Building a better marriage
November 8, 1998
BY MICHAEL GILLIS STAFF
Their kids were gone, their nest was empty
and after 30 years their marriage had reached what Michael
Meshenberg described as a ``plateau.''
``We had fallen into a routine, and we
wanted something to invigorate, to refresh, to strengthen our
marriage,'' said Meshenberg, 56, of Hyde Park.
Meshenberg and his wife, Katherine, 55,
signed up for a class that teaches relationship skills--an approach
that is gaining a reputation as an effective way to keep couples
happy and combat America's high divorce rate.
Although the Meshenbergs were worried
about their relationship, they weren't contemplating divorce. But
they vouched for the skills they learned in the class, skills that
researchers say can help keep marriages intact.
``I'd say that our relationship in lots of
areas improved dramatically,'' said Katherine Meshenberg. ``I'd say
we fell in love again.''
Engaged or married couples probably would
be surprised to learn that relationship experts can predict, with
remarkable accuracy, if they are bound for divorce. That's the bad
The good news is that the factors that
make it easy to predict divorce--like how couples communicate and
manage conflict--are factors that can be changed.
And not only are courses available to
teach couples to change those factors, there's plenty of evidence
that changing them works wonders on a marriage. Such courses, they
say, can benefit couples about to be married as well as couples who
have been married a long time.
``It's not really divorce prevention per
se,'' said Dr. Howard Markman, director of the Center for Marital
and Family Studies at the University of Denver, and co-author of
Fighting for Your Marriage. ``It's to help couples have great
relationships. We think it's possible but it's typically not
happening, and it's not happening for reasons that are fairly
With his colleagues, Markman designed a
course that teaches couples how to communicate and manage conflict.
Other researchers have designed similar programs, some of which are
available in the Chicago area.
Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for
Marriage, Family and Couples Education, said the courses represent
the cutting edge of research into relationships. The coalition,
which serves as an information clearinghouse on skills-based
marriage education, held its second annual conference last month in
Like many people who are preaching the
benefits of marriage education, Sollee spent much of her
professional life involved in marital therapy, serving as associate
executive director of the American Association for Marriage and
Family Therapy. She says she left that group, however, when she
realized the best way to reduce the divorce rate was not through
therapy but through education.
``It's the difference between going to a
surgeon to have your arteries unclogged and teaching you as a young
man to eat right,'' she said. ``One is to cure the mess you've
gotten yourself into, the other is to teach you to not get into the
While therapy still has a role for couples
facing crises such as an unfaithful spouse or the death of a child,
Sollee and others say marriage education is a better tool for
For one thing, most people don't like
going to a therapist. Those who do usually put it off too long for
the therapist to do them much good.
And despite the growing number of marriage
therapists, there hasn't been a corresponding plunge in the divorce
rate. Although the 1996 rate of 4.3 divorces per 1,000 people is
down from the rate of 5.3 in 1981, nearly half of all marriages
still end in divorce.
The classroom setting, where most marriage
education courses are taught, has proved to be a far better conduit
for help than the therapist's couch.
``We create a very safe climate for
people, where nobody is going to invade their privacy,'' said Dr.
Michele Baldwin, who for the last nine years has been teaching a
course to Chicagoans, including the Meshenbergs, called the
Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills.
``What happens over a period of time is
that people open up to the group. They find that as human beings we
all have the same sorts of issues. We all want to be respected by
partners and be treated respectfully.''
The No. 1 predictor of divorce,
researchers say, is not arguments over sex, money or the children.
It's the avoidance of conflict--stonewalling and distancing between
couples--that gives researchers one of the biggest clues that a
marriage is in trouble.
``You can't avoid conflict forever,''
Sollee said. ``Couples that make it disagree exactly the same
amount as couples that fail. Disagreement just means you have two
normal human beings.''
It is how couples handle that conflict
that counts, researchers say. And that's where the courses come in,
teaching people the skills to help them improve their
communication. The skills are taught to people preparing to get
married, as well as to people already married. Clergy in suburbs
such as Waukegan are even banding together to require premarital
Couples ``learn very specific structures
about how to go into a fight and come out of a fight where both
parties get some of what they want met,'' said Meg Haycraft, who
teaches PAIRS in Evanston. ``They also learn how to fight without
doing additional damage.''
The courses also teach couples how to
listen. Most of them include exercises that require couples to
listen to their partner, then paraphrase what they've just heard to
assure they've understood.
Do the courses help? The studies done so
far say yes. The most extensive studies have been done on Markman's
course. In a study done in Denver, couples who took the course were
a third less likely to break up than couples who had no counseling
or traditional premarital counseling.
Other studies, however, indicate that the
benefits of the course weaken after four or five years, indicating
the need for refresher courses.
* * * * * * * * * *
How can you have a Smart
Diane Sollee, the founder of the Coalition
for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, an information
clearinghouse on marriage-skills education, has some
The following is excerpted and adapted
from her group's Web site:
* It's not conflict, it's how you handle
conflict that separates successful and unsuccessful marriages.
Disagreement and fighting aren't predictors of divorce, but
stonewalling, avoidance, defensiveness, contempt and the silent
* Repair attempts are crucial. They can be
clumsy or funny, even sarcastic, but a willingness to make up after
a fight is central to every happy marriage.
* All couples have about 10 issues they'll
never resolve. If you switch partners, you'll still have
unresolvable issues. (More than 90 percent of all arguments between
couples are over money, time, kids, sex and jealousy and in-laws
and friends.) Learn how to live with and accommodate your
* Love ebbs and flows depending on how you
treat each other. Learn new ways to interact, and the feeling can
come flowing back.
* Remember marital satisfaction drops with
the birth of a baby. It's normal. Hang in there.
* Sex ebbs and flows, too. Enjoy the
* Welcome change. The marriage vow is a
promise to stay married, not to stay the same.
To improve communication, Sollee urges
couples to practice simple skills. Share things you appreciate
about your partner. Express your wishes, hopes and dreams. Update
your spouse about changes in plans and circumstances.
Clear up little mysteries before they
become suspicious. And when you have complaints, don't just
criticize--describe what bothers you and suggest how you'd like it
Information on marriage education classes
in the Chicago area can be found at the Web site of the Coalition
for Marriage, Family and Couples Education: www.smartmarriages.com
Copyright, 1998 Michael Gillis