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Can the Government Prevent Divorce?

Pre-marriage crossexamination

Researchers say that they can -- and some states feel they should -- reduce the likelihood of divorce by altering the course of bad marriages in the making

by Francine Russo

Discuss this article in the Community & Society forum of Post & Riposte.

From the archives:

  • "What We Owe," (February, 1997)
    An online interview in which Barbara Dafoe Whitehead discusses her book, The Divorce Culture.

  • "Dan Quayle Was Right," by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (April, 1993)
    "Family diversity in the form of increasing numbers of single-parent and stepparent families does not strengthen the social fabric but, rather, dramatically weakens and undermines society."

  • "The Moral State of Marriage," by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (September, 1995)
    A book review of The Best is Yet to Come: Coping With Divorce and Enjoying Life Again by Ivana Trump and of The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts by Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee.

  • "Divorce and the Family in America," by Christopher Lasch (November, 1966)
    "Most reformers, when confronted with particular cases, admit that divorce is better than trying to save a bad marriage. Yet many of them shy away from the conclusion toward which these sentiments seem to point."

  • "Is Marriage Holy?" by Henry James (March, 1875)
    "What attitude of mind does a perception of the inward holiness or religious sanctity of marriage enjoin upon those who suffer from [adultery]? -- a vindictive attitude or a forgiving one?"

THE bride-to-be, a graphic designer, was forty years old and about to be married for the first time, to a businessman. At her pastor's suggestion, she and her fiancé filled out a questionnaire to measure the strengths and weaknesses of their relationship -- 165 questions on their personalities, backgrounds, values, and aspirations. How did you answer this question, she asked him in the car afterward. And this? And this? Before the ride home ended, they had broken their engagement.

Whenever Mike McManus, a religion columnist and the founder of Marriage Savers, an organization that works with churches to strengthen marriages, tells this story, audiences roar approval. This is a success story, he says, and the kind of thing we need more of: a process that will reveal any likelihood of long-term incompatibility, and thus spare would-be marriage partners the pain and expense of a seemingly inevitable divorce. Some others making war on the divorce rate do not favor such a test, but fervently endorse teaching basic marriage skills to all engaged couples.

The emotional, health, social, and economic costs associated with marital conflict and family dissolution -- including delinquency, depression, poverty, and crime, and especially the devastating harm done to children -- have been well documented. For some, the solution is to close the doors tighter on marriage through stricter divorce laws, as Louisiana has recently done by legislating "covenant" marriage as an option. Yet study after study indicates that children are damaged less by divorce per se than by exposure to intense conflict, whether their families are intact, dissolving, or broken.

The divorce crisis has thrown a spotlight on the field of marital research and education, which attacks domestic instability and unhappiness at its beginnings, before marriages deteriorate, or even before they start -- though some programs can be used later to repair troubled marriages. The premarital questionnaire that broke up the graphic designer's engagement is just one tool in a psycho-educational arsenal that includes courses on communication, conflict resolution, and marriage enhancement. These tools are piquing the imagination of policymakers here and abroad. In the past year legislators in at least eleven states have considered whether such programs should be legally required or encouraged before marriage licenses are granted. The U.S. military is strongly encouraging married enlistees to attend marriage-education classes, and many members of the clergy nationwide are urging other pastors to use systematic premarital education for all engaged couples.

Over the past two decades government-funded researchers have declared that they can predict with about 90 percent accuracy which engaged couples will divorce. Other researchers have developed programs that, they say, can significantly change the odds for marriages that appear doomed. Since the advent of videotaping, in the 1970s, these social scientists have been able to observe and measure couples' interactions in the laboratory with greater and greater precision. The first university studies to emerge from this work compared distressed and nondistressed couples. The results demonstrated that the two groups communicated differently. Longitudinal studies followed, in which couples were observed regularly over a number of years to determine which behaviors were most predictive of divorce. An early researcher in the field -- regarded by many as its reigning genius -- is John Gottman, who presides over a high-tech couples lab at the University of Washington at Seattle.

As a professor at Indiana University in the 1970s, Gottman began studying couples in his lab while they talked casually, discussed difficult issues, or tried to solve problems. Video cameras recorded every facial expression, gesture, and change of tone. Gottman was able to play back the videos for his subjects and ask them what they were feeling at particular moments.

Gottman has followed 658 couples, some for as long as fourteen years, some with more-intensive observation that monitors shifts in their heart rate and stress indicators in their blood and urine. Studying marriages in such minute detail, Gottman has been able to chart the effects of small gestures. Fairly early he discovered that when a spouse -- particularly the wife -- rolls her eyes while the other is talking, the marital EXIT sign is blinking fiercely. In fact, Gottman found that contempt, which is indicated by eye-rolling, is one of the four strongest divorce predictors -- together with criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Gottman calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In study after study these behaviors identified those who would divorce with a remarkable accuracy of greater than 90 percent.

