SmartMarriages: Devoted to Saving Couples Part three of the Day to Day series on marriage education profiles a traveling conference called SmartMarriages. A diverse collection of people have devoted their careers to teaching people how to have a successful marriage -- but their ideologies often clash on the exhibit floor.

SmartMarriages: Devoted to Saving Couples

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Four years ago, President Bush announced his plans to devote $1 1/2 billion to marriage education; that is, the movement to both promote the idea of marriage and to teach people how to be better married, how to stay married. Many on the political left were skeptical. They said this was just another initiative for conservative values. But look closely at the people behind the marriage education movement. Look and you'll see that this is not an issue for conservatives only. In the third part of our reports on marriage education, NPR's Alix Spiegel visits a conference called Smart Marriages where advocates of marriage education gather each year.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

It was personal tragedy that brought Roger Harms around to the benefits of marriage education. In 1995, he lost a high-paying job and was forced to go to work in a prison. This professional reversal put a strain on his marriage, and after a year his wife decided that their relationship needed help.

Mr. ROGER HARMS (Smart Marriages Conference Attendee): She said, `Well, you need to go with me to a counselor.' Well, we went to the counselor and, God, everything I had done was wrong, and I felt really beat up by the experience.

SPIEGEL: It wasn't that Roger Harms didn't want to work on his relationship. It was the process of therapy that he found so destructive, the endless exploration of wrongs real and imagined, its open-ended nature. He says his wife disagreed that the problem was the treatment and decided to divorce him. This is how Harms discovered marriage education. Late one night, he typed the words `bad therapy outcomes' into a search engine.

Mr. HARMS: I wanted to find out, does anybody else see marital counseling as negatively as I do, or do I have a major life problem here? I'm not a drunk. I've had continuous employment. I'm a pretty stable guy. So why am I so incredibly--why do I despise what happened to me so much? Well, most everybody you see here are complete converts from conventional psychotherapy.

SPIEGEL: That conventional therapy is inadequate to the task of saving the institution of marriage in this country is generally agreed here. That marriage education is the most promising solution is also a shared belief. But the attendees of the Smart Marriages conference share few other convictions. The variety of disparate philosophies is on display at the conference booths. There, policy wonks who shape governmental intervention sit next to self-help gurus interested in turning a buck. Academic researchers display their data alongside booths featuring products from the kind of people who are usually associated with family causes.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Welcome to the ministry of marriage preparation. The task of the church is to teach people how to live the gospel of Jesus. Jesus often said, `Love God and love one another.'

SPIEGEL: Across the aisle from the ministry of marriage preparation booth stands Jim Sheridan, a tall, beefy man wearing a pink tie covered in quotes from 1 Corinthians. Sheridan rubs his hands together and then gestures to the pamphlets on his table.

Mr. JIM SHERIDAN (Smart Marriages Attendee): This is a Bible study on sexuality and romance in marriage. You get all sorts of nonsense out there about, well, if it's not the missionary position, somehow it ain't Christian. Well, no, that's not true.

SPIEGEL: It is to safe to say that when liberals worry that President Bush's initiative will unapologetically propagate traditional values, it is people like Sheridan they are thinking of. While many at the conference bend over backwards to emphasize that their embrace of marriage doesn't constitute a rejection of other forms of family, Sheridan takes a harder line. He just doesn't like liberal relativism. He feels that it encourages people to take actions, like divorce, which are ultimately bad for them.

Mr. SHERIDAN: People end up as single parents, and we're afraid to say that that's not the best situation. We're literally afraid because it hurts their feelings somehow. Unfortunately, we have gotten to the point where we say, oh, my goodness, if I say something in favor of marriage, I'll hurt somebody's feeling who is single. No, we still should be telling the truth to those folks and let them know that, yeah, we'll help you the best we can, but you're really not in the best position.

SPIEGEL: Sheridan isn't a fan of gay marriage, either. He says that from a scriptural view, it is, as he puts it, not appropriate. But while this is clearly a contingent of the conference, it by no means dominates. In fact, the founder of the Smart Marriages conference and one of the leaders of the marriage education movement is a woman named Diane Sollee, a self-described former hippie peace activist who only became interested in the subject of marriage after her husband left her for his secretary.

Ms. DIANE SOLLEE (Founder, Smart Marriages): My best friend in the peace movement found me, you know, sitting under a table in the fetal position, literally--this is a true story--pulled me out from under the table, said, `You've got to do something. You can get into social work school with me.' And I said, `It's too late.'

SPIEGEL: But Sollee did go to social work school, and it was there that she discovered marriage therapy. After a decade in the field, though, Sollee came to view couples counseling as an insufficient response to what she saw as an epidemic akin to drug addiction or heart disease. Sollee decided that the breakdown of marriage required a preventative solution, marriage education, and was outraged that the government seemed slow to embrace this approach.

Mr. SOLLEE: I thought we should be out marching in the street and saying, `We have an epidemic, we have a crisis that is affecting all areas of our life, as our marriages fail, and you're not getting us the information.' If it had been about smoking and there was this research on smoking and we didn't get the information to the public, it would've been a crisis, or about infant death or about anything. You know, if we didn't get the information to the public. And I see the breakdown of marriage as a physical, you know, and mental health crisis. It's a crisis.

SPIEGEL: This interpretation of the problem, that the breakdown of marriage should be viewed as a public health crisis, is a common theme at the marriage education conference, and many of the presentations are devoted to detailing exactly how divorce affects physical and mental health, like this keynote address by Linda Waite, a demographer from the University of Chicago who uses a PowerPoint presentation to explain that people who stay married live, on average, four years longer than those who get divorced.

Mr. LINDA WAITE (University of Chicago): So the health benefit that people get from marriage is twice as big for people who have never been divorced or widowed. It's a big effect. So there's something going on. If we think about a scar on people's health, here it is. Right there.

SPIEGEL: Today, these disparate groups, secular academic researchers and religious conservatives, co-exist in the convention hall with relative ease. But Bill Doherty, a professor of psychology who has been part of the marriage education movement from the beginning, says that when Sollee first started the Smart Marriage conference in 1996, there was a genuine fight to hold the coalition together.

Professor BILL DOHERTY (Professor of Psychology): I mean, her first conferences, people would walk through the exhibit hall and have to hold their nose. The conservative right hated the fact that she would have--one of the breakout sessions would be on gay-lesbian relationships. And some of the liberals would be just so frustrated that you have all these clergy here and all these tables on Christian marriage encounters, something like that. And people would tell her, `I'm not coming next year if you have those people.' And she wouldn't back down. She would say, `It'll be your loss.'

SPIEGEL: And so they stayed, joined by their shared belief that marriage is somehow more than a piece of paper; it is a determiner of health, a sacred covenant, an essential human need.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

SPIEGEL: On the first night of the conference, after the welcome session had been adjourned, a mariachi band wandered into the hall singing songs of love found and lost.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

SPIEGEL: The attendees gathered round, swaying to the music, liberal and conservative together, their differences forgotten as they stood mesmerized by the enigma of love. Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

CHADWICK: Coming tomorrow on the program, what's the remedy for trying to cut divorce rates, boosting people out of poverty or sending them to courses on how to fight fair with your spouse? Join us as we conclude our series on marriage education.

I'm Alex Chadwick. There's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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