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Should This Marriage be Saved?
February 27, 1994 Volume 145, No. 9COVER STORY
Many Americans are trying to make marriages more permanent - and divorce more difficult
BY ELIZABETH GLEICK
On a chilly Monday night, Laura Richards and Mark Geyman are sitting in a living room in Jeffersonville, Indiana, their hands clasped tightly together in Laura's lap. This attractive, clean-cut couple met last May through a mutual friend and got engaged in November, and they are happy to tell John and Patti Thompson, their mentors in the St. Augustine Catholic Church's marriage-preparation program, all about their wedding plans. It will be a big June affair, Laura says, with eight bridesmaids and eight groomsmen, two flower girls, a ring bearer and two priests. Patti Thompson cuts through the chatter. "How much time have you put into your marriage?" she asks, adding pointedly, "Your wedding is just one day. Your marriage is the rest of your life."
The conversation grinds to a brief, awkward halt, then takes a turn into the wilderness - into the thicket of this young couple's most intimate concerns and darkest fears. Patti tells Laura, a 29-year-old department store salesclerk, that in her opinion it is O.K. to take birth-control pills on the advice of her doctor to help with PMS. Then John, coordinator of family ministry at St. Augustine, says, "Is either one of you jealous?"
"Yeah," admits Mark, who works in international customer service for United Parcel Service. He laughs and adds, "She gets jealous of some of the girls in the office," then explains how Laura once visited him at his previous job and became uncomfortable after she overheard him repeatedly compliment a female co-worker on her job performance. Laura smiles nervously, fidgets with a pen and says nothing.
Patti urges Laura and Mark to continue discussing Laura's jealousy when they are alone together. Soon the Thompsons hit upon other prickly topics: Mark's compulsive neatness and Laura's worry that her future mother-in-law has reservations about the pending nuptials.
After Mark and Laura leave, the first of four 90-minute sessions completed, the Thompsons - who have been married 31 years and have raised four children - offer an assessment of this couple's chances at marital harmony. It is based not just on gut impressions but also on a computer printout of the pair's "premarital inventory" - more than 100 questions about everything from the number of children they want to whether they are comfortable being naked in front of each other. Mark and Laura, who scored 72 out of 100 on this compatibility test, should do just fine, says Patti, but "there are just some things that smack you in the face that say they've got some work to do."
Working on a relationship, of course, is an activity that everyone - save for perhaps the most wildly romantic and misguided among us - has come to regard as a sometimes thrilling, sometimes infuriating, but always necessary exercise. But Mark and Laura, well meaning, full of love and hope, with their lives ahead of them and their family values just taking shape, are actually on the cutting edge - even if it is an old blade. Although the Catholic Church has always required engaged couples to undergo pre-Cana counseling - usually just one day of talks from a priest and a married couple about finances, communication and family planning - a more intensive form of preparation is coming into practice not only among Catholics but also among churchgoers of all denominations across America. Last November clergy in the Louisville, Kentucky, area became the 26th religious coalition in the U.S. to adopt standard premarital procedures that, in the words of the Kentuckiania Marriage Task Force, express "the seriousness with which we view marriage and the preparation we are convinced is vital." Says Michael McManus, author of the 1993 Marriage Savers and a national leader of this particular bandwagon: "We're preventing bad marriages. If it is the job of a church to bond couples for life, it has to provide more help before and after."
If this new marital gravitas were simply a church-based phenomenon, it would not be a phenomenon at all; the clergy has traditionally attempted to shore up the moral foundations of people's private lives. But a growing recognition that marriages are not to be entered into - or dissolved - lightly because of the enormous social and economic costs is dawning in some unlikely places and crossing political lines. Conservatives who espouse "family values" have long lamented the trend toward throwaway marriage and quickie divorce. But in President Clinton's recent State of the Union speech he too took time out to introduce the Revs. John and Diana Cherry, whose ministry convinces couples "to come back together to save their marriages and to raise their kids." Meanwhile, there is a new sensitivity among divorce lawyers that breakups can have a devastating effect on everyone involved - and so comes a nudge toward reconciliation or mediation, lost revenues be damned! An increasing number of marital therapists believe it is their job to save the relationship rather than simply help each party pursue his or her chosen path.
Several people have gone so far as to suggest imposing a waiting period for marriage licenses, modeled after gun laws. "Both kinds of licenses," explains historian Glenda Riley, author of Divorce: An American Tradition, "create a volatile situation." And just last week, a group of mostly female state lawmakers in Washington introduced a bill that would require marriage licenses to come with warnings about spousal abuse. "I would say, simply, 'Beware. Stop, look, listen and be cautious,' " said state senator Margarita Prentice, a co-sponsor of the bill, which is expected to pass the Democratic Senate but run into trouble in the Republican House. "Marriage is serious business."
