Can 'Marriage Education' Help Prolong Unions?

Host Michel Martin explores the growing "marriage education movement," which centers on the belief that training and information can help couples create healthier, longer-lasting unions. Joining the conversation are Washington Post staff writer Ellen McCarthy; Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education; and Lamar Tyler of the website blackandmarriedwithkids.com.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

In a few minutes, what is Kevin Eubanks up to now, now that he's walked away after 15 years as the front man for "The Tonight Show" band? We'll find out.

But first, we open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, which we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. And one of those articles this week, Post staff writer, Ellen McCarthy, includes the question for anybody whose marriage has ended or hit some rocky times, really, anybody who's been married. And that question is, what if you don't really know how to be married? Her story centers on what's called the marriage education movement, and a growing number of couples swear by it.

Ellen McCarthy joins us now in the studio, along with the person Ellen describes as the ringmaster of the marriage education movement, Diane Sollee. Also with us, a gentleman who co-runs with his wife a Web site called blackandmarriedwithkids.com, Lamar Tyler. Thanks to you all for joining us.

Mr. LAMAR TYLER (Co-founder, BlackAndMarriedWithKids.com): Thank you.

Ms. ELLEN McCARTHY (Staff Writer, The Washington Post): Thank you.

Ms. DIANE SOLLEE (Founder, Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, Ellen, you alerted us to this movement, and I know Ms. Sollee will want to chime in, but what is the marriage education movement? And does this differ what a lot of people might know as couples' therapy?

Ms. McCARTHY: I think it really does differ from what people know as couples' therapy. My understanding is that it's a preventative thing. That it's not something you do necessarily when you're at a crisis moment. It's acquiring skills beforehand so that you don't get to a crisis moment.

And rather than sort of sitting one on one on a couch with a counselor sort of taking this workshop where, you know, there's a leader in front of you and you're with other couples. And you're just sort of being instructed and then you practice the skills with each other, but there's no sharing and there's no unearthing of issues from your childhood.

MARTIN: Or your personal...

Ms. McCARTHY: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're not doing all your personal business. So it's a kind of thing that maybe kids in school would do, called in-conflict resolution where they teach, like, a social curriculum, like, how to play together. This is the rules. This is how you have to do it.

Ms. McCARTHY: And they do teach yeah, they do teach those things, but they don't ever really teach you how to be good at relationships. No one teaches that, which is why this makes sense to me at a certain level.

MARTIN: How did you get on to this story, by the way?

Ms. McCARTHY: I write about relationships and wedding for The Post's style section. And when I found out that the government was spending hundreds of millions of dollars and the military is too...

MARTIN: How many hundreds of millions?

Ms. McCARTHY: The federal government has spent $100 million a year for five years and the Army continues to spend about $100 million a year.

MARTIN: Because?

Ms. McCARTHY: Well, in the Army's case, they say, look, we want our servicemen and women to be happy, healthy people. And we find that when their home lives are not good, it really impacts their service for us when they're on the job.

MARTIN: You know, that makes sense because that's one of those kind of pop culture themes, the Dear John letter that somebody gets while he or she's serving overseas and just how stressful and horrible that can be. That makes sense to me.

So, Diane, chime in here, if you would, how did this marriage education movement get started? And what's your take on how this differs from couples' therapy?

Ms. SOLLEE: Well, Ellen did really well, except it's very important to get in that it isn't just prevention and that we do teach these courses now in schools. There are classes, marriage education classes for just any part along the life cycle. And there are lots of classes for middle school, high school. We want to get them while they're young and teach them that there is, you know, hope.

It's not all marriage isn't just some crapshoot where you're trying to find the right person and then it'll work. That this is something you can learn how to do and you can get better and better and better at it. But it also is what I, you know, if you called me and you were having trouble deep end of the ocean with your marriage, I would definitely send you to a marriage education class and not to a therapist.

MARTIN: Because?

Ms. SOLLEE: Because we have a horrible I come out of the marriage therapy world and we have a terrible track record. You know, most couples who go to marriage therapists end up divorcing. It's because it's a medical model, you know, tell me about your childhood, let me try to diagnose you. And then I'm the doctor and I'm going to fix you your mental disorder, your character disorder. You know, the wife brings the husband in, she's sure his mother has somehow screwed him up and the therapist should fix him. It's a different approach.

