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

By Ellen McCarthy
Sunday, June 27, 2010; W08

As a punishing rain lashed across the narrow peninsula of Ocean City, Heidi and Kirk Noll stood facing each other in a windowless conference room of the aging Carousel Resort Hotel.

Amid stackable chairs and retractable walls, they and a half-dozen other bleary-eyed couples clasped hands and pledged their lives to each other. Heidi's hair was still damp for the 9 a.m. ceremony, which took only 15 minutes, despite multiple interruptions from hotel staffers opening heavy doors that led to an atrium where the hum of a Zamboni on an indoor ice rink mingled with the smell of maple syrup from breakfast.

Vows successfully exchanged, and blessed by an Army chaplain, the couples clambered back onto the chartered bus that had brought them here, and made the wearing slog home to Washington.

It was an experience, the Nolls insist, that saved their marriage.

What's more: Had they gone through something similar years before, both say they might still be married to their first spouses.

The Nolls were on a marriage education retreat -- in this case, a free, two-day event that was part of an Army-wide initiative called Strong Bonds.

What it meant for Kirk and Heidi was 36 hours away from their daily routine, time they spent thinking critically about their relationship. Together with their group -- all military families -- the Nolls watched videos of spouses fighting, did a bit of arguing themselves and listened as the round-faced chaplain told stories about his home life. They filled out questionnaires to determine their personality types, discussed gender differences in communication styles and took notes on the factors that can increase a couple's chances for divorce.

Courses such as the one taken by the Nolls mark a sea change in the way some marriage experts view an institution that remains the fundamental unit of our society but is so shaky that it crumbles about half the time.

The marriage education movement has already spawned a cottage industry of trademarked seminars and self-help manuals. It has popped up, in varying forms, at community centers and churches across the nation. And it has successfully persuaded leaders of the federal government and the U.S. military to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars a year attempting to disseminate its teachings to the masses.

At its core, it's a movement that would ask of every divorcee: What if the truth was that you didn't marry the wrong person?

What if you just didn't know how to be married?

***

To a great extent, the marriage education movement owes its existence to the video camera.

Men and women have been pairing off since the dawn of humanity. For most of its history, marriage was an economic institution that created advantageous alliances between clans and was arranged, often, without much input from the bride or groom. But by the 19th century, many in the Western world had begun to marry for love, making the relationship infinitely more complicated and divorce a lot more common.

Romantic love assumed a position of high value but even higher vulnerability.

Still, until the second half of the 20th century, these ubiquitous couplings went largely unstudied. What happened behind closed doors generally remained private, unless one had a particularly nosy set of in-laws or a manner of fighting that necessitated police intervention.

Marriages, with the power to affect everything from personal income levels to mental and physical health, remained a hazy mystery. But with the advent of the affordable video camera in the late 1960s, psychologists began recording couples' interactions. The scientists hooked up their subjects to monitors that detected changes in blood pressure or stress hormones, and then coded even their slightest movements -- an eye roll or a knuckle crack. The couples were interviewed about their marital satisfaction and were, in some cases, tracked for years.

"I like to quote Yogi Berra: 'You can learn a lot just by watching,'" says Howard J. Markman, a psychology professor at Denver University who was among the first to tape and study couples' behavior. Markman, who also is a leading proponent of marriage education and co-founder of PREP, the course administered that rainy weekend in Ocean City, Md., found that certain behaviors -- especially when it comes to how couples communicated or handled conflict -- have a huge impact on the likelihood that any given pair will remain happily married.

Around the country during the 1970s and 1980s, Markman's contemporaries -- including Cliff Notarius, Robert Weiss, John Gottman and PREP co-founder Scott M. Stanley -- were coming to similar conclusions. Gottman gained particular fame for declaring that he could predict with more than 90 percent accuracy whether a couple was headed toward divorce just by watching them talk for a few minutes.

Divorce, to be sure, is never our intention at the outset. Americans place enormous value on marriage: Nearly 90 percent of us will take the plunge at some point in our lifetime, according to the 2009 book "The Marriage-Go-Round" by Andrew Cherlin. And even when we divorce, we believe so much in marriage that 75 percent of divorced women will remarry within 10 years, according to a 2002 report by the National Center for Health Statistics. (The study did not offer a similar statistic about men.) More than 40 percent of first marriages end in divorce. The divorce rate for second marriages is above 60 percent, and it's higher than 70 percent for folks making their third walk down the aisle.

"Everyone wants to get married," says Diane Sollee, the ringmaster of the marriage education movement. "We love marriage." From her white stucco house in Chevy Chase in Northwest, Sollee runs Smart Marriages, an ad-hoc organization of marriage educators who've been meeting since 1997 to discuss the latest findings on love and relationships.

Sollee, 66, became a couples therapist in the late 1970s after her 16-year marriage dissolved. Until the 1950s, therapists dealt almost exclusively with individuals. But once couples started being invited to sit on the couch together to discuss their domestic disputes with a professional, the field exploded.

