By Daniel Strieff Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 4/1/2004 4:19:47 PM ET 2004-04-01T21:19:47

“Marriage is a wonderful institution,” the late comedian Groucho Marx observed, “but who would want to live in an institution?”

As it turns out, most people do want to marry — and stay that way.

That desire to stay together was what brought Jon, 44, and Barbara, 48, two married Philadelphia-area physicians, to a course in PAIRS, or Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills.

“We were both very committed to the relationship, but also very distressed at the issues that we needed to work through,” Barbara said. “We were both feeling an inability to stand back and look at the issues and figure what solution would be most mutually beneficial to maintaining our relationship.”

It was the second marriage for both, and with four children between the two of them, they were especially keen to make this one last.

“It’s emotionally draining,” Jon said. “It really stirs up a lot of past stuff that’s under the surface that can be painful or damaging. But, for lack of a better word, it was a powerful experience.”

The skills they learned, the couple said, opened lines of communication that had previously been unclear, thus strengthening their marriage.

“Clearly, this has been a life-changing event for the two of us, because we’ve learned effective ways of communication, fair fighting and an understanding that we both come from different backgrounds, and how to incorporate that into not only our personal but also our professional lives,” Jon said.

The government steps in
The U.S. divorce rate, which has leveled off at around 4 divorces per 1,000 people, is still higher than most family experts would like and a growing national movement, with a hefty boost from the federal government, wants to help.

A marriage education movement that has been around for several decades has lately gathered steam.

“We believe that strengthening marriage is an important national goal, and that this promising initiative might help us to reach that goal,” the advocacy group, Marriage Movement, says.

That initiative is included in President Bush’s budget proposal for 2005, currently working its way through Congress.

The proposal includes expanded initiatives to “promote marriage and healthy family development.” The added funding includes $1.5 billion over five years -- $1 billion in federal funds and $500 million in state matching funds – that would go to programs promoting marriage, responsible fatherhood and teen abstinence, and that work at preventing child abuse.

The proposal, part of a welfare bill that is awaiting reauthorization, allows community and faith-based organizations to receive federal funds “to develop innovative approaches to promoting healthy marriage and reducing out-of-wedlock births,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“There has been a growing body of information on the wider benefits of marriage but it has not been funded in any consistent way,” Dr. Rita DeMaria, the director of the PAIRS program in the Philadelphia area, told MSNBC.com. The proposed boost in government funding will help finance new, perhaps revealing, research, DeMaria said.

“We need to learn more, but there are some strong indicators about these programs and how they’ve helped the marriage rate,” she said.

DeMaria said that around 40 percent of the people who take her semester-long PAIRS workshops have at least met with a divorce lawyer. Of those people, she said, roughly 60 percent end up staying together.

The Marriage Movement, a collection of academics, religious leaders, politicians, and family and relationship professionals, including DeMaria, says that its goal is to strengthen marriage so that “each year more children will grow up protected by their own two happily married parents, and so that each year more adults’ marriage dreams will come true.”

Indeed, recent polls have shown that virtually all young people want to get married.

A Gallup survey taken for Rutgers University found that almost all never-married people in their 20s wanted eventually to walk down the aisle. Ninety-four percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement “when you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.”

A different approach
Marriage education programs are distinct from couples therapy or counseling, which focus on individuals’ personal and family history. Rather, marriage education uses a structured approach to work on communication and problem-solving skills.

Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education and a former marriage and family therapist, became involved in marriage education after realizing that “therapy wasn’t getting us anywhere. There were too many divorces.”

In her role as a marriage educator, Sollee said she stresses three strands of research: finding the truth about the benefits of marriage; what to expect from a “normal” marriage; and identifying those behaviors that predict success and those that predict failure in marriage.

Marriage education programs are intended to lend support to the entire family structure, and not only the intimate relationship between spouses, according to Dr. Wade Horn, assistant Health and Human Services secretary for children and families.

“The goal of the marriage education program is to help the well-being of children,” Horn said in a recent telephone interview. “Healthy marriages aren’t irrelevant to children’s well-being.”

Horn and other advocates of marriage education point to a growing body of evidence that suggests that children in married families fare better, emotionally, physically and financially.

“We always had a sense that children were better off with their own parents, so long as parents were loving and healthy,” said DeMaria, adding that it is only recently that solid research has supported that view.

