The Emerging Field of Marriage Education:
Creating Smart Marriages for the Millennium (Teaching Couples How to Fish)
Diane Sollee, founder and director, Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education
June, 1997 (revised October, 2000)

There is a new sense of concern about divorce and family breakdown.  Most of us have come to recognize the connections between family breakdown and our most disturbing and intractable problems including delinquency, poverty, violence, school failure, reduced worker productivity, depression, substance abuse, and poor health.  And most of us are ready to agree that it would be a good idea to give marriages our attention and support.  However, despite this urgency and consensus, there is confusion about what can and should be done.

There are proposals all across the country to tighten divorce laws -- yet critics warn that this will simply resurrect sleazy divorce practices and/or trap women and children in violent, conflicted marriages.  There are proposals to make premarital counseling mandatory -- but critics point out that premarital counseling has been around for decades without reducing the divorce rate and that mandated counseling would be an infringement of our rights and privacy.

There are proposals to increase access to marital therapy yet there are those who point out that in spite of dramatic increases over the past twenty years in the numbers of marital therapists and counselors the divorce rate hasn’t budged -- it’s stayed at 50% for more than twenty years.  They argue that few are helped by such counseling even when it is available because marital counseling and therapy are simply too little, too late.  And it’s true that few who divorce ever see a counselor or therapist.  People facing divorce say, "I'm not crazy, I just don't love you anymore."  As they see it, therapy is not what's called for.   It’s a crap shoot -- they were in the unlucky 50%, love died and they feel it is their right to move on and find someone new.

It is this widespread acceptance of the inevitability of divorce that directs the majority of our resources towards management of the divorce process and its aftermath.  The Family Therapy Networker (May/June 1997) in "New Markets for Therapists" points to therapists who have "significantly increased their incomes, while avoiding the managed care squeeze" by recognizing one of the two fastest growing segments of our society -- divorced couples - and redesigning their practice to meet their needs.   Divorce, it points out, takes on an adversarial life of its own, breeding antagonism and running-up financial and emotional costs.  Therapists are urged to capture this market and work on divorce adjustment.  Nothing is mentioned about preventing divorce -- just mopping up the lifetime of mess.  As in physical health care, it’s time to shift our emphasis from crisis intervention and rehabilitation to prevention.

In January, 1996, in the midst of the new concern and the growing confusion about what might be done, the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education (CMFCE) was founded.  CMFCE believes that the solution is at hand -- in fact right under our noses -- in the form of a new approach called "marriage education" -- that the real challenge is one of connecting the solution to the problem -- getting the new information about what makes marriages work to couples in a timely, user-friendly, cost-efficient manner.

The CMFCE believes that the country is ready for this preventive, couple-empowering approach.  That we are all aware of the desirability of prevention and are ready to change behaviors that cause problems rather than trying to patch what’s been irreparably broken.  The public has demonstrated that it can and will stop smoking, buckle up, exercise, and lay infants on their backs rather than face down.  Tell us, show us, teach us -- and we are likely to do it, especially if we are invested in the outcome.

And we are invested.  Ninety percent of us still marry -- and remarry -- despite the terrible odds.  All the surveys report that we believe that having a happy marriage and family life is the number one prerequisite to our own personal happiness.  All that’s needed is a way to help couples achieve their own most cherished goal.

The Marriage Education approach is based on years of clinical experience and research into what distinguishes the marriages that succeed.  It’s not, it turns out that successful couples have fewer differences -- less to fight about. In fact couples who stay married and happy have the same level of disagreements as those that divorce.  Couples also disagree about all the same basic issues. It’s about how they handle their differences.  And about what they do when they are "between differences."  It’s about behaviors -  or best practices.  And most exciting is the discovery that these behaviors have been identified and can be easily, efficiently, and economically taught. Couples can be taught to do more of what makes marriages successful and less of what predicts marital unhappiness and divorce.  Marriage Education courses provide an operator's  manual for this skill-based proposition called marriage.

