Making Two Hearts Beat Like One
Tue Jul 27 14:18:08 EDT 1999
This article from the The News Journal, Wilmington Delaware
features Popenoe, Whitehead, Guerney, Gottman, Sollee, McManus, Prep,
Doherty, Fisher, Jewett, and DeMaria.
Making Two Hearts Beat Like One
For the best shot at being happy, experts suggest taking marriage classes
before saying 'I do.'
By GARY SOULSMAN Staff reporter
It is comforting to know that I am no more of a fat head than millions of
men and women when it comes to relationships. And at least I know I am a
For most of my 47 years, I've had no clue how to handle conflict with
who are closest to me. I have tended toward sarcasm, criticism,
defensiveness and disengagement, all of which are major predictors of
failure with a partner.
I know how much of a trendy failure I am after attending the third annual
Smart Marriages Conference earlier this month in suburban Washington.
folks hope I can reform since I am emblematic of the dismal state of
The "State of Our Unions," a report recently released by Rutgers
says couples haven't given up on marriage, but their confidence is
Aware of this trend, researchers, educators and therapists have been
ideas on how to make marriages stronger by making them more satisfying.
Psychologists know a great deal about creating strong marriages, having
studied couples in love labs. They have watched people argue, and can now
predict, with more than 80 percent accuracy, whether they'll stay in a
It's how we handle conflict that makes the difference, since most couples
have issues that can't be resolved - such as money and how to discipline
kids (the top two areas of disagreement).
University of Washington researcher John Gottman has learned that couples
headed for divorce kill love with sarcasm and contempt, stonewalling and
unwillingness to meet a partner's requests. Successful couples try to
understand and meet differences with kindness. If hurtful statements are
made, the couple repair the damage with warm positive comments.
Given that I am a recovering smart mouth, it's no surprise that I am
divorced and single. Yet for much of my life, my failures were confusing.
thought my good will was enough to sustain intimacy. It turns out, I can
something far more practical - learning to "fight" in a productive way.
I also need not feel too awful, according to those at the conference who
trying to start a marriage renaissance. How many of us were taught that
listening and speaking compassionately were skills we needed? But that's
thrust of what the 1,000 conference participants were suggesting for
who'd like the best shot at being happy.
Fortunately, learning those skills is cheaper than later attempts at
Therapy can cost $100 an hour and often requires introspection and
self-disclosure. And, it does not always make things better.
Marriage classes cost closer to $15 an hour and might be compared to
driver's education. A group leader shows you the most effective way to
express an idea. Then, you get to practice with your partner.
"We don't expect people to drive well without some practice," says Diane
Sollee, conference director. "The good news is anyone can learn these
skills. And men really like them. ... It turns out men avoid talking about
issues because they are afraid things will just blow up."
Unfortunately, Sollee says, education has never been widely attempted.
Other conference participants said maybe it's time classes were tried,
especially after hearing the Rutgers study on the social health of
One of the most troubling American trends, say authors David Popenoe and
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, is that couples now are more likely to cohabit
less likely to marry.
As many as 60 percent of couples - an estimated 4 million at any time -
together before marriage. In the last 38 years, cohabitation has increased
by 1,000 percent.
The authors suggest that young people have learned to fear divorce, living
in a society where it has been prevalent for decades. Such couples are
hesitant to wed, preferring cohabitation as a premarital test.
But studies show that cohabiting couples experience more domestic violence
and lower levels of happiness than married couples. Statistically, living
together also increases the risk of a failed marriage. In other words,
Sollee says, cohabitation may add to the fragility of marriage, because a
man and woman are less committed to resolving conflict.
That's not the only discouraging trend.
William Doherty of Minneapolis, author and president of the National
on Family Relations, says a dangerous consumer mentality is undermining
couples. People talk of "starter marriages" as if they were leasing a car,
ready to trade it in at the first sign of difficulty.
"Divorce should be like an amputation - to be avoided at all costs," says
Doherty, who trains therapists to work toward marriage preservation.
Bernard Guerney of Bethesda, Md., a pioneer in marriage education,
people want "someone to be emotionally supportive, an emotional friend, a
helpmate, a soul mate." Empathy is the cornerstone of what he teaches
Bonnie and Edward Fisher of Dover share a belief in the importance of
education. Family, individual and marriage therapists, they attended the
conference because they see a lot of marital unhappiness.
She compares couples in therapy to people hurrying to an emergency room
a life-threatening illness. Education, the Fishers say, is preventive
"We feel a responsibility to be more proactive," says Bonnie, adding that
struggling couples also can benefit from learning new ways of relating.
