Marriage: The owner's guide is in works

Disparate groups agree that couples can learn skills that will cut U.S. divorce rate

By ANN DOSS HELMS Staff Writer

Five years ago, Nick Fadero answered a call in his church bulletin for someone to run a marriage-saving program in Charlotte.

As an ordained Catholic deacon, he had years of experience counseling engaged couples. As a husband, he brought an admirable track record -- he and Irene Fadero celebrated their golden anniversary Friday.

So he signed on as coordinator of Retrouvaille (French for rediscovery), a sort of crash course in marital communication designed to save dying marriages. As word got around, hundreds of couples signed up, hoping for an alternative to divorce.

Fadero is proud to say he draws couples from all faiths and all over the Carolinas. ``All we want to do is save marriages, which saves families,'' he says.

Fadero and the couples who flock to Retrouvaille are part of a national marriage-building movement taking root in the Carolinas. This weekend more than 1,000 advocates are gathering in Washington for a conference on ``Smart Marriages, Happy Families.''

Participants span the spectrum of political views and professional affiliations. What unites them is their belief that America's high divorce rate can be changed.

Their premise: Love isn't enough. Couples need a set of skills -- how to talk, how to compromise, how to live with disagreements -- that should be taught in adolescence and reinforced through old age.

``I believe that in the near future, couples will come to accept that the most romantic thing they can do is to walk hand in hand into a course on making marriages work,'' said Diane Sollee, organizer of the Washington conference.

It's a notion that's catching on in the Carolinas. Consider:

Last year a coalition of Wilmington churches and synagogues signed a Marriage Savers covenant, pledging to require intense premarital preparation and to train happily married couples to mentor others. Clergy in Hickory and Rock Hill are working on similar efforts.

A Duke University physician has started teaching marriage skills as part of his rehabilitation program for heart-attack survivors.

Psychologists in Cary, outside Raleigh, are working with a renowned national program trying to sell marriage-skills sessions to corporations as a workplace benefit.

Sex, money, jealousy, kids

The marriage-skills movement has built slowly over the last 20 to 30 years, as researchers, counselors and clergy grappled with America's divorce boom.

While some people called for laws that would make it harder for couples to divorce, others argued that the problem wasn't divorce itself, but unhappy, unstable marriages. Spouses, kids and society won't see the benefits unless those marriages are fixed, not just forced to remain intact, that side argued.

Around the country, researchers came to realize that if you watch couples closely, you can predict with about 90 percent accuracy which ones will split and which survive.

The successful couples disagree as much as couples who divorce, and about the same things: sex, money, jealousy, kids, housework, in-laws and how to spend their time. The difference is the way they handle those differences. Happy couples have realistic expectations and can talk without tearing each other apart, according to the experts.

Unhappy ones use the silent treatment, criticize bitterly and view each other with contempt. If one spouse rolls the eyes while the other is talking, that marriage is on its deathbed, says one researcher who videotaped hundreds of couples.

Last year Sollee, a marriage therapist, pulled together the first Smart Marriages national conference, for people working on ways to turn destructive conflict into healthy communication. One of the key goals is fighting the popular notion that if a couple are unhappy, love has died and it's time to find someone else.

``We have to realize that every happy couple will have approximately 10 areas of disagreement that they will never resolve,'' Sollee writes in the coalition's Web site. ``If we switch partners we have to realize we'll just get 10 new areas of disagreement, and sadly, some of the most acrimonious will be about the children from our previous marriages.''

Teach skills, offer support

Members of Sollee's Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education share two broad goals: Teaching the marriage skills missing from so many homes, and creating a support system for couples trying to work on their marriage.

At this week's conference, attention will turn to a new Florida law that makes marriage education part of the high school curriculum. The goal is to give teens a dose of practical information just as they're starting to think about marrying.

Ministers who perform marriages have a chance to catch couples at another key point: before they say their vows. Clergy should unite to ``weed out the weak relationships and strengthen the rest to go the distance,'' says Michael McManus, a Baltimore-based religion writer leading a national drive for pre-marriage preparation.