While Gottman was working from observed interactions, the social scientist David Olson and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota were developing a written survey of couples' attitudes, backgrounds, and behavior styles. With this tool Olson could predict which couples would divorce with almost the same accuracy as Gottman. And statistical analysis of demographic data also uncovered factors associated with a high divorce rate, including marriage at an early age, education deficiency, low economic status, religious differences, and parental divorce.

While Gottman and his followers worked backward from the negative side, Olson reported positive but similar findings. Couples who stayed happily married, he found, scored higher in such categories as realistic expectations, communication, conflict resolution, and compatibility.

Some of the researchers differentiated between "static" factors, those they couldn't expect to modify, such as age and economic status, and "dynamic" factors, such as communication patterns, and they zeroed in on the latter. If they could change the predictors, could they also change the prediction? They thought so. And they hoped that if they could change patterns that people had learned from their families, they might even raise the odds for those who had experienced a parental divorce or a previous divorce of their own. Thus the stage was set for research-based marriage education.

Olson developed a program called PREPARE as a counseling tool for engaged couples, and, later, ENRICH, for married couples. Couples indicate agreement on a scale of one to five with 165 statements like the following: "I expect some of our romantic love will fade after marriage." "I can easily share my positive and negative feelings with my partner." "I have some concerns about how my partner will be as a parent."

PREPARE has grown in popularity with family counselors and in churches, where older "mentor couples" as well as the clergy are often trained to use it. The counselor gives the couple the written questionnaire, has it computer-scored in Minnesota, and then reviews the detailed report with the couple. During a few follow-up sessions the counselor uses prescribed exercises to help the couple develop skills in the categories in which their scores are low. If their scores are very low, they are gently urged to have additional counseling -- and by some counselors to delay marriage. Olson is proud of the fact that, like the graphic designer and her fiancé, 10 to 15 percent of those who take PREPARE break their engagements.

While Olson was developing his questionnaire, Howard Markman, a graduate student working with Gottman in Indiana, was doing his own prediction studies and discovering other "danger signs" -- for example, the tendency to escalate a conflict. Based on this research, Markman and Scott Stanley, now at the University of Denver, along with others developed PREP -- the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program. (Markman and Stanley, with Susan Blumberg, are the authors of Fighting for Your Marriage, first published in 1994.) PREP is a short course, usually given over one full day and two evenings, that provides tools for talking about important relationship issues without fighting. It also teaches skills for preserving the positive elements in a relationship, such as making sure that time is available for friendship and fun, when problems are not discussed.

Kissing the Bride PREP is only one of dozens of relationship-enhancement programs created in the past forty years. Relationship Enhancement, developed by Bernard Guerney Jr., a clinical psychologist and family therapist, had its beginnings in the late 1950s. This program and many others that grew up afterward -- most notably PAIRS, developed by Lori Gordon, a marriage and family therapist, and the Couple Communication Program, developed by Sherod Miller, at the University of Minnesota -- claim significant results and large followings. The programs differ in length and presentation -- teaching is sometimes for individual couples but most often in a group or classroom setting. They range from eight to 120 hours, in a variety of formats. But they have similar goals and teach similar skills. Most use neither questionnaires nor tests.

All these programs teach some version of "active listening" to help couples discuss difficult issues. Spouses take turns speaking, and must stick to one topic and express feelings without assigning blame or name-calling. The listener paraphrases what has just been said until the speaker agrees that he or she has been understood. Either can call a time out, and a specific time is set to continue. This technique seems to have the power to transform a couple's communication.

BUT what is the evidence that these programs really prevent divorce? The most complete government-funded research has been done on PREP. In one large-scale study in Denver 12 percent of couples who had taken PREP had broken up, separated, or divorced after five years, as had 36 percent of couples who had not taken it. In a recent study in Germany only four percent of PREP couples had separated or divorced after five years, as compared with 24 percent of couples who received traditional counseling or no preparation at all. These and other studies also indicate that in the first five years after marriage PREP couples reported more marital satisfaction, less negative and more positive communication, and lower levels of physical aggression. After twelve years, however (the longest time that any of these programs has been studied), the Denver PREP group had a separation or divorce rate of 19 percent and the control group had a rate of 28 percent -- a difference that the researchers regarded as not statistically significant.

