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Church, state join struggle to save U.S. marriages

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Marriage is in vogue.

Gen Xers, according to American Demographics, a journal tracking business trends, are donning tuxes and veils in record numbers. The Census Bureau reports about half of Gen Xers (Americans between the ages of 20 and 35) are married now, and projections are two-thirds of them will tie the knot by 2001. That would gladden the hearts of those who see marriage and the family as the principal hope for civilization.

The downside, however, is that divorce also remains in vogue. While 85 percent of Gen Xers will have settled down to wedded bliss by 2010, the experts predict that fully half their unions will end in divorce.

Based on those predictions, Diane Sollee, executive director of the Coalition of Marriage, Family and Couple Education, a nonprofit, nondenominational clearinghouse in Washington, throws rice pudding on the enthusiasm some show about the rush to wed. “What’s with all the rosy bubbles about a 56 percent marriage rate as a sign Gen Xers are moving back towards marriage?” she asks. While the actual numbers may be impressive, Sollee points out, “That’s only 1 percent higher than the lowest rate ever recorded in the U.S.”

Susan Clarke of the National Center for Health Statistics reports the marriage rate has actually fallen 41 percent since 1960 among all age groups. Add another sign of distress for family value advocates: Gen Xers are floating trial balloons before tying the legal knot by cohabiting in record numbers as well. In March 1998, 4.2 million couples were cohabiting, according to Clarke.

That mixed nuptial picture is running head-on into a new determination in America to make marriages last. The effort is spearheaded by the expected groups -- churches, synagogues and temples -- but they are being joined today by a growing number of secular organizations and city and state governments all keen to keep families together.

“Catholics are leaders in all this,” says Sollee. She wryly adds, “They had the right idea, but it’s not getting there.” Practicing Catholics have the same 50 percent divorce rate as most other groups in America.

Sollee was talking about the Catholic church’s insistence on marriage preparation courses, which originated in the Pre-Cana Conference movement, begun in Chicago in the 1940s.

Though Catholic churches have long required pre-marriage instruction, efforts in Protestant denominations have been inconsistent. Now, however, most mainline denominations, as well as the evangelical ones, insist on marriage prep programs for engaged couples.

Though there is an array of programs called by various names -- Marriage Savers, Crossing Out Divorce, Live the Life Ministries, Engaged Encounter -- all have the same goal of driving down the 50 percent divorce rate by equipping couples for happy marriages.

It’s a formidable task. A 1991 report by the National Commission on Children lists the United States as having the highest divorce rate in the world. Mormons are the least likely to divorce if they marry within their religion. Only 13 percent have divorced after five years of marriage, compared with 20 percent of Catholics and Protestants in the same time period. Four of every 10 Jewish marriages end in divorce after five years.

Not long ago, pollster George Gallup told a National Press Club meeting in Washington, “Divorce has become so endemic that we hardly notice it, even though we suffer the effects in so many ways.”

Why have churches (the setting for 75 percent of marriages) basically failed?

There’s no easy answer, but many schemes are being tried to reverse things.

These days, for instance, the Chicago archdiocese runs a “Dinner for Two,” where couples put aside the daily grind of kids, car payments and time clocks and pay a small fee to have an intimate dining experience with a purpose: rekindle the spark that brought them together in the first place.

In more than 100 cities across the country, church and state have come together in concerted efforts to build strong marriages by adopting community marriage policies, agreeing to provide marriage prep sessions or divorce prevention counseling.

Community marriage policies

The Catholic and non-Catholic clergy and lay people of Lexington, Ky., have put together a carefully thought-out community marriage policy with the help of a task force representing religious, community and business leaders. Bishop J. Kendrick Williams supported the effort that resulted in the “Bluegrass Community Marriage Policy.” The emphasis is on supporting healthy families.

Clergy in Culpepper, Va., were the 100th group to sign on to a community marriage policy. Their program goes a step further than most, asking couples living together to stop having a physical relationship before marrying. That demand is made in addition to other components of the program, like a courtship of at least one year.