McManus' Marriage Savers program calls for clergy to sign a citywide commitment to require several months of premarital counseling, usually with a questionnaire designed to reveal couples' strengths and weaknesses. It also calls on churches to train happily married couples to serve as mentors to newlyweds.

Most congregations have a wealth of expertise in couples perched in their pews, McManus contends. ``It's like having gold in your back yard. All you have to do is dust it off.''

Arguing without attacking

It's never too late to learn, advocates of skills courses say. There are programs designed to strengthen happy marriages, to rebuild troubled ones and to support stepfamilies, where the risk of divorce is especially high.

Techniques differ, but most involve retraining couples in the art of saying what you mean, arguing without attacking and listening without getting defensive. The methods often seem artificial at first. One well-known program, for instance, has couples passing a square of linoleum to indicate who ``has the floor.''

But there are signs that the methods work. A study of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program, or PREP, one of the most widely used courses, found couples who took the course were substantially less likely than their peers to be separated or divorced after five years, though the difference was less pronounced after 12 years.

The Rev. Fred Rudder, minister of education and family at Rock Hill's Catawba Baptist Church, and his wife, Lin, recently took a relationship survey as part of their preparation to become a Marriage Savers mentor couple. They're awaiting the computer-graded results, and even after 22 years of marriage, Rudder expects a few surprises.

``You still need to learn these basic skills, whether you're just getting married or you've been married 50 years,'' he said.

Smart Marriages conference

This weekend's Smart Marriages conference will focus on the wide range of institutions that have an interest in building marriage skills: governments interested in community stability; health professionals who treat physical ailments linked to marital stress; corporations that lose productivity when employees' home lives fall apart. Sollee, the organizer, notes that the military is even starting to demand marriage-skills classes to improve the morale of the country's fighting force.

If all that sounds a tad unromantic, consider the alternative. Divorce rates have dropped since the 1980s, but first marriages still have a 40 percent to 50 percent chance of falling apart.

``The skills,'' Sollee says, ``make the feeling of love come back again.''

Reach Ann Doss Helms at (704) 358-5033 or ahelms@charlotte.com.

Here's how to get more information about:

ACME (Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment), a Winston-Salem-based program that offers retreats and support groups to help couples keep marriages healthy. Call 1-800-634-8325, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, a Washington-based clearinghouse for information about all sorts of skills-training programs. Visit the Web site at www.smartmarriages.com .

Marriage Savers, a church-based program to prepare engaged couples and train mentor couples to help others sustain strong marriages. In South Carolina, call the Rev. Fred Rudder, Catawba Baptist Church, Rock Hill, (803) 324-1036, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. In North Carolina, call national headquarters in Bethesda, Md., (301) 469-5873, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays.

PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills), a program developed by marriage therapist Lori Gordon that offers relationship training for engaged, married and gay couples. Call The Psychology Resource Center in Cary, (919) 469-0864, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday; PAIRS International, 1-888-724-7748 anytime; or visit the Web site at www.pairs.com .

PREPARE/ENRICH, a widely used questionnaire and follow-up program to help engaged and married couples identify strengths and weaknesses. Send a stamped self-addressed envelope to PREPARE/ENRICH, P.O. Box 190, Minneapolis, MN 55440-0190 for a list of area professionals using the survey.

Palmetto Family Council, a nonprofit S.C. group working on family preservation which has just launched a marital-health index report. Call (803) 733-5600, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, or visit the Web site at www.palmettofamily.org .

PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program), a Colorado-based program to teach relationship skills to engaged and married couples. Call 1-800-366-0166, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, for a directory of people doing PREP courses.

Retrouvaille (retro-vie), a Catholic-sponsored program to help couples revive troubled marriages. The next retreat in Charlotte is scheduled July 24-26. Call 1-800-470-2230 anytime.