Can We End Divorce?
Elise Pettus, SWING, November, 1997

Can you learn to keep your marriage together? Proponents of couples' education say that they know how to end divorce - and all it takes is some homework, practice drills, and a good teacher.

Turns out Tolstoy was wrong about all happy couples being alike. According to believers in marriage education, it's the unhappy ones who are the same, or at least they are all unhappy in similar ways. Case in point: A young couple repeats an argument they've clearly had countless times before. "Everything you do, you mess up and who has to fix it? I do!" she shouts. He sighs and protests. "What about the time you busted the door?" she yells. "There you go," he bellows back, "bringing up the past again." For the five couples sitting around a table watching them on videotape, it isn't hard to imagine this pair riding a perpetual merry-go-round of misery.

Suddenly, the tape freezes. Peter Fraenkel, a clinical psychologist, approaches the monitor and points to the man's eyes as they roll upwards to the ceiling. "See that?" says Fraenkel, "we call that the appeal to heaven." The group giggles. The male in this couple, he explains, is a chronic "withdrawer, " while she is a chronic "pursuer." According to marital researchers, this pattern of behavior is one of the major predictors of divorce.

Welcome to the new school for love, in this case, a class called PREP, short for Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program. Unlike traditional marriage therapy, which aims to help troubled couples keep their relationships together and get over old grievances, couples education classes like PREP aim to teach happy premarital and married couples how to avoid problems and get along over the long haul. Don't think tearful "sharing" sessions; picture a college classroom or management training seminar -- lectures, homework, practice drills.

"Couples these days can't afford to rely on love to keep them together," says Diane Sollee, executive director of the 1-year-old Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education based in Washington, D.C. "That kind of thinking is based on an old worn-out premise about marriage." Sollee, who promotes classes like PREP, is determined to provide us with a new premise: "smart love," or love informed by what the experts have to tell us about what keeps a marriage together. Sollee's unlikely group of allies -- psychotherapists, research psychologists, Christian conservatives, grassroots social activists, and even some divorce lawyers -- believes that effective marital education can substantially reduce our national divorce rate. Sollee says, "The difference between having a good marriage and a bad marriage comes down to having the right skills," skills that she says can be learned in a classroom.

The Coalition directory currently lists more than 20 marriage education programs around the country, some of which, like PREP (which is taught nationwide), Marriage Mentors (in Seattle), and PREPARE (also nationwide) specialize in teaching young engaged or newlywed couples. These programs range from $30 questionnaires or "inventories" to four-month-long couples' courses costing more than $1,000. Even at the high end, Sollee says, the cost is negligible compared with the $15,000 the average couple spends on a wedding -- not to mention what they would spend on a divorce.

Over the past 30 years, we have come to accept divorce as a fact of American life. Statistics suggest that of the 2.4 million brides and grooms who tie the knot each year -- the vast majority of whom are in their 20s -- just under half of them will get divorced. And a significant number of those divorces will occur within three to five years of marriage.

Recently, divorce has come under attack from pundits and policymakers, who argue that divorce has become all too easy and too common. Critics maintain that our national divorce rate (the highest in the world) is a major cause of poverty, teenage pregnancy, and juvenile crime. Defenders argue that divorce is still better than a bad marriage, and that to curtail the right to divorce would constitute a serious blow to feminism. Nonetheless, in the last 12 months, at least 10 states have considered rolling back the no-fault divorce laws that have been standard since the 1970s (Ronald Reagan signed the first no-fault provision into law as governor of California in 1969). This August, Louisiana became the first state to adopt a "covenant marriage" law requiring couples to choose whether to marry in accordance with the current marriage restrictions or with a stricter set of vows, under which divorce would be allowed only on grounds of abuse, adultery, incarceration for a felony, or after a two-year marital separation.

Against this backdrop of legislative battles and moral debates, Sollee held the first Smart Marriages/Happy Families conference in Arlington, Virginia, in May. One hundred presenters and more than 1,000 attendees gathered to share research as well as programming and outreach ideas. Featured speakers included marital expert John Gottman, Ph.D., who Sollee refers to as "the father of all of us." Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington, began studying couples' interactions in the 1970s in his "love lab," a sort of human fish tank equipped with the comforts of a home but fully wired with video cameras. Gottman spent years monitoring not only couples' language and gestures but also the minute shifts in facial expressions, pulse, heart rate, and hormone surges.

What resulted was a body of knowledge about what makes some marriages fail while others succeed. Gottman and five other marital research teams have since published studies in which they have been able to predict with up to 96 percent accuracy whether a newlywed or engaged couple is likely to remain happily married based on how they interact with one another. As marital researcher Scott Stanley puts it, "the seeds of ruin are already present at the time a couple walks down the aisle."

