BOSTON — Three years ago, Jo and John Kellen's 17-year marriage was in serious trouble.
"We were really having a difficult time in our relationship and growing further and further apart," says Mrs. Kellen. "We couldn't talk to each other. Rather than have a conversation, we had verbal attacks or silence."
On the advice of a marriage counselor, the Kellens, who live in Leicester, N.C., took a bold step. They enrolled in a four-month marriage education course designed to help participants improve communication and problem-solving skills. In the process, they joined growing ranks of couples around the country who are seeking to strengthen marriages rather than give up on them.
"The divorce revolution is over," says William Doherty, director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota. After 30 years of what he calls "Velcro marriage - made for ease of separation," Professor Doherty and other experts, both secular and religious, see encouraging signs of a quiet counterrevolution, this one to preserve viable marriages.
Although 45 percent of first marriages in the United States still fail, divorce rates are leveling off, Doherty says. At the same time, marriage-education programs are increasing. Several dozen established programs now exist, ranging from $10 questionnaires for engaged couples to $350 weekend seminars and $2,000 extended courses. Their purpose is not only to help troubled couples avoid divorce, but also to teach engaged and married couples how to have truly satisfying marriages.
"We have a culture shift under way," says Doherty. "It shows itself in legislators talking about making divorce laws harder, which I have concerns about. And clergy are banding together to refuse to marry couples without pre-marriage education."
Doherty also observes changing attitudes among therapists. Too often, he says, they have taken a "value-free and morally neutral" position on divorce. He now gives seminars to therapists on how to help couples, saying, "For many people, working it out in the current marriage is going to be the best thing."
Signs of change
Other signs of change include the formation two years ago of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education, an information exchange in Washington to help people locate courses (www.smartmarriages.com). Members range from what founder Diane Sollee describes as "very conservative Christians" to "very liberal feminists," as well as therapists and divorce lawyers.
Doherty attributes some of these changes to "children of the divorce revolution" - those born in the 1970s. "They are more fearful of divorce because they lived through it. They are going for pre-marriage preparation in greater numbers than before."
In his private practice as a therapist, Doherty also sees more couples who "want to go the extra lap around the track to work on their problems, because they have seen family and friends divorce and not be any happier."
For the Kellens, that "extra lap" was a 16-week course, PAIRS, or Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills, developed by Lori Gordon of Washington.
Initially, the Kellens were reluctant to expose their problems. But, Mrs. Kellen says, "We were all in the same situation of wanting to improve. It became very open and caring and warm, which helped us open up more."
Ellen Haag, a PAIRS teacher in Springfield, Va., notes that many couples who enroll are frustrated or seeking a separation. By the time they finish, she says, "a very high percentage go on to reconcile and fall back in love. The few who decide they are not compatible usually part with much more compassion and friendship."
Michelle Weiner-Davis, author of "Divorce Busting," finds that only a small percentage of divorces are due to severe problems, such as chronic substance abuse or domestic violence. Most marital failures, she says, occur because of problems that are "absolutely, unequivocally solvable."
Instead of dwelling on past problems, Ms. Weiner-Davis urges couples "to identify where they want to be." Ninety-nine percent of couples who are not getting along, she adds, are not making their relationship a priority.
Not everyone shares this enthusiasm for marriage preservation. Constance Ahrons, director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of California in Los Angeles and author of "The Good Divorce," says, "We need to break down the mythology that all divorces are bad. For some people, divorce is an improvement over what they are living with."
Doherty sees other opposition. "This movement creates its own backlash, because some feminists are skittish about any kind of programs to promote marital stability," he says. "They are afraid these programs will keep women trapped in abusive marriages."
Yet Ms. Sollee defends these courses. "We know we can teach these skills to couples who have hit the skids," she says. "If you learn new behaviors together and you start treating each other differently, the feelings come back."
Most couples, Sollee says, break up not over irreconcilable differences but over "irreconcilable disappointments" in the way differences are discussed.
"There are probably 10 things in most marriages you're never going to resolve," she says. "People switch partners and find there will be 10 different irreconcilable differences in the next marriage." Second marriages have higher divorce rates than first marriages.
Another marriage educator, Sherod Miller of Littleton, Colo., teamed up with his wife, Phyllis, to develop a four-week course, Couple Communication. Certified instructors teach six skills in talking and five in listening.
"I don't know anything more complex on the planet than human relationships," says Dr. Miller. "We do so little to learn how to live together. Ultimately day-to-day living comes down to how we treat each other and care for each other."
Therapists, he says, "can help you figure out your difficulties. But unless they also teach you the process for being able to figure out things on your own, they're building in dependency. They're not empowering the couple to develop and manage their own lives together."
Viv and James Robinson, of Rock Hill, S.C., who took the Couple Communication course, find it helps them avoid "getting stuck in knotty tangles," as Mrs. Robinson puts it. Noting that she and her husband have very different communication styles, she says, "He is more emotional and tends to think that if you leave problems alone they'll go away. I want to examine every detail. The course really has been very useful for us."
In Bethesda, Md., Michael and Harriet McManus have trained 42 married couples in Fourth Presbyterian Church to serve as mentors to couples before they marry.
"The older couple can be very helpful as an encourager and can give the benefit of their 20, 30, or 40 years of marriage on key issues the couple is facing," says Mr. McManus, who writes a syndicated column on religion.
In a program called Marriage Savers, the McManuses use a premarital "inventory" of 165 statements. These include "I don't like the way my partner spends money," "I'm afraid to speak up because my partner blows up," and "I think the problems we have now will diminish after the wedding." Couples fill out the forms separately, then talk about them with their mentor couple.
Among the first 135 couples to take the inventory, 25 broke their engagement.
"So many churches today are what I call 'blessing-machine' churches or 'wedding-factory' churches," McManus says. He calls a "marriage-saver" church "a lighthouse sending out a beam of hope into the marital darkness of our culture. This is exciting work, and it should be going on in every church and synagogue in America."
In 72 cities, he notes, clergy members have agreed not to marry couples unless they take premarital education. In Modesto, Calif., the first city to adopt a community marriage policy in 1986, divorces are down 40 percent. Montgomery, Ala., and Albany, Ga., adopted policies in 1993. By 1995 divorces in both cities declined by 11 percent.
For the Kellens, the time and money they spent on their course paid off. "It made a lot of difference," she says. "We still have little situations, but we're able to find a way to deal with them."
Turnarounds like this fuel the optimism of marriage educators. "The most important thing is for people to know that there really is hope," says author Weiner-Davis. "No matter what kind of problem they're experiencing, there are things they can do to make a difference."
So enthusiastic is Sollee that she even encourages people to give engaged couples a marriage-education course as a wedding gift. She adds, "It should be on all the bridal registries."