Can marriage be taught?

Oklahoma tests the idea that government can, and should, foster stronger marriages

Anne Johnson and Lloyd Hayhurst want to get married someday, but they are approaching the altar cautiously. Both have been divorced before. As they contemplate saying "I do," the two are seeking help to ensure this relationship lasts.

That's why they are crowded around a U-shaped table with other couples in the snug offices of Redbud Family Counseling in Oklahoma City on a recent Friday evening. They are here to learn how to avoid marital land mines and how to slow down even the fastest spousal insult.

Their instructor, a plucky therapist and minister's daughter, has distilled the two-day workshop into two goals that fit neatly on a dry-erase board: 1) Learn how to handle conflict constructively; 2) Learn how to maintain and promote intimacy.

For Ms. Johnson and her beau, handling conflict starts with being candid about the kind of problems that often divide the sexes, like snapdragons.

"I expected him to know that I like flowers," she says emphatically. "Every girl does."

"I'm not really a flower buyer," says Mr. Hayhurst, apologetically. "You're not really going to have them very long anyway."

What's going on in this well-appointed conference room, besides some "When Harry Met Sally"-style dialogue, is one of the nation's most ambitious attempts to improve the institution of marriage.

Across the country, the quest to strengthen the bond between couples is fast becoming a priority for governments at all levels.

After decades of lamenting the nation's stubborn divorce rate, many lawmakers now want to confront the problem early on – improving marriages before the partners get to the point of dividing up the CDs and the wagon-wheel coffee table.

At least a dozen states have passed legislation or are considering bills to encourage marriage education. In Louisiana this year, Gov. Mike Foster (R) appointed a commission to look at ways to promote marriage. High school seniors in Florida are now required to take a relationship-skills course before they graduate. And localities as diverse as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Grand Rapids, Mich., are getting involved in premarital counseling.

President Bush wants everyone to just get along, too. He has included marriage education in his welfare-reform proposal that Congress is taking up this year. The rationale is that such initiatives will not only help curb divorce rates, but also reduce welfare rolls by cutting down on the number of out-of-wedlock births and single-parent families.

Yet the nation's most extensive experiment in improving the covenant between couples – and the one most often cited as a model – is unfolding here on the plains of Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, as it's called, involves churches, counselors, public and private social agencies, schools – and the state's top husband.

"Tell me the goodness of a system where it is easier to get a marriage license than a hunting license," says Gov. Frank Keating (R), one of the originators of the program and its chief cheerleader. "In Oklahoma today, you have to take a course before you can get a hunting license."

Yet underneath the great social venture being tried here and across the country persist two fundamental questions: Can marriage really be taught? And if so, should it be the province of government to teach it?

* * *

That Oklahoma has become the nation's unofficial laboratory for trying to teach the mysteries of marriage may seem unusual. After all, it isn't the first state that comes to mind when you think of divorce.

Oklahoma has a strong tradition of religious and family values, something that's obvious here, where churches are as common as steakhouses and the next mini-sermon is only a block away. "Exercise daily: Walk with God," reads a sign in front of one Oklahoma City church.

In the "buckle" of the Bible Belt, as the state is often called, nearly 60 percent of registered voters say they attend church regularly. The national average is about 40 percent. Nearly two-thirds of voters identify themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians. The predominant faith is Southern Baptist: 1 in 5 Oklahomans is affiliated with the denomination, which, like Catholicism, eschews divorce.

Yet split marriages are common. Nearly one-third of all Oklahomans have been divorced at least once, compared with 21 percent nationally. Oklahoma has either the highest or the second-highest divorce rate in the country, depending on whose numbers you use. "It's like a plague," says Anthony Jordan, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and a clergy liaison to the Marriage Initiative. "And we've all got to deal with it."

Experts point to a number of reasons the rate might be so high. Young people marry earlier than normal here, perhaps under pressure to live by traditional standards. Typically, first-time grooms say their vows at 24 and brides at 22 – about two and a half years earlier than the median for the country.

That allows many couples to avoid the stigmas of premarital sex and living together, but it may also contribute to divorce: Experts say many young people aren't prepared for the complexities of a lifelong relationship.

Preachers also have a tough time trying to advise their flocks about relationships, says Mr. Jordan, because they are caught in a tension between strongly preaching about divorce and offering comfort to those who have experienced it.

"They know sitting in front of them are all kinds of people who've been through divorce, and they don't want to dump a bunch of guilt on them," he says.

Poverty, another contributor to divorce, is also entrenched. When you travel outside the major cities of Oklahoma City and Tulsa – affectionately referred to as OKC and T-town by locals – the state quickly becomes rural and, often, poor.

The lack of prosperity is one reason the Marriage Initiative was launched three years ago. Prior to announcing the program, Keating had asked a group of Oklahoma economists to sort out why the state wasn't thriving more.

