The successful marriage: Can it be learned?

According to Jennifer Baker of the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in Springfield, Missouri, “…50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second and 74% of third marriages end in divorce.” This means that half of our extended family, friends and neighbors are going to go through the turmoil of breaking apart a family unit. This is a sobering reality in our society that many are trying to remedy.

Diane Sollee, founder and Director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education (CMFCE), believes that part of the problem is a fundamental misunderstanding within our society of the importance of a complete, biological, intact family. “For too many years, the well-meaning experts, including myself, were saying all family forms are equal. We operated on the mentor model that if the child has at least one adult in his life with a strong connection, that is all he needs. Then a compelling body of research started coming that there is nothing you can measure for men, women and children where they do not do better in an intact biological family. That is a hard thing to say because that means they do not do as well in stepfamilies or any other family form. Just getting that information to couples is very valuable instead of saying, ‘The kids will be fine. All family forms are equal. We will send you to divorce adjustment therapy and then everything will be okay.’ It turns out that is not what the research is showing, and we have to correct that message,” Sollee said.

In her work with the CMFCE, Sollee has helped promote grass roots initiatives to create educational tools and programs that will help couples better understand what to expect going into a marriage.

The problem is one of education, says Sollee, “…We give people very good instructions about how to court, how to get engaged, how to do weddings, how to do a honeymoon, and what to expect when you are expecting a child. But then there is a black screen on how to be married. We need to educate the public about what to expect in a normal, good marriage. If you ask an educated couple about what event in marriage precipitates more separation and divorce, they answer infidelity, job loss, illness, or the death of a child. No one gets it right that it is the birth of a first baby and the three months before and three months after. If you ask, ‘When do marriages have the highest divorce rate?’ everyone says seven years. In reality, it is the first two years and in years 14 to 16. The average length of marriage is seven years,” explains Sollee.

Another key obstacle to educating our society has been a lack of understanding as to what makes a successful marriage work. Too often, it’s simply a matter of two people having unrealistic expectations. They think that because they are disagreeing, the marriage must be failing. According to Sollee, prior to the 1980’s most marriage relationship data that therapists and family counselors were using had been gathered by using couples that were already in failing marriages. Finally, the industry modified their data gathering approach and began watching “in love” couples and following them forward for ten years.

Sollee explains, “They found out there is no compatible couple. All couples disagree the same amount. And the difference was not what they disagree about or their ethnicity or age. Couples have to manage money, children, sex, others and time, and they will disagree about those. Those who divorced are the ones who do not understand that this is what marriage is…The experts also learned there are much better ways to manage – (we never use the word resolve) – conflict or disagreement in marriage. Even the happily married couples have irreconcilable differences; they just know how to manage them.”

Because of this new trend in family therapy, there has been a groundswell of support and interest in developing and providing new ways to educate and prepare people for long, happy, and successful marriage relationships.

Diane Sollee, and the CMFCE, has played a key part in organizing and encouraging a change in our culture to better prepare for long-term marriage relationships. As explained on the CMFCE website, “…The good news is that anyone can learn to do it better and smarter. Couples can unlearn the behaviors that destroy love and replace them with the behaviors that keep love alive.”

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