing each other's comments to ensure mutual understanding. Then they brainstorm together to develop a solution.

The couples seem pleased with their new verbal toy. Meeting a week after the initial prep marathon course, they comment on how the technique helped them discuss touchy subjects without becoming vicious. "I felt like an idiot using it, but we actually had a productive conversation for a change," says one man.

PREP, like many other new couple courses, is a hodgepodge of old and new ideas: the speaker/listener model is rooted in the work of psychologist Carl Rodgers; the brainstorming component is borrowed from nasa-it was originally used to solve problems in aerospace development in the sixties. "They're old ideas," concedes Fraenkel, "but it's a new combination, and there's hard scientific data to prove it works. The main thing we're teaching is how to create a level playing field, which is also a very powerful feminist tool."

What feminists aren't likely to support is the increasing push from legislators to make marriage not only harder to get out of but also harder to get into in the first place. Several states, including Michigan, Georgia, Illinois, and Virginia are now considering repealing or modifying no-fault statutes that were passed in the seventies.

Sure enough, the divorce preventers have a wide range of opinions on whether laws should be rewritten. Doctors Scott Stanley and Howard Markman, who developed the prep inventory used by Fraenkel, aren't interested in seeing their test become an obligatory part of the marriage process: "We believe that some of the trends in legal initiatives represent hurried solutions that could lead to serious unintended negative consequences," the doctors wrote in a position paper circulated recently. McManus, on the other hand, would love nothing more than to see "the perverse incentive" of no-fault divorce extinguished. Claiming that "the legal stuff is not my mission," Sollee eschews the political questions, insisting that she's offering simple education. "This information can help people be happy, and I'm just trying to get it out there."

Some feminists in the field are horrified by the conference nonetheless. "The idea that our goal should be marriage-saving is a backlash against the women's movement," says Marianne Walters, an eighteen-year veteran of Washington's Family Therapy Practice Center. "We should be focusing our attention on the flourishing diversity of relationships and families."

Sollee is bewildered by such criticism: "Everybody needs this training! Gay people, cohabiting couples, people in second marriages, it doesn't make any difference. Listen, the fact is, 90 percent of the population still gets married, so whether marriage is the answer isn't the point! This is what people do."

And as long as we keep at it, there is a living to be made in keeping us together. "It's a self-help movement combined with an effort to get funding," says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. "It puts divorce prevention in terms people want to hear. Basically, Diane Sollee understands the market."


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