Church, state join struggle to save U.S. marriages
Mon Sep 20 12:04:40 EDT 1999
from: Smart Marriages
This article features McManus, Markey, McGinnes, Sheridan, Gottman, Prep,
Jones, Blankenhorn, Galup, Bush, Sollee, etc.
Church, state join struggle to save U.S. marriages
National Catholic Reporter
Programs aim to equip couples for happy union
Marriage is in vogue.
Gen Xers, according to American Demo graphics, a journal tracking business
trends, are donning tuxes and veils in record numbers. The Census Bureau
reports about half of Gen Xers (Americans between the ages of 20 and 35)
are married now, and projections are two-thirds of them will tie the knot
by 2001. That would gladden the hearts of those who see marriage and the
family as the principal hope for civilization.
The downside, however, is that divorce also remains in vogue. While 85
percent of Gen Xers will have settled down to wedded bliss by 2010, the
experts predict that fully half their unions will end in divorce.
Based on those predictions, Diane Sollee, executive director of the
Coalition of Marriage, Family and Couple Education, a nonprofit,
nondenominational clearinghouse in Washington, throws rice pudding on the
enthusiasm some show about the rush to wed. "What's with all the rosy
bubbles about a 56 percent marriage rate as a sign Gen Xers are moving
towards marriage?" she asks. While the actual numbers may be
impressive,Sollee points out, "That's only 1 percent higher than the
rate ever recorded in the U.S."
Susan Clarke of the National Center for Health Statistics reports the
marriage rate has actually fallen 41 percent since 1960 among all age
groups. Add another sign of distress for family value advocates: Gen Xers
are floating trial balloons before tying the legal knot by cohabiting in
record numbers as well. In March 1998, 4.2 million couples were
according to Clarke.
That mixed nuptial picture is running head-on into a new determination in
America to make marriages last. The effort is spearheaded by the expected
groups -- churches, synagogues and temples - but they are being joined
today by a growing number of secular organizations and city and state
governments all keen to keep families together.
"Catholics are leaders in all this," says Sollee. She wryly adds, "They
the right idea, but it's not getting there.' Practicing Catholics have
same 50 percent divorce rate as most other groups in America.
Sollee was talking about the Catholic church's insistence on marriage
preparation courses, which originated in the PreCana Conference movement,
begun in Chicago in the 1940s.
Though Catholic churches have long required pre-marriage instruction,
efforts in Protestant denominations have been inconsistent. Now, however,
most mainline denominations, as well as the evangelical ones, insist on
marriage prep programs for engaged couples.
Though there is an array of programs called by various names -- Marriage
Savers, Crossing Out Divorce, Live the Life Ministries, Engaged Encounter
all have the same goal of driving down the 5O percent divorce rate by
equipping couples for happy marriages.
It's a formidable task. A 1991 report by the National Commission on
Children lists the United States as having the highest divorce rate in the
world. Mormons are the least likely to divorce if they marry within their
religion. Only 13 percent have divorced after five years of marriage,
compared with 20 percent of Catholics and Protestants in the same time
period. Four of every 10 Jewish marriages end in divorce after five years.
Not long ago, pollster George Gallup told a National Press Club meeting in
Washington, "Divorce has become so endemic that we hardly notice it, even
though we suffer the effects in so many ways."
Why have churches (the setting for 75 percent of marriages) basically
failed? There's no easy answer, but many schemes are being tried to
These days, for instance, the Chicago archdiocese runs a "Dinner for Two,"
where couples put aside the daily grind of kids, car payments and time
clocks and pay a small fee to have an intimate dining experience with a
purpose: rekindle the spark that brought them together in the first place.
In more than 100 cities across the country, church and state have come
together in concerted efforts to build strong marriages by adopting
community marriage policies, agreeing to provide marriage prep sessions or
divorce prevention counseling.
The Catholic and non-Catholic clergy and lay people of lexington, Ky.,
put together a carefully thought-out community marriage policy with the
help of a task force representing religious, community and business
leaders. Bishop J. Kendrick Williams supported the effort that resulted in
the "Bluegrass Community Marriage Policy." The emphasis is on supporting
Clergy in Culpepper, Va., were the 100th group to sign on to a community
marriage policy. Their program goes a step further than most, asking
couples living together to stop having a physical relationship before
marrying. That demand is made in addition to other components of the
program, like a courtship of at least one year.