Once researchers were able to identify some common booby traps for married couples, the next step was to share that information with the couples themselves. "Some of the determining factors in a marriage are static," says Howard Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Denver, "such as religious background or whether their parents divorced, but many other important factors are dynamic -- how they communicate, resolve conflict, and deal with marital expectations. And these are the factors we can influence so the marriage has a much better chance of succeeding."

The Coalition hopes that in the near future couples' classes will become an accepted part of wedding traditions, up there with the bridal shower and bachelor party. Sollee, who has given course certificates to her nieces and nephews, as well as her two sons, even suggests giving the classes as wedding presents.

It may be a tough sell. Most young couples approach marriage optimistically and don't think couples' education sounds terribly romantic. "I'm not sure what a course could teach us that we don't already know," says Leslie Chang, 28, who got married in September to a man she has lived with for four years. Twenty-seven-year-old Alicia Katz(a pseudonym) is engaged to be married for the second time after divorcing her first husband at 24. It isn't that her first marriage and divorce were easy, she says, "it was 100 little heartbreaks a day." But she fears that if she said she wanted to take a course, her new fiancé "would construe it as a sign of doubt."

Fran Braverman, a PREP-trained psychotherapist in Wilton, Connecticut, admits: "It's been difficult to target engaged couples because they are interested in planning the wedding and picking their china." She has yet to organize an actual PREP course. Karen Blaisure, a family therapist and assistant professor at Western Michigan University, is planning to introduce a PREP course next year. "Someone suggested we place ads next to the dear Abby columns," she says half-joking, "but we will be hitting the bridal shows in January."

Markman, along with Scott Stanley and Susan Blumberg, designed the PREP program based on fifteen years of research they had done at the University of Denver. Since 1989, an estimated 2,000 mental health professionals around the country have been trained to teach PREP. More than 2,500 couples have taken the course, which is currently the best-known skills training available to premarital couples. Courses range from eight hours (one-day intensive) to fifteen hours (spread out over two or three days) and cost between $140 and $300. In Peter Fraenkel's PREP class at New York University Medical Center, couples learn about the four argument patterns that prophesy doom for married couples: withdrawal, escalation, invalidation, and negative interpretation. They also learn a communication technique to help circumvent these patterns -- a kind of conflict containment system which PREP calls the "speaker-listener" technique.

To use it, one person airs his or her gripe using so-called I-statements ("When you leave me waiting for half an hour at a restaurant, I feel angry") limited to 10 or 15 seconds. The other person listens, and then paraphrases the statement back to the original speaker ("I hear you saying that when I..."). When the speaker has had a chance to air the entire complaint (in three to five statements) and is satisfied that the listener heard it right, they switch roles.

The course follows up the speaker-listener technique with methods for problem-solving, some of which derive from NASA's brainstorming strategies for developing new space technology. Other PREP techniques are designed to help couples find time in their busy schedules to have fun together and to protect that time from discussion of issues or problems.

Sharon Joffe, 27, and Jeff Sperber, 25, took the PREP course a year before they planned to marry. "We were curious," says Joffe, a former radio DJ who now works at an advertising firm. Her fiancé, who works for a record company, was less excited. He hated the idea of giving up a whole Saturday. "But I think we both found that it was really helpful," he says now of the program. "Probably the most fruitful thing we have done is to have a serious talk about our finances and we used what we learned in the course to help us talk about it." Also helpful they say were the speaker-listener technique and the tips they learned about how to handle arguments. "If you're living together you're going to have problems," he says, "and isn't it great to have some structure to deal with them?"

Joffe and Sperber say that their friends thought they were a little strange for taking the course. "They tended to see it as,'Oh, you're having some problems,'" says Joffe. But they say they are now better able to separate the time they spend together having fun from the time they spend discussing problems. They have also learned how to slow down their communication during heated discussions so that they can understand each other better. "We don't speak in neat little 'I-Statements' all the time or anything" says Sperber, "but I think [the class gives you] information that -- once you have it -- will always be there, and you can use it whenever you need it."

Research on the long-term effects of couples education, though limited, shows that programs like PREP may make a difference. "A controled study at the University of Denver followed 20 couples who were sent to PREP and 24 couples who were not assigned to any marital training. The results showed that after five years, the PREP couples had only half as many breakups and reported being significantly happier in their marriages. Another study, done in Germany, compared couples who had taken PREP with couples who had received traditional Catholic pre-marital counseling. After five years, only 4 percent of PREP couples compared with 24 percent of the other couples had split up.

