Post Magazine: What every couple should know about marriage

Ellen McCarthy and Diane Sollee
Monday, June 28, 2010; 2:00 PM

Why do so many couples divorce? What if the truth was that you didn't marry the wrong person -- you just didn't know how to be married?

That question is at the heart of the burgeoning marriage education movement and the subject of a Washington Post Magazine cover story, "The Marriage Myth." Reporter Ellen McCarthy and Diane Sollee, founder of Smart Marriages, an organization of marriage educators, took questions. The transcript is below.

Plus: Tips and local marriage education resources


Diane Sollee: Diane Sollee Eager to hear what people think Marriage Education is and especially from anyone who would like to become a Marriage Educator and help row this boat to shore. It's a big ocean.


Ellen McCarthy: Hi all -- thanks for joining us on this sweltering DC day. We're grateful Diane Sollee is here to take your questions about marriage education. And I'm happy to discuss my takeaways from reporting this story on and off for six months. But I'm really hoping to hear from you: What do you think are the essential elements of a successful, happy marriage?

We're all ears.


Stafford, VA: So if we don't know how to be married--and we're already married at this point, for over a decade--how do we learn how to be married now? One won't do counseling so that's out; we've both read The 5 Love Languages but things keep slipping back into the bad routine that got us to the point of one of us saying "divorce". I can't imagine living life like this for another decade--how do I fix this?

Ellen McCarthy: I think you're exactly the type of couple these programs are targeting. They're very clear that it's not premarital education -- it's often just as useful for couples who've been married for a few years. It might be worth a shot, rather than living in misery.


Austin, TX: I think the keys to a happy marriage are actually pretty basic.

1. Marry someone you like, someone you enjoy doing things with. Seems obvious, but I see people marrying people that they don't really have anything in common with, that they don't like to play together.

2. Discuss the big things, how you want to live your lives, your philosphies on spending and whether or not you want to have children. It astounds me that people get married without coming to an agreement on these things or ever discussing them.


3. Don't be selfish 4. Don't keep score

All the marital problems I see boil down to selfishness and scorekeeping. People who insist on getting their way or they won't be happy, people who think being equal means spending the exatct same amount of money on clothes or hobbies rather that just each person's needs being met.

And if you hear yourself using the phrase "all that's going to change" you're doomed. Your intended with still want to do those things and still have those habits after the wedding. You're marrying the person s/he is, not the person you hope to change them into.

Ellen McCarthy: Thank you for chiming in with this thoughtful response.


Anacostia Washington, DC: What I find missing from these conversations on marriage is the impact of class and education on the quality of the marriage and the family. I would bet that the 30 and under couple in the article who were already divorced and onto their 2nd marriage (and kids) fall within a certain income and education bracket. This proves marriage does not function the same for every couple's social class and reality.

How do you think marriage is pushed as a social class agenda vs. moral/family unit agenda?

Diane Sollee: Education has huge effect. The more education, the better marital success - though lots of highly educated folk also fail at marriage. Marriage education classes can help across the board - help couples learn what to expect in marriage, what's normal, how to handle the issues, and the benefits of hanging in through the tough spots.


Falls Church, VA: My husband is worn down from years of being impacted by my organizational problems: very cluttered house, forgotten paperwork, running late for everything. I am trying harder than ever to address my issues, but he has trouble believing I can overcome the problems, or do so before he goes through with a divorce. Any thoughts on how I can rebuild his faith in me, and keep my own faith in myself strong enough to keep doing what I need to do, whether or not he sticks with me? Yes, there are children. Thank you.

Diane Sollee: Maybe hand him this to read from one of my favorite Marriage Educators, but also, seriously, take a weekend class. It will help - good heartfelt communication always does:

I'm very neat. My wife is messy - never picks anything up.

Doesn't even notice the mess - it's below her radar. I cured

myself from my annoyance with her by imagining that she had died and then asking myself, "If you could bring her back to life but she'd still be messy, leave clutter all over the house - 5 pairs of shoes in the living room, would you still want her back?" "Yes, for sure!"And, it cured me. Whenever I get annoyed with her mess, I rerun the script.

