Rescuing Marriages Before They
By HARA ESTROFF MARANO,
New York Times
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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 (www.his.com/~cmfce/).