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The School of Heart Knocks

More and more high schools are teaching students how to deal with conflict in relationships. They hope to preempt future divorces.

September 10, 1998|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No. 2 pencils sharpened and ready? You may begin. No cheating.

A) People in relationships should avoid conflict with each other. True or false?

B) An argument can often strengthen a relationship. True or false?

Along with lessons in algebra and history, these basics of healthy relationships (A is false, B is true, according to a test developed by University of Minnesota researcher David H. Olson) will be taught more frequently this fall in high school classes across the country as adults concerned with stemming the continuing high rate of divorce increasingly turn to the younger generation. While legislators in some states are experimenting with ways to make divorce more difficult through waiting periods or so-called covenant marriages, new programs created by teachers, lawyers and therapists aim to help students choose more appropriate partners in the first place, to expect conflict and to deal with it.

In June, Florida mandated that all students receive some form of relationship education before graduation.

In California, Redlands High School teacher Char Kamper said she's been overwhelmed by demand for her program "Connections: Relationships and Marriage," which has gone from being taught in 40 schools in the state to 160 in the last year. In the program she's taught for six years in her psychology classes, students pair up with other students to role play solving typical marriage fights about money, in-laws, babies and household responsibilities. They take the Kiersey Bates temperament test to learn about their own personality style, explore how their own family's style of communicating affects their relationships and are taught basic communication skills.

Most students suffer the illusion that there is one person "out there" who will make them happy and plan to keep dating until they find that person, she said. In class, they learn instead how to look for elements of friendship and maturity, how to select a partner with similar personality traits and goals, which issues they can live with and how to negotiate priorities with a partner.

Some get their first glimpse in her class of what a positive relationship looks like.

"Many students don't have a good model," she said. "They've never seen one."

This summer, she taught the curriculum to 80 teachers in South Dakota, whose education department adopted it for use in all high schools. The consensus among teachers, she said, is that "we've waited too long."

Olson, a family psychologist who has developed a program called "Building Relationships," said many therapists now believe that divorce, like cancer, is better prevented than treated.

"What we know about people coming from therapy is that most of the time, they come when they're at the terminal stage. One is considering divorce and has probably already seen a lawyer. It's like treating terminal cancer. It's a much more difficult thing to do."

Nor can legal experts do much to help divorcing couples heal emotional wounds that have already been inflicted. Philadelphia divorce lawyer Lynne Gold-Bikin, who created a high school program called "Partners" for the American Bar Assn., said, "You can't tell people who don't like each other they can't get divorced. What do 'move away' statutes do? Are you going to keep a woman from moving six states away [from her child's father] by saying she can't take her child? That she can't take a job that will make her life better?

"I'm not in favor of making divorce more difficult. I'm in favor of making marriage better, which will make divorce less likely."

"Partners" is a 10-week taped program, featuring a fighting couple whose dialogue was written by divorce lawyers based on their clients. The dual-income couple are shown fighting over issues like who is going to cook dinner and whose job is more important. In some scenarios, the fights escalate to blaming in-laws or to engaging physical violence; in others, they are resolved with the couple defining behaviors, explaining feelings and requesting changes.

Students practice the skills with a partner in class.

A lawyer also explains laws regulating marriage and divorce.

While efforts are underway this year to help evaluate the effectiveness of relationship education programs, there is no evidence as yet to show they will make a difference in students' lives.

Some teachers, notably representatives from the American Federation of Teachers, complain such programs are frivolous considering some students are still not being adequately instructed in math, reading and science.

"Much too much is being dumped on schools," said Donna Fowler, public affairs director for the Washington, D.C.-based union. "There are other institutions in society--families, churches, counselors--that ought to be picking up these responsibilities."

Kamper agrees that teachers are overloaded but argued that young people cannot perform academically unless emotional issues are addressed.

She said some students in her class have already made changes in their relationships.

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