Florida's High School Marriage Education Bill - Diane Sollee, Director, CMFCE
When it comes to marriage, there is exciting news on the horizon. We're approaching the millennium with the realization that although marriage might not be perfect, it may be the best arrangement anyone can come up with. And that our children agree. In spite of new freedoms - birth control, abortion, cohabitation, women's rights, gay rights, equal pay - ninety percent of our children are still choosing marriage. This after thirty years with a 50% divorce rate, after watching their parents, grandparents, neighbors, coaches, teachers, ministers, and mayors marry and remarry like they were playing musical chairs. Our children are still voting with their feet, marching down the aisle.

But they have sobered up. They have lived through the great divorce experiment and drawn their own conclusions. They don't want to close the escape hatch, but would rather not have to use it. Jennifer, 27,and about to marry, is scared. She called the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education after reading about marriage education courses in a national bridal magazine. "My parents and my fiancee's parents are divorced. Both our dads remarried and divorced again. My mom has lived with a lot of different guys. We don't see any of them as happy. It might be the way out of a miserable marriage, but you don't walk through divorce court into some Garden of Eden." She said they wanted to learn how to do things differently.

Jennifer is the leading edge of a new generation. They want help. We should be grateful that they haven't simply thrown up their hands, dusted off their genes, and walked away from the whole embarrassing mess. It turns out there is hope - we have something to offer them. There is powerful new, research-based information and an optimistic new approach in the form of marriage education that is all about how to turn things around.

Spurred largely by the heavy social and financial burdens of family breakdown, Florida is the first state to acknowledge the potential of marriage education. On June 11, the landmark Florida Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act was signed into law. "We prepare our children for the world of work - and we hope most of them will enter that world," said Rep. Elaine Bloom, co-sponsor of the legislation. "But we don't prepare them for the world of marriage which we know almost all of them will enter. We must help them learn how to stay married, conserve their resources, and raise their children."

Florida's bill is based solidly on preventive education - and on making marriages smarter and stronger. It doesn't tighten divorce laws or force people to stay in miserable or violent marriages. It doesn't mandate premarital counseling. It offers couples a $32.50 marriage license fee reduction to encourage them to take a pre-marriage education class. And it mandates marriage skills education for all 9th and 10th graders as part of their life management classes.

Over the past thirty years, the number of marriage therapists and counselors has dramatically increased, and the divorce rate hasn't budged. Our focus was on pathology and repair. Over that same thirty years, a handful of scientists hunkered down to try to solve the riddle: why is it that ninety percent of us marry, set out determined to make it work, yet end up divorcing like lemmings? Our intentions are good. Could it be we're operating on a lot of bad information? The researchers switched their focus and began to examine the marriages that made it - and even stayed happy.

They learned some amazing things. The most astonishing, and the basis of the new approach, is that conflict is normal. It turns out those who stay happily married, and those who divorce, disagree the same amount. They even found that we all disagree about the same issues - money, housework, kids, sex, in-laws, and leisure time. Disagreement isn't a sign that you've picked the wrong person! It simply means you are both paying attention. The problem is not the disagreements. It's how we handle them. We don't divorce over our "irreconcilable differences" - we divorce over irreconcilable disappointments at not being able to handle our differences.

Couples don't, of course, get married to handle conflict. But if they don't learn the basics of conflict management and communication, they'll not be able to do much else. Or, put another way, it's hard to take her out to the ball game if you're not speaking. Once the basics are mastered, there are a whole range of skills and information to help us expand our abilities to celebrate and strengthen our marriages.

The promising news is the discovery that we can all learn these skills. Marriage is not a disease. Neither is it a crap shoot. It's not about love that ups and dies, or even about finding the "right" person. We can gain control, learn to do more of what predicts success and less of what predicts failure. This realization - that we can master the process and get smart about marriage - is the major lesson of the marriage skills courses. It is this paradigm shift - the gift we can give our children - which can change the future of marriage in the new millennium.

It gets better.

- Because the courses are about skills and not about therapy or counseling, they can be taught by teachers or lay leaders. They are inexpensive, accessible, and available.

- Learning the skills doesn't require the sharing of personal or private issues, exploring childhood or family problems, or even the discussion of feelings. Neither do the dozens of classes available for adults. Think classroom, flipchart, and driver's education for relationships.

- The classes also include statistical information - the facts - about what's normal and what to expect in a satisfying, enduring marriage. That marital satisfaction, for example, dips with the birth of the first child. That marital and sexual satisfaction ebb and flow. That second marriages face bigger challenges and higher failure rates than first marriages.

- The approach is about skills, not about what kind of marriage anyone should have. Or even if anyone should or shouldn't get married. This is about how to use a hammer and saw, not about blueprints. The skills work for any kind of marriage, life-partnership, or co-parenting relationship a couple decides they want to build - and maintain.

- Teachers do already have enough to do. School budgets are tight, time precious. But these courses seem to ease rather than add to the burden. Although Florida is the first to legislate that marriage education be taught state-wide, the new skill-based courses are in place in schools all across the country. Teachers are falling all over themselves to tell others about the wonders of teaching courses like PAIRS for PEERS, CONNECTIONS, PARTNERS, or LOVING WELL. Students who are using the skills to role play negotiating a budget using apartment ads clipped from their local paper, and who have to figure percentages for the rental deposit or taxes - suddenly want to improve their math.

Char Kamper teaches the CONNECTIONS course at Redlands High School in Redlands, California. "The course is so easy to teach, requires minimum teacher prep time, and is flexible," she says. "You can drop in segments where you need them, or teach it as a unit of 15 one-hour lessons. Parents love it. They do the exercises with their kids at home. At Redlands, parents asked the principal to make this a required course."

Archellus Bell, 18, took the PARTNERS course at the Martin Luther King Jr.High School in Philadelphia. "First off," he says, "the courses are fun. It's nice to have a class you look forward to. It's interesting and it's practical. So many marriages fail, and so many break up in just the first few years. That's discouraging, so everybody pays attention. I definitely have been using the stuff with my girlfriend, with my mom, with everybody I come across with."

Two of the courses, PARTNERS and CONNECTIONS were adopted this year by the Oklahoma Bar Association for all the high schools in the state. Oklahoma District Judge Dynda Post points out that her state is in the middle of the Bible Belt yet has the nation's third highest divorce rate. "Most cases that come before me are the direct result of family breakdown. We have new information and we have an obligation to get it to the next marrying generation."

None of us wants our children to grow up, find the person of their dreams, get married, have a few kids, and then divorce. They have the option to divorce. That's a choice. It would be nice if the option of having a satisfying, enduring marriage was also available. If they don't know how to do it, it's not a choice.

Diane Sollee, MSW, is founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, LLC, an information clearinghouse and sponsor of the annual Smart Marriages conference.

Copyright CMFCE, 1998.

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