The Center for Relationship Development, run out of Seattle Pacific University in Seattle Washington, also focuses on young engaged couples. The center offers a $90 week end seminar called Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, focusing on marriage expectations as well as techniques like PREP's speaker-listener method. "We thought we were teaching all this good stuff," says Les Parrott, a psychologist who co-founded the center with Leslie, his wife of 13 years. "But we wanted to be sure that it was sticking." So Les and Leslie, a therapist, developed the Marriage Mentors program in 1991, which matches young couples with experienced couples. The older couples guide them through seven "basic questions" about themselves and their expectations for marriage and follow them through their first year of marriage. The program has matched up over 400 younger and older couples through church and community groups around the country. "Time will tell," says Parrott. "But of all the couples we've tracked, no one's got divorced or separated."

PREPARE, a premarriage program based in Minneapolis, offers young couples an "inventory" of 165 questions to be answered separately by both partners. Some questions gauge communication skills (Does your partner give you the silent treatment?). While others cover marital expectations (Do you plan to raise your children in a church setting? Does the ideal Thanksgiving involve sitting around a table with the family or a four-day getaway in the Caribbean?). After a computer tallies and compares the couple's answers, both partners meet two to six times with a counselor or clergy member who interprets their scores and works with them on communication and conflict resolution. There's a $30 fee for the inventory scoring, but the follow-up sessions, particularly if they are offered by a church or synagogue, are frequently free of charge.

David Olsen, a University of Minnesota psychology professor pioneered the PREPARE program in 1980 and claims that more than 1 million couples have taken PREPARE so far. Studies show that the inventory is able to identify couples headed for divorce with 80 to 85% accuracy. "About two out of every ten couples who take the inventory will say,'Maybe we shouldn't get married,'" Olson says. "We think that's a good thing because they would have likely been headed into an unhappy marriage or a painful divorce."

Compared to the nearly two and a half million couples that marry in the United States each year, the number taking these classes remains relatively small. PREP's Scott Stanley believes that the reason programs like his have been slow to take hold is that "America just isn't very good at prevention. "But Rita de Maria, a family therapist who teaches several couples' education courses in Philadelphia, says that views are gradually changing. "About 25 percent of people I see are in their 20s and they're worried because their parents had problems," she says. "They need to be reassured."

Other marriage education promoters feel that America can't wait for an attitude shift. Mike McManus, a syndicated columnist out of Bethesda, Maryland, and an anti-divorce advocate, has lobbied for legally mandated premarital counseling. "To get a driver's license in this country you have to get tested on your vision, skills, and knowledge of the law," he says. "But to get a marriage license all you have to know is your mother's maiden name." McManus wants more cities and counties around the nation to agree on a "community marriage policy" like the one Judge James Sheridan effected in Lenawee County, Michigan. Since June 1, no Lenawee church, judge or public official has agreed to legally marry a couple who has not completed a premarital education course.

Some find this precedent frightening. "It's one thing to encourage premarital counseling," says Kim Stout of the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, "but it's another to mandate it." Stout objects that when judges get together to make a blanket decision it carries the force of law in the community. "They are skipping over the usual process of scrutiny that goes into making a law."

The developers of PREP are not anxious to see their course or any other mandated by law, either. They believe laws requiring premarital courses are likely to push people away from marriage altogether. Furthermore, Stanley says, inviting government to choose the programs would result in "a bureaucratic nightmare" and "a loss of quality control." Most proposals to mandate premarital programs have been vague on how much they would cost and who would pay for them. Some states have discussed raising the fee for a marriage license to cover program costs. According to Blaisure, who advised the sponsors of a Michigan premarital education bill, the courses would be conducted either by counselors who would accept payment on a sliding scale or churches willing to offer free classes in order to draw a larger group of participants.

PREP developers are already working to train clergy in Colorado to run PREP courses, in most cases getting them to swap their traditional premarital counseling for the PREP approach based on learning marriage skills. "Seventy percent of couples get married in a church or synagogue," says Markman, "if we get those institutions using programs like PREP, I'd say we're doing pretty well."

I'm O.K., You're O.K
Our Writer and her husband delve into the world of PREP. Will They Come Out Alive?

My husband Dan and I have been married for two years, but when I got this assignment, I figured I ought to try out one of the premarriage training classes for myself. Diane Sollee offered to get me into a PREP course. After I signed up, I realized I still hadn't consulted Dan, who would have to enroll with me. "Don't worry," said Sollee, "men love these courses."

