A Conference that asks: Are You Smart Enough To Have a Smart Marriage®?

Jon Galuckie interviewed Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family
and Couples Education, LLC (CMFCE). The Coalition launched the
nation's first Marriage Education conference, Smart Marriages®/Happy Families in
May, 1997 in Washington, DC.  All sessions from the annual Smart Marriages conferences
(1997 - 2010) were recorded and are available on MP3, DVD, & CD at http://www.iplaybacksmartmarriages.com
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Playback: What is this "Smart Marriages®" about?

Sollee: The idea is that love and marriage are actually skill-based propositions.
We know Americans value marriage. In fact surveys find that they value
having a happy marriage above all else -- ahead of money, satisfying work,
even health. 90% of Americans marry. Then divorce like lemmings. We've
had a 50% divorce rate for almost thirty years. If they divorce, what do they do?
They run right out and try again. 75% remarry. But the divorce rate for remarriages
is even worse -- 65%. And even worse than that if there are kids around. We've
almost come to accept this as the way it has to be -- a crap shoot with a 50-50 chance
of finding the right person -- finding real, true, bona fide love. And if you don't,
you get a divorce. Enter Smart Marriages®.

PB: But what is it? You still haven't said.

Sollee: It's the idea that marriage is skill-based. Like football. The way we
have it set up now a couple gets married and we send them out there to win
based on "love and commitment." That's like asking a football team to win on
team spirit -- "for the Gipper" -- but not letting them learn any plays or signals.
No skills at all -- just win on love. The basis for the smart marriage® concept is
exciting new research that finds that what is different about the marriages that make it
-- that go the distance and stay happy -- are behaviors or skills. And even more
exciting they are simple skills that anyone can learn.

PB: Sign me up.

Sollee: Yes, it turns out that courses focusing on teaching these skills have been
sprouting spontaneously for some time, and men really like them. At the
conference Scott Stanley in "Four Hallmarks of A Great Marriage" refers to a
cartoon where 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." It turns out men avoid talking about
issues because they are afraid things will just blow up. Get worse. Men will talk if
there is an agreed upon structure in place for handling disagreements.
Stanley points out that we have a Geneva Convention for war -- white flags, no-strike
zones, etc. We need similar rules for managing relationship conflict. Men like it that spouses
attend together and learn to play out of the same playbook. Women like the courses because
the couses teach spouses how to share the work of the relationship -- the work of keeping
the love and romance alive. It turns out men are happy to do their fair share if they know the drill -
what's expected of them and what works.

PB: The courses? You keep referring to courses.

Sollee: Yes, marital therapists and counselors have decided to make this information
as simple and as user-friendly as possible so they've developed courses that teach the
skills in week-end workshops. It turns out marriage isn't a disease. So the courses are
not about therapy, or encounter groups. They don't require that couples share their
problems, or feelings. Think of a classroom and a blackboard and going home to
practice -- doing the homework -- in private. You spend one week-end to get smart
about relationships -- to have the best marriage on your block. This is exciting stuff.
I've taken to giving the courses as wedding gifts -- I don't give anything else.

PB: So it's all about skills? Actually, it sounds like it's about learning how to fight.

Sollee: Yes, and no. It is all about skills. One great skill in all relationships, even
friendship, is knowing how to manage conflict. The couples that stay happy don't
start out richer, better looking, more passionate, more committed, or, even more compatible.
Remarkably, the happy couples disagree about just as many things -- and the same things
-- as the couples that divorce. It turns out all couples fight about all the same things! Money,
time, housework, sex, priorities, the kids, etc. But it's how they understand this -- that it's normal to disagree,
and HOW they handle or manage the inevitable disagreements -- are what's crucial. The
best predictor of divorce. But as John Gottman pointed out in his "Report From the
Love Lab" -- as all the courses point out -- there are equally important skills for expressing
admiration and appreciation for each other and for accepting influence from each other. The courses
teach couples how to develop Love Maps/Road Maps of each others lives; to share wishes,
hopes and dreams; take daily temperature readings; to honor repair attempts; to use softened start-ups in making
complaints about their partner, etc, etc, etc. Just like the skills of conflict management, the skills
that nurture love can be learned, are crucial -- and are best learned together.

PB: What about romance? All this sounds pretty 'by-the-book'. And what about that,
"If you loved me you'd know what I want, and if I have to tell you, I don't want it" business?

Sollee: This is romantic. It's the most romantic thing you can do! If you find someone you
want to spend the rest of your life with -- share everything from the bathroom to your bank
account and babies with -- then taking a course to learn everything the experts know about
how to keep your love alive is as romantic as it can get. Walk hand-in-hand into one
of these courses and tell me it isn't romantic. And the "I don't want to have to ask" business
is dealt with. You do have to ask. You have to give your partner an accurate love map of
your desires. This isn't war, it's not about building an obstacle course and using camouflage
-- it's marriage.

