- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

Last of four parts

Murray and Trudy Grant, who were married Nov. 25, 1951, have had their share of disagreements, but never in a million years would they consider divorce.

“That’s never even entered my mind,” said Dr. Grant, a semi-retired doctor in Silver Spring. “When you’re married, you’ve made a commitment.”

Mrs. Grant, mother of five and grandmother of 11, joked that during disagreements in the early years, she would threaten to pack her suitcase and leave.

“But I never did because that would have creased my clothes,” she said with a laugh.

In this series, The Washington Times examines the changing views of marriage and what institutions — such as religious groups, government and businesses — are doing to preserve it.

What do the Grants think about young people’s attitudes toward commitment? What is the current outlook for a resilient marriage, such as theirs?

“Not good. Not good at all,” said Dr. Grant, his words sprinkled with a British accent and intonation. He’s originally from London.

Dr. Grant is right. The risk for divorce in first marriages is about 50 percent. For second marriages, the rate of divorce is even higher.

“It’s true, the risk is about 50 percent overall, but for some segments of the population, it is much lower,” said David Popenoe of the National Marriage Project, which analyzes the state of marriage in America.

For example, the risk drops by 30 percent if the household income is more than $50,000; another risk reducer is some college education; a third one is having been raised in an intact two-parent household, according to the National Marriage Project.

“We call it the ‘marriage gap,’ ” said Mr. Popenoe, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “For the college-educated segment, the institution of marriage has gained strength. … For everyone else, it continues to weaken.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, said Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, a clearinghouse for all things marriage-education related.

“With marriage education, you have a much better chance. … It’s like getting a user’s manual, like you’d get for a flat-screen television,” Ms. Sollee said.

“To quote [poet and author] Maya Angelou, ‘When people know better, they will do better,’ ” Ms. Sollee said. “I think we have an obligation to at least study up on marriage.”

She said marriage education is important enough that it should be taught in high schools.

But the Grants of the world didn’t go through marriage-education classes, and they’ve been married for 55 years. True, but it’s a different world now, Ms. Sollee said.

“Society — family, church, newspapers — didn’t really allow divorce back then,” she said.

Silver Spring resident Earl Ross, 75, has been married to Phyllis Sheerin Ross for 45 years.

“When I was growing up, I only knew of one person who’d gotten a divorce. It was a distant cousin, and it was quite the scandal.”

The societal pressures, however, didn’t always produce content spouses even if they helped keep marriages together, said Gregory Kuhlman, who together with his wife of 17 years, Patricia Schell Kuhlman, travel the country teaching marriage-education classes.

“The roles were very defined and for a lot of people marriage was terribly confining,” Mr. Kuhlman said. “Now we live in a society where there is no stigma associated with divorce. … We have choices.”

‘A strong bond’

And in a society of choices, the best way to promote resilience in marriage is to be educated about marriage — the benefits of it, the stages it goes through and the best way to behave and communicate with a spouse, Ms. Sollee said.

“You can reduce the divorce outcome by 50 percent by taking an eight-hour marriage-education course,” Ms. Sollee said. “That’s pretty exciting.”

The Kuhlmans, who call their program Marriage Success Training, offer a full-day workshop for about $495 per couple. During the day, couples learn communication skills, conflict resolution, what to expect in the different stages of marriage, how to keep sex interesting and issues pertaining to in-laws.

“It’s a way to help build resilience from the start,” said Mr. Kuhlman, a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York system. “Probably the biggest word for couples is ‘intentionality.’ They have to be intentional about keeping the bond between them strong.

“A strong bond doesn’t just happen.”

Ms. Sollee agreed. People who think it’s a matter of finding a perfect match and then coasting through their relationship are in for a rude awakening, she said.

“All marriages go through difficult stages,” she said. “There will be times when you disagree about what’s fun, sexy, sad, depressing, and it’s important to know that these stages are normal.”

Claudia Arp, who writes and teaches about marriage enrichment with husband David, said many young people today have unrealistic expectations, partly because they grew up in a broken home and have not seen a marriage at work through different stages.

“Many couples today don’t realize that a marriage goes through different seasons,” she said.

The Arps, who have been married for 44 years, founded Marriage Alive International in 1983.

Mr. Kuhlman calls the first season the “high phase,” the initial few months of a marriage in which couples are so excited about being together they need little else than each other’s company to stay happy. But within the first year of marriage, the “reality phase” sets in, Mr. Kuhlman said. He wants to educate couples about marriage before this happens, and his target participants are couples who plan to marry in the next six to 12 months.

Studies by relationship researcher John Gottman, founder of the Seattle-based Gottman Institute, have shown that each negative statement that a spouse makes has to be counteracted by at least five positive statements from that same spouse. If it’s not, neutral statements will start being interpreted as negative.

So if the husband says, “I need to go to the store” — which is a neutral statement — the wife could interpret it as “he just wants to get away from me,” if the positive to negative communication has tipped below the 5-1 ratio, Mr. Kuhlman said. If the 5-1 ratio is maintained, the wife might instead think: “He’s so nice to offer to go to the store.”

“Resilience is based on positivity — positive communication,” he said.

It’s in the first couple of years that married couples are at the biggest risk of divorce, Ms. Sollee said.

“Nobody knows it. People think they’re at the highest risk for divorce after seven years, but it’s actually the first two,” she said.

Another huge stressor is the birth of the first child.

“So many couples drift apart during that time. They’re good parents, but often to the exclusion of their marriage,” Mr. Arp said. “They need to be intentional about reconnecting. They need to make time for each other.

“The marriage will not wait until the kids grow up, but the kids will wait for you to grab some time.”

Mr. Kuhlman suggests that couples need 12 to 15 hours a week of undivided, nonstressful communication.

The good stuff

All this seems pretty grim: The institution of marriage is weakening, young children can influence marriages negatively, the “high phase” of marriage will fizzle quickly, disagreements and low points in marriages are inevitable no matter how good the match. It sounds like all work and no fun.

“I think this is one of the main problems. We don’t talk enough about the benefits of marriage,” Ms. Sollee says.

And there are many. Some studies suggest that married couples have better sex and are happier. Others, such as the National Marriage Project, show that married couples do much better financially. For example, married men make 10 percent to 40 percent more money than their single counterparts with similar education and job histories, according to the National Marriage Project.

“Make the marriage have benefits for you,” Mr. Kuhlman said. “Stay on the right side of the 5-1 ratio and don’t forget about sex. Keep it fresh and interesting.”

Also, when looking at the benefits of marriage, it can be helpful to look at the alternative: single life or multiple marriages and divorces.

“There are a lot of costs associated with switching partners — emotional and financial,” Mr. Kuhlman said.

The final obstacle to lifelong marriage resilience often happens when the children are in their late teens or ready to move out.

“The kids might have acted as a buffer. They were all you talked about,” Mrs. Arp said. “Now, you have to reconnect.”

She and her husband wrote “10 Great Dates to Energize the Marriage,” aimed at helping couples reconnect.

“The dates are designed around marriage-enriching themes,” Mrs. Arp said.

One date suggests looking back to the time when you first met and fell in love.

“Magical things happen when couples start talking about the first date and planning their wedding,” Mr. Arp said.

Mrs. Arp added, “It’s a rediscovery. It’s a, ‘Now I remember why I married you.’ ”

And if you can make that last empty-nest transition, your marriage has a very good chance of becoming an “as long as we both shall live” commitment.

“Once you’ve reached 60, you’re not really at risk for divorce anymore,” Mr. Popenoe says, adding that the divorce rate in that age group has not changed much since 1960.

So, if you’re in your sixth decade and still married: “You’ve made it,” he says.

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