While community marriage policies make good press, other work is going on quietly behind the scenes with couples that have strong marriages helping couples whose marriages are struggling.

Mike McManus is founder of Marriage Savers, a nonprofit, nondenominational organization based near Washington. His concern is not only about the divorce numbers, but cohabitation figures. Marriage Savers attempts to bring down the rate of couples living together without marriage and to save marriages in trouble. The program trains mentor couples who have “come back from the brink,” of divorce to work with couples preparing for marriage and with those whose marriages are in jeopardy.

McManus, who describes himself as “theologically right of center,” writes a self-syndicated column, “Ethics & Religion.” He accuses American churches of being part of the divorce problem. “Most churches help couples prepare for elaborate weddings, not for lasting marriages,” he writes in Marriage Savers. McManus got into the marriage saving business, starting with the precarious state of his own, discovered during a Marriage Encounter weekend.

He claims success rates as high as 35 percent in some cities where the program is implemented.

Notre Dame Sr. Barbara Markey of Omaha, Neb., an author of FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding & Study), and David Blankenhorn, both founders of the Institute for American Values at Creighton University, say no independent research exists to back McManus’ claims. The Heritage Foundation of Washington, a conservative think tank, plans to examine 30 cities where the Marriage Savers program is established.

Elephant in the living room

Churches don’t like to face up to the cohabitation reality. A report from the University of Wisconsin Center for Demography and Ecology says half of the population under age 40 has lived with an unmarried partner.

Cohabitation, says Markey, is “the elephant in the living room.” In some ways, she said, the church deals with it by taking the stance that if it is ignored the problem will go away. It is a tricky problem, but harsh policies “create deceit and just don’t cut it,” she said.

A report published in time for Valentine’s Day by Rutgers University shatters the illusion that living with someone is a way to avoid a divorce or to decide whether to marry.

‘’Living together before marriage increases the risk of breaking up after marriage,’’ according to the report, titled ‘’Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage.’’ Cohabitors who marry have a divorce rate 46 percent higher than those who live apart until marriage.

Another writer, Aimee Howd sees cohabitation as one way a divorce-shy generation looks for the way back to the stability their “grandparents enjoyed, but their parents left behind.” In general, cohabitors can be categorized as less religious, more independent, more liberal and more apt to take risks, according to Howd.

Still, hope springs eternal. A 1996 U.S. Census Bureau report shows 56 percent of all adults were married and living with their spouses. California, Texas, New York, Florida and Nevada were the top states for weddings in 1996. Adults, if marrying at all, are delaying the nuptials, as shown by the current median age of first marriage: 25 years for women and 26.8 years for men. A generation earlier, women were marrying at an average of 20.8 years and 23.2 years for men.

When adults do marry, there’s lots of help available. If they’re Catholic, a couple like Ginny and Greg Burns of St. Thomas More Parish in Tallahassee, Fla., may guide them through the process. The Burnses use their own 25-year-marriage success and Creighton University’s FOCCUS program to prepare engaged couples.

Many agree that the programs are only as good as those presenting them. “Marriage Preparation in the Catholic Church: Getting it Right” is a national evaluation of 1,500 couples who married between 1987 and 1993. The study by Creighton University Center for Marriage and Family reports “though a sizable minority (33.8 percent) disagree that marriage preparation was helpful to them, a large majority (66.2 percent) of respondents judge that it was helpful. Most wanted it to be helpful.”

The study also found that marriage preparation is most valuable when presented by a team, especially a team of clergy and lay leaders. Seven to 10 sessions are best. Marriage preparation is rated most helpful when it deals with the five Cs: communication, commitment, conflict resolution, children and church.

Markey adds a sixth: Career. “Dual careers are a major stressor.” She adds that so far the programs she has seen have pushed applied psychology, but not “applied theology,” and couples want both.

A large-scale study developed at the University of Denver showed couples that attended marriage preparation had one-third the likelihood of breaking up through the fifth anniversary. The Denver survey also found most married couples would have participated in premarital counseling if it had been offered to them.

