The Psychotherapy Networker - Nov/Dec, 2004: Cover story: The Citizen Therapist: Making a Difference  - 5 therapists who dared to take on the wider world  - by Rob Waters

A BORN NETWORKER – Diane Sollee has put marriage education on the map.

    Diane Sollee clearly remembers the moment she lost her zeal for promoting the gospel of how marriage and family therapy were going to save the world.  She was the associate director and conference coordinator at the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) and had been for much of the ‘80s.  A born networker, with a beguiling charm and a gift for instant rapport, she’d found a way to connect with TV bookers, talk-show hosts, and print journalists to turn the sometimes arcane ideas of family-systems theory into easily-consumable material for the mainstream media. Through sheer determination, she’d succeeded in getting marriage therapy an unprecedented level of media attention.  If you wanted to appear with Oprah or Phil Donahue, getting Sollee to believe in your work was your best bet.

Then, one day, she was on the phone, promoting a story about how yet another state had agreed to license marriage and family therapists, when the reporter surprised her with an unexpected question:  With more and more family therapists plying their trade, why hadn’t the divorce rate gone down?  Sollee found herself uncharacteristically flummoxed.  The question evoked her own growing doubts about the value of therapy in improving couples’ lives.  “The perception of the public, the press, and policymakers was that you go to marriage and family therapists to save your marriage,” she explains.  But when it came to helping couples find ways to stay together, the research seemed to indicate that therapists were highly ineffective.

    Divorced herself, Sollee had experienced firsthand the emotional impact of an unraveling marriage on a family.  In fact, she suspected that far too many therapists were unconcerned whether people stayed together or not – they saw their mission as increasing the immediate happiness of their individual clients, whatever the consequences for the spouses or children involved.  “The reporter’s observation brought it all together for me,” says Sollee.  “I remember just sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, if anybody figures this out, this profession is in deep trouble!’”

    This rude awakening brought on a period of intense soul searching, Sollee recalls.  “I lost my belief that his was the way to help couples and children  and families.  I lost my faith that I was in the right place to help.  I lost the religion completely.”   What pulled her out of the crisis over her professional direction was learning about a new wave of educational and skills-training programs that took direct aim at the high divorce rate by teaching couples strategies for dealing with marital conflict before they landed in a therapist’s office or in divorce court.  Soon Sollee was a convert, and even gave the new movement a name:  marriage education.

    In the late 80’s, even as now, marriage education was seen as an extension of the far right’s “family values” agenda, and was a hard sell in the liberal-minded therapeutic community.  But by being “sneaky and under the radar,” Sollee began to spread this gospel by mixing in an occasional divorce-prevention or marriage-skills presentation with the standard fare at the annual AAMFT conference, even though, as she recalls, these were controversial, even heretical, notions to many association members.

    Eventually, Sollee decided to leave AAMFT, propelled by an idea of finding a way to give focus and expanded visibility to the disparate marriage-education programs and organizations around the country.  “Diane’s goal became to make the phrase marriage education a household word,” says couples therapist Michele Weiner-Davis, noted for her own “divorce-busting” work.  Sollee took out a mortgage on her home, set up an office in the kitchen, and worked round the clock to create from scratch, almost single-handedly, a national gathering that would give the marriage-education movement the kind of coherence and focus it’d been lacking.  First held in 1996, Sollee’s Smart Marriages conference initially attracted more presenters than paid attendees.  She lost money that year and the next, but by the third year, she was in the black.  Last year’s conference, the ninth annual event, attracted nearly 2,000 participants.

    The conference provides a platform for marriage researchers to present their latest findings, along with seminars that train people to become marriage educators.  Sollee estimates that, in nine years, some 5,000 educators have learned to teach basic marriage and communication skills to couples.  Tens of thousands more therapists, educators, researchers, and lay people regularly consult the Smart Marriages website, an encyclopedic clearinghouse for information about “strengthening marriages and families” that Sollee operates.  It’s become one of the main portals for accessing information about every aspect of the marriage-education movement, including links to research, training opportunities, relevant news stories, updates on legislative initiatives, and other websites.  In addition, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have been exposed to the news stories and TV pieces that Sollee helped launch.

    For Sollee, the hardest part of championing the cause of marriage-education has been walking a political tightrope and fending off charges that she’s joined the right-wing “marriage movement” and wants to curtail people’s right to divorce.  In the early days, she says, “good friends would cross the street to avoid me – as if working to strengthen marriage meant I’d sold out to the family-values cretins.”  To avoid being identified with any political faction, and despite the financial strain, Sollee has refused to take funding from anyone.

    â€œI’m not against divorce,” she clarifies. “I’m for getting out information.  Ninety percent of people still get married at least once in America.  As long as they’re making these vows and really thinking they want to do it, I believe the government, the media, and the researchers should be getting them the information and skills they need to succeed at it.”

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