What we're seeing now is we've got all this research in our research labs and we want to get it to the public. Shows like this help a lot. But we want to put it in classes. Men love the classes. It's like getting a playbook. Men love playbooks. You know, this is how you do this and this is what's afoul. And this is, you know, the behaviors that predict success. And this is what to expect along the way.

And we are really excited and optimistic about the results we can get in these classes.

MARTIN: Lamar, why don't you join us? We invited you for this conversation because you're in the trenches.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SOLLEE: You mean as a man?

MARTIN: Well, married with kids. And one of the reasons we're particularly interested in talking with you is that African-American marriages seem to be under particular stress. The rates of divorce are higher. What's interesting is that it used to be that more African-Americans statistically were married than whites as a percentage of the population. That has changed dramatically since the 1960s.

Mr. TYLER: Sure.

MARTIN: And the percentage of black children living in homes without two parents is higher than for any other part of the population. So one of the reasons we're interested in talking to you is what just to get your take on this as a person who's not only in the trenches, but is also writing about it.

Mr. TYLER: So, you know, well, I think what Ellen said earlier was important about, you know, how do people learn these skills? You know, if we look in the African-American community, where seven out of ten children are being born out of wedlock right now, mostly children being raised in single-parent homes, they don't have a model of not just a healthy relationship, but any, you know, married relationship in front of them, so they can see what they want to do or what they shouldn't do.

So this marriage education is important. This is how they learn how to communicate, how to do conflict resolution and how to live, you know, harmoniously together.

MARTIN: Have you ever taken one of these?

Mr. TYLER: Actually, we went through some training and education before we got married, me and my wife. And, actually, what we've committed to do also is we said every year we're going to do something to work on our relationship.

MARTIN: And what about, Diane Sollee's point that this is something that's particularly attractive to men in the sense that it's skills based as opposed to based on a medical model of your let me fix what's wrong with you. Does that resonate with you?

Ms. SOLLEE: Right.

Mr. TYLER: So, you know, because, as a man, - I guess I'll speak for me here -I can see it being an issue where...

MARTIN: Please do, all men.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Stand up for your (unintelligible).

Mr. TYLER: Exactly. I can see it being an issue, because I feel that way of, you know, me and my wife kind of go back and forth. And then a lot of, you know, a lot of women, they'll say, hey, you know, my husband doesn't want to go to this or go to that because I think we go in and we think, okay, the psychologist is going to sit there and try to tell me something's wrong with me, my wife if going to cosign on it and say, you know, this is what I've been telling you on along and I need to do more, I need to clean up more, I need to do this or that.

So I think just a model where you're actually learning things and learning things you both can do and how to listen to each other and how to communicate with each other is something that's just more attractive.

MARTIN: How did you become persuaded to do this to begin with? And who was driving the train? Was it you? Was it your wife? Was it something you were both interested in?

Mr. TYLER: Yeah, you know, in our situation, certainly we both were interested in. You know, because we both want to, you know, put in the work. We both want to invest in our marriage and want to make sure, you know, it lasts for the long haul.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm joined by Lamar Tyler. He co-created a website called blackandmarriedwithkids.com. He's here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio along with Ellen McCarthy. She's a reporter for The Washington Post and the Post magazine. And she wrote about something called the marriage education movement. We're talking about the piece she wrote about that.

We're also joined by Diane Sollee. She's founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education that's focused on marriage education. She's one of the people profiled in Ellen's piece.

So, Ellen, tell me a little bit more about some of the surprising things about marriage education. You're saying that the military's heavily invested in this because they see the practical value of it. Beyond that, who's driving this train for the civilian world?

Ms. McCARTHY: Well, that's really interesting. I mean, I think Diane's group has come a long way in sort of pushing out their message. I think the fact that the federal government put all these dollars out there certainly created a lot of attention around it. And there were a lot of groups who sort of sprung up to try to get a piece of that pie. So the fact that the money was put out there, you know, as a carrot, sort of helped the movement. But then...

MARTIN: But you talked about a man named Wade Horn who you say was a particular force in getting these dollars devoted to this. Tell us a little bit more about him.