State sees economic interest

One reason marriage saving is no longer just the prerogative of religion is economics. With 89 percent of children on welfare living with single parents, states have an economic interest in family preservation. In fact, 24 million children in the United States live without fathers present, the National Fatherhood Institute reports.

A new federal program, the Abstinence Education Program, gives states money to discourage sex outside of marriage. Heritage Community Services in Charleston, S.C., was awarded a $1.3 million grant to implement the program. The program involves sending young college graduates into schools to teach adolescents about abstinence by focusing on character building and working on healthy relationships.

Experts predict that most states will have some type of marriage preparation law on the books within five years. The bigger question though is do laws and political platitudes actually change anything?

If they don’t, it won’t be for lack of trying. Proponents of the effort point out that prison systems, the military, state legislators and the judiciary are all taking a stab at programs to curb divorces.

Prisons around the country are trying to preserve marriages in hopes of reducing recidivism. The Relationship Enhancement program has been used with prisoners and their wives fairly regularly over the past 12 or so years. Statistics on its success are ambiguous. Programs in the U.S. military are trying to stem the 65 percent divorce rate in second marriages. And state governments, in the words of Scott Jensen, Wisconsin Assembly speaker, should “welcome back our churches and temples, our synagogues and mosques as full participants in our work to address the pressing issues facing our state.

“For too long government has made communities of faith adversaries in its bureaucratic attempt to build civil society.” He added, “The disintegration of the family is the central domestic problem of our time.”

In Michigan, a Wayne County judge launched a partnership with religious leaders to provide counseling and other services when marriages are breaking up. Under the agreement Circuit Judge Helen Brown wrote, church leaders would give extensive premarital counseling, programs to help marriages in trouble, and safe places for parents to hand off children when sharing custody.

If Brown has her way, parents in Wayne County who file for divorce will be handed a list of churches that provide counseling or mediation in the case of custody disputes. Clergy of all denominations have enthusiastically received the concept.

In Adrian, Mich., District Court Chief Judge James Sheridan ruled that officials performing civil weddings in his jurisdiction must train couples in conflict resolution first. “Divorce is a community issue, not just a religious matter,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing so many divorces and their consequences come through my court.”

In Grand Rapids, Mich., clergy and community officials together decreed May 16 to be “Celebrate Marriage Sunday.” People in the pews and on prayer mats heard sermons on the theme.

Commented Imam Abdullah El-Amin of the Michigan Council of Islamic Organizations, “I think this is wonderful. The Quran tells us we should be involved in cases of marital strife.”

Not surprising, there has been dissent. The American Civil Liberties Union is concerned about a possible state endorsement of religion. Brown says the concerns are unfounded and points out that courts often turn to church-based programs such as Catholic Charities to aid with social service matters.

A few days after taking office, Florida’s Gov. Jeb Bush stepped up to be the first signatory of the Tallahassee community marriage policy. Florida became the first state to pass a Marriage Preparation Law giving couples a break on the cost of their marriage license if they take a four-hour marriage prep course. Sollee of the Coalition of Marriage, Family and Couple Education termed the Florida legislature “visionary.”

Bush, a Catholic convert, said he was appalled at the 60 percent divorce rate and 35 percent of out-of-wedlock births in the state. He hoped the marriage policy would be a model “to build a more compassionate Florida.”

Other states have advanced “covenant marriage” laws, pre-nuptial arrangements under which couples agree, should the marriage run into trouble, to seek counseling and undergo a waiting period before filing for divorce.

Bruce Grindal, Florida State University social anthropologist, says of the spreading secular interest in marriage preservation, “I wonder about all that.” In his opinion the kind of longing or nostalgia for a more permanent union is not going to change the divorce rate, no matter the legislation. He says urbanization is a recent phenomenon that has resulted in the loss of external pressures to keep families together. “In a more traditional America, the family was an institute of necessity. That’s no longer true.”

Grindal sees no easy answer to the divorce problem. “So many things are bubbling in the cauldron at the same time -- a lost collective civic spirit, Americans’ focus on individualism, the loss of community.” Another factor is the “pink collar” workforce in which women are employed outside the home. “It’s an irreversible trend.”

