When he saw an answer to the problem he sees at the heart of many of today's social ills, this syndicated columnist and former Time magazine reporter decided to dedicate his time to promoting it. Together with his wife, Harriet, he started a group named Marriage Savers. Recently he spoke with Register Radio correspondent Rich Rinaldi.
Rich Rinaldi: What are the consequences of divorce?
Michael McManus: Well, children of divorces are twice as likely to drop out of school, they are three times as likely to become pregnant out of wedlock, six times as likely to commit suicide. So if we can reduce the divorce rate we can reduce most of these other social problems.
To put it differently, the disintegration of marriage is the central domestic problem of our time and if we can reverse that, we can in fact solve many of the domestic problems of our time.
What is the current divorce rate?
It's about 40% of first marriages and about 60% of second marriages.
Why, in your opinion, is it so high?
The most fundamental reason is poor communication, poor ability to resolve conflict. The good news is we can teach those skills. Those are skills that can be taught just like you teach people to read. The marriage preparation process should be on … teaching those skills.
What is your answer to that problem?
The core idea of it can be summarized in one sentence, that in every church we have couples with strong marriages who can be of help to other couples but have never been asked, never been inspired and never been trained to come along and share their life history, their life experience.
For example, every church has someone who has lived through adultery and survived it and still remains married. Those couples have something to say to those couples that are thinking of getting divorced today because “she found out that he was cheating on her.”
“We know adultery breaks trust. We have been there and done that, but we are here to tell you that trust can be restored. We have been a mother and a father to our children all these years and we even have a better marriage than when we began.”
That kind of advice is not being given routinely to couples whose marriage gets into trouble. The reason is that the clergy have not seen that they have a treasure … sitting in those pews in front of them. These couples with good marriages can be recruited to help other couples make it.
How did you become involved in trying to help other couples with marriages?
I am a syndicated newspaper columnist and I began writing articles about what could be done to cut the divorce rate in the early ‘80s. Eventually newspapers that would publish my column began asking me to speak to local clergy groups, and so I began putting the idea together in a speech and they roundly ignored [me] for a long time.
But finally in 1986, the clergy of Modesto, Calif., decided to accept my suggestions, that it's actually possible to consistently take steps to push down the divorce rate.
We know some things work. For example, Catholics were the first to require couples to take six months before a wedding could take place in a church, they had to go through marriage preparation, and they were the first to require couples to take a premarital inventory. This is a questionnaire that can predict with about 80% accuracy who will divorce and about a tenth of the couples who take the inventory decide, “Whoops, this is not the person I should marry.”
So I challenged Protestants, “Why don't you consider requiring all the couples getting married in your church to take an inventory like this? … Why not also consider some time minimum?” Protestants normally say, “Well, we have three concealing sessions.” But that can all be done in a week or two, I said.
Quickie weddings are in no one's interest and it seems to me that if Catholics can require six months of marriage prep, maybe you Protestants can agree to a four-month minimum — some time element.
Some areas’ Protestants are ahead of Catholics. In my church, which is a Presbyterian church, we have trained 50 mentoring couples to administer this inventory and to talk through the issues with young couples. So they come to our home for five evenings and we talk through 150 issues that the inventory brings up.
How successful has your program been?
We have had, in 109 cities now, the clergy of Catholics and Protestants and in some cases the Jewish faith cooperate to say they were not going to do marriage in the same old way anymore, and were going to require at least a four months of marriage prep, that you take a premarital inventory, that you meet with an older couple and also train couples whose marriages nearly failed to help other couples be successful. Where this has been adopted, the divorce rates are coming down.
Dalton, Ga., is down 21% in a divorce rate in just one year. Kansas City, in its suburbs, is down 35% in two years. Divorces are nationally down only 1% in 12 years, so a place like Eau Claire, Wis., where a Catholic priest and a Protestant signed a covenant there from 30 denominations, they dropped 7% in one year, and that's seven times better than the nation — in a twelfth the time that's 84% better.
How much of a change is this for Catholics?
In Fond du Lac, Wis., there were five Catholic priests who signed the policy. … One of your reporters … out there said, “What's going to be different here?” The priest said the policy isn't changing but they were going to have to train 100 couples. You see, that's the new idea and it really is a good idea. People are willing to serve but they do have to be asked. The training isn't expensive. We've trained couples in our church.
What's involved in the training?
Well, they learn how to give an inventory, a questionnaire and how to talk through the issues with a couple. The inventory focus, which was developed by Sister Barbara Markie at the Archdiocese of Omaha, is so outstanding that Protestants are using it.
It asks questions on not just communications, conflict and money — sort of obvious questions — but for example, questions on marriages as a covenant. Are you committed to this relationship regardless of circumstances? Do you believe that forgiveness is an important part of your relationship? Questions like that. It also asks questions on cohabitation which is the major cancer of marriage, and it enables a mentoring couple or pastor to talk through why couples should consider moving apart.
The study which came out in February shows that people who live together before marriage increase their odds of divorce by 46%. It's the worst possible preparation for marriage. The church, I mean the Catholic and Protestant churches generally, has been rather embarrassed by this issue and have not addressed it.
What kind of support have you found for Marriage Savers?
We have a national advisory board that includes Cardinal Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore; George Gallup Jr., of Gallup Poll; and Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches. We also work with Southern Baptist LifeWay Christian Resources and the National Association of Evangelicals. So we have conservatives, liberals and Catholics together. This is what you may call the religious middle. …
Your wife also works with you.
We do this together and just in the last month we traveled to Ventura, Calif.; Tallahassee; Boston; Madison; and Culpepper, Va. In Madison, Wis., we were invited by the speaker of the House to address the whole Wisconsin legislature — the Wisconsin Assembly, as it's called up there. What I said was, “Each of you are elected leaders and are well-known in your communities. While your primary job is that of passing laws, you also have a bully pulpit and you can call together the clergy in your community and encourage them to create a marriage policy in you own community and help put down the divorce rate.”
Rich Rinaldi is director of Register Radio.