- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Ten years ago this summer, I swooped in on one of Washington’s many conferences.

Its theme was “smart marriages” and “happy families.”

Do tell, I thought.

I met quite a cast of characters. John and Julie Gottman of Seattle talked about the “four horsemen” of the marital apocalypse. Michele Weiner-Davis of Illinois talked about “divorce-busting.”

Dr. Frank Pittman of Georgia talked about, uh, eating disorders? To make marriage work, he said, “we need to get into it all the way … . Put divorce in the category of cannibalism. It’s not something you’re going to do.”

The queen of this conference was a blond dynamo named Diane Sollee.

“Marriage is not a crapshoot. It’s not about whether you’re lucky in love,” she told me as she wrestled with boxes for display tables.

There are skills couples can learn to help them relate to each other better, she said. What’s needed is “marriage education.”

This week, the Smart Marriages conference convenes for the 12th time. When I covered it in 1998, there were probably 500 people there, counting waiters. Now, more than 2,000 participants will cram into plenary sessions, workshops and training sessions.

What has a decade’s worth of gabbing about a “marriage renaissance” wrought?

For starters, a handful of states give couples a break on marriage-license fees if they get premarital counseling. Some high schools now offer marriage and relationship education.

Products and services aimed at creating and maintaining good marriages have become well-known. Pastor Mark Gungor of “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage” and John Gray of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” are just two of the people whose messages spread thanks to a spotlight at a Smart Marriages conference.

Nationally, the Bush administration and Congress have given marriage a financial boost.

In 2006, the Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Children and Families (ACF) awarded $118 million a year to 225 pro-marriage and responsible-fatherhood groups. The total investment over five years should approach $750 million once administrative and technical assistance funds are added in.

These grants were a quantum leap in funding, ACF aides told me. Previous ACF grants had amounted to about $20 million a year for marriage and $4 million a year for fatherhood.

This year’s Smart Marriages conference, which officially starts Wednesday in San Francisco, includes sessions on the “next marrying generation,” Ms. Sollee said.

For instance, John Van Epp, author of “How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk (Jerkette),” is scheduled to explore the pros and cons of delaying marriage. Bill Doherty, professor of family studies at the University of Minnesota, will talk about how parents can “intentionally” prepare their children to have good marriages.

Canadian psychologist Sue Johnson will talk about “Hold Me Tight,” her new book on emotional connectedness. “I go to Smart Marriages,” she told me, “because I feel it’s a part of a whole movement that says relationships matter so much, and we cannot afford to lose them to chance anymore.”

Many people I have talked to over the years said that attending one of these conferences motivated them to read a book about marriage, take a class, get some therapy or otherwise change their lives.

Cheryl Wetzstein’s column On the Family appears Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at [email protected]



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