What he sees as the solution over the long haul is not more programs or legislation, but stable male employment, especially among the poor and African-Americans.

Christians aren’t the only ones focusing on marriage preservation. In the runaway best seller, “Kosher Love,” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach writes unabashedly about the sexuality of Orthodox Jews, the main religious group that practices enforced separation between married couples each month, and where divorce is uncommon. American civilization, he says, depends on healthy marriages. “The job of rabbis and priests is to bring peace between husbands and wives. Western civilization cannot sustain a 50 percent divorce rate.”

Boteach’s parents were divorced. Referring to his childhood, he said, “A day has not passed when I’ve not asked myself, ‘How do you keep a man and woman together so no one has to suffer like I did?’ ”

Rescuing troubled marriages

While premarital programs and marriage enrichment programs can help stable relationships get better, what of marriages that begin to unravel? Are there signals the partnership is in trouble?

University of Washington, Seattle, relationship researcher John Gottman reports in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, that couples that stay married have a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative interactions. It seems couples that can muster five positive or affirming comments or gestures for every one negative interaction are more likely to have a stable marriage.

Sollee says people are slow to recognize that marriages need preventive maintenance as much as cars or appliances. Her approach is not more therapy, but marriage education -- teaching couples how to deal with the conflicts that arise in day-to-day living.

Couples newly in love often think the way to handle conflict is to deny its existence. “This belief is destructive because it makes people think there is something wrong with them if they have a conflict.

“The truth is, people married 50 years have as much disagreement daily as a couple who divorces. What’s different is how it’s understood and handled. Kids who grow up with divorce think it’s OK to disagree and divorce.” In fact, Sollee says the No. 1 one predictor of divorce is the habitual avoidance of conflict.

“It is dangerous to think one must agree and like everything about the other. It’s boring and not much to make love about.” Sollee scoffs at the idea of never going to bed angry. “If it’s a choice of going to bed angry or staying up all night fighting, go to bed!”

The Coalition of Marriage, Family and Couple Education teaches three skills for keeping marriages going: 1) how to handle disagreements as a couple; 2) how to handle change, and; 3) how to celebrate the good parts of marriages.

Worldwide Marriage Encounter is aptly named. The relationship enrichment program has spread internationally and throughout faith traditions from its origin in the Catholic church.

Sollee never gives wedding gifts, only certificates for marriage education courses and says about the number of divorced people she knows, “all these people thought their love was enough.”

Retired Episcopal priest Rev. Dick McGinnis started Crossing Out Divorce, in Jacksonville, Fla. Tired of seeing the soaring divorce rate among his congregants, he said he “didn’t look at the problem, but at the solution,” and found inspiration in the approach of Alcoholics Anonymous. He and seven couples who had put their marriages back together “hammered and tonged” the program into being.

McGinnis says the church was “blindsided” in recent decades by cultural changes, particularly society’s loosened sexual mores, and is just now getting its bearings.

Third Option, another marriage-saving tool, is a 14-week Catholic program, coordinated by lay people. The longer time frame appeals to some couples trying to find a way back into the relationship.

The hallmark for marriage rescue, though, is Retrouvaille, a Catholic import from Canada. International coordinator Divine Word Missionary Fr. Robert Jones has been in the marriage business since 1968, first with Marriage Encounter, which he says is “too little, too late, for many people.” Retrouvaille is the model other denominations use to intervene in troubled marriages. The priest is comfortable with customizing the program to fit non-Catholic theology.

Jones’ attraction to the program is the fit with his order’s mission: to heal the broken-hearted, to set captives free. “Lots are in captivity in their marriages,” he said. “Retrouvaille offers a way to not dump the marriage.” He claims that 87 percent of couples that go through the program and the follow-up sessions stay together.

Jones attributes the recent attention to marriages to the public’s realization “something needed to be done.” How easy is it to work with couples seemingly at the end of their rope? “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done as a priest!” He, too, points to the ability to handle conflicts as the secret to successful marriages.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999