Ms. McCARTHY: Right. So he, under the Bush administration, was the head of a department called ACF, Administration for Children and Families, which administers things like Head Start. And his thinking, as he explained it to me was, we do a lot of things to help children once they're already at a crisis point, you know. We intervene through the juvenile justice system. We intervene through foster care and, you know, once parents are already divorced.

And he said it started to dawn on him that maybe we should be looking at what you could do to protect children preventatively. And he came to the conclusion that one of the things that benefits children is having two parents in the home sort of raising them together. They're less likely to have emotional problems, behavioral problems. They're more likely to go to college.

So he said, what can we do to help keep parents in the same home for their children? And that was the genesis of the funding from his end that got all these federal dollars going.

MARTIN: So, Diane, as I heard you say, you're kind of a if I could use this term a reformed marriage therapist in the sense you started with a therapy model and then you thought, wait a minute, that's fixing the problem post facto, let's see what we can do preventatively, or...

Ms. SOLLEE: Well, not just that, I realized that we finally had really good new information coming out paid for by tax dollars in our universities. You know, lots of really good research about what actually makes marriage tick. My goal was to say, you know, we've got to get this information to the public. Kind of like when we had all the research about smoking. And we didn't get it out to the public for a very long time.

We need to let couples know three things, the benefits of hanging in there when it's for better and for worse, and the benchmarks, what to expect in a normal marriage along the way. We all imagine what's going on behind all the other picket fences and, you know, we don't realize what's going on. And then the behaviors, which behaviors predict success and which predict failure. And if people know better, they'll do better.

MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about you're saying that behaviors that are predictive of success. Can you just give us a little, I don't know, give us a little lesson right here.

Ms. SOLLEE: The goal is to learn the skills to just constantly handle the upcoming conflict because there will throughout any good marriage and to do it in a way that your partner feels loved. So you go in this classroom and you learn that that's normal, conflict, and that the number one danger is to avoid the conflict instead of to tackle it and handle it, and to feel that you have the confidence to handle it.

So it's learning to do things like set appointments for we've got to discuss this, okay. And then what's a good time for you and how long is this one going to take? And then having rules of engagement, you know, that we're going to talk only long enough that the partner can understand and show us they understood with love and empathy, and so that we feel romantic at the end of it.

MARTIN: Lamar, can I just ask you tell me one of the things that you've learned in one of these workshops, or one of the things you've learned in studying this question of how to better communicate? Is there something that you had to teach yourself not to do or to teach yourself to do better?

Mr. TYLER: Sure.

MARTIN: And the only reason I'm picking on you is that you're here.

Mr. TYLER: Do we have enough time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TYLER: I'll just say two quick things is one is that, you know, I've learned and I really didn't realize this before how much our life experience doles into our marriage, you know, and how to really realize that me and my wife come from two different places, with two different thought processes. And once I realized that, I think it really kind of changed the dynamic in our relationship.

MARTIN: So, realizing that she's not wrong, she's just different.

Mr. TYLER: Exactly. Exactly.

MARTIN: And same for you.

Mr. TYLER: Exactly. Exactly. And, you know, in fact, say another quick thing, in other words, you know, getting out of my experience as being raised in a single-parent household, I had to learn how to show affection to my wife in public. You know, when we would go out before, I kind of just would sit there and kind of, you know, just be checking out the scene and, you know, looking at what's going on. And, you know, she'd be, like, hey, how come I'm not getting the attention, the affection I need?

And, you know, once I learned that, we kind of talked about it and communicated that back and forth. Now she could see that I make sure the effort, and I've grown in that area.

MARTIN: And can I ask you, since she's not here, but I'm going to ask you to speak for her if you don't mind. You know, I'm sorry Ms. Tyler. Is there something that she learned that helped you feel better about the relationship? Something that she learned to do for you?

Mr. TYLER: I'd say one of the things she's learned is that I think she had some, you know, issues herself over a previous relationship. And then she kind of learned that she had to give me kind of a clean slate, you know, a fresh start that she couldn't, you know, kind of carry, you know, baggage from that relationship into this one and kind of blame me for some things that may have happened in the past. Or, you know, hold some of those things against me.