Sam Bradley, "Marriage Makeover" workshop Smart Marriages Conference


Shreveport, La.: The article has a not-so-subtle jab at marriage preparation provided by churches. I am a clergy person involved in preparing couples for marriage and would love to hear what you think I might study/read/do to help make sure I am preparing them for the long-haul. That engagement period is so starry-eyed, I often wonder how open couples are to learning the truth.

Ellen McCarthy: If there was a jab at religious marriage prep, it wasn't intentional. But I did keep my focus on this new generation of marriage education programs that are rooted in the scientific research being done in psychology labs across the nation. I know that many religious marriage programs have begun to integrate some of these findings, which might be something you want to consider, if you find it valuable and in line with your teachings.


Maryland: My husband and I recently got married. We looked seriously at secular pre-marital courses, but so many of them seem to depend on faux-science and cherry-picking statistics to make a point. Just glancing at the Smart Marriages website, there are a lot of articles there talking about "Why Men Won't Commit" and how "Men and Women Cohabit for Different Reasons." I'm interested in communication skills, and how to work through disagreements, but I'm really not interested in hearing about how women are more senstive and men are just more interested in sex, and working from that framework to communicate. So we did check out a bunch of relationship books from the library and got a variety of opinions, and worked through a number of exercises.

Diane Sollee: The articles on the website is just the culture scratching its head trying to figure it out. The classes don't go there - in 8 hrs they drill down and teach skills and let you practice them (in private). Try several, they're fun. And it feels great to become Masters of the Marriage Dance.


Fred from New Orleans: Where can I get this couch? Man, it looks great for a Saturday afternoon nap.

Or when someone is in the doghouse!

Ellen McCarthy: The couch is getting rave reviews. I'm not sure if we can track down the origin in this hour, but if I get an answer, I'll post it here later.


Bethesda, MD: My husband is a compulsive liar. He lies about big things, little things, things that make no sense at all to lie about. When confronted with hard proof of his lying, his lies just get more ridiculous. We've been to counseling repeatedly, but he never acknowledges that he has a problem with lying, so the problem never gets better. Fortunately, he's not cheating on me or spending all of our money, just deceiving me in little ways all the time. Can a marriage semninar help with this kind of thing, or does it only help with problems with communicating?

Diane Sollee: Lying is a form of communication. As you say, yourself, he sounds like a good husband who has a bad communication habit. Probably learned. YES, the classes CAN help with this. And do shower him with appreciation for all the good stuff.


Burke, VA: My husband and I try to communicate everything. Even if it upsets the other person to hear sometimes, we know that being open will help us resolve any problems when they start, instead of letting them build up over time and hoping they go away. I may not like hearing that he gets frustrated to no end by my backseat driving, but when I know it bothers him, I can make an effort to cool it in the car and that helps him keep his sanity with me!

Ellen McCarthy: Ha ha ha. Great anecdote. Thanks!


Silver Spring, MD: It always seems that the guys are the ones cheating but women still line up to marry men. If you see that the building is on fire, you don't go running into it. What's the deal? Am I missing something?

Please, don't say I'm afraid of getting married, because I been marry for seven years, and we are having our kid(s) (twins by the way).

Diane Sollee: Infidelity is frightening. Remember, sex is a form of communication and you can learn to communicate about sex in ways that keep the lust alive. Great books: Mating in Captivity and Developing Your Couples Sexual Style. Gives hope that cooling down is not inevitable and that you can design and keep redecorating your own marriage sex style. My favorite recording from the annual Smart Marriages Conference is Marital Sex As It Ought To Be. I think all couples should keep it in the car and listen to it at least once a year.


Silver Spring, MD: I'm not married yet but I hope to be (we are looking for a house currently). My significant other and I have been together for ten years and I'm tired of hearing from family and friends on how I've waited too long for him to propose and I should move on. We are opposites in personality (I'm an extrovert and he's an introvert) and I want to know how I can prepare myself for marriage or even know if I should be married. How do you know?

