“There are few things that have a more devastating impact on the people one loves than a marriage gone bad—devastating not just for oneself and one’s spouse, but one’s parents, one’s children, and often one’s friendships,” said Bernard Guerney, PhD, creator of Relationship Enhancement, at a June 1997 Family Impact Seminar (FIS) Roundtable on the subject of marriage. Although divorce rates are down for the first time in years, there is still a 40 to 50 percent chance that any new marriage in the U.S. will end in divorce. This prospect has many state and local officials scrambling for solutions.
Evils of Divorce
According to many therapists, researchers, politicians and clergy, broken marriages or highly conflicted ones may contribute to many social problems, such as substance abuse and violent crime. “…Employers of the distressed couple…suffer absenteeism, lowered productivity and higher health insurance costs, in part due to the worker’s impaired immune system, greater incidence of physical and mental disorders, and…a decline into unhealthy or self-destructive habits of eating and drinking,” noted Guerney.
The National Center for Health Statistics reports that married men and women in all age groups are less likely to experience limitations in activity due to illness than single, separated or divorced individuals (1997). And children living with a single parent are more likely to be in fair or poor health, the Center also reports.
This information certainly lends itself to divorce prevention efforts. The business of saving marriages, hopefully before they even start, has become the business of many. State and local governments and religious and community groups are jumping on the prevention bandwagon by offering up solutions such as mandatory premarital counseling laws, community marriage covenants and extended waiting periods for obtaining marriage licenses.
In fact, at least ten states—Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oregon and Washington—have proposed requiring premarital counseling to aid in reducing divorce rates. In October of 1993, Guerney told Family Therapy News, “Ten years from now marital enrichment will be very big.” Four years later, the issue is hot…and getting hotter.
Marriage Preparation and Religion
“Over 70 percent of couples are married by religious professionals and marriage education has historically been sponsored by religious organizations,” noted Ben Silliman, PhD, a certified family life educator in Wyoming and panelist at the FIS Roundtable. Denominations such as Roman Catholic and Latter Day Saints, for example, have offered marriage preparation and enrichment programs for decades. According to Silliman, who conducted a survey of six national offices of religious organizations in May and June of 1997, “the level of awareness about the need for marriage preparation has increased over the past decade.”
Recently, clergy of diverse faiths joined civil servants and community groups in many cities to form community marriage policies or covenants. Under these collaborative plans, clergy, magistrates, judges, etc. agree that couples seeking to be married must complete some sort of premarital education program before the ceremony. Distraught with the number of divorces in his town—68 for every 100 marriages—District Court Judge James Sheridan of Lenawee County, Michigan worked hard to institute the first community marriage policy in the U.S.
Without marriage preparation classes, couples in Lenawee can get a marriage license, but they’ll be hard-pressed to find someone to marry them. Mike McManus, a syndicated columnist and founder of Marriage Savers, has been a crusader of sorts for community marriage covenants. He believes that many churches have not used the access they have to couples to prepare them for marriage, saying some are just “blessing machines or wedding factories.” So he has convinced clergy in 64 cities to sign pledges calling for marriage preparation involving premarital assessment inventories and the use of trained “mentor” couples to work with engaged or newlywed couples.
According to McManus, the results of community marriage policies are “extraordinary.” In Modesto, California, the divorce rate dropped 40 percent between 1986 and 1996. Other cities cite reductions in the number of divorces as well. Peoria, Illinois experienced a 18.6 percent drop in the divorce rate from 1991-1995; Montgomery, Alabama’s divorces dropped by 12 percent from 1993 to 1995; and Albany, Georgia had similar reductions of 11.5 percent from 1993 to 1995. Although these statistics are promising, they account for divorce rates and population growth, but not the number of marriages.
The Law and Marriages
In addition to many counties enacting community policies to reduce the problems of divorce, states have begun to consider broader changes. In some states, legislators are working to make divorces harder to get. “The proposed laws would repeal blanket ‘no fault’ laws in the hopes that additional hurdles would prevent some divorces….” wrote Laurie Krauth in Family Therapy News (June 1996). This issue has been rife with controversy.