In 1993, 2.3 million couples - in living rooms and city halls, in churches and synagogues and backyards, on mountaintops and while scuba diving - performed that most optimistic of human rituals and got married. That same year, 1.2 million couples agreed, officially, that their marriages could not be saved. Again in 1993, the Bureau of the Census projected that four out of 10 first marriages would end in divorce. Indeed, the number of divorces began soaring in the mid-60s and has declined only slightly since peaking at a little over 1.2 million in 1981. Thus, despite sporadic cheers about falling divorce rates, couples have not gotten much better at staying together - not yet anyway. Divorce, Glenda Riley claims, reflects the true American spirit; after the country achieved independence, she says, people wrote divorce petitions that read something like: "My husband is tyrannical. If the U.S. can get rid of King George, I can get rid of him."
The institution of marriage underwent a particularly rebellious and dramatic shift when women entered the work force. "People don't have to stay married because of economic forces now," explains Frank Furstenberg Jr., co-author of the 1991 Divided Families and a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has been studying divorce for 20 years. "We're in the midst of trying to renegotiate what the marriage contract is - what men and women are supposed to do as partners." But the chips in these negotiations are often young children, emotionally fragile, economically vulnerable - for despite their work outside the home, most women still suffer a severe income drop after divorce. The by-product of what remains the world's highest divorce rate is millions of children thrown into poverty, millions more scarred by bifurcated lives and loyalties.
Almost no one disputes there are many valid reasons for divorce - among them, domestic violence, child abuse and substance abuse. Mere incompatibility seems reason enough, when no children are involved. But the breakup of families is increasingly seen not only as a personal tragedy but also as a social crisis. Which may be why, suddenly, there seems to be so much attention being paid to preventing divorce. "We're seeing a trend in the past couple of years toward couples doing more work to preserve and strengthen relationships," says Froma Walsh, co-director of the Center for Family Health at the University of Chicago.
Certainly marital therapy has become big business in the past decade or so, though few hard figures are available. Some 4.6 million couples a year visit 50,000 licensed family therapists, up from 1.2 million in 1980. Thousands of couples swear by such programs as pairs (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills), the semester-long relationship class offered by the pairs Foundation in 50 U.S. cities (as well as 16 other countries), or Retrouvaille, a church-sponsored program in which couples who have weathered their own marital difficulties run weekend seminars for other couples in trouble.
"People are poorly trained for marriage today," says Joyce ...... , a coordinator for Retrouvaille in Ohio. From her 34-year marriage she recognizes all the stages of matrimony: romance, casual irritation, (he doesn't put the toilet seat down; she stays on the phone too long), then total disillusionment. "This is when many couples decide to bail out. They don't realize that they can still work back to romance," says Joyce, who suffered through five years of misery after discovering her husband Pat had had an affair. Then she and Pat attended a Retrouvaille weekend and learned how to forgive, how to get over it - and how to fight. "Everyone I knew who had the same problem was divorced," says Joyce of the crisis in her marriage. "I wanted to find one person who survived and was in good shape. Now we work in the movement because somebody out there is waiting to see us."
Perhaps the newest, and most unlikely, recruits in the battle against divorce are lawyers. Last fall Lynne Gold-Bikin, a divorce attorney in Norristown, Pennsylvania, who chairs the family law division of the American Bar Association, founded the Preserving Marriages Project. "Divorce lawyers as individuals have no vested interest in saving marriages," Gold-Bikin says. "It's not our business. But we know the problems more than anyone else. Every day we see kids being yanked back and forth. Enough. I'm sick of people not recognizing what they're doing."
Last October, Gold-Bikin took her project - to which some 3200 lawyers have contributed time and money - to more than 50 high-school classrooms nationwide. During five sessions, juniors and seniors do role-playing exercises and homework designed to give an overview of family law and show how difficult it can be to maintain a serious relationship. "We're trying to teach these things to kids because many are not learning them at home," Gold-Bikin says. In March, Gold-Bikin will conduct a weekend seminar for couples who have been married one year; after that, she hopes to create a marriage-preservation program for corporations, which she claims suffer tremendous productivity losses because of divorce.
All such efforts are applauded by Judith Wallerstein, the California clinical psychologist who first raised public consciousness about the lasting damage of divorce. After studying 131 children of divorce over a span of 15 years, she found them to be at higher risk for depression, poor grades, substance abuse and intimacy problems. "We started to report this," she says, "and people got angry. They said, 'Impossible! If it's good for the parents, it's good for the children.' They wanted to believe that divorce and women's lib would take care of everything."
