"Good marriages are not made in heaven," says marriage counselor James Kilgore. "They are worked out in the kitchen, the living room and the bedroom -- and they are just plain work."
Too often, a potentially good marriage ends in divorce, says Kilgore, who was in Washington last weekend for the annual meeting of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, for which he serves as treasurer.
Couples rush through the escape hatch, he says, rather than accept the challenge of honestly communicating about problems such as money management, household chores, child rearing and job demands.
Ordained as a Southern Baptist minister at age 18, the 43-year-old counselor holds a masters degree in education and a doctorate in pastoral counseling. He turned to full-time marriage and family therapy in 1969 as head of the Northside Counseling Center in Atlanta, Ga.
"Marriage demands a commitment unparalleled in other institutions," says Kilgore, who has been married for 22 years and has three children.
"Couples vow 'until death do us part,' then lose sight of that original commitment. Many need to recapture that perspective and hope."
Kilgore describes his latest book, "Try Marriage Before Divorce," as a "do-it-yourself" kit for couples who need a marriage "tune-up." He examines the major reasons marriages fail and offers some "relationship-revitalizing" exercises he uses at marriage-enrichment workshops.
"Power symbols are what get most couples in trouble," he says. "Arguments arise around money, sex, status, religion, children, in-laws. Struggles for control usually involve each partner seeking the most advantageous weapon to use in response to his mate's most vulnerable point.
"Most any marital problem can be brought down to this issue of control -- who's in charge of this marriage. With the happy couple, the answer is that both are in charge, and it's a true partnership."
Not surprisingly, Kilgore points to communication as a partnership's best tool. "If half the couples who came to me had sat down and talked together first," he says, "they wouldn't need counseling.
"Trying in marriage begins with that sense of commitment which says 'I do not have to live with you, but I choose to, intent and mutual support locks down the divorce escape hatch."
Couples also need frequent honeymoons, he says. At least four times a year, a couple should go off to a motel alone together for a weekend or a full day to talk and relax in a way that "just can't be done at home with kids, and pets and trash to take out.
"The money spent on that weekend may be more important than buying a new car or adding to the house. One thing most couples fail to do is take a vacation alone together. If you get two weeks off during the year, take one week with the whole family, including kids, and the other week just for the husband and wife."
Couples should seek professional help when the partners "feel more drawn to actions that don't bring them together than things that do," says Kilgore.
"I don't mean you shouldn't do anything apart. But when you continually plan activities that isolate one from another -- perhaps not having one chance to sit down and talk in a week -- that may be a dangerer signal.
"Also, if you begin to feel like a martyr, it's time to sit down and talk. Or if the dominant tone of the marriage is negative, that may signal trouble."
Despite grim statistics that predict one in two marriages will end in legal separation or divorce in less than 10 years. Kilgore says "marriage as an institution is getting stronger.
"Young people are taking the emotional commitment of marriage much more seriously. Even the incidence of people living together is a positive thing for marriage because it means people are not accepting simply the ceremony. They are looking for the meaning in a relationship."