Sollee loved the work, though she often felt as if she was painting "with a brush with one hair in it" -- trying to fix one marriage at a time.

"I wanted a roller," she says.

By the mid-1980s, Sollee began working at the Alexandria-based American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and helped credential more couples counselors around the country. But after a decade in the industry, she had this disheartening epiphany: Even as the number of therapists increased dramatically, the divorce rate remained steady. They weren't moving the needle.

A few years later, in 1989, she sat at a conference listening to Gottman talk about the results of a decades-long study of couples at his "Love Lab" in Seattle. Gottman found that all couples -- those who are happily married into their rocking-chair years and those who divorce before they hit their fifth anniversary -- disagree more or less the same amount. He found that they all argue about the same subjects -- money, kids, time and sex chief among them -- and that for the average couple, 69 percent of those disagreements will be irreconcilable. A morning bird and a night owl won't ever fully eliminate their differences; nor will a spendthrift and a penny pincher. What distinguished satisfied couples from the miserable ones, he found, was how creatively and constructively they managed those differences.

Hearing this, Sollee concluded that she and her fellow counselors had been "telling the public all the wrong stuff."

If every couple has about the same number of disagreements, people who leave a marriage because of irreconcilable differences are likely to find themselves arguing just as much in their next marriage. The wallpaper might be different and the specifics may vary, but the frustrations will feel awfully familiar.

What Markman, Gottman and the others were finding undermined the basic principle driving romantic relationships in America: "That it's about finding the right person. That if you find your soulmate, everything will be fine," Sollee says. "That's the big myth."

It's important to choose a spouse wisely, these scientists would say, but it's equally important to be skilled in the convoluted art of conducting a marriage.

And as much as we want them to be, relationships are far from intuitive. People fortunate enough to grow up in a home with both parents are less likely to wind up divorced, in part because they had good role models. But not everyone draws that lucky straw, and even those who do may still find themselves floundering when the going gets tough with a spouse they can't seem to please.

After 10 years, a once-adoring wife does little but criticize. An attentive boyfriend becomes a husband who seems to prefer the warmth of a laptop to his wife. Newlyweds fight with a ferocity that scares them both, or infertility chokes the joy from a couple trying to conceive. The sex life dies; someone strays. "She doesn't love me anymore," he thinks. "I married the wrong man" she confesses. And: "Deep down, I probably knew it the whole time."

Suddenly the only glimmer of light starts to look a lot like an exit sign.

***

It's never been that bad for George and Mindee Laumann. They're committed and, largely, content.

But happiness isn't a fixed state, and there have been times when it seemed as though their Arlington home was filled with frustration.

The two, who met as teachers at the same secondary school, eloped three months after they started dating. Through fertility treatments and adoption, they added two children, and life quickly filled up with soccer practices, birthday parties and occasional arguments about why Mindee could never be on time or why George insists they have the television on in the morning.

For their 10-year anniversary, they wanted to do something special. George, 59, suggested a nice dinner. Mindee, 48, proposed a two-day, $500 marriage education course offered by the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement.

A close friend of Mindee's had taken a previous workshop run by the Bethesda-based group, founded by Bernard Guerney Jr., an early innovator of marriage therapy. "She said it had gotten them through some of their most difficult times," Mindee says of her friend.

George agreed to go, warily. "I just didn't know what to expect. And I'm a pretty private person. 'Is this a group kind of thing?' " he remembers asking. "What am I going to have to share?"

If they'd chatted with Diane Sollee beforehand, she would have told them that a marriage education class is more like drivers' education than group therapy. There are no hugging circles or forced sharing sessions. There are PowerPoint slide shows, workbooks and video presentations. Couples talk almost exclusively to each other unless one has something to say to the rest of the room.

The Laumanns joined four other couples in a Bethesda apartment building in time to hear a lecture about acquiring the skills to "keep love alive."

"And in spite of being the one who initiated doing it, I just remember thinking, Uuuugh. This is going to be a big waste of time," Mindee says. "And boring."

She and George listened as the instructor talked about the importance of empathy. They made lists of all the ways they behave during arguments: Mindee walks away; George retreats to his garden. But mostly, over the course of the two days, they practiced listening.

If marriage education teaches couples only one thing, Sollee says, it's how to listen. Not just that they should do it but how to listen-- "with a full and open heart, in a way that they cannot doubt that you love them."

The method George and Mindee were taught involves parroting. One explains at length how he or she feels, and the other paraphrases the sentiment, going back and forth until they are on exactly the same page.

In the past, the Laumanns had seen a therapist on a couple of occasions. "He would help us talk to each other. ... He was a facilitator," says George, who was married and divorced once before he met Mindee. "With the training, we learned to do that without a facilitator."

After the course, Mindee at one point found herself snapping at George as he made suggestions about the way she handled the kids. It was one of those mild annoyances that can "fester as you carry it around like a black cloud," she says. And for two conflict-averse partners, it would've been easy to pretend to ignore the tension. But the cloud loomed long enough that they sat down to use the techniques they'd learned at the workshop.

"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!'

"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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