Building a Better Marriage
How to be a good spouse

By Shirley Barnes
Special to the Chicago Tribune
September 12, 1999

Ever since the 1960s, when divorce became the exit strategy of choice for
couples who couldn't get along, half of American families have become a
revolving door of quarreling moms and dads and joint custody kids.

Ties expected to bind couples for life seem to be made out of Velcro
these  days, claims Minnesota family therapist Bill Doherty.

In part, that's why 1970s couples came up with the idea of living
together,  to test the waters before tying the knot, a fledgling trend that became a
flood.

But cohabiting isn't working any better than marriage vows to create
lasting unions, studies now show.

Nor is marital therapy. Many warring spouses, particularly men, reject
the
idea that they need a therapist: "I'm not crazy, I just don't love you
anymore,"
they say.

So where can couples turn?

Some researchers are convinced they've come up with the answer. Having
studied good and bad marriages, some for as long as 20 years, they've
discovered they
can teach couples - from engaged pairs to the very married - how to have
better marriages, just as one can learn how to be a better parent or
drive a car.

Follow-up studies of participating couples, for up to five years, are
showing
promising results.

Practical, research-based marriage education courses - offering a raft of
prevention techniques for making good marriages even better and troubled
marriages more secure - are now available throughout the country. Some
parents and grandparents present them as wedding gifts to young couples.

Such a skills-based approach is "the vaccine couples need to create
marriages
that go the distance," says Diane Sollee, executive director of the
Coalition
for Marriage and Family Education. The Washington, D.C.-based coalition
serves as a clearing house to help people locate and select marriage
education
courses.

Sollee is not alone. A growing number of family therapists, researchers,
policymakers, legislators, clergy, lay trainers and committed couples
count
themselves as part of the marriage education movement, what Sollee likes
to
call "a marriage renaissance."

It can't come soon enough, according to the National Marriage Project
report,
released at the Coalition's third annual Smart Marriages/Happy Families
conference held earlier this summer in Washington, D.C., showing that the
American marriage rate is at a 40-year low and that fewer pairs who are
married are very happy.

Obviously, Sollee and her colleagues have their work cut out for them.
Most people don't even know what marriage education is. Those who do
question
how this skills-based education differs from the more traditional,
church-based courses for engaged couples, newlyweds and others, which
have been around for
years.

"I figured marriage just happened and that was it," says Tom Gullion, 34,
of
Oak Park, acknowledging that when serious problems arose in his
eight-year
marriage to musician wife Kristina, "she took me kicking and screaming to
a
couples counselor." But the therapy process stalled.

In desperation, Kristina looked for alternatives, finally learning about
PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills), a leading
skills-based marriage education course developed by Falls Church, Va.,
family therapist Lori Gordon in 1986. Eight hundred trained professionals
now teach PAIRS
throughout North America with positive results.

"It just sounded right," says Tom, a jazz saxophone player/computer
programmer.

"I liked the idea of a class where you learn how to be a couple. I wanted
things to be good but I didn't know how. I was just trying to muddle
through.
We were using a bigger broom to sweep things under a bigger carpet."

To Kristina, "PAIRS changed my life."

Before they enrolled, "I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel.
We
had reached a point that was pretty low. We tried to fix it ourselves but
it
wasn't working. It's like being in a job with no training," Kristina
says.

The Gullions took the Cadillac of marriage education courses, a
seven-month,
120-hour semesterlong course taught by Michele Baldwin, a licensed
clinical
social worker, and her husband, Dr. DeWitt C. Baldwin, a
psychiatrist/scholar
in residence at the American Medical Association. The course, taught in
the
Baldwins' counseling office in Chicago, costs $1,800.

More common are shorter marriage education courses--from one-day to three
or
four weekends--for couples with crammed schedules and slimmer budgets.

Booster sessions are also available to help people through particularly
troubling
times.

A trained coach often will work with one couple at a time in order to
give
the couples an opportunity to practice what they've learned in the
classroom. In
a PAIRS course, among many other skills, they learn how to take their
partner's
"daily temperature reading": Holding hands, sitting knee to knee, they
talk
in turns about day-to-day concerns that too often never get a hearing,
such as
how to find more time for fun together and who's in charge of finding the
baby-sitter when they do. They're taught how to share what they
appreciate
about their partner, air complaints, request changes and talk about their
dreams for the future on a daily basis and in a structured format.

Another leading marriage skills course, PREP (Prevention and Relationship
Enhancement Program), teaches, among other techniques, how to ensure that
both partners' views are heard in a conflict by passing a plastic card
back and
forth to designate who has the floor.

Although the various courses offer different techniques for keeping fun
and
friendship in a marriage while wrestling with the inevitable problems,
they
have more similarities than differences, says Sollee, who has taken many
of
them.