Diane Sollee: I know I sound like a broken record, but, really, you two are the perfect candidates for a week-end Marriage Education class. Most couples feel like they're at least a few dozen areas. That's the benefit of a team - you each bring your own stuff/strengths to the table. Marrying someone just like yourself adds nothing to what you already have. You sharpen your skills so you can manage the differences and make them work for you.


shreveport, la: I am sorry. I didn't mean to put you on the defensive. And yes, there are programs that are both faith-based and science/psychology based out there. I use such a program now. But I am particularly interested in how other educators break through the engagement naivete and belief that our marriage will be perfect because we're so in love. How do you pass on tools without bursting a bubble, bringing people down in such a happy, in unrealistic time? I know the article focused mainly on helping couples improve existing marriages, but I worry people split before they've even tried if they didn't get good preparation and are caught unaware by difficulties they encounter.

Diane Sollee: Most engaged couples know about the statistics....and have fear in their hearts. You explain that taking a course is the MOST ROMANTIC THING THEY CAN DO - they've found the person they want to spend the rest of their life with, and now they're going to learn what the experts have figured out that will help them keep their love alive. Encourage them to get on top of the game and stay there by taking a class every few years. Marriage and people change ....need tune-ups.


Alexandria, VA: I have been with my husband for 10 years, married for 5 years. We are very happy with each other. One of the things that I really liked about your article was the confirmation that there are going to be things that you will argue about over and over again that never really get resolved, that are simply personality differences and that it isn't necessary to resolve them, just necessary to acknowledge them.

Although we don't have any yet, kids appear to be a big straining point in most marriages and, sometimes I wonder if the actual couple would have remained together if it were not for all the stresses of raising kids? How much do you think that plays into whether a marriage will last? Please understand that I do acknowledge all the joys of having and raising children and I do know that it can be a bonding experience that nothing else can touch.

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks for this. Without question, children have been proven to be a strain on many relationships. There is often a dip in marital happiness after kids come along. But for people who want children, it's obviously worth the stress. One tenet of some of these courses is a timeline of pressure points in marriages, so you know when many couples experience tough times -- after kids are born, as they become empty nesters, etc.


New York, NY: I think the advice of imagining life without someone and then being able to bring them back, all faults intact, is a good one - it seems to help put things in perspective.

Only tangentially related, but one of the best pieces of advice I've received is never to go to bed angry. No matter what the disagreement, don't let a fight fester overnight. Also, I would echo the points about selfishness and score- keeping - that path only leads to bitterness and resentment. Marriage isn't about giving up your own identity, but it is about approaching life as a team - and not a team of rivals!

Ellen McCarthy: Thank you.


Richmond, VA: As a pastor who performs lots of weddings AND counsels a lot of folks going through a divorce, the one thing I see very often in divorce situations is very often one (or both) of the partners is just very, very bad at relationships. They have a bad relationship with mom and dad, burned the bridges with sibblings, burn through friends, and don't relate to people they work with. Also, they belong to no group. (Church, Mosque, club, association, etc.)

How do we train teenagers to look out for this, IF you feel we should? "If someone has no successful relationship, just how are they going to be successful with you as a husband or wife?"

Ellen McCarthy: There are some in the marriage education community who would say we should be teaching relationship education in high school the same way we teach health education. It's an interesting thought.


Washington DC: First of all, I want to thank you for the facinating article yesterday. I write not as someone who is married but as someone who has talked about marriage in-depth with my significant other and hope to be wed in a couple years. My question is what can we do before hand to improve communication and prepare ourselves for a life together? We've talked about kids, religion, finances, etc. but what else should we be talking about before making a life-long commitment? Thanks.

Diane Sollee: It's important to know that there is no way you can discuss all the issues in advance - besides people change and they will change their opinions over the course of a life together about many of the issues you are discussing pre-marriage. What you're looking for is someone with whom you like discussing/pondering issues. You like the way they listen, think, discuss. And, the best advice really is to take a class. Realize there are all different "brands" - in each one you get the burger, but the fixins are different. I advice couples I love to take several different classes - become masters. And, to continue to give yourself the gift of a class/weekend marriage retreat every few years. Especially as you approach the natural challenges - the first two years, the birth of the first child, when your kids hit pre-teen much new stuff to discuss, decide, agree upon.


