An all-inclusive marriage initiative

If you've been divorced, or had trouble in your marriage or any other lasting relationship - did I leave anyone out? - you may wish to send an e-mail to the White House, saying something like "right on" and "me too." The president just announced that he will spend $300 million dollars to foster marriage among welfare clients, because social science shows that marriages are good for children (and his conservative political base appreciates such drives).

As a key part of the new initiative, Wade Horn, in charge of children and families at the US Department of Health and Human Services, just launched a series of experimental programs to provide premarital counseling. It is an approach that could do wonders, and not just for those on welfare.

The idea is hardly new. The Catholic Church long has encouraged couples who are planning to marry to attend a set of sessions in which they talk with a priest about major issues they will face after they tie the knot. Issues like, who will control the purse, or will anybody quit work to take care of the children? Other such precounseling classes are provided by clergy of other persuasions, psychologists, and even at some colleges.

In several cities, including Modesto, Calif.; Kansas City, Kan.; and Peoria, Ill., clergy members have signed a "Community Marriage Policy," pledging to require marital preparation for couples. Mike and Harriet McManus, who studied the effects, report divorce rates had fallen substantially - for instance, a 22 percent decline between 1991 and 1997 in Peoria.

The promotion of a pro-marriage program has brought out the usual assortment of critics. On CNN's "Talkback Live," syndicated columnist Julianne Malveaux preferred to give money to the poor, saying "if you are talking about poverty prevention - let's do poverty prevention." Ellen Rosen, a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, believes that "spending $100 million a year on programs like this is not only an intrusion into [welfare recipients'] lives; but is also a waste of taxpayer money."

I am all in favor of improving the economic conditions of the poor - best done by helping them to prepare for and find decent jobs - but this will not take care of their marital problems. The proposed marriage initiative program really isn't as intrusive as critics think. Participants enroll themselves, and they tell the counselors only what they feel free to disclose.

The main fly I see in the program's ointment is that it is limited to welfare clients. I would prefer this program reach all citizens. Social-science studies, especially those by professor John Gottman from the University of Washington in Seattle, have long shown that couples who endure, fight about as often as those who break up; the difference being sustained couples fight better.

Conflict resolution in marriage is a teachable skill. It involves some simple rules. For instance, do not attack your partner; tackle the issue. When you are asked to discuss something that troubles your spouse, don't bring up all kinds of other, previous complaints. And it's best not to argue when you are hot under the collar; set a time to work things out later, and so on.

In the mid-1990s, I participated in a task force convened by the Communitarian Network, a network of people seeking to find a moral common ground between the right and the left. The task force noted that in all 50 states, sex education is required but moral education is, in effect, banned in most. As a result, sex ed is often taught as part of human biology, as if we were dealing with what the birds and bees do, without particular concern for the moral implications of our acts.

The task force urged schools to replace sex ed with classes on "intimacy and family relationships." An important part of such classes, we recommended, is to teach youngsters about responsibilities to themselves, to their partners, and to the society at large. Special attention should be given to teaching young people to communicate, especially learning to say "no," and dealing with the resulting conflicts.

People who are trained to be more effective communicators and deal constructively with differences, not only make promising marriage partners, but better friends, employees, employers, and members of the community. All we need is for the new marriage initiative to count us all in.

• Amitai Etzioni is the director of the Communitarian Network and author of 'The Monochrome Society' (University Presses). He is a professor at The George Washington University.

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