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The Marriage Myth: Why do so many couples divorce? Maybe they just don't know how to be married.

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"I was telling my part, and he was mirroring it back," Mindee recalls. "But instead of mirroring it back, he kept saying, 'You can't tell me what I'm doing that's bugging you -- you have to talk about your feelings.' I said, 'I am talking about my feelings! And he said, 'No, you're not -- you're telling me what I did wrong. Talk about your feelings.' And I felt myself getting really angry, because what I was really feeling and what I finally said was, 'I feel like you think you're my father!'

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"I didn't want to say, 'I feel angry because I feel like you're acting like my father.' That's not a very nice thing to say," Mindee says, turning to George. "But when it finally came out, it was such a relief. And you weren't mad."

Even if they don't resolve the issue, "it's always about being heard," Mindee says.

Both say they underestimated the effect the course would have on their relationship. They still squabble. Mindee still runs late, and the television continues to be turned on in the morning. But the fights are laced with less gunpowder, and the insights they took from that weekend have come to feel like a safety net.

"In my mind, seeing us having worked through it, practicing the dialogue and succeeding at it -- and knowing he's a willing partner in doing it -- that's huge," Mindee says. "It gives me a depth of comfort that's hard to imagine."

***

Newly engaged couples don't lack for information. Racks of glossy magazines, checklist-filled books and a huge array of Web sites are at the ready, waiting to guide them through every step of the wedding planning process. No detail is too trivial for obsession -- what kind of stamps to use for invitations, how place cards should be arranged at the reception, which bridesmaids should get fancier bouquets than the rest.

For our weddings, we are hyper-prepared. But for marriage? Often, not so much.

Some religions require premarital training, but in many cases, those programs are as much about church doctrine as they are about marriage. The problem, proponents of marriage education say, is that newlyweds don't know what to expect from marriage or how to increase the chances that theirs will last.

"We think the number one problem for marriage today is the lack of information -- about what to expect, the benefits of marriage, why they should hang in there when they get stuck, and how to behave your way into a sexy, happy marriage," Sollee says.

"I want to give [couples] the confidence to say, 'We can figure out together how to keep this great, good thing going so that it will get better and better,' " she says. One of her biggest aspirations for the movement is to make it so that an engaged couple would "feel it was irresponsible not to take a class together."

And when Wade F. Horn got his way, he made sure there was federal funding to pay for those classes.

In 2001, Horn was confirmed as an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services. The balding, mustachioed man -- a psychologist by trade -- was tasked with overseeing the agency's Administration for Children and Families.

ACF's mission is to assist vulnerable kids and families through a range of programs, including those that administer domestic violence hotlines, run HeadStart initiatives and enforce child-support collection. He surveyed the department's programs and came to one overriding conclusion: "We were doing a lot after problems emerge," he says, "and less to prevent problems from occurring in the first place."

Horn was well versed in the literature that showed that -- all things being equal -- children raised in two-parent homes fare, on average, better than those who grow up in single-parent households. They have more economic stability, are less likely to exhibit behavioral problems or abuse drugs and alcohol, and are more likely to finish high school and go on to college.

"It made sense to start to think, 'What would government do if it were interested in preventing family breakup, and how would it go about doing that?'" he says.

During his first few years in office, Horn redirected small pots of money from existing programs into marriage education initiatives. Then, in 2005, his team persuaded Congress to allot $100 million a year for the next five years to be spent on marriage education around the country. Another $50 million a year was set aside for programs about responsible fatherhood.

Horn's agency put out a request for proposals from organizations that wanted to provide marriage education services under the program, and awarded 122 Healthy Marriage grants, many of them focused on low-income communities. "Low-income couples, by definition, have less discretionary income, and what we want to do is provide free services," he explained recently, adding that all marriage education programs were offered on a voluntary basis.

So for almost five years now, the federal government has been spending tax dollars trying to teach couples how to be better at marriage.

Whether that's an appropriate use of public funds is a legitimate question -- marriage is hugely complicated, and anyone who's felt relief from exiting a bad one may think the government has no business meddling with our most personal affairs. But equally pressing is whether marriage education really works. And so far the government has published little evidence proving the effectiveness of the programs it has been funding.

A 2008 Government Accountability Office report looked at the Healthy Marriage Initiative but focused mainly on the administration and oversight of its grants. One study commissioned by ACF examined eight programs administered through the federal initiative and found that only one improved the quality of the relationship of participants. Two other multiyear studies of the initiative are underway, but results aren't expected until next year, when the funding will have run out. For fiscal 2011, the Obama administration has suggested a redirection of the initiative's funds into a one-year, $500 million investment that would focus largely on fatherhood and family self-sufficiency.

