[Threshold magazine, No 62, 1999: Feature]

Smart Marriages/Happy Families
Third annual US marriage education conference

The third annual US National Marriage Education Conference, entitled Smart Marriages/Happy Families, was held in Washington DC from July 1 - 5. The conference is organised by the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. It attracts some 1,000 family scholars, practitioners, educators, therapists and policy makers to the nation�s capital each year, including people from some 30 countries. The conference is an important gathering for those interested in family policy and practice.

The conference was opened by the Governor of Utah, Mike Leavitt and his wife, Jacalyn, who established the Commission on Marriage as part of the Governor�s Initiative on Families Today. This initiative includes the promotion of marriage education, research into supporting marriage and marriage support seminars throughout the state.

The opening session was also addressed by Florida Senator Tom Rossin whose Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act was a forerunner of legislation in the US to promote marriage education, both at school and before marriage, and to preserve marriages.

The fourth speaker on the panel was Joe Jones who established the Team Parenting and Fragile Families Network in Baltimore. This venture among poor African-American families, especially males, aims to support families in neighbourhoods where marriage is almost unheard of.

Other presenters at the four-day conference included:
- Steven Stosny PhD, the developer of a major program dealing with anger management;
- Barbara Markey PhD, author of the FOCCUS pre-marriage inventory which is widely used in Australia;
- Claudia and David Arp, founders of Marriage Alive;
- Michele Weiner-Davis, author of Divorce Busting and other best-selling books;
- Lori Gordon PhD, author of the PAIRS program;
- Mike McManus, founder of Marriage Savers, and proponent of Community Marriage Policies;
- Tom Beardshaw, Care for the Family, UK;
- Berger Hareide, Marriage and Family Research Centre, Norway;
- Bernard Guerney PhD, Director, National Institute on Relationship Enhancement;
- Lisa Rue, Director, Friends First �Wait� Training Seminars;
- Jane and John Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families;
- Don Browning PhD, Centre for Family, Religion and Culture at Chicago University;
- David Popenoe PhD and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead PhD, National Marriage Project;
- David Blankenhorn, Institute for American Values, and Council on Families, New York;
- Kevin & Margaret Andrews, Australia;
- Ron Mincy, Ford Foundation;
- Bill Doherty PhD, President, National Council on Family Relations; and
- Diane Sollee, Director, CMFCE.


Society has an undeniable stake in successful marriage

In his opening address to the third Smart Marriages/Happy Families conference, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt said that he wished to state candidly about why he, as a public official, had come to the belief that we have to talk more openly about marriage.

"It is not easy for us as political figures to talk candidly about the subject. It is uncomfortable to talk about traditional marriage because in a very high percentage of cases, marriages fail. And the worry is that you will have people who are working hard, who are making their family work, even though it is in a less than ideal situation, will feel diminished or criticised by the discussion. Or there is a fear that someone will stir up a difficult issue like the same-sex union discussion, or people will view the discussion as invasive, or that it is outside government�s rightful role.

"I have come to believe that as a result of my eye-witness experience that we need more straight talk about the value of marriage. There is a reason that society licenses marriages. It is the means by which people enter into a three-way agreement: a man, a woman, and society. Society has an undeniable stake in successful marriage. Couples bring children into the world, that�s a fundamental part of marriage. And each time that there is created among that union a new life, there is a responsibility to care and to feed, and to teach, and to protect. If the couple breaks apart, or there never was a marriage, that responsibility will ultimately fall to the state. The state will try hard, but we are a lousy substitute for two loving parents.

"We have over the course of time tried to recognise this as a problem and to talk about it as part of the solution by forming a Commission on Marriage. The Commission is focussing its attention on strengthening marriages. We gave them a charge to gather information on how society can strengthen marriages and whether there are specific public policies and initiatives which can be used to recognise good marriages. We all live in a society where we have to deal with the reality of the fact that many marriages are going to fail. But society�s laws and society�s policies shouldn�t be aimed at doing anything short of creating and preserving the ideal, which is a healthy two-parent family. Nothing we do should encourage failure, or provide legal or financial or cultural encouragement for anything less than that ideal. There will be failure, but just having a society that believes in marriage won�t be enough. We are dealing with human beings who believe in an ideal but will fail. But they will try and they will try again as statistics have demonstrated. Our lives and societies will improve as we keep doing that. If we ever cease however to believe in that ideal of marriage, of making a commitment -  if the institution of marriage ever falls from grace, our society will fall as well, because there is no institution that can take its place.

