The Spiritual Side of Staying Together
There will be workshops for newlyweds and stepfamilies. For military, black and Hispanic couples. For singles, the engaged, empty nesters and new parents.
And, for the first time — at this year’s Smart Marriages conference, the 10th annual — several hundred Catholic marriage educators will join several thousand of their peers in the growing movement to promote marriage as an indispensable, unique and powerfully beneficial institution.
The National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers (NACFLM) decided, after holding its own conferences for the first 25 years of its life, to cut costs and add value by staging this year’s event June 21-22 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Atlanta. There it will meld seamlessly with the much bigger Smart Marriages conference.
“We’re delighted that Diane Sollee, the founder of Smart Marriages, is allowing us to share our special gifts,” association president Steve Bierne told the Register.
“Both groups are strong, strong supporters of marriage. And we Catholics will be able to keep the spiritual dimension of our conference intact and celebrate liturgy with one another.”
Bierne and other members of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers have as individuals taken in past Smart Marriages conferences because they bring together the latest researchers into how marriages work with developers of marriage education programs and more than 1,500 volunteer marriage educators and mentors from churches, synagogues and community organizations.
The organization owes its existence to a 1981 initiative of the U.S. bishops to strengthen the family by offering pre-Cana courses for engaged couples and counseling for others.
“We’d come through a crazy time in the 1960s and ’70s,” says Bierne. “We’d moved into a divorce culture. And now we are facing the first full generation where divorce is accepted. It’s scary, really.”
Happier and Healthier
It took the secular culture longer to get scared. In the early 1990s, when she was still associate director of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Sollee grew disillusioned with the growing profession’s failure to make a dent in the rising divorce rate.
“Our numbers increased substantially,” she points out, “while the divorce rate stayed at 50%.”
She found a new and untapped reservoir by researchers, such as John Gottman of the University of Dallas, showing that men and women were happier and healthier married than divorced — and revealing the chief causes of marriage failure.
“The research shows that incompatibility has little to do with it,” Sollee said. “The biggest predictor of marriage failure is a couple’s inability to deal with their differences, not the differences themselves.”
In fact, research showed that successful marriages never resolve many issues, but they do deal with them in ways that are mutually respectful.
Because she believes such ways are learnable, Sollee founded the Coalition for Marriage, Families and Couples Education, and began staging yearly Smart Marriages conferences that began in Washington D.C. a decade ago with a few hundred attending. The events now draw 2,000.
Even violence can be unlearned, she argues.
“People will tell you that, if a man hits his wife once, he’ll hit her again,” says Sollee. “But research shows this is not true. Most men who hit their wives will never do it again.”
Moreover, she notes, husbands are more likely to assault wives who seek or get divorce than those who stay in the marriage. Violent behavior is learned and can be unlearned, Sollee said.
“Men can learn not to drink. Wives can learn not to provoke their husbands.” Even infidelity need not end marriages, she says, then adds: “I’ve seen so many marriages heal from it.”
Sister Barbara Markey, director of the Diocese of Omaha’s family life program, will make a presentation at the Smart Marriages conference on Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study (FOCCUS), her inventory for engaged couples designed to reveal the couple’s strengths and weaknesses and help pre-marriage ministers address their particular needs.
A survey of pre-marriage course users over an eight-year period revealed most found it “very valuable” for the first four years of the marriage, after which its usefulness tailed off.
“A high proportion of divorces occur in the first four years,” notes Sister Barbara. Furthermore, she says, the U.S. bishops have launched a five-year project to develop ongoing marriage support programs.
“The couples who come for pre-marriage courses are much more open to divorce if things don’t work out,” she says. “And they are less prepared to work it out.”
One reason for this is that between 60% and 80% are already co-habiting, says Sister Barbara, and marriage research indicates co-habitants before marriage are likelier to divorce than those who lived apart.
“They are not very good at conflict resolution,” she says of the co-habitants, having learned the avoid issues which, if raised, might provoke the partner to walk out.
A Catholic response can draw not only on the pragmatic approach of the marriage education movement, but also on the traditional teachings of the Church on the sacrament of marriage, says Sister Barbara. And any post-marriage program must reinforce commitment to the marriage.
Wendy and Frank Mattison of Prospect Heights, Ill., agree. In the Catholic pre-marriage programs they have led for seven years they stress that, as Wendy puts it, “The marriage has to come first, even before the children. If the marriage comes first, the children will do well.”
They learned how to communicate about differences by talking about their own feelings rather than labeling the other person’s objectionable activities without making things worse. “The hardest thing,” says Wendy, “was to learn how to say ‘I’” (rather than “you”) — as in “I feel frustrated” rather than “You’re deliberately taunting me!”
Among other useful lessons they received in their own pre-marriage instruction, says Frank, was that, “it was going to get ugly sometimes. There were going to be days when you won’t be happy.”
But in the end, “It’s worth it,” Frank adds. “Marriage makes our lives better and richer.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from
Victoria, British Columbia.