One of the classes the Fishers teach is known as PREP (Prevention and
Relationship Enhancement) Program. It's a 12-hour training program created
by the University of Denver and is one of the most popular relationship
programs in the nation.
PREP helps couples contain conflict by teaching them to alternate
and speaking. Listeners also learn to respond with empathy and give
the sense of being heard. Having reached an understanding of how they
a couple move to problem solving.
Tom Jewett of Wilmington also believes in the benefits of classes for
engaged couples. Jewett, who attended the conference, is director of the
family life bureau for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. Each year, he
prepares more than 700 couples for marriage in the Catholic Church.
His counseling is part of a yearlong diocese program that requires couples
to take part in group lectures and exercises. They also meet with parish
priests and are mentored by parish couples. Those who are engaged also
complete a self-assessment inventory.
For the Catholic couples who Jewett sees - he says they typically spend
$20,000 on a wedding - a $75 investment in premarital classes is
"We want couples to take time to talk about why they're getting married,"
says Jewett, 58. "I ask them questions like what they're looking for, why
they're marrying in a faith community and why at this stage of their life?
I'm trying to help people get beyond the myth they're marrying someone
At times, the information leads a couple to realize they shouldn't marry.
Jewett recalls one woman saying she expected her husband to be home every
night. The man looked at her in amazement.
When Jewett asked why, the husband-to-be said he planned to work a second
job to earn more money, hoped to finish his college degree and wanted to
spend time with friends. Hearing this, the woman welled up with tears and
did not return to the premarital classes.
That sort of revelation is painful to watch in a couple, Jewett says, but
it's better if it occurs before two people make a lifelong commitment.
Mike and Harriet McManus of Potomac, Md., applaud the diocese effort. In
fact, they would like all houses of worship, whatever the faith, to
That's why they founded Marriage Savers, a national ministry that has won
commitments from clergy in 110 cities to require marriage preparation for
couples. As part of the Marriage Savers movement, the McManuses also have
urged churches to find mentoring couples to befriend newlyweds.
Jewett says he would like to see the effort spread to more Delaware
The good news, he adds, is that most couples taking premarital classes say
they're glad they did.
"I think the long-term welfare of church and society is dependent on us
doing marriage preparation well," he says. "We all have a stake in it."
Here are suggestions for improving a marriage. They come from the Love Lab
of University of Washington researcher John Gottman, a member of the
Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education.
*Try physical touch in the morning. The closeness from cuddling often
carries through the day.
*Share appreciations. These give partners a sense of being loved and
motivation to work through problems.
*Allow yourself to be influenced by your partner. In successful marriages,
men and women let this occur regularly.
*Put the brakes on harsh negative comments. They erode the goodwill in
*Take a timeout when anger boils over during a discussion. Agree to
reconvene later when things have cooled down.
To learn more about how to have a successful marriage, contact:
*Bonnie and Edward Fisher of Dover will teach skill-based classes in
conflict resolution and marriage enrichment this fall. Call 734-3639.
*Michelle Rossi of the Tressler Center at Prices Corner will lead a
three-hour class for cohabiting couples in the fall. Call 995-2294.
*Rita DeMaria of Spring House, Pa., offers several skill-based training
sessions costing between $100 and $1,495. She will hold a weeklong
session called PAIRS (Practical Applications of Intimate Relationship
Skills) for both couples and educators the week of Aug. 23. Call (800)
997-2477. She also offers a free audiotape explaining her approach to
marriage education; call and leave your address.
*Mike and Harriet McManus explain the Marriage Savers religious movement
their Web site (www.marriagesavers.org), which includes information on how
to get the program into local communities. Write to them at 9311
Drive, Potomac, MD 20854.
*There are many efforts to create a marriage renaissance. The ideas are
explained on the Web site for Smart Marriages Conference at
www.smartmarriages.com. Mailing address: 5310 Belt Road N.W., Washington,
20015-1961. E-mail cmfce at smartmarriages.com.
"Around the Coalition" shares information on marriage and divorce and on
skills-based educational approaches. Opinions expressed are not
necessarily shared by members of the Coalition.
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The 3rd Annual Smart Marriages/Happy Families conference was held
July 1-4, 1999 in Washington, DC.
To order tapes of all presentations at the conference, as well as the
1997 & 1998 Smart Marriages conferences: call 800-241-7785 or at
tapes at the-resource-link.com. Audio tapes are $10, video tapes are
To list your program in the Directory of Providers visit the
Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, LLC (CMFCE)
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