While community marriage policies make good press, other work is going on
quietly behind the scenes with couples that have strong marriages helping
couples whose marriages are struggling.
Mike McManus is founder of Marriage Savers, a nonprofit, nondenominational
organization based near Washington. His concern is not only about the
divorce numbers, but cohabitation figures. Marriage Savers attempts to
bring down the rate of couples living together without marriage and to
marriages in trouble. The program trains mentor couples who have "come
back from the brink," of divorce to work with couples preparing for
marriage and with those whose marriages are in jeopardy.
McManus, who describes himself as "theologically right of center," writes
self-syndicated column, "Ethics&Religion." He accuses American churches
being part of the divorce problem. "Most churches help couples prepare
elaborate weddings, not for lasting marriages," he writes in Marriage
Savers. McManus got into the marriage saving business, starting with the
precarious state of his own, discovered during a Marriage Encounter
He claims success rates as high as 35 percent in some cities where the
program is implemented.
Notre Dame Sr. Barbara Markey of Omaha, Neb., an author of FOCCUS
(Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding&Study), and David
Blankenhom, both founders of the Institute for American Values at
University, say no independent research exists to back McManus' claims.
The Heritage Foundation of Washington, a conservative think tank, plans to
examine 30 cities where the Marriage Savers program is established.
Elephant in the living room
Churches don't like to face up to the cohabitation reality. A report from
the University of Wisconsin Center for Demography and Ecology says half of
the population under age 40 has lived with an unmarried partner.
Cohabitation, says Markey, is "the elephant in the living room." In some
ways, she said, the church deals with it by taking the stance that if it
ignored the problem will go away. It is a tricky problem, but harsh
policies "create deceit and just don't cut it," she said.
A report published in time for Valentine's Day by Rutgers University
shatters the illusion that living with someone is a way to avoid a divorce
or to decide whether to marry.
"Living together before marriage increases the risk of breaking up after
marriage," according to the report, titled "Should We Live Together? What
Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage." Cohabitors
who marry have a divorce rate 46 percent higher than those who live apart
Another writer, Aimee Howd sees cohabitation as one way a divorce-shy
generation looks for the way back to the stability their "grandparents
enjoyed, but their parents left behind." In general, cohabitors can be
categorized as less religious, more independent, more liberal and more apt
to take risks, according to Howd.
Still, hope springs eternal. A 1996 U.S. Census Bureau report shows 56
percent of all adults were married and living with their spouses.
California, Texas, New York, Florida and Nevada were the top states for
weddings in 1996. Adults, if marrying at all, are delaying the nuptials,
shown by the current median age of first marriage: 25 years for women and
26.8 years for men. A generation earlier, women were marrying at an
of 20.8 years and 23.2 years for men.
When adults do marry, there's lots of help available. If they're Catholic,
a couple like Ginny and Greg Burns of St. Thomas More Parish in
Tallahassee, Fla., may guide them through the process. The Burnses use
their own 25-year-marriage success and Creighton University's FOCCUS
program to prepare engaged couples.
Many agree that the programs are only as good as those presenting them.
"Marriage Preparation in the Catholic Church: Getting it Right" is a
national evaluation of 1,500 couples who married between 1987 and 1993.
study by Creighton University Center for Marriage and Family reports
"though a sizable minority (33.8 percent) disagree that marriage
preparation was helpful to them, a large majority (66.2 percent) of
respondents judge that it was helpful. Most wanted it to be helpful."
The study also found that marriage preparation is most valuable when
presented by a team, especially a team of clergy and lay leaders. Seven to
10 sessions are best. Marriage preparation is rated most helpful when it
deals with the five Cs: communication, commitment, conflict resolution,
children and church.
Markey adds. a sixth: Career. "Dual careers are a major stressor." She
that so far the programs she has seen have pushed applied psychology, but
not "applied theology," and couples want both.