They came back with some of the usual answers. The state's income tax was too high. It didn't have enough college graduates. Then, says Mr. Keating, they did something economists rarely do: "They turned the page and said, 'You have too many divorces. You have too much violence and drug abuse.' "

* * *

"Men are more rational than women – true or false?"

Back in the conference room at Redbud Family Counseling, therapist Vicki Reynolds is engaged in a reality-check exercise.

She's standing in front of the largely middle-class group of couples reading questions from a book she uses to help teach the course. The quiz is designed to puncture some of the myths surrounding marriage, particularly differences between the sexes.

"Women tend to report less happiness in marriage than men." Like the first one, that's false, too, her couples later learn. But the quiz helps the easygoing Reynolds delve into gender issues with the group who have given up a Friday night to be here.

She talks about the different ways men and women create intimacy. Men like shared activity – like watching football. Women prefer conversations – about subjects like what it means when men watch football.

When Reynolds wants to get the group talking, she asks the women to name "the one thing" they wish men knew more about women, and vice versa.

Several women say they want men to know they aren't just "one of the guys." Or that they sometimes need to talk things through and don't always need men to come up with a solution.

For one of the husbands, the wish list is simpler: He just wants the opposite sex to know that men are as good as women at cleaning.

* * *

In many ways, Oklahoma's struggle with divorce is also the country's. Ever since no-fault divorce laws swept through the states in the 1970s, it's been relatively easy for couples to break up. Divorce rates started rising, peaking in the early 1980s. Though they've edged down recently, one statistic remains fairly constant: One in every two couples in America ends up splitting apart – one of the highest rates in the industrialized world.

This number, combined with changes in attitudes toward marriage, has helped spark much of the momentum for marriage education and promotion. So, too, has a fundamental proposition: that it is possible to teach what goes into a good marriage, or at least to help two people survive moments of tribulation.

For years, the assumption was that therapists were the only ones who could help struggling couples, and even then it was an arduous quest. But researchers, delving into the vagaries of relationships, have found that almost all couples – those who divorce, and those who stay together – have about the same number of fights about the same issues: kids, money, sex, time, and other people.

To them, the key is to help couples understand how to handle disagreements, the theory being that these techniques can now be taught by almost anyone. The result is a curriculum like the one being used in Oklahoma, where workers from churches, schools, and counseling centers are being trained to teach marriage skills. "It's like a marriage renaissance," says Diane Sollee, director of The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education in Washington, D.C. "When people have new knowledge and new understanding, they're going to start thinking differently about marriage."

To pursue its experiment in marital tutoring, Oklahoma has set aside $10 million in TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or welfare) funds. So far, about $1 million has been spent in an attempt to reduce the divorce rate by one-third by 2010. The program consists of voluntary marriage education classes. While no one is required to take the courses, some people receiving government assistance can use the classes to fulfill part of a work requirement.

As part of the initiative, churches across the state have signed an agreement to institute a waiting period before they will marry couples and to offer more premarital counseling. But other segments of society here have joined the battle against divorce as well, from employers who talk up the impact of healthy marriages on the workplace, to media that have focused on the problem.

To Ms. Sollee and other advocates, there's no question that people can be taught to have good marriages. "We can teach couples the skills and best practices for making their marriage everything they would like it to be.... If you have the skills to handle disagreement, it doesn't scare you."

Others believe it is possible to teach couples what to avoid, even if they can't provide a formula for marital bliss. "We know more about what specifically to warn people not to do, than we know about specifically things to tell them they should do to make great relationships," says Scott Stanley, a marriage expert at the University of Denver and a developer of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) used in Oklahoma.

There is some evidence that marriage promotion can affect divorce rates. Local officials in Chattanooga, Tenn., credit a grass-roots program with reducing the number of divorce filings by as much as 20 percent in the past four years. Another effort started by clergy in Modesto, Calif., has contributed to a 50 percent falloff in divorce over the past 15 years, though what factors are really responsible for reducing breakups is difficult to pinpoint.

While Oklahoma's program is too new to produce definitive results, some anecdotal evidence supports the findings of PREP officials that their program has improved relationships over the years.

Terri, who prefers to use only her first name, is the mother of two. She's on welfare and is in the process of divorcing an allegedly abusive husband. She calls the PREP class a "godsend."

She is using the communication techniques she learned with her five- and six-year-old sons – and even when she's shopping. Terri didn't feel pressured by the course to return to her husband, but wishes she had taken it earlier. "If I'd had this course two years ago, I very well might have stayed married," she says.

Still, some professionals question whether marriage can be taught like macramé or auto mechanics in seminars. They point out that human relationships are often difficult to orchestrate, especially those where poverty is part of the mix.

"It is simplistic to believe that improving communication, even as a single first step, will then lead to a decrease in divorces," says Jan Figart, a child-health specialist at the Community Service Council of Tulsa, who has been working with low-income clients for 20 years.