"Frankly, our Commission is a modest effort. It is both an attempt at any kind of social engineering: We don�t have the resources to do anything on that scale even if we were to choose to do that. But it is a noble, and an honest, and a formal effort to put clearly on the front burner of public policy debate that we need to overcome, in this country and in our State, any notion that marriage is not important or that it is not worth cultivating or preserving or investing in.

"As part of what we are doing is making a formal declaration to our people, part of which reads as follows:

Whereas marriage is in every human society; creates new families; binds men and women together in a network of affection, mutual aid and mutual obligation; commits fathers and mothers to their children; and connects children to a wider network of welcoming kin;

Whereas a healthy, loving marriage deserves our special respect and concern because it is irreplaceable and creates the safest place for children to flourish and to enjoy the full emotional, moral, educational and financial benefits of both parents;

Whereas research indicates that men and women who marry and stay married in mutually supportive relationships generally live longer, experience better health and enjoy more satisfying lives;

Whereas marriage break-up takes a toll on the emotional, physical, and financial well-being of all family members and communities, and also increases the cost to taxpayers for many public human service programs;

Whereas Utahans are committed to promoting enrichment and the opportunities and resources to strengthen marital relationships and enhance personal growth, mutual fulfillment  and family wellbeing; and

Whereas as Governor I wish to applaud and encourage the efforts of Utah citizens, faith communities, business organisations, local government and community leaders to strengthen marriages in a variety of ways including marriage education programs, conferences, enrichment seminars and public policy to support marriage - I, Michael O Leavitt, as the Governor of the State of Utah do hereby declare Marriage Awareness Week, and urge every husband and wife to reflect upon the marriage and to commit to building and maintaining a healthy and loving marriage and family.


State of Our Unions

US marriage rates have plummeted to a 40-year low. Couples are having a harder time achieving long-term wedded bliss. Young women are increasingly pessimistic about their chances for successful marriage.

These are a few of the findings from the new report by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, New Jersey, released at the national Smart Marriages/Happy Families conference in July.

The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America is a benchmark study of the most important national indicators related to marriage. The report gathers together in a single source historical and statistical trend data on marriage over the past four decades. It shows a substantial long-term weakening of marriage as a lasting couples union, a rite of passage  into adulthood, a major stage in the adult life course, and the primary social institution governing childbearing and parenthood.

The report found that the US marriage rate fell by 43% in four decades ? from 87.5 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women in 1960 to 49.7 marriages in 1996 ? leaving it at its lowest point in recorded history. The percentage of married people who reported being �very happy� in their marriages fell from 53.5 in 1973-76 to 37.8 in 1996.

"The institution of marriage is in serious trouble," said Professor David Popenoe, report co-author and co-director of the National Marriage Project. "Americans are now less likely to marry than ever before, and those who do marry seem to be less happy than in previous decades. And despite a modest decline in the divorce rate, nearly 50% of all marriages are projected to end in divorce or permanent separation."

Also troubling is the reported decline in teen confidence in marriage. "Young people today want successful marriages, but they are increasingly anxious about their chances of achieving that goal," explained Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, report co-author and co-director of the Project. The report also finds teens notably more accepting of alternatives to marriage such as unwed parenthood and cohabitation.

The authors note that Americans haven�t given up on marriage as a cherished ideal or as a personal life goal. But the quest for a �good� marriage is becoming more difficult and uncertain. "Standards and expectations for marriage have risen to a much higher level than in earlier decades," said Popenoe. "Fewer marriages can meet these standards, and there are fewer social forces holding marriages together."

Not all the marriage indicators were negative, according to the report. The unwed birth rate and the divorce rate have declined modestly, and the importance of marriage as a life goal has increased among young people. However, according to the authors, it�s not yet clear whether these indicators are early signs of a revival of marriage or simply fluctuations in the trends indicating a weakening of marriage.

The State of Our Unions report will be updated annually by the National Marriage Project, a nonpartisan, nonsectarian and interdisciplinary initiative dedicated to informing the public on social trends affecting marriage.


Major new study reveals that trained lay educators do best

A major new study by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and associates at the University of Denver has revealed that trained lay marriage educators and clergy obtained the best results with couples using the PREP marriage education program.