The CMFCE convened over 100 experts in Washington, DC May, 1997 for the nation’s first annual marriage education conference.  The conference demonstrated that there are a whole range of programs -- with research, models, and delivery systems -- ready for widespread implementation in churches, high schools, and extension offices, on military bases, in health care settings and court systems, and down at the fire hall.  And it demonstrated that the helping professionals are eager to be trained in these new approaches.

The dozens of marriage education courses listed in the CMFCE on-line Directory:
o Can be taught by para-professionals, lay leaders, teachers, clergy – or mental health professionals.
o Instructor training takes one to three days.
o Teaching is most effective in classrooms – couples learn the skills better, or at least as well, in groups
    than in the more expensive, labor intensive, one-trainer/counselor-to-one-couple model.
o Are NOT therapy or counseling - couples don’t share personal issues or feelings in the classroom.
o Skills work with premarital couples, newlyweds, and long-married and/or troubled couples.
o Normalize conflicts and differences as part of marriage and as part of a loving relationship
o Teach what to expect over the course of marriage and parenthood.
o Include some form of basic communication skills: speaker- listener, time outs, shared meaning,
    conflict-resolution, problem solving, empathy-building, softened start-up, love maps, etc.
o Eight to 20 hours long – usually taught in a weekend or one-night-a-week format.
o Skills, once learned, are modeled at home and thus reduce divorce in future generations.
o Skills also generalize to relationships with co-workers, neighbors, peers, in-laws, etc.
o Assume men and women are equally capable of learning the skills and are equally invested in
    creating and maintaing a satisfying, successful marriage.
o Effective across classes, races, and ethnicities.
o Easily adapted for special populations - stepfamilies, newlyweds, new parents, couples facing
   long separations or deployment, substance abuse, illness, on-the-brink of divorce, etc.


Programs fall into several overlapping categories determined in part by the setting in which they evolved – in university, clinical, church or community settings.  However, whatever the setting, each program was developed by professionals, clergy or lay leaders who were determined to find a better way – weary of pulling couples from the river and discouraged at how few they could resuscitate – these innovators moved upstream to learn how to keep couples from falling in and taking their children down with them.

Distinctions continue to blur as the field evolves – as programs share information, as trainees disperse across the country, and as new programs and formats develop – rich blends of the originals emerge, informed by ongoing research and innovations, with applications designed for special populations or settings.  The following outline is not exhaustive, but is intended as an overview and introduction to the range of available programs.

UNIVERSITY-DEVELOPED PROGRAMS: Universities provide a fertile environment with built-in supports for research and development. These programs created over the past thirty years, were based on various combinations of research, clinical theory, clinical experience, and learning theory.  Each boasts an impressive body of outcome-effectiveness research, training manuals, audio and videotape packages, books, applications and spin-off programs, and a network of students/leaders trained in the approach.  Each, in a brief, one-day to a 20-some hour format, emphasizes the teaching of a form of speaker-listener/communication/problem-solving skills and each also includes skills for increasing empathy, understanding, affection, appreciation, commitment, and/or enjoyment in the relationship.  Each is based on the premise that if couples can communicate, know their partner, set goals, and handle conflict and differences effectively, love and satisfaction are likely to follow - that success breeds satisfaction with each other and with the marriage.  Each program uses a didactic lecture format to impart information and demonstrate skills and each includes couples exercises and practice sessions with optional levels of coaching.

These three are recognized exemplars each with twenty years or more of clinical trails, refinements and research:

o Relationship Enhancement, RE, Bernard Guerney, Jr; PhD, Pennsylvania State University.
o Couple Communication, CC, Sherod Miller, PhD, University of Minnesota.
o The Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program, PREP:Howard Markman, PhD, and Scott
  Stanley, PhD, University of Denver.

Although there are distinctions to be made among them, what is significant are their similarities and their demonstrated effectiveness; their widespread application in different community and cultural settings; the fact that they work in the cost-efficient, large classroom format; are protective of each individual and each couple’s privacy; their recognition by their professional communities; and their training programs for course leaders -- lay and para-professional, clergy, and mental health professionals -- in one to three days.

