Rescuing Marriages Before They Begin


May 28, 1997

Call it the toilet-seat theory of romance. Whether a man puts the toilet seat down holds a major clue to the success of a marriage: it is a sign that he understands and respects his wife's needs and is open to the kind of giving and taking of influence that leads to long-term marital stability.

Contrary to popular belief, says Dr. John Gottman, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, it is the mundane events of everyday life that build love in marriage. Connecting in the countless "mindless moments" that usually go by unnoticed establishes a positive emotional climate.

That protects partners, helping them to ignore the irritability that typically accompanies a spouse's complaints. In short, it puts a natural cap on the fights that are virtually inevitable in relationships.

With the aid of videotape and sensors that monitor people's bodily responses, Gottman has spent 25 years scrutinizing what actually goes on in marriages. He has followed 670 couples, from newlyweds to retirees, for up to 14 years. He recently reported his surprising findings at the first conference of the Coalition of Marriage, Family and Couples Education, a newly formed group of counselors and educators.

At the four-day meeting in Arlington, Va., dozens of pioneers in marriage education described new approaches to curtailing family breakdown, not by making divorce more difficult but by making marriage more satisfying for both partners.

Only 20 percent of divorces are caused by an affair, Gottman said; "Most marriages die with a whimper, as people turn away from one another, slowly growing apart."

Diane Sollee, a social worker who is a family therapist, organized the conference after becoming convinced of the limits of therapy for what she sees as normal problems of living. "While the numbers of therapists and access to treatment have increased dramatically in 20 years," she said, "the divorce rate hasn't budged much below 50 percent." The meeting formally recognized a directional shift that has been building largely unnoticed for more than a decade: educating people how to prevent distress long before it starts.

Marriage education not only immunizes couples against disappointment and despair, said Dr. Howard Markman, a psychologist at the University of Denver, it also prevents the development of problems that are costly to children and all of society. Mismanaged conflict, he said, predicts both marital distress and negative physical and mental health effects on children. His studies, conducted at the University of Denver, where he is a professor of psychology, find that marital conflict also leads to decreased work productivity, especially for men.

Contradicting Tolstoy's famous dictum ("Happy families are all alike"), he emphasized that "there are many ways to have a happy marriage, but only a few ways marriages go bad." Having a good relationship is a skill, and the heart of the skill involves ways of speaking, and especially ways of listening to a partner's concerns without counterattacking or defending one's own innocence.

"Men have more trouble expressing and hearing negative emotions, and are more reactive to them," Markman said. "But our studies show that the critical skill in successful relationships is being able to listen to a wife's concerns and complaints about the relationship."

Along with a colleague, Dr. Scott Stanley, Markman has translated the research into a 12-hour course called PREP, or Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program. He calls it a Geneva Convention for conflict in marriage. In lectures and coaching sessions, couples learn and practice ground rules for airing complaints so they do not get stuck in the negativity that is so corrosive to love.

In a study in Germany, 64 couples who took PREP are being tracked along with 32 members of a comparison group, 18 who received standard premarital counseling and 14 who received no counseling at all. Five years after the course, given in six weekly sessions of two hours, the PREP couples have a divorce rate of 4 percent. In comparison, 24 percent of the couples in the comparison group have divorced. Those who took PREP also reported half the incidence of physical aggression.

One reason that adults lack necessary relationship skills, said Dr. Sherod Miller, a psychologist in Littleton, Colo., is that their world has turned turbulent. "In my lifetime, couples have gone from taking roles precast by the culture along gender lines" to making roles according to their needs, Dr. Miller said.

As a result, everything couples do every day is open to negotiation, especially after the first baby arrives, when marital satisfaction "drops precipitously" for 75 percent of them.

Miller has developed a Couples Communication course that is taught to mental health professionals around the country. They, in turn, set up private classes for couples in their areas.

Professionals, however, are not the only experts imparting vital information on relationships. Two separate programs are recruiting "marriage mentors," experienced older couples in a community who can be available for general guidance to younger couples and provide a realistic picture of married life.

Dr. Leslie Parrott, who is co-director of a marriage mentor program in Seattle, said, "The point of mentoring is not to give answers but to tell your story: this is what works for us, this hasn't." Dr. Parrott and her husband, Dr. Les Parrott, both associate professors of psychology at Seattle Pacific University, are founders of the university's Center for Relationship Development, and established a marriage mentor program five years ago that is now citywide.

In a follow-up study in which they traced 150 of 300 couples mentored in the past five years, the Parrots said they found not a single instance of divorce.

Yet another new effort to save marriages early is the community marriage policy. Religious institutions of all denominations in a community sign an agreement to perform weddings only for couples who undergo training in communication and conflict resolution. The goal is to affect as many couples as possible, since 74 percent of marriages are performed by the clergy. So far, 64 cities have instituted a marriage policy. The most recent one was signed last month for Minneapolis-St. Paul.

It is a mistake to confine divorce prevention to the religious realm, Judge James E. Sheridan of Adrian, Mich., told conferees; it is a civic matter. All taxpayers bear the expenses of family breakdown. He has initiated America's first total community marriage policy, involving judges and magistrates as well as members of the clergy. Starting next week, all couples seeking a marriage license in Lenawee County, Mich., will first have to receive marital education by a certified professional. "All I'm asking is that couples be responsible," Judge Sheridan said.

Dr. David H. Olson, a professor of family psychology at the University of Minnesota, has developed a 165-item questionnaire, called Prepare, that partners fill out independently of each other. Extensively refined and tested, the questionnaire inventories attitudes that have been found important in relationships, like "My partner would not make an important decision without consulting me" and "I wish my partner were more willing to share his/her feelings with me." Variations of the questionnaire have been developed for married couples, step-families, and, most recently, high-school students.

In one study, 10 percent of engaged couples given the questionnaire decided against marriage. Their scores proved to be in the same range as those of couples who ultimately divorced, Olson reported.

To be really effective, education about realtionships should begin in high school, Dr. Olson believes. In just the last two years, three programs started independently began offering programs in high schools around the country. All include conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills. One, called PARNERS, was developed by a divorce lawyer, Lynne Gold-Bikin, during her tneure as head of the family-law division of the American Bar Association.

In the beginning, said Dr. Miller, there was psychoanalysis. Then there was psychotherapy. And now we are entering the era of psychoeducation. "It is now possible to give people an idea of how things really work in a marriage," siad Dr. Gottman, who has created a course for couples: the Marriage Survival Kit. "We can prevent marital meltdown."

For couples who are seeking to avert a meltdown, a nationwide directory of marriage-education courses is accessiable on the Internet (

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