Even Sollee says that "we don't know" with certainty how successful the programs are at saving marriages.

But there's growing evidence that the workshops and seminars can improve the quality and longevity of unions. A 2009 analysis of more than 100 academic studies evaluating the effectiveness of marriage education found "modest evidence" that the programs can work preventively and as interventions, though no one suggests marriage education is the answer for couples dealing with abuse or acute dysfunction.

One of the most compelling statistics backing marriage education comes from Stanley and Markman, creators of the curriculum taught in Ocean City. In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, they found that of married Army couples who took their Strong Bonds program, 2.03 percent were divorced after one year. Out of a control group of couples who didn't take a marriage education course, 6.2 percent were divorced in the same period. What's impossible to know: whether the couples who volunteered for the retreat were in a better place to begin with, or whether the skills they acquired made the difference.

Regardless of effectiveness, there's a cottage industry poised to capitalize on the movement. And unlike marriage therapy, no certification is required to become a marriage educator. Hundreds, if not thousands, of marriage education outfits have popped up in recent years -- many since the government funding was announced -- and some teachers leading workshops have done little more than watch a video or read a book on the subject. Stanley and Markman found that their program could be as effectively taught by non-psychologists, but the instructors in their study had extensive training on the curriculum, something many who call themselves marriage educators could easily lack.

If you ask Sollee, she'll tell you it doesn't matter -- that any marriage education is better than none. "This isn't rocket science," she says. "John Gottman didn't discover that you need to learn physics. He discovered that you have to learn how to talk about your differences without using certain bad behaviors that erode love."

***

The Nolls had seen significant erosion over the years.

The two met in July 1995, when Kirk sat down at a Jacksonville, Fla., bar where Heidi was working. "He treated me with respect, seemed interested in me and kept smiling at me," recalls Heidi, a gravelly voiced brunette who joined the Army after Sept. 11, 2001, and now works as a medic.

They went on a date, moved in together a month later and married in 1998, when she was 26 and he was 31. It was the second marriage for both.

By 2004, the couple was in near-crisis. They'd both seen their previous marriages disintegrate, and at times this one appeared to be headed the same way. They were constantly arguing about how to run their home and parent their son, Kirkland, now 10. Criticism was always Heidi Noll's arguing tactic of choice; Kirk Noll preferred stonewalling. Each time a conflict began, it would end at an impasse or with a begrudging concession from Kirk.

Long before their weekend in Ocean City, Heidi, who was stationed at Fort Bliss, Tex., at the time, heard about a Strong Bonds retreat in New Mexico. She signed up immediately.

Among the lessons taught: a new way to listen.

Heidi was doubtful of the technique but decided in their hotel room that night, "Okay, let me see if this stuff works. I'm going to be quiet."

And Kirk talked for 20 minutes, uninterrupted. In the history of their relationship, that had never happened before.

"It felt like a breath," he recalls. "Like when you're drowning and you get a fresh breath."

Heidi's habit of interrupting Kirk was done was with the intention of advancing the conversation, making him see what she really meant. But it happened so frequently that Kirk says he "would just close up and keep it all inside."

So that night in New Mexico, when he finally spoke and she finally listened, "We got things off our chest that were weighing down on us," he says. "Things we didn't talk about -- ever."

"I understood sooooooo much more," she recalls.

Both had thought, she says, "that there could've been a day that we just said 'We're going to call it quits.'" But that night, they promised each other they wouldn't let it happen, that they'd work to find ways to manage whatever came between them.

And even as their own relationship was strengthened, they found themselves looking back at their previous marriages.

"I know if I would've had these tools, I'd still be married to my first wife," says Kirk, now 42.

"And I probably would be, too," Heidi, 37, adds, of her first husband. "But I'm thankful we're together."

The Nolls became Strong Bonds junkies, the beneficiaries of what's grown into a $100 million Army program. Since their weekend in New Mexico, they've attended three more retreats, including the one in Ocean City. (They could be the poster couple for Sollee, who thinks marriage education should be treated as a life-long continuing education course.) Free hotel stays in nice locations sweeten the deal for the Nolls, but they say they've learned something new at each and come away with more confidence in their ability to deal with problems.

And there are, of course, still problems. "It's not like they hand you a magic wand," explains Heidi, who deploys to Iraq in August. "I can still yell, and he can still yell back. But we're not in that mode where we're afraid the other person is going to walk away anymore."

What it's done more than anything, Heidi says, is added perspective on the ups and downs of marriage.

"When I met him I thought, 'Oh, he's perfect, he's perfect!' " she recalls. "Then as you grow older together, you realize they're not as perfect as you thought they were -- but that doesn't mean you don't love them."

Ellen McCarthy is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at mccarthye@washpost.com.


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