"Yuck," said Dan when I described to him what I had planned for us the following Saturday and two subsequent Thursday nights. "We don't need that, we have a great marriage. Besides, I don't want to talk about my problems with a bunch of strangers." I told him what Sollee had told me: that PREP was intended for happy couples, not miserable ones and that it was a class not an encounter group. Still, he envisioned a room filled with pillows and teary-eyed misfits grasping for Kleenex. "I've been in therapy, you've been in therapy," he cried. "We are both O.K!" Then, looking at me as though I'd asked him to jump across a pit of smouldering lava, he muttered, "I'm going to hate this."

We arrived at a conference room in the New York Universtiy Medical Center at 10AM. Peter Fraenkel, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and our PREP instructor, stood in the fron of the room in a tweedy jacket and tie. He reminded me and Dan a little of Bob Newhart, but with a blackboard, a VCR, and an overhead projector.

"We are hoping to add some tools to your toolbox," he told us. He started the class with a series of cartoon parodies of dysfunctional marriages. Most of the jokes fell flat with our group and at times he almost begged us to laugh. Then he explained the importance of communication and managing conflict and laid out the four types of argument behavior most predictive of divorce (withdrawal, escalation, invalidation, and negative interpretation). There were also other bad habits with names like "kitchen-sinking" (throwing all your grievances at your partner at once); "yes, but-ing" (not taking time to really hear the other's point of view before blurting out your own); and "cross-complaining" ( responding to a complaint with "Well, yes, but you did such and such the other day!").

Next, we moved on to real-life couples on videotape. The first couple seemed wildly hostile, even hopless. But the next couple was fairly civil and sparked silent nods of recognition around the room. "Oops," I found myself whispering to Dan about the man who kept tuning out of tough discussions, "I do that."

After a few hours and a lot of instant coffee, we had learned our first skill: the "speaker-listener" technique, whereby one person airs his or her gripe, while the other paraphrases the statement back. Then we broke up into couples and went off to little rooms to practice the technique with each other and the help of a PREP-trained psychotherapist. Fraenkel advised us all not to choose our thorniest issue to start.

As simple as it sounded, Dan and I struggled at first with this stiff construct. A supposedly low- intensity topic having to do with a household thermometer brought us both to tears within moments. It isn't easy to pack an emotion into a soundbite. Nor is it easy just to sit back and listen -- how often do we use the time someone else is talking just to form a good rebuttal? But every time I heard one of my own feelings reflected by Dan, I felt an exhilerating, affirming rush.

Emboldened, we decided to try a recent topic of contention: "When you go out to report a story late at night, I feel scared," Dan said. I had never actually heard him say it that way before. I had always felt annoyed by his complaints and questions about my erratic work schedule -- when will you be home, will you call -- because it seemed that he was curtailing my independence. I never suspected his motive was fear. Fifteen minutes later, we had just completed our first real discussion on a topic that, during the three years of our relationship, had never failed to send us into an argument.

We had a harder time mastering other techniques. Fraenkel asked us to list 10 fun things to do togehter with our partner, then switch lists and be responsible for making three things on the other person's list happen before the next meeting. The good news was that Dan and and I shared a lot of the same ideas of what we would enjoy (sneaking out to an afternoon movie, taking a drive in the country, having an afterwork beer at a neighborhood dive). The bad news was how much stress we experienced trying to accomplish these during a busy work week. On the evening of the second class, we were two fun things short, which caused some tension, until we agreed that it would be fun to lie about it if questioned (and that still left us one short).

For homework, we were supposed to explore our expectations about married life -- the ideal travel holiday (a pony trek in the Andes or a four-star hotel stay in Paris), the ideal number of children (one and a half), and the the longest we could wait to have them (six months versus six years). We used the speaker-listener technique for thornier issues, like how much money each of us expected the other to pull in next year and how much time we would spend with our respective families. If the format felt goofy in the beginning, it still felt goofy after two weeks. Despite the fact that we felt we knew each other better after each exercise, we were relieved when the final class arrived.

In retrospect, much of what made the course worthwhile was simply going through it together. These days, if one of us says "I need a speaker-listener," the other knows there's an issue we need to discuss. We don't even need to follow the technique to the letter; the reference is often enough.

At the end of the final session, Dan gave Fraenkel this assesment of the experience. "Your coffee sucks and that Saturday class was way too long, " he said, "but the skills are really useful. It's like being able to put on sunglasses that allow you to look right into the sun." Fraenkel smiled an earnest smile. "That's great," he said, "really great. Mind if we quote you on that?"

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