There are other university-derived programs, also research-based and which use the same didactic/classroom format to teach skills, but which lack a training program for trainers, a wide network of practitioners, or applications beyond the classes which are taught by the founders at their home base/research setting.  These include:

oThe Marriage Survival Kit, introduced in 1996 by John Gottman, PhD, University of Washington, whose twenty-five years of marital research undergirds much of the theory of the marriage education field.  He teaches the course twice a year in Seattle but is currently focused on follow-up research including booster sessions and relapse-prevention and is not yet training trainers.
o We Can Work It Out, Clifford Notarius, PhD, Catholic University of America, similar to PREP & RE in that skills are taught in a group lecture format interspersed with couples practice sessions but with a one-trainer-to-one-couple ratio for the practice/coaching segments, and, thus, less cost-efficient.  Currently under revision.

Another, long-established university-based program, is unique in that it uses a series of audio tapes and a highly structured leader manual and does away with the need for leader training.
o Training in Marriage Enrichment, TIME, Don Dinkmeyer, PhD, and Jon Carlson, PhD  "Anyone with group facilitation skills can present the course -- mental health, marriage counselor, clergy or leader training is not a requirement -- the kit provides the information needed about marriages and skills," says Carlson.  The $150 leader kit contains step-by-step instructions for teaching ten two-hour, skill-building couples groups.  Dinkmeyer and Carlson based the program on their successful parent education program and on the requests for a similar kit for couples education.

INVENTORY-BASED/UNIVERSITY-DEVELOPED PROGRAMS: Uses question/answer format to uncover areas of disagreement and assess areas of couple strength and weakness with premarital or already-married couples.  The inventories predict marital success with up to 86% accuracy through identification of the couples’ skill-level - how often they use the silent treatment, whether little issues often escalate into serious fights, etc.  Leader training takes one day.  Each has various scoring options and prices which equip the counselor with a report which identifies couple strengths (skills) and areas of weakness.  Each has a variety of inventories adapted specifically to premarital, marital, cohabiting, retired, remarriage couples.

o PREPARE/ENRICH, David Olson, PhD, University of Minnesota.  Results are reviewed in several sessions with the couple and counselor and/or in a new format, "Growing Together" -- a  skill-teaching, six-session, couples group.  Offices in ten countries.

o FOCCUS/REFOCCUS, Barbara Markey, PhD, Creighton University.  Used extensively in Catholic settings but applicable to all denominations as well as secular settings.  Includes special applications for cohabiting, remarriage, interfaith, and dual career couples and unique scoring options.

o RELATE - developed by the Marriage Study consortium, a non-profit, research and educational organization, directed by Thomas Holman, PhD.  Scoring options and applications.

CHURCH AND COMMUNITY-BASED PROGRAMS: Utilizes the heretofore untapped natural resources in the congregation/community -- well-married, volunteer, mentor couples.  The programs recruit and train these couples to work with engaged and newlywed couples, as well as couples facing special challenges using some combination of inventory-based and skill-training programs.  Special challenges might include stepfamily couples or those "on the brink" due to affairs, gambling, the death of a child, chronic illness, unemployment, etc.  The premise is that stepfamily couples can best mentor to stepfamilies and "survivor" couples can best help those facing crisis.

These programs hold churches and synagogues, congregations and communities, responsible for supporting and helping to maintain marriages in their sphere.  They are challenged to prepare couples for lifelong marriage rather than for a wedding day.  This bodes well for success because 75% of couples choose to be married in a church or synagogue.  In a noted "boomerang" effect mentor couples find their marriages strengthened and the perspective of the congregation/community -- and the newlyweds -- is dramatically changed to one of a "marriage culture."