The highly structured communications tools the couples learn "are really
tiresome at the beginning," admits Mike Meshenberg, an emergency planner
from
Chicago. "I'm a person who's not very patient with that kind of thing."
But he became a convert by learning how to adapt classroom methods at
home.
He and his wife, Kit, an end-of-life care administrator, enrolled in the
Baldwins' PAIRS program "with healthy skepticism. I had no clue what the
concept of marriage education was," he says. But they knew their 30-year
marriage was suffering from decades of neglect and weren't interested in
therapy.

"We didn't think we needed to be shrunk. Each of us thought we were
pretty
good," says Kit.

In PAIRS, they learned they couldn't "put away" their conflicts "like we
have
for 30 years," says Mike. Kit regrets they didn't take the course decades
earlier so "we would have been better role models for our three
children,"
now married themselves.

"The impact (of PAIRS) has been immeasurable," she says. "We're ready for
the
next 30 years."

But the most significant payoff was in March when Kit had two surgeries
in 10
days for a lung malignancy. "I can tell you that because of PAIRS Mike
was my
hero in this terrible time. He took care of me. He anticipated my needs.
I
was safe with him, completely safe. It was a horrible, traumatic time,
but we
came out the other end together. I don't think we could have done that if
we
hadn't moved from where we were (in the relationship) before we went into
PAIRS."

Nancy Burgoyne calls marriage "one of the last frontiers" in American
social
life. Although the divorce rate here is twice as high as in Europe and
three
times as high as in Japan, few couples - either stable or distressed -
ever
ask for help.

It took decades for parenting and birthing education to be accepted, she
says.

"Certainly marriage is just as hard," says the Oak Park licensed clinical
social worker, who offers one-day PREP workshops in the western suburbs.
But
people still assume "we're going to have this 40-year relationship
without
any tips on how to do it."

Architect Ray Meek and clinical psychologist Allison Miller, both of
Chicago,
were engaged when they enrolled in PAIRS. Although never married, Meek,
at
40, had been "in a number of relationships," always walking away when
things got
sticky. His three siblings were all on second marriages. "I knew there
was a
different way. I just didn't know what it was."

With the course under their belt, both feel "much more confident that
we'll
be married for the rest of our life. We now know that no matter what's
going on,
we're bigger than any problem," says Allison.

That's one of the strengths of the marriage education approach, says Meg
Haycraft, who teaches an Evanston weekend PAIRS class with her
psychiatrist
husband, Dan. "It's action-oriented. The couples do the work, in their
own
way, in their own time, in their own space. They take on a much higher
level of
responsibility for their marriage than in therapy," which is a more
passive
experience, she says.

But therapist Jim Natter, who teaches a course called Couple
Communication at
the Monakea Medical Complex in Wheaton, disputes the claim that marriage
education works for even hostile couples.

"One size fits nobody," he says. "People with major problems come and
blow up
and leave. They should stay away from the educational model," he says,
advocating couples therapy instead.

Burgoyne disagrees. "Marriage education doesn't solve the problems for
people
who have very, very long-term entrenched marital problems but it's a
tremendous launching," she says, acknowledging "for some couples it's
enough and for
some it isn't."

The idea of marriage education is not new. Ever since the 1960s, trained
church lay couples in various denominations have led Engaged Encounter
and Marriage
Encounter groups. Some Catholic parishes offer Retrouvaille groups for
"back-from-the-brink couples" struggling with issues such as alcoholism
and
abuse.

But part of the continuing challenge for marriage educators is
pinpointing
the techniques that work the best for the long run.

University of Denver marital researches Scott Stanley and Howard Markman
found that PREP premarital and post-marital couples have one third the
likelihood
of breaking up in the five years following a premarital course as opposed
to
control couples. In Germany, where PREP is taught in Catholic churches, 4
percent of PREP couples were divorced at a five-year follow-up as opposed
to
24 percent who participated in more traditional premarital counseling or
no
counseling at all.

In the first year of Scott's and Markman's latest five-year study, which
is
tracking 540 couples in 135 Denver-area churches, synagogues and mosques,
PREP courses taught by trained clergy and lay people are proving to be
more
effective than traditional methods or even the same premarital PREP
instruction taught by mental health professionals. Heartening news, says
Markman, because
it means many more couples will have easy, cost-effective access to such
help.

But even the staunchest marriage education supporters understand that
many
distressed couples will need additional marital therapy to root out
deeper
problems.

For hostile couples, marriage education skills "can start to backfire"
without follow-up therapy sessions, says Dan Haycraft. For such couples,
learning how
to talk with each other without yelling is only a first step in marriage
repair.

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