PB: These courses are for engaged couples or newlyweds? The idea is to learn
how to do it right in the beginning?

Sollee: Yes, they're great for couples just starting out. But these are relationship skills
-- they work for all relationships -- at any stage of the game. Long-married couples
with serious problems -- even on the brink of divorce -- can learn skills to sort things out
and, in doing so, can fall back in love. And long-married couples without problems should
rush out and sign up. It's a great way to celebrate an anniversary -- to make a good thing even better
-- and keep things humming. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks. Both genders. The research finds
that the challenge isn't our gender differences so much as it is the new challenges and demands
faced by both men and women. As Peggy Papp puts it, the marital rules are changing. "All couples
today are pioneers -- whether they're newlywed or long-married -- as they try to work out the
demands of two-earner, time pressured lives." In designing her course, Maintaining A Loving
Relationship, she asked herself what couples need in order to make it. "These exercises help
couples learn very simple skills to open a new dialogue with each other, chart new pathways."
That sums it up -- our new optimism about marriage. And about self-help marriage education.
People are sick of leaving it up to chance -- they're ready to become proactive about making their
relationships last.

"What are ten things you'd tell couples about how to have a Smart Marriage®? What pointers
can you give them from the Smart Marriages® Conference?"Pointers from the Smart Marriages® Conferences - ten ideas for having a Smart Marriage@:

1. Marriage matters. Married people & their kids do better on all measures of health, wealth, happiness, & success. And, married folks report having more & better sex than single or divorced people. 

2. Disagreements are normal no matter who you marry. The trick is to learn how to manage disagrements without hostility & put-downs – without getting nasty and eroding the love you rode in on. 

3. It's not the differences but how we handle them that separate successful marriages from the failures. Disagreeing doesn’t predict divorce. Avoidance, contempt, criticism, blame, and the silent treatment predict divorce. Learn how to disagree in ways that help you fall more in love.

4. All happily married couples have approximately ten irreconcilable differences - ten issues they will never resolve. If we switch partners, we just get ten new issues that are likely to be even more annoying and complicated. Sadly, if there are children from an earlier marriage or relationship, disagreements about them go to the top of the list. What's important is to discuss our own set of issues just as we would discuss how to manage living with a chronic bad back or trick knee. We wish they weren't there, but what’s important is to keep talking about how to manage them and still do the marriage “dance”.

5. Love is not an absolute (a yes or no situation) and it’s not limited substance. It's a feeling and feelings ebb and flow depending on how we treat each other. We can learn new ways to interact and the feelings “of being in love” can come flowing back, often stronger than before.

6. Marital satisfaction often dips with the birth of a baby. That's normal. Marital satisfaction is at its lowest when there are kids in the house between 11 and 16. That's normal. We need to know what's normal, what to expect, appreciate our parenting partner – and hang in. It makes good sense to stay married for the sake of the kids – and for our own sake. Even with the challenges, it’s a lot easier to be a parenting team than to be a single, divorced, or remarried parent. Plus there is a silver lining: satisfaction goes back up with the empty nest. The final stage of marriage – with a job well done – is the real honeymoon period.

7. Sex ebbs and flows. It comes and goes. That's normal. Plan for & make time for more “flows”.

8. Creating good marital sex is not about putting the sizzle BACK INTO your sex life. Early marital sex is sex between strangers – we don't yet know our partner or ourselves. The most passionate sex is intimate sex based on knowing our partner and letting them know us. One of the most important tasks of marriage is to develop a satisfying marital sex style. It's not about going BACK; it's about going FORWARD, together.

9. Repair attempts are crucial and are highly predictive of marital happiness. They can be clumsy or funny, even sarcastic, but the willingness to make up after an argument, is central to every happy marriage.

10. Learn to welcome, embrace and integrate change
– to discuss and update your wishes, hopes & dreams – on a regular basis. We often “interview” each other before marriage and then think "that's it." The marriage vow is a promise to stay married, not to stay the same. (Thank goodness!) Keep up-to-date with changes in your partner. Don’t fear changes, celebrate them!

And, finally I'd tell them to try several different marriage education courses.
Become informed consumers – rate the courses, discuss what you liked best – which ideas were most helpful. Decide which courses to recommend to your kids, friends and family – which to give as wedding, anniversary and new baby gifts. The courses don't tell you what kind of marriage to have. That's up to you. They give you the tools – the hammers, screwdrivers, and levels – so you can build the kind of marriage that suits you, one which can help you to negotiate, and renegotiate, your own values, meaning, and goals.

Find a class at http://www.smartmarriages.com/directory_browse.html Strengthen your own marriage and/or learn how to become a Marriage Educator and teach the courses in your community.

Diane Sollee, founder director, Smart Marriages®
Copyright® CMFCE

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