Five years ago, Michael and Cheri Siebler faced a series of crises that nearly ended their six-year marriage - the death of a child, infidelity, and the loss of a business, all within a year.
"Things were really rocky," says Mrs. Siebler, of Santee, Calif. So rocky, in fact, that a concerned friend gave the couple tickets to a weekend marriage seminar sponsored by FamilyLife, a ministry of the Campus Crusade for Christ.
The event marked the beginning of the Sieblers' renewed commitment to their marriage.
"If we had not attended, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't be together today," Siebler says.
June 19, they were among 3,500 couples who gathered in San Diego for another conference designed to strengthen marriages, a day-long rally called "I Still Do." Part educational, part spiritual, the event is modeled after men's rallies held by Promise Keepers, an evangelical men's group. Sponsors include Promise Keepers, Focus on the Family, the Christian Men's Network, and the Moody Bible Institute.
Other arena rallies will take place June 26 in San Jose, Calif., July 10 in Washington, and Oct. 23 in Houston. Couples who attend are asked to sign a pledge vowing fidelity and unwavering love.
"Men have come together in stadiums, women have been coming together in sports arenas," says Beau Glenn, project leader of the events. "Now it's time to share the experience."
More than a million American marriages a year end in divorce. Now, after 30 years of permissive attitudes and no-fault divorce laws, a grass-roots anti-divorce movement is quietly gaining strength. Efforts range from the covenant marriage movement, which seeks to make divorce harder to get, to the community marriage movement, which trains clergy of many faiths to strengthen marriages in their congregations.
Louisiana and Arizona have also passed laws allowing couples to choose covenant marriage vows. Those who do - so far only a tiny percentage - can divorce only after a mutually agreed-upon two-year separation or on grounds such as adultery, abuse, or abandonment.
Last month, 24 conservative Christian groups launched the Covenant Marriage Movement, aimed at promoting commitment to marriage and family. "We've got to eliminate the 'D' word - divorce- from our vocabulary and replace it with the 'C' words - commitment and covenant," says Dennis Rainey, executive director of FamilyLife. "There has to be something wrong with a culture where it's easier to get out of a marriage than it is to get out of a used-car contract."
Divorce, Mr. Rainey adds, "is like an emotional earthquake with major aftershocks that ripple through not just one generation but three or four generations into the future."
But other family specialists counter that simply making divorce harder will not solve marital problems.
"What I'm concerned about is this either-or mentality, that if we help marriage we have to penalize divorce," says Constance Ahrons, author of "The Good Divorce." "We can help people have better marriages and we can help people have better divorces. They are not contradictory."
Dr. Ahrons, a senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families in Berkeley, Calif., says that efforts to return to a fault-based divorce system will not help people stay married. Instead, she explains, "It will increase litigation again, and litigation hurts children."
Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education in Washington, calls the arena events "a step in the right direction." She adds, "It reminds me of a football team having a really big rally and saying they're going to win one for the Gipper. It's great to say you're going to do it for love, for each other, for your children. But we also have to equip couples with communication skills so they have a fighting chance to keep their determination."
Mary Jo Czaplewski, executive director of the National Council on Family Relations in Minneapolis, agrees. "That kind of thing has its place for certain people, but it's certainly not for everybody," she says. "The message is, 'Stay there,' but it's not how to develop equality while you're there."
Yet couples who participate, such as the Sieblers, say that there is a need for such gatherings. "We know several couples who are just desperate," Mrs. Siebler says. "They're looking for anything that will work." Other couples, she adds, attend the rallies simply "to have a good inspirational time."
Focus on personal responsibility
Although the marriage-commitment movement has existed as "an undercurrent" for six or seven years, says Ms. Czaplewski, it was largely a "covert conversation" until two or three years ago. "Political correctness put it in the far-right camp. But all of a sudden, more liberal groups are also worried about divorce."
Bill Doherty, president of the National Council on Family Relations, sees the anti-divorce movement as part of broader cultural shifts in recent years that focus on the community and responsibility. He says, "We now are seeing the generation of children of divorce coming into adulthood, facing marriage, and they are nervous."
Even welfare-to-work legislation is having an influence. "That's the first time where federal legislators said states should support marriage and two-parent families," says Ms. Sollee. "Marriage is the best, most obvious way to keep people off welfare."
Culture works against marriage
Spearheading the community marriage movement is Michael McManus, president of Marriage Savers in Bethesda, Md. Calling the cultural climate in the United States "hostile-to-indifferent about marriage," he says, "Sex on TV and in movies is almost always between unmarried people. Marriages that last are hardly seen in the media, and the qualities needed to make a marriage last are certainly obscure to the general public and the churches."
To highlight those qualities, Mr. McManus brings together clergy from many denominations in a city. They agree to provide premarital counseling that includes communication skills. Currently, 109 cities in 37 states are participating. In 22 cities, the divorce rate has dropped.
McManus also trains couples with strong marriages to mentor other couples. Using a premarital questionnaire, he says he can predict with 85 percent accuracy who will divorce. Among the first 175 couples in the program, 25 to 30 broke their engagement. Of the nearly 150 who married, only six have divorced or separated in seven years.
In Cleveland, the latest city to join the community marriage movement, Sandra Bender, a marriage counselor, says, "It's not a hard sell at all. People are ready."
Receptivity is also evident among the 1,000 marriage and family professionals who have registered to attend the third annual "Smart Marriages: Happy Families" conference in Washington next week, sponsored by Sollee's coalition. Noting that some of the 1,000 participants will come from as far away as Russia, Egypt, and other African countries, Sollee says, "As other countries import our books and movies and culture, they're afraid they're also going to import our divorce rate. They want to see what solutions are coming out of the States."
Next June, the Minnesota Marriage Initiative plans to host a conference, bringing together family advocates and clergy in the state to talk about strengthening marriage and improving preparation for marriage.
Reformers also note a growing interest in marriage education. "We spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours planning a 30-minute marriage ceremony, but so little time actually preparing for the marriage, to turn our marriage promises into a living relationship," Rainey says.
Teaching marriage 'skills'
This year Florida became the first state to require all ninth- and 10th-graders to take a course in marriage and relationship skills. The Florida Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act also allows engaged couples who take a four-hour class on marriage skills to pay a reduced fee for a marriage license and to marry immediately, instead of waiting three days.
Ahrons, who favors marriage education on a voluntary basis, says that improving marriages requires "realistic education about what marriage is, rather than relying on our romanticized notion of what it is." This includes teaching young people to solve problems and reduce conflict, and to understand that all intimate relationships have some conflict.
"Marriage is not consistent every day," she says. "It does not stay romantic every day. Finding ways to companionably live together and raise children takes hard work."