Dr Markman, co-author of the PREP pre-marital program and co-author of Fighting for your marriage, announced the findings in a keynote presentation to the annual Smart Marriages/Happy Families conference in Washington DC in July. The findings have ramifications for the development of marriage education generally.

The ongoing study, the first of its kind, compared the outcome on a range of scales for couples undertaking PREP with trained counsellors, therapists and psychologists at the University of Denver (usually with PhD qualifications)[DU PREP], with the outcomes obtained by trained lay educators using the same program [RO PREP]. The study also compared the outcomes with a group of couples undertaking �naturally occurring� marriage education, a description used to describe a variety of interventions ranging from a talk with the minister through to programs such as PREPARE and FOCCUS.

The training of the lay educators and clergy comprised an intensive three-day seminar. The lay educators were also provided with a range of materials to use in their programs, including videotapes, which could be cued for different exercises. The study consisted of 30 lay or religious educators, 31 University of Denver staff, and 32 naturally occurring interventions. As of June 1999, there were 264 couples in the study. Dr Markman indicated that he expected that a total of 135 religious organisations with 540 couples in the study.

About 60 - 65% of the couples in the study were living together prior to marriage, similar to the national averages according to the researchers.

The researchers were surprised by the results. "When we wrote the grant we predicted that the clergy and the lay leaders in the RO PREP condition would do better, or the couples trained by those clergy would do better than the couples in a naturally occurring condition on our variables over time, but would not do as well as the gold standard, the University of Denver PREP staff, the people we've been working with."

Dr Markman presented the pre and post data on the communication skills, and conflict management variables, which are based on coding of the videotapes.

The couples in the  naturally occurring condition started out the highest but suffered a fairly sharp and significant decline over the period of the intervention. "This may be in part because the premarital counselling is stirring things up and are not being provided with the framework and the skills and the information are necessary to deal with the issues that get stirred up," said Dr Markman. "Most programs are clearly indicated by the research that conflict is inevitable, disagreements are inevitable. It's how it's handled that's really important."

The couples in the DU PREP showed a non-significant but slight elevation on positive interactions. The couples trained by the clergy and the lay leaders showed sharp and significant incline in positivity. "So the couples trained by the clergy and the lay leaders in the community, in the religious organisations, are actually having the most positive effects on these key variables," concluded Dr Markman. "When you combine the two PREP groups, they're doing significantly better on positive communication and that the couples trained by the clergy are doing even better than the couples trained our gold standard University of Denver based  PREP group. And this is very very positive news. We are successfully being able to transport this university-based program into the community through religious organisations and the clergy are obtaining even stronger effects than we typically have in our research."

"Clergy are accepting the program; they like the program. The couples really like the program, and it's resulting in the key changes that we're predicting in the short run -which is changes in how they handle communication, how they handle each other, how they talk to each other in key situations."

Dr Markman indicated similar patterns emerging from the analysis of negative interaction patterns.

"So it seems in general that we are able to successfully disseminate or transport the program into religious organisation. It also seems that in naturally occurring  interventions, at least when it comes to communication and conflict management, that those couples are showing the beginning of a process of erosion which takes place over time without skill intervention and the interventions that really help couples understand the importance of making time to nourish and treasure their relationship on a daily basis."

Dr Markman also addressed the role of active listening as part of a skills-based approach. "Theoretically, we believe that it is the ability to manage conflict that does two things for couples. First, it enables them to maintain relatively high levels of satisfaction over time because they're not eroding the commitment, the passion and the friendship. Too often when couples start talking, it leads to fighting and in particular, men don't want to spend their lives fighting. So they start withdrawing, wives start pursuing and that's a typical pattern of development of marital distress in Western culture. That's fairly simplistic, I know, but that is at least one of the major pathways.

"The other thing that low levels of negative communication enables people to do is to provide the sense of comfort and safety, to keep doing things as friends, to keep investing and nourishing the relationship. So it's a way of dealing with inevitable conflicts, which is one major skill. It also provides a sense of safety so that when you do go out on a date, when you are making love, when you are talking as friends, that you don't start entering into destructive communication because then being together becomes a signal that there's some danger ahead, so you don't want to be with each other. And if you don't want to be with each other, you start avoiding each other, working late, spending more time with kids, having affairs, other ways of de-investing ? if that is a word ? from the relationship that doesn't enable you to put deposits into the relationship bank account."