A large-scale study developed at the University of Denver showed couples
that attended marriage preparation had onethird the likelihood of breaking
up through the fifth anniversary. The Denver survey also found most
couples would have participated in premarital counseling if it had been
offered to them.
One reason marriage saving is no longer just the prerogative of religion
economics. With 89 percent of children on welfare living with single
parents, states have an economic interest in family preservation. In fact,
24 million children in the United States live without fathers present, the
National Fatherhood Institute reports.
A new federal program, the Abstinence Education Program, gives states
to discourage sex outside of marriage. Heritage Community Services in
Charleston, S.C., was awarded a $1.3 million grant to implement the
program. The program involves sending young college graduates into schools
to teach adolescents about abstinence by focusing on character building
working on healthy relationships. Experts predict that most states will
have some type of marriage preparation law on the books within five years.
The bigger question though is do laws and political platitudes actually
If they don't, it won't be for lack of trying. Proponents of the effort
point out that prison systems, the military, state legislators and the
judiciary are all taking a stab at programs to curb divorces.
Prisons around the country are trying to preserve marriages in hopes of
reducing recidivism. The Relationship Enhancement program has been used
with prisoners and their wives fairly regularly over the past 12 or so
years. Statistics on its success are ambiguous. Programs in the U.S.
military are trying to stem the 65 percent divorce rate in second
marriages. And state governments, in the words of Scott Jensen, Wisconsin
Assembly speaker, should "welcome back our churches and temples, our
synagogues and mosques as full participants in our work to address the
pressing issues facing our state.
"For too long government has made communities of faith adversaries in its
bureaucratic attempt to build civil society." He added, "The
of the family is the central domestic problem of our time."
In Michigan, a Wayne County judge launched a partnership with religious
leaders to provide counseling and other services when marriages are
breaking up. Under the agreement Circuit Judge Helen Brown wrote, church
leaders would give extensive premarital counseling, programs to help
marriages in trouble, and safe places for parents to hand off children
If Brown has her way, parents in Wayne County who file for divorce will be
handed a list of churches that provide counseling or mediation in the case
of custody disputes. Clergy of all denominations have enthusiastically
received the concept.
In Adrian, Mich., District Court Chief Judge James Sheridan ruled that
officials performing civil weddings in his jurisdiction must train couples
in conflict resolution first. "Divorce is a community issue, not just a
religious matter," he said. "I'm tired of seeing so many divorces and
consequences come through my court."
In Grand Rapids. Mich.. clergy and community officials together decreed
16 to be "Celebrate Marriage Sunday." People in the pews and on prayer
mats heard sermons on the theme.
Commented Imam Abdullah El-Amin of the Michigan Council of Islamic
Organizations, zI think this is wonderful. The Quran tells us we should be
involved in cases of marital strife."
Not surprising, there has been dissent. The American Civil Liberties Union
is concerned about a possible state endorsement of religion. Brown says
concerns are unfounded and points out that courts often turn to
church-based programs such as Catholic Charities to aid with social
A few days after taking office, Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush stepped up to be
the first signatory of the Tallahassee community marriage policy. Florida
became the first state to pass a Marriage Preparation Law giving couples a
break on the cost of their marriage license if they take a four-hour
marriage prep course. Sollee of the Coalition of Marriage, Family and
Couple Education termed the Florida legislature "visionary." Bush, a
Catholic convert, said he was appalled at the 60 percent divorce rate and
35 percent of out-of-wedlock births in the state. He hoped the marriage
policy would be a model "to build a more compassionate Florida."
Other states have advanced "covenant marriage" laws, pre-nuptial
arrangements under which couples agree, should the marriage run into
trouble, to seek counseling and undergo a waiting period before filing for
Bruce Grindal, Florida State University social anthropologist, says of the
spreading secular interest in marriage preservation, "I wonder about all
that." In his opinion the kind of longing or nostalgia for a more
union is not going to change the divorce rate, no matter the legislation.
He says urbanization is a recent phenomenon that has resulted in the loss
of external pressures to keep families together. "In a more traditional
America, the family was an institute of necessity. That's no longer true."
