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

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?


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