Though Wallerstein's results are debatable, they have definitely seeped into the zeitgeist and affected not only efforts to stay married but also how people approach divorce. More and more often, couples are seeking to avoid ugly fights over custody, property and money. A St. Louis, Missouri, couple who do not want their names used are dissolving their marriage after 17 years, two daughters, couples therapy and individual counseling. They have chosen to use a mediator and work out the details at the kitchen table. "It's a much healthier environment for ((the children))," says the wife, a Presbyterian minister. "They see that we still treat each other with respect." The six- to eight-month process will cost $2,500 and produce a divorce decree, a property agreement and a parenting plan to be submitted for court approval.
On the state level too, there is a growing belief that if divorcing couples cannot reconcile, they should at least be taught how to split in a reasonable fashion. Bucking the trend to make divorce ever easier and quicker, Utah and Connecticut have mandatory education programs for all parents of minor children entering the family court. Six states are considering such regulations in a current session of their legislature. "This is the latest trend in family courts," says Michael Pitts, who until recently was executive director of the Children's Rights Council in Washington, "and it is a lasting one. "
In many other states, including Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Florida, divorce-education classes are required in some counties, or at the discretion of some family court judges. Some family judges have even taken it upon themselves to involve the children directly. As of last November, divorcing parents in Dade County, Florida, attend one mandatory course, while children attend another, called Kids in Divorce Succeeding (KIDS). Sherri Thrower, a 30-year-old mother of five, says the parenting classes have really helped her. "There were a lot of cobwebs in my mind," she says. "A lot of confusion." She and her husband tried several times to reconcile for the sake of the children, but the attempts ultimately failed. Now her main concern is for her kids. "I don't want to teach them anything bad about their father," she says. "My son has been missing him more and more. He doesn't know how to deal with it." Thrower's children have attended the kids program, which uses a curriculum called Sandcastles.
In Sandcastles the children are divided into small groups by age, and each group is run by a therapist and a teacher. Older children may write poems, do role-playing or create their own talk shows, while the younger kids draw pictures of their families and talk about them, or write letters to their parents and read them aloud. "When you come home from court, I want you to have a happy face, not a sad one," reads Edward, 10, during the Saturday morning session. "Mom, I love you. Dad, I miss you," says Dave. Another child reads, "If you were divorced, you wouldn't fight. I wish you were divorced." Explains psychotherapist Gary Neuman, who developed Sandcastles: "When kids see there are all these other kids experiencing the same type of things, it immediately alleviates the intense feelings of isolation children of divorce experience."
Though the Federal Government has no jurisdiction over marriage and divorce, indirectly the impact of federal programs is enormous. Current welfare policy, for example, pays afdc benefits only when there is no man in the house, thus fueling divorce and abandonment. And in a broader sense says University of California, Berkeley, sociology professor Arlie Hochschild, author of the landmark study about two-career marriages, The Second Shift, "we do not have a family-friendly society." Better day care, plentiful jobs at decent wages, flex- time and job sharing would all help to reduce the stresses on American households, which are overtaxed, overburdened and overwhelmed. And while entering into marriage with the utmost care and deepest consideration can only be to the good, it may be marriage itself - along with the most basic institutions like the workplace - that continues to need refining. "I would say we're in a stalled revolution," says Hochschild, "Women have gone into the labor force, but not much else has changed to adapt to that new situation. We have not rewired the notion of manhood so that it makes sense to men to participate at home. Marriage then becomes the shock absorber of those strains."
Mark Geyman and Laura Richards are convinced that they are increasingly prepared to handle those strains. Since they began meeting with Patti and John Thompson, says Mark, "we have done a lot of talking, more than we were." They have had conversations about whose family they will see during holidays and how they will handle their finances. And they have tried to grapple with the problem of Laura's jealousy. "It's been helpful," says Mark. "I think she's beginning to open up a little more. She's being more trusting." The fact that one of Laura's sisters is going through a divorce makes the idea of building a secure marriage from the outset feel all the more urgent to this young couple. And in spite of the problems that have begun to crop up during a time when they wish only to focus on the excitement of planning a wedding, Laura insists she is looking into her future with, well, a somewhat tempered confidence. As she puts it, "I'm still sure we want to get married, and everything."
Reported by Ann Blackman Washington, Gideon Gil/Jeffersonville, Jenifer Mattos/New York, Elizabeth B. Mullen/San Francisco, Sophfronia Scott Gregory Miami, and Leslie Whitaker/Chicago
Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.