Critics argue it would create messier divorces, not prevent them. And the tougher restrictions could endanger women in abusive marriages. Constance Ahrons, PhD, director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Southern California, also notes that no-fault divorce laws create a new kind of prejudice: “divorcism.” Those who choose divorce as the best option in a relationship then are seen as “irresponsible and immature,” she notes in USA Today (April 1, 1997).
But how many marriages can be saved once a divorce lawyer has already been contacted? In most cases, relationships on the way to divorce court are “much, much harder to change,” notes David Olson, PhD, president of Life Innovations and professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. Many state legislators agree with Olson.
Following the leads of those in the community marriage policy arena, state legislators have proposed an array of options including making premarital counseling a mandatory requirement in obtaining a marriage license, lower license fees for those who attend marriage preparation courses and delays in getting marriage licenses for those who opt not to go do premarital work.
Arizona State Senator David Petersen is “pushing legislation to reduce marriage license fees for those who get premarital education,” reports USA Today (April 11, 1997). Michigan State Representative Jessie Dalman has introduced a law that would require couples who refuse premarital preparation classes to wait 60 days for a marriage license instead of three.
Mandatory Marriage Education: Who Would Teach It?
Premarital education comes in many formats. Some courses last only a few hours or a day or two and are lecture-based. Others last longer and provide more skills practice and interaction between couples. Research shows that the latter—more structured programs—seem to be more effective (Stanley, et al, Family Relations, vol. 44, 1995).
Several American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) members have developed programs that are being used all over the U.S. and the world. Couple Communication, developed by Sherod Miller, PhD; Relationship Enhancement®, developed by Guerney; PREP, created by Clifford Notarius, PhD, and Howard Markman, PhD; PREPARE/ENRICH, designed by Olson and PAIRS®, created by Lori Gordon, MSW, all concentrate on teaching communication skills to couples. But the format each program uses—group or individual sessions, length of program, etc.—can be very different.
Marriage and family therapists are specifically trained to work with couples on family life issues and interventions. But other mental health professionals may also have appropriate training. And what about clergy? Many of the programs listed above typically involve and train clergy members in their efforts. PREPARE, for example though, requires clergy to work closely with a trained therapist. Other programs, such as McManus’s Marriage Savers, uses minimally trained mentor couples and professionals.
What works best? Each format seems to have its benefits. Paraprofessionals, especially mentor couples, can build strong bonds with engaged couples where therapists or counselors may not. But if trouble spots crop up during premarital education, a trained professional may be better equipped to help the couple. And what about the couple’s background? In a written testimony to the Michigan House of Representatives Karen Blaisure, PhD, and Margie Geasler, PhD, pointed out that every program is not effective for everyone who attends. “Couples could benefit from programs adapted to their ages and family life cycle stages,” they wrote.
Would state governments choose one program, one acceptable type of educator? Would all licensed therapists and counselors be able to provide the mandatory counseling? These questions seem to add more flame to the fiery debate surrounding whether to mandate premarital counseling.
What’s in a Name?
Is it therapy or education? Counseling or preparation? Diane Sollee, MSW, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, told USA Today (April 11, 1997) that what’s needed is specific skills training, “not some probing for a lost inner child.” She, along with many other voices in the debate, prefers to use the term “education” as opposed to “therapy” or “counseling.” Couples may be more receptive to educational approaches. Men especially can be turned off by the idea of therapy but will be more willing to learn effective communication skills.
A Controversial Topic
Opinions on marital preparation run the gamut. Stanley and Markman believe that the best opportunity for divorce prevention is education at the premarital stage. But they don’t support the notion of mandating premarital education, and warn of “possible unintended negative consequences” such as society’s aversion to government intrusion into private lives and the nightmare of bureaucratic red tape (see Viewpoints, p. 18). Sollee agrees. “This isn’t about mandating. This is about ‘Build it and they will come,'” she said at the FIS Roundtable.