Nevertheless, those who have seen the devastation of divorce firsthand -- researchers, marriage educators, therapists, and members of the clergy -- are increasingly eager to deliver their insights to the millions of couples they see as being at risk. Nearly 700 of these believers gathered last May at the first conference of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, where marriage educators were to teach their skills to other professionals and to the public.

THE ballroom of the Sheraton National Hotel, in Arlington, Virginia, was packed as Diane Sollee, a former marital therapist and the conference organizer, welcomed the attendees.

All the presenters and many of the attendees knew how fervently Sollee has worked for her cause -- for couples education to stop marital unhappiness before as well as after it becomes corrosive. Sollee favors the "not"therapy: not expensive, not intrusive, not threatening, not stigmatizing -- teaching skills primarily in a group or classroom setting. Research shows, Sollee points out, that most couples wait six years after sensing a problem before they enter therapy. By then only 20 percent of them can be helped in any lasting way. And most couples won't go for therapy at all.

Howard Markman, PREP's founder, gave the first night's address. Rallying the crowd about the pressing need for communication and conflict-management skills, he asserted, "Mismanaged conflict predicts both marital distress and negative effects for children." Though other factors can also predict divorce, he asserted, destructive conflict is both the most predictive and the most changeable, and over time destructive behavior patterns become more and more damaging.

The next morning John Gottman gave a much-anticipated speech. Declaring him "the rock upon which we build," Sollee reeled off some of Gottman's publications, accomplishments, and awards: more than twenty books, nearly a hundred papers, the NIMH Merit Award, the Distinguished Research Scientist award of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and on and on.

Taking the podium, Gottman announced that he had re-examined the body of his work and had discovered something that had shaken him to his foundations. "Interventions" -- the programs used by every expert present -- haven't done a good enough job of helping couples. Knowing what is dysfunctional in a marriage just isn't enough. Researchers must also study what works well in successful marriages.

Most popular interventions, he continued, rest on the premise that marital happiness depends on the way couples solve problems and resolve conflicts through good communication. "Wrong," he declared. In his firsthand observations of couples, they never do solve their problems. Happy couples have problems, and they tend to have exactly the same problems several years later. In the lab they seem as if they've just changed their hairstyles and clothes and come back into the same conversation. What distinguishes them from unhappy couples is that they develop a "dialogue" about their perpetual problems, trying to effect what change they can with humor and affection while at the same time accepting their partners as they are.

Especially wrongheaded, Gottman said, is the focus on empathy and active listening in resolving conflicts -- the model that "forms the basis of most complex multi-component marital treatments of all theoretical orientations, including behavior therapy, systems approaches, and object-relations theory." For more than twenty years Gottman has watched happy couples interact. His finding? They do not employ active listening and empathy during conflict.

The active-listening model might work if people could really do it, but, Gottman said, shaking his head, it's just too hard to be an empathic, active listener when somebody is criticizing or attacking you. "I have seen the Dalai Lama do this," he joked, "and I am sure that Jesus and the Buddha did this, and that Moses did not do this."

Gottman's presentation frustrated many at the conference, who point out that he himself has never tested any marriage program. And, Markman says, Gottman is wrong in asserting that active listening is the cornerstone of programs like PREP. "In PREP," he says, "active listening is only one of four or five cornerstones and is designed to counteract the danger signs that predict divorce and marital distress." In dismissing active listening, Gottman seemed to be challenging a major foundation of the work of nearly every expert at the conference, including Markman, whom he refers to as his former "student" ("collaborator," Markman says). In fact, in several conversations with me Gottman appeared to be unacquainted with the specifics of several major programs. Moreover, his own work indicates that happy couples have less negative communication.

I appealed to Gottman after his presentation, when we talked in the lobby of the Sheraton National: "The research says these programs work, right?" "The research sucks," Gottman replied. "The sampling is inadequate and unscientific. It's skewed because the people who took PREP, for example, were different from those who refused it."

Yet the PREP research, government-funded and highly regarded, like Gottman's own, found PREP to be associated with significantly lower divorce rates and greater marital satisfaction after five years. "Every program does better than the control group," Gottman insisted. The five major programs studied, he said, all show that after two years 30 to 50 percent of the couples in the program had significantly greater marital satisfaction than those in the control group.

But if 30 to 50 percent of couples can be helped ... ? "It's a placebo effect," Gottman said. Surely these programs go beyond a placebo? In all of them couples do something together, invest in it together, and communicate in some constructive way. Maybe that's what improves their marriages. "No," Gottman said flatly. One of these programs teaches a kind of quid-pro-quo trading that has been associated with the most dysfunctional marriages, he said. Yes, bitter couples do tote up competing tabs. But what if this bartering system is introduced to a happy couple? Can't it be an effective method for learning each other's needs? "Yes," Gottman concedes. "This could be right."

