- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Should engaged couples take premarital counseling or marriage education?

What is the difference, you ask? Plenty, says Diane Sollee, executive director of the Coalition for Marriage, Couples and Family Education. The company provides marriage-strengthening materials, workshops and a yearly convention. One helps engaged couples prepare for married life, she says, and the other doesn't.

Traditional premarital counseling, Ms. Sollee says, is like a pep rally before the big football game. It's nice, it feels good, but it doesn't really give the players the plays and the strategy they need to win the game.

In fact, Ms. Sollee says she isn't overly enthusiastic about the covenant-marriage laws passed recently in Louisiana and Arizona other than liking the "statement" they make about marriage.

"I support anything any state can do to make a strong statement to citizens that we, the leadership, the grown-ups, think marriage is important, and this is a way to say marriage is important," Ms. Sollee says. "I think it's a good thing to do to cement the covenant and glorify the covenant."

As a practical deterrent to divorce and a builder of marriage, however, covenant-marriage law doesn't do much for Ms. Sollee, and part of the reason for that gets back to her feelings about premarital counseling, which she says doesn't work.

"Traditional premarital counseling has had no effect on the divorce rate," she says. "It didn't matter how long it was, who was doing it, the approach was not making a difference."

Scott J. Stanley, a researcher at the University of Denver and co-author of "Fighting for Your Marriage," a divorce-prevention book, agrees with Ms. Sollee.

"I think a ton of [premarital counseling] that is done in and of itself is not particularly effective," says Mr. Stanley, a co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. "I think the time used there can be more effective. A lot of what is done in premarital counseling isn't targeted at what the real risks are and is not pointed at the right things, so it doesn't do anything to change it."

Mr. Stanley says there aren't any conclusive studies to track how effective premarital counseling is, and it tends to be more effective in the short term rather than the long term. The effects of premarital counseling on the marriage are as nebulous as the effects of covenant-marriage law on actually strengthening marriages in Louisiana, he says, because of the age-old chicken-and-egg argument.

In other words, are couples who sign up for the covenant-marriage option more likely to take their commitment seriously in the first place, and thus, would they be less likely to divorce anyway? He says couples who undergo any premarital counseling probably are more likely to take their marriages seriously and be able to handle difficulties.

Still, Ms. Sollee says marriage education, not traditional premarital counseling, is a better answer to preparing couples for their lifetime commitment. Not even the old "compatibility" tests are worth much to her, she says.

"There is no such thing as a compatible couple," she says. "All couples disagree just about equally. There is such very little variance from couple to couple. Getting divorced because of irreconcilable differences that is bogus. That is really wrong thinking. You don't get divorced because of irreconcilable differences. The difference is that couples who stay together are able to handle differences and anger in different ways from couples who fail. You can teach couples what to expect, and you can do it in just a few days."

Instead of the covenant-marriage law, Ms. Sollee applauds a 1998 law in Florida that, among other things, requires high school students to take a course in "marriage and relationship skill-based education." Other aspects of covenant-marriage law are present in the Florida statute, too, such as premarital counseling, but Ms. Sollee says marriage education is the key.

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