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WETZSTEIN: Maces marriage pioneers

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A few weeks ago, a woman died in Burlington, Vt., at the age of 106.

Such a long life is extraordinary for anyone, but for Vera Mace, it was a modest accomplishment compared with the impact she and her deceased husband, David, had on the institution of marriage.

For instance, if you know that couples can and should talk with others about the "interiors" of their marriages, rather than suffer in silence or pretend they're living happily ever after, thank the Maces.

If you have heard of "marriage-enrichment" skills that couples can use to keep their unions stable, satisfying, alive and growing, thank the Maces.

If you have heard of the "three essentials" of a happy marriage (i.e., commitment, communication and "creative use of anger" to resolve problems together and triumphantly), thank the Maces.

In a world where people only sought marital counseling when their marriages were on the rocks, "the Maces decided that prevention matters," says Bill Coffin, who oversees federal marriage programs for the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Maces married in England in 1933 and started their marriage guidance work in the 1940s. They soon saw two sea changes under way.

First, wives were entering the work force. This was changing the "one-vote" traditional marriage, in which a working husband had final say over the stay-at-home wife and children, into a "two-vote" companionship marriage, in which spouses expected new levels of support, cooperation and respect from each other.

Second, divorce was losing its stigma, making it an acceptable option for unhappy marriages.

Together, these changes were causing a "devastating breakdown of family life," the Maces wrote in 1986. Spouses now wanted more satisfying marriages but were clueless about how to create or sustain such relationships, they said. When disagreements occurred, too many couples floundered until unhappiness drove them to divorce.

The Maces developed marriage education to help couples strengthen their relationships before trouble arrived. They championed marriage retreats, peer-support groups and daily activities, such as verbal "check-ins," for couples to use to build intimacy in their relationships. The Maces also wrote 33 books, taught their marriage-enrichment model around the world and led numerous professional counseling organizations.

Their most obvious legacy is the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment (ACME), which they founded in 1973 on their 40th wedding anniversary. (Full disclosure: My husband and I participated in ACME marriage-enrichment groups eight years ago.)

"My mother was proud of the contribution she and my father made to marriage enrichment and especially the idea of prevention early on to build strong relationships," said Fiona Patterson, one of the Mace's daughters, who teaches at University of Vermont.

"In the first years of their work [before the women's movement], she tended to play down her role in everything they did," she said, "but they learned and grew together in seeing her as a strong and equal partner in their marriage and their many projects."

Mrs. Mace died July 22, a few days shy of what would have been her 75th wedding anniversary. Mr. Mace died in 1990 at age 83.

They leave behind ACME's motto - "to work for better marriages, beginning with our own."

Cheryl Wetzstein's On the Family column appears Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at Cheryl Wetzstein.