Today’s Groom Asks Diane Sollee
Founder and Director of SmartMarriages®
May 2006

Today’s Groom: How did you think of the concept to start SmartMarriages?

Diane Sollee: I was a working in the marriage and family therapy field and realized that while the therapy industry had increased exponentially, the divorce rate was staying at 50%.  I knew there had to be a better way to get couples the information they need to make their marriages more enjoyable and more successful.  

TG: How can couples make their marriage a SmartMarriage®?

DS:    The surest way is to take a marriage education class together.  The research shows that a successful marriage is not about simply choosing the right person, but knowing how to manage the relationship – keep the love alive.  Taking a weekend marriage education class can improve a couple’s odds by 50%.  And, it’s important that they take the class together, get on the same page.  There are many different “brands” of classes from which to choose– PAIRS, PREP, Couples Communication, Relationship Enhancement, etc. And, just like McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s – you get a burger at each one, but the fixins are different.  You’ll learn the core skills at any of the programs.  Which is good news because it means it’s safe to take the class that’s nearest or most convenient.

It’s also very good news that men prefer marriage education classes to therapy or counseling. Instead of sitting and talking about your feelings or your “issues” or your childhood you go to a class and learn the “tricks of the trade”. It’s like having a coach teaching the team the rules, the drills, pass plays – and, what’s a foul - which ‘plays’ or behaviors predict success and which are ‘fouls’ and predict failure. The couple learns how to be a good working team.

TG: What are the biggest challenges facing marriage today?

DS:    The research is very, very clear.  The only predictor of whether marriage will succeed or fail is how well they manage their disagreements.  Couples are misinformed; they think marital success is based on finding their “soul mate” -- someone with whom they agree with on almost everything. It turns out that a couple can agree on 98% of questions on a questionnaire, but it is how they deal with or manage the two or three issues they disagree about that predicts success or failure.  And there are going to be lots more than two disagreements in a lifelong marriage. It’s true that the purpose of courtship and getting engaged is to fall in love and “find a match”. You do need to find someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. So all systems are focused on the ways you “match up:”  You meet and there’s a spark.  He says, “I’m from Chicago.”  She says, “Oh my goodness, I flew over Chicago once!”  You are looking for similarities – fanning the spark. We’ve got so much in common!  We fan finish each other’s sentences.   Then you get married and, while it’s true that you’ve got all those similarities, you start realizing there are also lots of differences and things you disagree about. And, that’s the heart of the marriage.  Two different people pledged to each other for life.
That is actually the most important thing you learn in a marriage education class: what to expect in marriage.  It helps couples to know that the research is very clear: disagreement is a normal, healthy part of a good marriage.  Happily married couples that “go the distance” have just as many disagreements as the couples that divorce.  And, couples all disagree about the same basic issues – some combination or permutation of the big 5: money, sex, kids, others and time. Disagreement simply means neither of you is brain dead and that you both care – about issues great and small.

They call the first few years the honeymoon, and couples think they’ve found their soul mate and it should be all rose gardens and the white picket fence.  We should rename it the “Crash of Civilizations”. Couples should know that in the first few years of marriage they are using hammers, chisels –they are literally hammering out and establishing a new civilization.  They are taking what he thinks and what she thinks to create a new way of doing everything.  It helps if couples know it’s normal, that this is how it’s supposed to be. And, it greatly helps if they have a playbook – “rules of the road” -  to manage the process.

TG: What is the most common mistake men make before they say “I Do?”

DS:    It is probably the same most common mistake that they make in a marriage.  They want to avoid talking about issues because they are afraid it will turn into a fight.  There is a cartoon that illustrates this.  The husband explains to the marriage counselor, “Yes, it’s true.  We don’t talk anymore.  I figured out that that’s when we have all our arguments.”   Men have to learn to talk about things.  For sure the number one predictor of divorce is the habitual avoidance of conflict. Well intentioned, but deadly.

TG: What is the most common mistake women make before they say “I Do?”

DS:    Not taking the marriage education classes.  Women think, “I’ll just keep explaining to him what I read in Cosmopolitan and saw on the Oprah show: We need to spend twenty minutes every Friday night having a couples meeting then sex would work much better for me.”  Women try to educate their man.  They need to realize that they shouldn’t be the one who does it.  It is much better if they go to a class and a man’s man using football, stock market, or space exploration analogies, cartoons and movie clips - maps it all out.  He can connect with the guys – give them guidelines for how to “master the game” - and the guys see the logic and “get it”.  Women spend way too much time worrying out how the wedding is going to go.  She should put some of that energy into getting both of them to a simple weekend marriage skills class.

TG: Do you think people have realistic expectations about marriage?

DS:    No, that is a huge problem.  Marriage education has three streams of information:
    1.  The Benefits of Marriage.  Married couples – and their children - score higher on every thing we can measure: they live longer, are healthier, have less depression and suicide, less violence of every kind, better sex, and are more successful – make more money.  Marriage is the great conservatory of wealth. It’s also a “working team” and humans simply do better with someone in their camp.,
    2.  It provides a Road Map - what to expect at different points along the way. Many people believe in the bogus “7 year itch” thing.  There is no spike in divorce rates or infidelity at 7 years.  The highest rate of infidelity and divorce is in the first 3 years.  The second divorce peak is around years fourteen to sixteen. And, people don’t have a clue that the one event that is most likely to precipitate a separation or divorce is the birth of the first baby. It’s not the stretch marks or loss of sleep, it’s that there is so much more to disagree about – you’re changing the “civilization’ – adding new ‘citizens’ and good communication and conflict management skills can save things.  
    3.  Behaviors and skills.  You will learn which behaviors you need to use and which behaviors don’t work.  These are simple skills, but if you don’t have them, welcome to divorce court.

TG: What expectations do the most harm?

DS:    The myth of the honeymoon period.  Having the expectation that if they marry the right person they won’t disagree. It’s the myth of the compatible couple.  You are two individuals and you will disagree. If you don’t want to have to communicate about issues, stay single.  You also need to realize that you’ll both constantly be changing. No matter how well you interview each other during the courtship process, you won’t stay the same “til death do you part”. And, that is good news.  It’s exciting. Solves the problem men ask themselves when they wonder, “How can I be married to one woman for my whole life?!”  Well, you’re not.  You are constantly changing, she is constantly changing, and the marriage is constantly changing.  You should wake up every morning and wonder, “Who am I married to today?”  One of the skills you learn in a marriage education class is how to welcome and integrate change into your marriage.. You learn to become a Mater of Marriage – of the process of taking care of the love you rode in on – keeping it lively and sexy, and successful..

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