Christian Science Monitor, Thursday
December 4, 1997
Couples Try Harder To
Marilyn Gardner, Staff writer
BOSTON -- Three years ago, Jo and John
Kellen's 17-year marriage was in serious trouble.
"We were really having a difficult time
in our relationship and growing further and further apart," says
Mrs. Kellen. "We couldn't talk to each other. Rather than have a
conversation, we had verbal attacks or silence."
On the advice of a marriage counselor,
the Kellens, who live in Leicester, N.C., took a bold step. They
enrolled in a four-month marriage education course designed to help
participants improve communication and problem-solving skills. In
the process, they joined growing ranks of couples around the
country who are seeking to strengthen marriages rather than give up
"The divorce revolution is over," says
William Doherty, director of the marriage and family therapy
program at the University of Minnesota. After 30 years of what he
calls "Velcro marriage - made for ease of separation," Professor
Doherty and other experts, both secular and religious, see
encouraging signs of a quiet counterrevolution, this one to
preserve viable marriages.
Although 45 percent of first marriages
in the United States still fail, divorce rates are leveling off,
Doherty says. At the same time, marriage-education programs are
increasing. Several dozen established programs now exist, ranging
from $10 questionnaires for engaged couples to $350 weekend
seminars and $2,000 extended courses. Their purpose is not only to
help troubled couples avoid divorce, but also to teach engaged and
married couples how to have truly satisfying
"We have a culture shift under way,"
says Doherty. "It shows itself in legislators talking about making
divorce laws harder, which I have concerns about. And clergy are
banding together to refuse to marry couples without pre-marriage
Doherty also observes changing
attitudes among therapists. Too often, he says, they have taken a
"value-free and morally neutral" position on divorce. He now gives
seminars to therapists on how to help couples, saying, "For many
people, working it out in the current marriage is going to be the
Signs of change Other signs of change
include the formation two years ago of the Coalition for Marriage,
Family, and Couples Education, an information exchange in
Washington to help people locate courses (www.smartmarriages.com).
Members range from what founder Diane Sollee describes as "very
conservative Christians" to "very liberal feminists," as well as
therapists and divorce lawyers.
Doherty attributes some of these
changes to "children of the divorce revolution" - those born in the
1970s. "They are more fearful of divorce because they lived through
it. They are going for pre-marriage preparation in greater numbers
In his private practice as a therapist,
Doherty also sees more couples who "want to go the extra lap around
the track to work on their problems, because they have seen family
and friends divorce and not be any happier."
For the Kellens, that "extra lap" was a
16-week course, PAIRS, or Practical Application of Intimate
Relationship Skills, developed by Lori Gordon of
Initially, the Kellens were reluctant
to expose their problems. But, Mrs. Kellen says, "We were all in
the same situation of wanting to improve. It became very open and
caring and warm, which helped us open up more."
Ellen Haag, a PAIRS teacher in
Springfield, Va., notes that many couples who enroll are frustrated
or seeking a separation. By the time they finish, she says, "a very
high percentage go on to reconcile and fall back in love. The few
who decide they are not compatible usually part with much more
compassion and friendship."
Michelle Weiner-Davis, author of
"Divorce Busting," finds that only a small percentage of divorces
are due to severe problems, such as chronic substance abuse or
domestic violence. Most marital failures, she says, occur because
of problems that are "absolutely, unequivocally
Instead of dwelling on past problems,
Ms. Weiner-Davis urges couples "to identify where they want to be."
Ninety-nine percent of couples who are not getting along, she adds,
are not making their relationship a priority.
Some concerns Not everyone shares this
enthusiasm for marriage preservation. Constance Ahrons, director of
the marriage and family therapy program at the University of
California in Los Angeles and author of "The Good Divorce," says,
"We need to break down the mythology that all divorces are bad. For
some people, divorce is an improvement over what they are living
Doherty sees other opposition. "This
movement creates its own backlash, because some feminists are
skittish about any kind of programs to promote marital stability,"
he says. "They are afraid these programs will keep women trapped in
Yet Ms. Sollee defends these courses.
"We know we can teach these skills to couples who have hit the
skids," she says. "If you learn new behaviors together and you
start treating each other differently, the feelings come
Most couples, Sollee says, break up not
over irreconcilable differences but over "irreconcilable
disappointments" in the way differences are
"There are probably 10 things in most
marriages you're never going to resolve," she says. "People switch
partners and find there will be 10 different irreconcilable
differences in the next marriage." Second marriages have higher
divorce rates than first marriages.
Another marriage educator, Sherod
Miller of Littleton, Colo., teamed up with his wife, Phyllis, to
develop a four-week course, Couple Communication. Certified
instructors teach six skills in talking and five in
"I don't know anything more complex on
the planet than human relationships," says Dr. Miller. "We do so
little to learn how to live together. Ultimately day-to-day living
comes down to how we treat each other and care for each
Therapists, he says, "can help you
figure out your difficulties. But unless they also teach you the
process for being able to figure out things on your own, they're
building in dependency. They're not empowering the couple to
develop and manage their own lives together."
Viv and James Robinson, of Rock Hill,
S.C., who took the Couple Communication course, find it helps them
avoid "getting stuck in knotty tangles," as Mrs. Robinson puts it.
Noting that she and her husband have very different communication
styles, she says, "He is more emotional and tends to think that if
you leave problems alone they'll go away. I want to examine every
detail. The course really has been very useful for
Mature mentors In Bethesda, Md.,
Michael and Harriet McManus have trained 42 married couples in
Fourth Presbyterian Church to serve as mentors to couples before
"The older couple can be very helpful
as an encourager and can give the benefit of their 20, 30, or 40
years of marriage on key issues the couple is facing," says Mr.
McManus, who writes a syndicated column on religion.
In a program called Marriage Savers,
the McManuses use a premarital "inventory" of 165 statements. These
include "I don't like the way my partner spends money," "I'm afraid
to speak up because my partner blows up," and "I think the problems
we have now will diminish after the wedding." Couples fill out the
forms separately, then talk about them with their mentor
Among the first 135 couples to take the
inventory, 25 broke their engagement.
"So many churches today are what I call
'blessing-machine' churches or 'wedding-factory' churches," McManus
says. He calls a "marriage-saver" church "a lighthouse sending out
a beam of hope into the marital darkness of our culture. This is
exciting work, and it should be going on in every church and
synagogue in America."
In 72 cities, he notes, clergy members
have agreed not to marry couples unless they take premarital
education. In Modesto, Calif., the first city to adopt a community
marriage policy in 1986, divorces are down 40 percent. Montgomery,
Ala., and Albany, Ga., adopted policies in 1993. By 1995 divorces
in both cities declined by 11 percent.
For the Kellens, the time and money
they spent on their course paid off. "It made a lot of difference,"
she says. "We still have little situations, but we're able to find
a way to deal with them."
Turnarounds like this fuel the optimism
of marriage educators. "The most important thing is for people to
know that there really is hope," says author Weiner-Davis. "No
matter what kind of problem they're experiencing, there are things
they can do to make a difference."
So enthusiastic is Sollee that she even
encourages people to give engaged couples a marriage-education
course as a wedding gift. She adds, "It should be on all the bridal