MARTIN: Diane, we have only a couple minutes left, so I would like to ask, I'm sure that some people will be listening to our conversation and will think, gee, that sounds great. But how do I find a competent, comfortable experience that works for me where I feel safe with the people, I feel it's actually of high quality? Is there a standard that people could be looking for, where they could figure out a good marriage education experience?

Ms. SOLLEE: You know, I get asked that all the time. And what I say is, you know, try a couple of them. It's not going to hurt you. It's not therapy. It's not counseling, you know, you're not signing on for six months of treatment. You're going to a class. It's kind of like going to drivers' education class or a weight loss class or a parenting class. Go in and see. It's fun. It's romantic. You walk in hand in hand and you walk out, you know, arm in arm.

It's not being diagnosed, you're not going to talk about your personal business in front of other people. You're going to sit and learn the way that this class teaches the skills. They're all based on the same research body of knowledge. And they're just going to teach it in a little bit different ways.

Lamar will be a trained marriage instructor after he leaves Smart Marriages next week, the conference. He's signed up for a training institute and he'll be a basic training instructor. And I, you know, we know that couples teach the classes better than individuals. So I'm hoping that Ronnie will be teaching with him.

MARTIN: Do the same skills apply to same-sex couples? Because I'm sure some people will...

Ms. SOLLEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...be asking this, too. They'll say, well, that might be fine, because, you know, men are from Mars, women are from Venus, if you buy into that.

Ms. SOLLEE: No, no, no.

MARTIN: But do you think the same issues apply to same-sex marriage?

Ms. SOLLEE: I don't have to think it. We always have workshops at the conference on same-sex relationships and taught by, you know, same-sex couples are attending. And we have research. I mean, a couple is a couple is a couple. And you're trying to make a lifelong loving team. And, you know, take advantage of the differences and different perspectives that each of you bring. And to learn how to integrate change because, you know, you're going to change along the way.

MARTIN: Would you hazard an opinion about whether some form of marriage education should be required before couples get married?

Ms. SOLLEE: Well, the only people that can require it are the Army.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, no, you can as the conditions of getting a license. You can. I mean, there are - all kinds of states have all kinds of requirements. You have to get a blood test in some places. You have to have HIV testing in some places.

Ms. SOLLEE: Right. Many states have tried over the years. We've been doing this about 15 years now, have tried to pass that legislation. But we can't require it. What they do is they offer an incentive in many states so you get a discount on your marriage license fee if you'll take a marriage education class.

And the Army, you know, really knows that this makes a difference. They've got good research. You can really improve your odds of finding a good partner and also staying with that partner. And so they can require it and they do.

But, you know, I wish it would become just as, you know, mandatory as having a bachelor party or a wedding registry or whatever, you know, that people would say, oh, which course did you take? And that the bridesmaids would all chip in and give them a course. And the groomsmen would give them another course. I like to tell couples that they can only take one course to take at six months after the marriage, when they're in the water and they already are having a little trouble. And then they'll really pay attention.

MARTIN: All right, well, thank you for that. And, Ellen, finally, you know, I'm dying to ask if you're married.

Ms. McCARTHY: I'm not.

MARTIN: You're not.

Ms. McCARTHY: Yeah.

MARTIN: And so, have you learned something well, thank you for letting me be in your personal business, I'm sorry. I just couldn't resist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Have you learned something over reporting this story that you think might help you should you choose that route at some point?

Ms. McCARTHY: Oh, I think so, sure. I mean, I think, to me, again, the sort of, the big deal here is that these things are not intuitive and that it's worth learning.

MARTIN: Ellen McCarthy is a staff writer for The Washington Post. Her piece is called "The Marriage Myth." It's in this week's Post magazine. If you want to read the piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, we'll have a link on our site. Just go to the program page at npr.org. Click on TELL ME MORE.

We were also joined by Diane Sollee. She's one of the leaders of the marriage education movement. She's also founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. She was with us on the phone.

Also with me in our Washington, D.C. studio is Lamar Tyler, co-founder with his wife Ronnie, of blackandmarriedwithkids.com. I thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. TYLER: Thank you.

Ms. MCCARTHY: Thank you.

Ms. SOLLEE: Thank you.

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