Potomac, MD: I asked my husband, a high-powered lawyer, to attend one of your sessions. He said, and I quote:

"Why would I do that? The cost is not $500 for the weekend. It's $500 plus the 14 hours I'm not billing at $575 per hour. That's $8,550. There are a lot of things I can spend that money on, and I'll enjoy them a HECK of a lot more than listening to someone social worker drone on about "empathy"."

Diane Sollee: That's the battle - men assume it will be some social worker droning on about empathy, or worse, that it's some kind of group therapy session. Men enjoy getting a playbook - a rules of the game kind of orientation. And, tell him how much time and money he'll save if he has a happy, thriving marriage and avoids divorce. So, he works all weekend?


Powhatan, VA: Does a common religious background/experience help produce a good marriage?

Ellen McCarthy: Being of different in religions is one of the risk factors that can slightly increase your chances of divorce. But of course, how you handle these differences matters a great deal and many people of differing faiths have great marriages.


deep listening and respect: About communication

I think what Thich Nhat Hanh calls deep listening is vital in a good marriage, as is respect for the others feelings, needs and point of view. It's not a zero sum game!

My partner and I make great efforts to hear and understand the other person and in doing that gain an appreciation and respect for where we are both standing. This helps us move nearer each other.

One step I think people often don't appreciate is that before you talk about an issue, it's extremely helpful to do the heavy lifting yourself so that you come to the table with as clear a mind as possible - or ask for help figuring it out. What are symoptoms and what are root causes?

I think very connecte to this is taking stock and making amends. Look over your interactions with your spouse and where your actions were wanting and take responsibility. There's nothing more powerful than an apology. We all make mistakes - owning them is huge.

Above all, be kind to each other.

Ellen McCarthy: A lot of wisdom among our chatters. Thank you.


Washington, DC: One element of a happy marriage that I learned from watching my parents is to always treat your partner with respect, even when you fight. You can criticize behavior, but never belittle them as a person. In the midst of arguments, try to find ways to communicate love. A great tip my husband and I received was to hold hands when you argue. It reminds you of your underlying bond, and it's harder to say mean, hurtful things to someone when you're holding his hand. Ask for forgiveness when you have hurt the other. It can feel strange, but it's so useful for healing wounds. Have perspective--not all disagreements are of equal importance. Figure out what issues really matter, and never fight "for the principle of thine thing." It's often better to be happy than to be right, so decide which arguments are even worth having.

Ellen McCarthy: Thank you.


Alexandria VA: For the messy lady in Falls Church: try ! She is wonderful with helping people establish routines, starting with the premise of "progress, not perfection." I tend to be a messy person too, and by starting with small changes and continuing to move forward with the larger stuff, I am much, much better, and both my husband and I are happier. Marriage isn't necessarily about being accepted with all your faults; sometimes one needs to take a good hard look at one's own faults and do something about them.

Ellen McCarthy: Great practical advice.


Rockville, MD: (posting early due to travel) Thanks for such a great topic! BF and I have been together 2 years. We've made a commitment to one another and to making our relationship work. It's a great relationship with shared interests and open communication. Feels easy. We've had some "normal" rough patches. We're both in it for the long haul (we're mid 40s). Initially he was opposed to marriage - a man-made social convention - but now says he's open to the idea. I wanted the security I thought marriage meant. Now that I am secure in the relationship, I'm not sure of the advantage/reason to choose marriage over living together. I want to be clear, as I think that the decision should be made before living in the same home.

Everyone I've asked says that people get married to have health insurance. I am astonished. (and this is not necessary for us) We've agreed to medical power of attorneys with each other. What other pros and cons should we consider? We've decided to not have children.


Ellen McCarthy: Health insurance might not be the most romantic reason to get hitched, but I'm sure it's been the impetus for more than one wedding.

It sounds like you're both being really thoughtful about this issue. At this point I would mainly consider what marriage - that vow and public bond - means to you. And is it something you want for your life and relationship?