The following programs have developed training curricula, videos, workbooks, newsletters, etc:

o Marriage Savers Churches & Community Marriage Policies(CMP) - developed by Mike McManus.  The Marriage Saver Church program utilizes the FOCCUS/REFOCCUS inventory, mentor couples, and teaches conflict-resolution skills.  Community Marriage Policies invite clergy of all denominations in a city to sign a covenant that requires an agreed-upon course of marital preparation.  More than 110 cities have signed a Community Marriage Policy.

o Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts (SYMBIS) - This secular, non-denominational program developed by Les and Leslie Parrott, PhDs, utilizes a Marriage Mentor approach.  Engaged couples attend a skill-building marriage preparation weekend, and are then matched with a volunteer couple who mentors them through the first year of marriage -- the year which sees a high rate of breakup and which sets patterns for the rest of the marriage.  The total fee is $100 per couple for the marriage preparation week-end retreat, the year-long mentoring program, and materials.

o Marriage Encounter, Engaged Encounter & Retrouvaille.  Marriage or Engaged Encounter couples week-end enrichment retreats, begun by Catholic Church in 1960s, are run by trained lay volunteer couples and clergy using an outline that guides a couples dialogue and the private sharing of topic letters, feelings, recommitment, and renewal.  Retrouvaille ("rediscovery") is a parallel program developed for seriously troubled, on-the-brink couples facing issues such as infidelity, gambling, and alcoholism.  Fee is by donation based on what couples can afford.

o Caring Couples Network - This program, developed by Richard Hunt, PhD, and the United Methodist Church, trains teams of mentor couples, clergy, and professional consultants to provide services to couples and families.

o Marriage Enrichment - Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment (ACME)  Founded in 1973 by David & Vera Mace, this non-sectarian, non-profit, membership organization for couples operates across the US and Canada sponsoring local, national and regional chapters, conferences, and retreats and trains and certifies leader couples to teach and demonstrate skills to help couples work on their marriages for a lifetime.  Annual couples dues are $30.  Couples meet in ongoing chapters - usually in member’s homes - to share resources for marriage enrichment and to provide lectures and seminars in the community.  Members receive a bi-monthly newsletter, and attend national and regional conferences. .

THERAPY-BASED PROGRAMS: These grew out of clinical practice and combine therapy theory and interventions (bonding, catharsis, anger expression, family-of-origin work, reimaging, healing, etc.) with the core communication/conflict-resolution skills.  Course leaders must be licensed mental health professionals.  In two major models, PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills), developed by Lori Gordon, PhD, and IMAGO ("image/mirror,") developed by Harville Hendrix,
PhD, the training of trainers is longer (20 days), and the programs more intensive.  (Update: In 1998, PAIRS revised its format.  In order to bring the skill training component to more couples, it no longer requires a mental health license or degree, and offers a four-day training for its short courses.  Such license and certification is now only required to teach the 120 hour version of the course which includes bonding and catharsis work.  In 2001, IMAGO created a new IMAGO Education program with a two-day training for lay educators and clergy.)

PAIRS.  The original 120 hour PAIRS course taught over 4 months, offers a wider range of experiential exercises and skills - ventilation, sensuality, role-play, bonding - and includes group interaction and the expectation that the four-month curriculum will anchor the new behaviors and understandings.  PAIRS also has a range of shorter courses -  4 hour, one-day, week-end, and an eight-week PAIRS FIRST marriage preparation program as well as PAIRS for PEERS, a program for high schools and colleges.

IMAGO defines the purpose of marriage as the healing by the partners of each other’s childhood wounds and offers a tool-kit of skills which partners use to do this work -- the major tool being the Couple Dialogue.  This might be done in the intensive IMAGO couples week-end workshop OR in a longer course of Imago Relationship Therapy, one-on-one with an Imago therapist for 10 to 12 sessions, in which the couple is expected to do the major portion of the work through the dialogue process and thus will be able to handle problems on their own following the "training." (See above for new IMAGO ED program.)

