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Birds & Bees

It's Back to School for Couples Ready to Exchange 'I Do's'


Marriage is in crisis.

A third of babies today are born out of wedlock. Fewer than a quarter of households are married couples living with their children. Single-mother households increased at five times the rate of married couples with children during the 1990s. Households of unmarried partners grew by 72% over the same period, the U.S. Census recently reported. Couples marrying for the first time today have a 40% to 50% chance of divorcing.

The Census Bureau report tracks a 30-year move away from the married-with-children paradigm. This trend is helping fuel an emerging pro-marriage movement that is aimed at changing state laws to bolster and stabilize marriages and make it harder to divorce.

"The bottom line is successful marriage is a win-win for everyone--for the children, for the married couple, for the entire community," said California Rep. Wally Herger (R-Chico), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee's Human Resources Subcommittee. Herger chaired hearings on marriage and family last month, part of a process to reauthorize the 1996 welfare law. "Obviously, we cannot mandate a successful marriage, but it behooves us to look into ways to promote the positives of marriage."

Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 27, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong title--The June 11 "Birds & Bees" column in the Southern California Living section incorrectly identified the professional affiliation of Scott M. Stanley. He is an adjunct professor of psychology and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.

Under the 1996 welfare law, states can use their welfare funds to promote marriage and family but are not required to do so, said Herger. In last month's hearings, legislators were urged by conservative lawmakers and marriage educators to earmark welfare dollars for marriage-strengthening efforts.

Oklahoma, Arizona, Maryland and Florida have recently passed statewide pro-marriage initiatives (such as offering marriage-education classes, teaching relationship courses in high school, refunding marriage-license fees for completed premarital courses and publishing marriage-skills handbooks). In California, only Monterey County offers premarital courses to low-income couples, said Bruce Wagstaff, deputy director of the Welfare to Work Division of the California Department of Social Services.

The question many policymakers and social scientists are asking is whether or not such premarital courses and marriage-strengthening programs can actually make a difference. (The issue will be discussed later this month in Orlando, Fla., when leaders in the marriage research field gather, organized by the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education.)


"Can you teach people to surrender to marriage?" said David Popenoe, a Rutgers University professor of sociology and co-director of the National Marriage Project, a nonpartisan initiative aimed at promoting marriage stability. "The best answer is nobody really knows."

What marriage researchers do know, said psychologist Howard Markman, director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, is that the seeds of divorce have often been planted before people even marry. How couples communicate and handle conflict is the best predictor of marital distress or divorce, said Markman. Couples who stay happily married disagree the same amount as couples who divorce, said Markman. "It isn't the differences between people that matter, but how those differences are handled."

Markman and psychologist Scott Stanley from the University of Southern Mississippi have developed a premarital education program that is considered one of the best in the country, according to Diane Sollee, director of Washington-based Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, a clearinghouse for marriage research and information.

The program--in use in the U.S., Germany and Australia--is based on the longest studies ever done on marital distress and divorce.

The result is a 12-hour relationship-education course called PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program), which can be taught as effectively by laypeople as by therapists. In a five-year follow-up study of PREP graduates in Germany and the U.S., the rate of divorce was cut in half, said Markman. The program also works for unmarried couples, straight or gay.

"We teach couples critical conflict-management skills--like when things are escalating, call a timeout and then later call a meeting for no more than 15 minutes and define what you are going to talk about," said Markman. "Gentle communication is better than angry harsh communication. We also ban problem solving and trying to change the other person, which gets rid of a lot anxiety."

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