"The Family Stability Project is the largest and, from our perspective, the most methodologically sound research on premarital education in terms of evaluation of the extent to which we can disseminate the PREP program in religious organisations and to see if the clergy and lay leaders that we train can have the same types of effects or approach the effects that we have in a controlled university control. It also provides a well designed, well controlled randomly assigned evaluation of a naturally occurring intervention in the religious organisation," said Dr Markman.  "And given our theory of marital distress, we are also testing that theory because the best way to test theory of any kind is to intervene on the major variables that are predicted to be important, try to change them, and to see if you get the effects that are predicted.

"If our theory suggests that the ability to be intimate and have fun is a really important component of marital success, we can try to change that in the PREP program and if those changes are then associated with happiness five and 10 years later. If couples can learn those skills, we can see if conflict management is related to lower rates of divorce and higher rates of satisfaction, higher rates of work productivity, lower rates of usage of mental health and health care systems, all of which are predictions that we're making; if they're related to better child functioning which we're predicting, and that is suggested by the literature.

"When you ask couples as we have done several times over the years, what they're looking for in a lifelong partnered romantic relationship, and you ask men and women and you ask couples with different stages, they basically say they're looking for a friend, and a friend is someone who understands you but isn't trying to change you in any fundamental way.

"So when friends talk, or when couples talk as friends, they're not talking about problem areas, they're not talking about things that come across as criticism. They're either talking about themselves, they're sharing, they're disclosing and this is what couples do when they're dating and when they're in the early stages of their relationship."

Dr Markman said the research was important in terms of addressing the larger question of the relationship between marital health and mental health. "We have the need for long-term data on the extent to which the difference in interaction really affect the outcomes we're really interested in, such as ? are happy couples really the result of two mentally healthy people finding each other, choosing each other and it�s the mental health that's producing the marital health. Or is it vice versa: Are depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems the result of marital discord and that people in distressed marriages get less mentally healthy over time. And there's actually not very good data on this very fundamental question, and people have different beliefs about it from their own theoretical perspectives, but we're going to be able to address this."

"In studies to date that we and others have been involved in, it does seem like it's the marital health that's predicting the mental health and not vice versa. And that's particularly true for children who don't have any mental health before they're born and have mental health afterwards. So you actually just get effects from the marriage on the children. Children growing up in homes where families are loving and handling conflict well and are happy with the marriage are doing better on measures of mental health, and school performance over time than children growing up in homes where there are high levels of high destructive conflicts and low levels of support, friendship and intimacy.

"Finally, in terms of future directions, we're going to be studying systematically the effects of booster sessions. In the design PREP couples are being randomly assigned to receive booster sessions. This is one way of dealing with some of the results of all your research where we find great effects for five years or seven years, but then we find some attenuation of effects.

"While many of us have trained professionals, mental health professionals, clergy, healthcare professionals, lay leaders in religious organisations and others in our programs, there have been to my knowledge few, if any, evaluations of if we can actually teach the people to do the program successfully. We know that we can positively influence couples when we evaluate the program and university-based clinical trials. Clearly we can teach the skills that we're trying to teach."

Dr Markman said it was important that couples understand why skills are important. "They need to know the conceptual and research base; they need to know that destructive arguing is a risk factor for future problems. They need to know that talking without fighting about major problems is a critical skill that they have to learn how to do together as a team.

Dr Markman said that the studies undertaken to date found positive effects of marital intervention many years afterwards. "All studies that fit that class show that couples can learn those skills, and that is exciting news that these are skills that can be taught and in our long-term research, even as long as 12 years later in an original Denver study ? and we're just conducting the 18 year follow-up ? that we know that couples still showed advantages in conflict management and communication skills over various control groups. So not only the couples learn these skills, but they get imbedded in their relationship or used over time."

A five-year follow-up study is expected to be published in Family Psychology soon.

The research that Dr Markman presented to the Washington conference supports the widespread use of trained lay marriage educators in Australia and reinforces the differences between counselling (or therapy) and education. Dr Markman said the objective of the Family Stability Project is to help happy couples remain happy in their marriages. The project was aimed at reaching out to those groups in the community that couples and families naturally have contact with, especially in the US, the religious organisations.

Source: Threshold (1999) 62: 8-13

For more information about Threshold and subscription details, email: thresh@rie.net.au

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