* * *

In a side office at Redbud, three couples sit around the room practicing a PREP approach to talking instead of fighting. It's called the Speaker Listener Technique. The rules are simple: The speaker always has the floor. The speaker keeps the floor while the listener paraphrases what the other person is saying (usually with a phrase like "What I hear you saying is...."). And then the other person takes the floor.

"This doesn't come naturally," says one of the wives, Jenny Reser, after trying it a few times.

Which is exactly the point. It's supposed to be unnatural so that it slows couples down and forces each to think about what the other is saying. Solle, the marriage guru, compares it to teaching a child to snowplow before skiing: "You teach Speaker Listener as baby steps for men, and to teach women that you have to speak in sound bites and not deluge men."

Maybe so, but the benefits initially elude some of the couples in the class. "It didn't feel like it was very productive," says Mike Lemmings.

"Can you see how difficult it is to argue with him?" quips his wife, June, temporarily forgoing the technique.

"I wanted to get into the problem," he explains.

"What you're trying to do is understand the person better," Reynolds says, adding later: "Hopefully over time it becomes a more natural way to communicate."

* * *

At times, the critics and advocates of marriage promotion could use a PREP course themselves. At the heart of the tension is the relationship between divorce and a host of other social ills, including poverty.

When "the floor" belongs to advocates – usually social conservatives, often Republicans – they point to an array of numbers bolstering the notion that divorce should be a central policy concern. Single-parent families account for 58 percent of all welfare cases. Kids of single parents are five times as likely to be in poverty. They are at least twice as likely to have problems with drug abuse, crime, and mental and physical health. And beyond the economic and social benefits, proponents see value in simply strengthening the institution of marriage itself.

They also argue that it is appropriate for the government to be involved in matters of the heart, even though the public seems more ambivalent. A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted this spring, for instance, found that 51 percent of Americans think the government should stay out of marriage promotion, while 46 percent said it was all right.

"We are in the marriage business from start to finish," says Governor Keating. "Marriage licenses are examples of the state interfering in a marriage relationship. How about divorce? ... A stranger decides how much money you keep in your pocket and where your children go on the weekends. So the state is very much involved in the marriage contract."

Opponents of marriage promotion don't disagree that the nation's children need help, or that reducing divorce is a good goal. But some Democrats and some of those who work with low-income families believe that people need education and good wages to get out of poverty, not a wedding band. They also point to other factors that can influence marriage and divorce among the poor, such as substance abuse and a man's ability to get a job. Improving the economic well-being of the poorest families, they contend, will do more to reduce divorce than seminars on anger management and intimacy.

"I see it [marriage education] as a social diversion," says Robert Lee Maril, a scholar who has studied poverty in Oklahoma. "It's an issue, but I don't see it as a major issue in the lives of low-income people."

Another worry, expressed by liberals and feminist groups, is that efforts like Oklahoma's will end up encouraging women to stay with abusive husbands. Some of those who deal with battered women in Oklahoma had similar reservations. Sherry Windsor, the executive director of Women's Haven, a shelter to serve victims of family violence and sexual assault in Duncan, Okla., was among those wondering if the initiative would result in keeping marriages together at all costs. But she's changed her mind since hearing from people who've taken the classes.

"We're about safety and healthy relationships," she says. "So when they were coming back to my agency going, 'I'm learning something about healthy relationships,' I thought, this is a good thing."

* * *

On Saturday morning, toward the end of the class at Redbud, a telling moment comes for one couple when Reynolds asks participants if they can see themselves practicing the technique they've just learned. Chris Reser shakes his head no. His wife Jenny is nodding yes.

Not all the couples seem as uncertain. "I think I'm starting to get better," says Adam Hawthorne. "It's just teaching you not to think about your rebuttal. It's teaching me to really think about the way she feels and not how I'm going to respond."

"This is getting easier," agrees his wife, Kari. "I hope we can actually do it at home."

Like others in the group, the Hawthornes saw a flier for the class and signed up because they wanted to build a stronger foundation for their marriage. "The more healthy habits we pick up now, it can prevent problems in the future," says Kari. "We don't want to build on bad habits."

That's what another couple, Cindi and John Burnett, are pondering too – how to replace old habits with new ones. They are separated, and after some tense exchanges in class exercises, they are contemplating how the course will help them. They have both been divorced before, and are seeking help to save their marriage. Mrs. Burnett says the more you know, the easier it is to kick bad habits. But as her husband points out, "You have to make the choice to use what you learn." The couple have since reconciled.

As for Johnson and Hayhurst, they both felt the workshop was well worth it. Johnson calls it "wonderfully helpful." She plans to use it at work and with her family. As for her relationship with Hayhurst, she says: "I think our ways of communicating with each other ... will greatly be improved."

Great. Now, what about those flowers?

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