Needed: road map for the marital journey

"All weddings are similar, but every marriage is different," according to the English novelist John Berger.

After the final vows have been spoken and the last wedding guests have departed, each bridal couple embarks on a journey without any map of the marital terrain. For better or worse, they must largely chart their own course, armed with love and hope but no real training.

No wonder the divorce rate is so high, some marriage experts say with a sigh. Newlyweds, they insist, need guidance.

"Couples know how to court, get engaged, and have a wedding," says Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education in Washington, D.C. "But it's as though the movie ends with the honeymoon. They don't know how to go beyond that."

To help them, nearly 2,000 family therapists, researchers, lawyers, judges, and clergy are gathering in Reno, Nev., Thursday for the seventh annual Smart Marriages conference, organized by the coalition. In sessions with intriguing titles such as "Who's got time to be married?" "Guerrilla divorce busting," and "Reviving marriage in the black community," they will spend four days exploring ways to help couples weather inevitable storms and form happy, lasting unions.

Convinced that the skills needed for a successful marriage can be taught, Ms. Sollee, a marriage and family therapist, founded the organization in 1996. She describes it as nonpartisan, a blend of conservatives and liberals, "the churched and the unchurched."

When she started, the term "marriage education" didn't even exist, Sollee says on the phone, her voice still registering amazement. Now she wants all states to follow Florida's lead in mandating marriage classes in high school. She is also urging the federal government to create a public education campaign, explaining the benefits of marriage and outlining what to expect in a good marriage. She points to precedents in public-health messages about smoking and drunken driving.

Several stages of marriage are misnamed, which misleads couples, Sollee charges. The first two years, often called the honeymoon period, actually represent the hardest time, when divorce rates are highest. "We should call that the 'clash of civilizations' phase," she says with a wry laugh. "Couples need all their best skills to manage disagreements." The real honeymoon, she thinks, is more likely to come when the nest empties.

And instead of the proverbial seven-year itch, Sollee often sees signs of restlessness at the 14- to-16-year mark. When children reach adolescence, couples have more to disagree about, and the intensity of disagreement increases.

Yet disagreements have their place. In a good marriage, she explains, "you've created a team, with two sets of perspectives, two histories, two extended families, two ways of thinking about things and weighing in with care and passion about decisions."

The most important predictor of marital success, she adds, is the ability to manage those disagreements.

Sollee challenges the popular notion that a good marriage is a matter of luck - that people either "get lucky" and find the right person or they don't. "We thought the bad marriage, where you married the wrong person, should end," she says. "But when we saw that second marriages had a higher failure rate, and third had an even higher rate, it just wasn't adding up."

Although each marriage is different, as Berger states, Sollee notes that the same issues arise for every couple: money, children, other people (relatives, friends), sex, and time (work, chores, and leisure). Currently, 40 percent of all marriages in the United States involve remarriages for one or both adults.

The good news, according to a just- released report from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, is that the percentage of children in families with two married parents has inched up from 68 to 69 percent - the first increase in decades.

Yet the report also cautions that marriage is shifting from an institution dedicated to bringing up children to a "couples relationship," designed to fulfill the emotional needs of adults.

Even so, Sollee, who has two grown sons and five grandchildren, remains ever the optimist. "We're at a new level this year," she says, her voice dancing.

Then, summing up the philosophy that drives her tireless work, she paraphrases John Donne. "No marriage is an island," she says. "We are all affected not only by our own marriages and divorces, but by those around us."

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