Charlotte, NC: Years ago a reporter had asked Paul Newman what one thing leads to longevity in a marriage and his response was "respect." Not passion, not history, not shared interests. Not even love, which makes sense as we all probably know at least one couple who seems to genuinely love each other but can't make marriage work. For all the techniques and philosophies in your article, it does seem that respect is the one common denominator. Would you agree with its contribution to successful marriages?

Ellen McCarthy: I think mutual respect is critical in any close relationship. Romantic or otherwise.


Washington, DC: Very interesting article. remember a college class in counseling that talked about empathy training and how to listen. But does it all come down to listeneing ? What about being able to have fun in the lives of partners ?

Diane Sollee: Yes, fun is critical. Gotta keep the fun going even through the hard times - no money, new baby, through sickness and sadness. Takes proactive creativity.

And, sometimes it takes empathy to understand that what's fun for you is not fun for your partner - and to work out ways that you both can have some fun. Takes good communication skills to do this.


on-time vs. late : I think this is one of those issues that people joke about but really ought to take more seriously. People who are disorganized and chronically late generally get later and more disorganized when kids come along. I know so many couples that are mismatched on this issue, and it is a constant source of carping and frustration.

Ellen McCarthy: There is an example of this in the story, where the wife is chronically late and the husband is timely. They told me their workshop, through Bethesda-based Relationship Enhancement, helped tease the frustration out of the issue, though they continue to be at odds when it comes to timeliness.


Alexandria VA: I think the best marriage education one can have is growing up in a family where the parents loved each other, worked together, and stayed together. It's ok for kids to see arguments if they lead to problems being resolved; not so much if they are just angry vents about something. I am grateful to have had a wonderful example in my own parents' marriage. As divorce becomes more and more common, though, I wonder if young people today have internalized the idea that divorce is a fine logical answer, because they don't have much experience in seeing people resolve the issues that surely come up in long-term marriages.

Ellen McCarthy: So far statistics have shown that children of divorce are more likely to divorce themselves. I think there are some, however, who redouble their efforts to have a great marriage to ensure they don't perpetuate the trend.


Vienna, VA: That "if you could bring your spouse back to life but..." exercise is very powerful! Other tips (married 19 years): 1. You can be happy or be right. So choose to be happy and don't make everything into an argument. 2. Be vulnerable with your spouse. Take a break from sarcasm, witticisms, etc. 3. Women - don't expect your spouse to be your one and only BFF. Other friends can meet some of your emotional needs too.

Ellen McCarthy: Thank you.


Arlington, VA: The thing I'm hearing from you and seeing on your Web site seems to be "Stay together, through thick and thin." How do you know when this doesn't apply? I stayed with a verbally abusive person until it was obvious I would soon be in physical danger.

While I applaud you for encouraging people influenced by our culture into being flighty and looking for spark over heat, I wonder how you address people whose desire for deep commitment, and whose seriousness about that commitment, is exploited by those who'd never "keep" someone who doesn't believe in not breaking vows.

Ellen McCarthy: I don't think any of the experts I interviewed would say that a spouse should stay in an abusive relationship.


Alexandria, VA: I'm a newlywed - my husband and I have been married for 6 months. We did premarital counseling, and talked a lot about the big issues to try to give our marriage the best foundation possible. Still, I've been discouraged by how many friends and family members have gotten divorced recently. Any suggestions on the best ways to divorce-proof a marriage?

Ellen McCarthy: Seems like you're doing it already -- by being really deliberate about this.


Arlington, VA: Great article! Now, where can I find a listing of weekend marriage workshops within driving distance?

Ellen McCarthy: There's a list attached to the story. We'll repost.


Richmond, VA: It seemed to me that most of the programs or counselors you were talking about would benefit couples who have a desire to stay together. What's available for couples who are on the fence about remaining married or are leaning to the divorce side? How big a barrier is not being honest in a marriage and presumably would not be honest in counseling?