PAIRS is a program designed to instruct participants in skills to prevent serious marital problems before they threaten the relationship. The courses, which are offered nationwide, are intensive – ranging from several days to 19 weeks, from 30 hours to 120 hours – and offered to people at all stages in a relationship, married or not, as well as singles.

Programs such as PAIRS would be candidates for the federal funding, when and if it gets approved later in the year. Marriage education courses are increasingly popular in middle-class communities, but government funding would alleviate the cost, which is generally not covered by insurance, and help make these programs available to lower-income communities, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“It can’t hurt us,” Sollee, of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, said. “I can’t see a downside to this as a social policy.”

Some concerns remain
But while a consensus of family and relationship experts believe that children fare best in married, two-parent households, the proposal, initiated in 2002 but boosted this year, has critics.

Some see government money for programs centered on intimate relationships as an invasion of privacy.

A survey done by the Pew Research Center in 2002 found that nearly 80 percent of people interviewed opposed government programs to encourage people to get and stay married.

Some groups, including the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, are concerned that women, particularly in low-income communities, would feel pressured by marriage promotion programs to enter into, or remain in, abusive relationships.

Lisalyn Jacobs, of NOW Legal Defense, cited the high incidence of domestic violence against women who are welfare recipients and said there were further concerns reallocating government resources from other welfare and poverty issues.

Funding for people in low-income areas, she said, was best focused on education, job training and children’s programs, which would in turn lead to healthier families.

Moreover, in this election year, the culture wars — from same-sex marriage to decency in television programming and on the airwaves — are raging.

Much of the criticism stems from a flurry of negative media coverage earlier this year, and an article in The New York Times in which an unnamed presidential adviser was quoted as saying that marriage promotion was “a way for the president to address the concerns of conservatives and to solidify his conservative base.”

Pollster John Zogby has said he has consistently found a “marriage gap” of about 25 percentage points between married people who say they will vote to re-elect Bush and single voters who support a Democratic candidate for president. A Zogby International poll taken earlier this year found that 64 percent of people living in the so-called red states — those that traditionally vote Republican — are married. That figure contrasts with the 56 percent who are married in the so-called blue states — which typically go Democratic.

Some critics have alleged that marriage promotion is a none-too-subtle response by the White House to the gay marriage debate. Bush has spoken out in favor of a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.

But Horn, of the Department of Health and Human Services, says it is “patently false” that the marriage promotion initiative is in any way linked to the gay marriage debate. He pointed out that the initiative was begun two years ago, before the political firestorm over gay marriage had started.

“The whole goal of marriage education is to teach young couples to manage conflicts in healthy ways,” he said.

Furthermore, Horn said it was a “distortion” to say that promoting healthier marriages was akin to encouraging marriage.

“You actually might have fewer marriages because some potentially bad marriages may never happen” as a result of the education, he said. “We are offering on a voluntary basis services to couples who will decide whether they want it for themselves. This is not about telling couples to get married.”

DeMaria, of PAIRS, concurs. “The government isn’t going to tell us what to do, but it is supposed to educate and inform us,” she said.

Outcomes – expected, and not
In Philadelphia, participants in DeMaria’s recent courses were effusive in their praise.

“The PAIRS program makes you aware to take time for your relationship and that being a couple is really important from the beginning of your marriage,” Carol Douglass, 57, said. “You have children and they become the main focus of your marriage. But you still need to keep time for your relationship because someday those children are going to leave. If you wait until that point, it’s too late.”

Douglass and her husband of 36 years, a pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pa., were recent participants in a PAIRS workshop in Philadelphia. They are planning to offer a version of PAIRS for the congregation at Upper Dublin, Douglass said.

“What’s so exciting is that I think if our young people learn the skills of communication early, they will be able to strengthen their relationships and therefore families will be stronger,” she said.

The skills taught in the PAIRS, moreover, are useful for couples at all stages in relationships — including those at the end.

Andrew, 58, lives in Philadelphia. He and his wife of 28 years attended a recent PAIRS course on the advice of a divorce lawyer.

“In my situation, [the course] did not repair the marriage, but it helped my future ex-wife and myself interact more positively, even on the issues that we were working on in separating,” he said. “I know for many couples who go through a divorce, it may take years to get to a point — if they get there at all — where they can effectively communicate. And even to talk that way while still in pursuit of the divorce itself, I think is pretty remarkable.”

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