(click for a directory of marriage education programs)

SCHOOL PROGRAMS: Adapts the skills-based programs for couples for delivery at the earliest age - primarily in high school and middle school, but interesting programs are also underdevelopment for elementary schools.  These programs find that high school and middle school students can learn the skills, understand the research, and learn what it takes to maintain a skillful relationship.  The premise is that this will equip them to make better marital choices and to make their marriages successful.  The programs have developed curricula, manuals, and videos and each is being taught in schools across the US.  In 1997 the Oklahoma Bar Association committed to providing two programs -- CONNECTIONS and PARTNERS -- to all 11th and 12th graders in the state.  In May, 1998 Florida passed the country’s first marriage education bill, providing marriage skill-training for all 9th and 10th graders.

Building Relationships: developed by David Olson, PhD, this is an inventory and skill-training curriculum to teach high school seniors and college students what it takes to maintain a healthy marriage.

PARTNERS: development and implementation sponsored by the ABA Family Law Division and in place in the high schools in 35 states.  This adaptation of the PAIRS (Lori Gordon) program was spearheaded by Lynne Gold-Bikin, JD.  Divorce lawyers purchase the video-based course for a high school in their region and participate with teachers and mental health professionals in presenting the course.

PAIRS for PEERS: Lori Gordon’s adaptation of the PAIRS program for middle school, high school, and college.

CONNECTIONS: Relationships & Marriage -- developed by The Dibble Fund, the curriculum was designed by Charlene Kamper, MA, an experienced high school teacher for teacher-friendly, ready-to-use, manual-guided, step-by-step presentation by high school teachers to help teenagers learn relationship skills.

EQ: Enhancing Social-Emotional Intelligence: developed by Mo Hannah, PhD,  as an adaptation of IMAGO, social learning, and EQ theory.  In pilot studies is being taught at elementary school level by volunteer undergraduates.  Research is exploring ripple effects on parent’s relationships as well as long-term effects on the children.

Loving Well - developed at Boston University’s School of Education, uses quality classic and modern literature to teach character education, social and emotional skills.  It teaches the complexities, nuances, and consequences of attraction, commitment, love, and loss

(click for more information on the school based programs.)

Build It And They Will Come

CMFCE operates on optimism based on the growth of the marriage education field; on the enthusiastic acceptance of church and community-based mentor models; on the promise of prevention, and on the new curiosity and concern about the marriage and divorce conundrum.

We anticipate a day when no one would dream of getting married without taking at least one skill-based premarital course.  We even anticipate getting to the point where couples will take booster courses as they face predictable marital challenges and milestones or simply take refresher courses along the way to keep things humming.

My favorite story is about Chesterfield County, Virginia.  In the early 90s the county mandated divorce education for divorcing couples with minor children.  Divorce education, which is in place in many jurisdictions across the country, usually consists of requiring parents to watch a video about the effects of divorce on children before they can get their walking papers.  Some few programs talk about do’s and don’ts of post-divorce parenting, about not putting children in the middle.  After a few years of this the workers in Chesterfield County burned-out.  All that carnage.  All that pain.  All that "too little, too late."  The county was still spending way too much on divorce-related problems - custody re-adjudication, child-support enforcement, delinquency, school-failure, stalking, violence.

Pat Cullen, director of the divorce education program, heard about a  PREP training paid for by the Department of the Navy which allowed any government worker to attend.  She took the two-day training and went home and persuaded the county government to subsidize a marriage education course.  They offered it at $55 per couple for seven Thursday nights in a row.  The response was overwhelming.  There is a perpetual waiting list and couples from neighboring counties lie about their residency to attend.  This isn’t about mandating.  Couples want their marriages to work.  They will grab a life raft if it’s thrown in their direction.  This is "Build it and they will come."  This is about the future of marriages and families in America.

For a Directory of Programs visit CMFCE at
The Directory lists dozens of courses for couples and training opportunities for instructors.
5310 Belt Rd, NW, Washington, DC, 20015-1961.
The annual Smart Marriages/Happy Families conference is open to all - professionals, policy makers, clergy, and the public.  The conference includes pre and post conference training institutes that qualify participants to teach the courses described above.

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