Diane Sollee: The truth is that most couples don't seek out a Marriage Education class until they're in pretty deep end of the ocean - leaning towards divorce. The classes are a huge help in helping couples reconnect (sometimes truly connect for the first time). There are FREE courses for couples who feel they are all out of love, have one foot out the door - Retrouvaille - taught by couples who have been to the brink and worked their way back. By donation, chapters all over the country. 800-470-2230


committment and communication.: Something that really helped me work through communication with my now-husband was actually watching my parents' marriage fall apart due to drawing away from each other and not talking. I was older when it happened (I had just graduated college, and was about a year into the relationship). I went to counseling, worried I was going to end up like that, but it's easier seeing and realizing communication issues when you're not actually experiencing them, but you're an outside looking in.

Ellen McCarthy: This is what i mean about some couples trying not to do the same things their parents did when it comes to marriage.


Washington, D.C.: The biggest difference between my fiance and me is that I am very neat (borderline OCD) and he's a slob (borderline hoarder). How can I get him to understand when I ask him to try to "meet me in the middle" with housework that I don't want the house to be uncluttered and dirt free because it looks better, but because seeing piles of stuff and dust bunnies all around makes me agitated and unable to relax (I can't sit down and watch a movie if there are dirty dishes surrounding me)? I've told him exactly this and his response is that cleanliness just isn't important to him, so he'll try harder for awhile to clean up, then forget. I like the "imagine if he's dead" suggestion for me- certainly I'd rather live in filth than live without him, but that's more of a band aid and less of a way to help us both move toward each other on this. This recent Magazine cover story might interest you: The Mess He Made: A lifelong slob tries to get organized (Post Magazine, June 13, 2010)

Ellen McCarthy: Michael Rosenwald's story was brutally honest, and very brave.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I observe many couples insult each other. Maybe they feel more comfortable expressing their feelings with each other. Yet, eventually, someone is finally hurt by the words and I have watched the situation quickly deteriorate from there. How would you advise couples to deal with these and avoid these situations?

Ellen McCarthy: Dr. John Gottman, a leading marital researcher, talks a lot about what he calls the "four horsemen" that can lead to the demise of marriages: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.


Arlington, VA: This may sound like a weird question, but what are your thoughts on marriage education classes for couples -before- they get engaged?

My boyfriend and I have been together for 1.5 years. We're both 40. He's divorced and has a teenage son; I've never married and have no children, but have had a number of serious long-term relationships.

We both hope that our relationship grows into marriage, and we're very happy now. But I see red flags, mostly in the passive-aggressive and toxic dynamic between him and his ex wife. Since we rarely disagree or have conflicts now, I can't say that this behavior would continue with me, but I'd like us to learn better skills now rather than trying to learn after problems have already created hurt and resentment between us.

He thinks it would be a sign of a problem if we sought "help" for our relationship before we got enaged, and that if we're right for each other, we'll have few problems and settle them by ourselves. I see it as building a stronger foundation for a marriage, helping us prepare for how to love each other and stay strong through problems that are inevitable in any marriage.

The Catch -22 is that I'm hesitant to get engaged and move in together without building this foundation first. He wants to get engaged and live together, but thinks we shouldn't need therapy or counseling to do so.

I hear a lot about engaged couples doing marriage education. But how about couples getting educated before they get engaged? I see engagement as a commitment, too.

Diane Sollee: You should definitely take a course - or, three - BEFORE you get engaged and move in. Remarriages with kids have only a 1 in 3 chance (33%) of success - harder if the kids are between 10 and 14, but a challenge even if the kids are adults. Stepfamilies are the most difficult family form/marriage. There are good classes on your doorstep....and, honestly, the classes are actually fun. You'll gain confidence - or, it will help you decide that this is not going to work. It won't be time wasted - you'll learn skills you can use with anyone. MANY couples take classes BEFORE getting engaged. Try PAIRS, RE - and also go online and order some of the Stepfamily the DVDs WITH him.


Columbus, OH: Three things:

1.) If people choose not to grow together, they grow apart.

2.) A marriage should be about serving your mate, not yourself.

3.) Selfishness will in most cases, destroy a marriage. Thus, too many people go into marriage looking out for what is best for them and become inconsiderate of their mate and the marriage eventually fails.