Kissing the Bride No system, however, works for everybody, Gottman said. Antisocial or borderline personalities, chronic depressives, psychotics, incest and child-abuse survivors, all require different methods. What we need is to test different kinds of interventions with larger, more inclusive, more scientific samples. "My hunch," Gottman said, "is that seventy percent of couples could be helped in some way, so that they wouldn't divorce but would be meaningfully improved in marital satisfaction -- move up from unhappy to at least okay." He took out a ruled pad and scrawled down figures. He would need 10,000 couples, varying in ethnic, racial, educational, and economic background, and in degree of pathology. He would do a matching random survey of couples who did not volunteer, paying them for their responses over time. The study would be administered at five or six major universities around the United States by the best researchers in the marital field. He began listing them, and after a pause he jotted down at the bottom "Markman."

Gottman would divide the couples into groups and test programs that varied in time and expense. In one, perhaps, he would teach only active listening. After two years he would measure lasting change or relapse. For those who had relapsed or experienced no change, he would test different kinds of marital therapy and possibly booster sessions for skills. Other couples would receive skills training or therapy at major marital stress points: when a first child was three months old, after the birth of a second child, when the first reached the teen years.

Howard Markman spotted us in the lobby and sat down at our table. Though I had heard that these two do not speak, they now exchanged small talk. Markman asked Gottman for a colleague's phone number and whipped out a computer address book in which to enter it. Gottman, obliging, thumbed through his tiny, taped-up, scratched-over leatherette book.

Markman threw himself into helping to design the model study under discussion. For national clinical trials with 10,000 couples, the men agreed, they would need $10 million a year for five years. Of course they were enthusiastic.

Can one realistically expect the federal government to fund a $50 million, five-year study to test marriage interventions? The Administration currently spends $33 million a year on another kind of model intervention program -- Community-Based Resource Centers, under the auspices of the Department of Health and Human Services, which test interventions to help children at risk of abuse. This program directly assists families while it helps the government to discover the best interventions. Another program, Head Start, started small more than thirty years ago and demonstrated its ability to mitigate the effects of poverty on children. It is now funded at $4 billion annually.

With the costs of divorce now estimated to be in the billions annually, doesn't a modest investment in divorce reduction make sense? The British government is financing a small pilot program, which began this year, to test a variety of marriage-strengthening programs -- from skills education to psychotherapy to telephone hot lines. Backed by a campaign to increase both public awareness of and access to marriage-support programs, it is also trying to encourage participation by churches, schools, health organizations, and employers. Though at $800,000 its cost is low, the program represents a clear stand by the government.

EVEN where our state legislators have taken a clear stand, they've been undemanding, asking couples only to learn a few relationship skills that take less time than a course in driver's ed. Most of their bills are innocuous. In Maryland and Michigan proposed laws prescribe a delay in granting licenses to couples who are unwilling to take marriage-skills classes. Alaska and Kansas are considering reducing the fee for a license as an inducement to take such classes. A bill in Missouri for an outright mandate died in committee earlier this year. So far no bill has beaten back the forces of opposition: conservative Christians, civil libertarians, even many leaders of the psycho-education movement themselves. These last worry that a government bureaucracy is a poor delivery vehicle for their precious cargo. In addition, many who favor premarital education are members of the clergy. Marriage is religion's turf, they say: government, keep out. Scott Stanley, who has developed a Christian version of PREP, says, "I can easily imagine the eventual development of a state board that would govern the practice of premarital education, ultimately dictating what messages couples are to receive."

Stanley believes that churches should do any mandating. He favors programs like Mike McManus's Marriage Savers, which enlists members of the clergy and officials in a given community to support marriage in a variety of ways, including training older mentor couples to give premarital education to engaged couples. McManus offers statistics to show that these initiatives have reduced divorce significantly in seven out of eight cities that have adopted them and for which numbers are available.

The emphasis on prevention that has influenced so much thinking about modern medicine is now making more and more sense in the social sciences. Preventing unhappy, destructive marriages is much cheaper -- in dollars and in human misery -- than attempts to clean up the toxic waste that follows them.

What is it worth spending to make 30 percent of marriages happier? Or 50 percent? Or even 70 percent? Researchers may continue to quibble over statistics and theory, but for every child born in a successful marriage, statistically one more adult enters the marriage pool with a behavioral advantage. That child, multiplied again and again, can begin to reduce the dimensions of our divorce crisis.

Francine Russo writes frequently on human behavior and law. Her work has appreared in The New York Times Magazine and other national publications.

Illustrations by Cornel Rubino

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; Can the Government Prevent Divorce?; Volume 280, No. 4; pages 28-42.

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