Grindal sees no easy answer to the divorce problem. "So many things are
bubbling in the cauldron at the same time - a lost collective civic
Americans' focus on individualism, the loss of community." Another factor
is the "pink collar" workforce in which women are employed outside the
home. "It's an irreversible trend."
What he sees as the solution over the long haul is not more programs or
legislation, but stable male employment, especially among the poor and
Christians aren't the only ones focusing on marriage preservation. In the
runaway best seller, "Kosher Love," Rabbi Shmuley Boteach writes
unabashedly about the sexuality of Orthodox Jews, the main religious group
that practices enforced separation between married couples each month, and
where divorce is uncommon. American civilization, he says, depends on
healthy marriages. "The job of rabbis and priests is to bring peace
husbands and wives. Western civilization cannot sustain a 50 percent
Boteach's parents were divorced. Referring to his childhood, he said, "A
day has not passed when I've not asked myself, 'How do you keep a man and
woman together so no one has to suffer like I did?' "
Rescuing troubled marriages
While premarital programs and marriage enrichment programs can help stable
relationships get better, what of marriages that begin to unravel? Are
there signals the partnership is in trouble?
University of Washington, Seattle, relationship researcher John Gottman
reports in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, that couples that stay
married have a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative interactions. It
seems couples that can muster five positive or affirming comments or
gestures for every one negative interaction are more likely to have a
Sollee says people are slow to recognize that marriages need preventive
maintenance as much as cars or appliances. Her approach is not more
therapy, but marriage education -- teaching couples how to deal with the
conflicts that arise in day-to-day living.
Couples newly in love often think the way to handle conflict is to deny
existence. "This belief is destructive because it makes people think
is something wrong with them if they have a conflict.
"The truth is, people married 50 years have as much disagreement daily as
couple who divorces. What's different is how it's understood and handled.
Kids who grow up with divorce think it's OK to disagree and divorce." In
fact, Sollee says the No. one predictor of divorce is the habitual
avoidance of conflict.
"It is dangerous to think one must agree and like everything about the
other. It's boring and not much to make love about." Sollee scoffs at the
idea of never going to bed angry. "If it's a choice of going to bed angry
or staying up all night fighting, go to bed!" The Coalition of Marriage,
Family and Couple Education teaches three skills for keeping marriages
going:1) how to handle disagreements as a couple; 2) how to handle change,
and; 3) how to celebrate the good parts of marriages. Worldwide Marriage
Encounter is apptly named. The relationship enrichment program has spread
internationally and throughout faith traditions from its origin in the
Sollee never gives wedding gifts, only certificates for marriage education
courses and says about the number of divorced people she knows, "all these
people thought their love was enough."
Retired Episcopal priest Rev. Dick McGinnis started Crossing Out Divorce,
in Jacksonville, Fla. Tired of seeing the soaring divorce rate among his
congregants, he said he "didn't look at the problem, but at the solution,"
and found inspiration in the approach of Alcoholics Anonymous. He and
couples who had put their marriages back together "hammered and tonged"
the program into being.
McGinnis says the church was 'blindsided" in recent decades by cultural
changes, particularly society's loosened sexual mores, and is just now
getting its bearings.
Third Option, another marriage-saving tool, is a 14-week Catholic program,
coordinated by lay people. The longer time frame appeals to some couples
trying to find a way back into the relationship.
The hallmark for marriage rescue, though, is Retrouvaille, a Catholic
import from Canada. International coordinator Divine Word Missionary Fr.
Robert Jones has been in the marriage business since 1968, first with
Marriage Encounter, which he says is "too little, too late, for many
people." Retrouvaille is the model other denominations use to intervene in
troubled marriages. The priest is comfortable with customizing the program
to fit nonCatholic theology.
Jones' attraction to the program is the fit with his order's mission: to
heal the broken-hearted, to set captives free. "Lots are in captivity in
their marriages," he said. "Retrouvaille offers a way to not dump the
marriage." He claims that 87 percent of couples that go through the
and the follow-up sessions stay together.
Jones attributes the recent attention to marriages to the public's
realization "something needed to be done." How easy is it to work with
couples seemingly at the end of their rope? "It's the best thing I've ever
done as a priest!" He, too, points to the ability to handle conflicts as
the secret to successful marriages. *
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