19 years 4 months in and counting

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks. And congrats -- hope you'll do something great for your 20th.


My husband is a compulsive liar. He lies about big things, little things, things that make no sense at all to lie about. When confronted with hard proof of his lying, his lies just get more ridiculous: Why Why WHY marry him in the first place? I'd have run like the wind if I'd suspected my fiance of such dishonesty.

Ellen McCarthy: Choosing a spouse wisely really does matter.


children of divorce: Well, we can't choose our parents so many of us did not have good role models (not that all marriages are healthy even if they stay together.) Many children of divorce have the disadvantage of unlearning what they grew up with. It wasn't until I met my husband that I learned what an honest, respectful relationship where we share our disagreements and less than perfect behavior openly looks like.

Ellen McCarthy: Great insight, thank you.


McLean, VA: To be honest, I'm really not in position to ask my husband to do this. He's a very successful executive; his annual income approaches 7 figures. I deal with a LOT of competition, and have to meet his needs really well to keep him around for my children. I'd like to put more focus on my marriage, but one of the things that keeps him with me is that I don't put a lot of "constraints" on him. I'm afraid if I ask him to skip a golf date to attend this seminar, that I'll lose out to Mandi or Cindi or one of the others "fun" ones. They constantly approach him on the road or at the fitness club or at conferences, and if I don't play my cards right it's a matter of time before I lose him. My kids just don't deserve that.

Diane Sollee: You really need to do something. You're walking around on eggshells waiting for Mr Big to waltz off. Women walking on egg shells don't walk upright - you need to get your groove back. Try suggesting a class at a resort that includes golf....or on a cruise, or spa.


Arlington, VA: One statistic/scientific element that went missing from this article was: is there any hard evidence that the Strong Bonds program is effective? I do like the fact that the basis for the program is research from experts, but can we conclude that it works? Is there any proof that couples who attending Strong Bonds over other marriage counselling programs are more likely to stay married?

Ellen McCarthy: There actually is a statistic in the story that addresses that:

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.


I get my way: I get my way. Every time. If it's finances or childcare or vacation, I get my way. My way is good and solid, and my husband voices a lacklustre opinion from time to time but listens to my reasons and nods his head. I sometimes wonder why we don't have conflict. I know at times I'm even rocking the boat, and I'm good at what I do, but I wonder why he doesn't challenge from time to time. After years of this, why am I craving a little more rocky participation than acquiescence?

Ellen McCarthy: Maybe he would, if given the chance to really be heard?


Glyndon, MD: I'm not interested in faith-based counselors because they are so sanctimonious and clearly invested in gaining more economic units per pew.

I've been happily married for 33 years without the big bad boogeyman in the sky and hope to make it many more.

Talk less. Listen more. Have your own interests, friends, a solid education and a career. That way neither of you are completely burdened with the financial worries, or child rearing. It's a team effort.

--The Wife

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks for chiming in.


Panama City Beach, FLorida: My boyfriend and I love each other and talk about marriage someday. We are both in our very early forties. However, he seems to be so overly involved in the machinations of his extended family. I don't know how to tell him to relax so we can work on our own future. How will this type of situation affect us as we move forward in our relationship?

Diane Sollee: First, realize that when you marry him, you marry his family and his family interaction style. What feels over-involved to you, might feel just right to him. That's the exact kind of ongoing issue that illustrates the science - there will be approximately 10 "irreconcilable differences" in every marriage. How much interaction with family of origin or with friends or how much to spend on kids' education or how much time to spend on housecleaning vs playing - the list is endless. You need to identify your issues with the guy you love and then plan to "manage" them - how you're going to do the marriage dance in spite of these different perspectives that can get quite hairy and upsetting. The advice is to have honest discussions about how you feel without putting him and his family down, and come up with plans to try - different ways to manage the time and energy he devotes to his family. Then revisit the plan - discuss it again - on a regular basis. With love and empathy and a lack of contempt. Remember they raised him, they created this guy that you love.


Arlington, VA: Two questions:

1) I've noticed that in the article, you mention that it's conflict resolution strategies that seem to be the best predictors of whether people stay together. What would you say, then, of the feeling some folks have that they've found someone unique and unlike anyone else? If that happens in the very beginning, sure, I can see how it could just be attraction-flitters. But if it happens after someone's, say, been your best friend for many months and you start to fall for one another and feel like "hey, maybe we belong together," is that any different?

2) Just out of curiosity: I've noticed a lot of marriage-related advice and articles recently. Does anyone know if all this stuff applies to gay marriages as well as straight ones, or do we not know because legal gay marriage is so new and occurs in so few places for now?

Is there data on gay divorce yet? Does it look similar? I'm curious about whether any dynamics are different, particularly because I see heterosexual people sometimes talk about how they didn't realize that men and women can communicate differently. Would that make gay and lesbian couples Better Communicators by default, or is that not quite how it works, or do we not know?

Are there any pitfalls that one sees more often in gay marriages or, if that data's not available, long-term committed gay or lesbian relationships?

Ellen McCarthy: This is a booming field of research. Gottman, among others, are very focused on the topic. I haven't seen any divorce stats yet, but I expect we'll be hearing a lot about this issue in the next few years.


Arlington, VA: My marriage is actually pretty strong, but still I would love to go to a workshop like this because I think you can always learn more/be better. But like another poster, no way would I get my spouse there. Is it an absolute requirement to go as a couple, or are there "versions" that can teach the skills to only one half of the couple?

Diane Sollee: You can attend some of the programs alone. PAIRS permits this, and The Third Option is designed for this. You can ask any of the programs if they'd let you sit in alone. It's so much more fun if he'd come. Men don't want to attend because they fear that it's like group therapy - that they'll have to talk (or worse, that you'll talk about him or the marriage). It's a class. You sit and listen. Relationship Enhancement classes in Bethesda would be ideal for him. And, you're right, the classes can make your good thing even better. Take wing. You might also order some of the recordings from the Smart Marriages conference and listen to them together in the car. Or, there are DVD-based programs that are wonderful - watch them together in the living room.


Lexington Park, MD: Mis - communication. Wife and I are canoeing. I'm in back and said lets go to the left of the buoy ahead of us. We are paddling and are still heading straight for the buoy. I was paddling so we could pass the buoy on its left. Her idea is the buoy will pass by her left arm and was paddling opposite of what I was doing. Sound familiar?

Ellen McCarthy: Sounds like you'll both have sore arms. And, point taken.

Thank you.


Silver Spring, MD: I noticed a significant improvement in our marriage when we hired a cleaning lady. Suddenly Sunday nights were time for sex and not for complaining about why our house was a wreck.

Oddly this one little thing set the dominos all falling in the right direction.

I'd advise wed but not-happy couples to consider Merry Maids!

Ellen McCarthy: Ha ha ha. I totally buy this! Thank you.


Alexandria VA: Re the husband/timely vs. wife/late issue: I remember a great cartoon that had a wife surrounded with two or three kids saying brightly to her husband, who already has his coat on, "How about this time you get the kids ready and I go out to the car and honk the horn?"

Husbands who help out probably reap a lot more rewards than do husbands who literally or figuratively just sit there and honk the horn!

Ellen McCarthy: Thank you.


Stafford, VA: How does a couple overcome infidelity? How do you rebuild the trust? Where does the healing begin and end?

Diane Sollee: First, know that most couples DO recover. Like all terrible injuries, healing takes step forward, six back, but you just keep communicating and most couples say they are stronger and more intimate than before the infidelity. I know some can't accept that there are worse offenses, but I believe there are. And, it helps so much if you can see that it's not about you. It would have happened no matter who he was married to - someone is again going to trust him (her) might as well be you, especially if you have kids. There is a wonderful group called Beyond Affairs Network that works with the offended spouse. Run by people who've been there and recovered. And, many resources on the website. Look at Infidelity, You CAN recover page at


Ellen McCarthy: Thanks for the fantastic questions and comments, everyone. Sorry there wasn't time to answer all of them.


Diane Sollee: Oy. So many questions. so little time.


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