The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that marriage partners have "a solemn obligation to love and care for each other" (¶ 6). This love and care requires intentional effort. One way to make this effort is through marriage enrichment programs.
Many religious organizations, public institutions, and private groups have developed enrichment programs. The best ones teach couples the skills they need to make their marriages strong, satisfying, and enduring.
Unfortunately, very few couples take advantage of marriage enrichment programs. Most wait until their problems are severe before they seek help, and often it's too late for education. Major surgery is required.
Scholars have found three common - and erroneous - reasons that people are reluctant to participate in marriage enrichment programs:
- Good marriages happen naturally. Many people think a happy, successful marriage should come naturally. They think what they learned about marriage from watching their parents and other couples should be enough. If marriage partners need help to build a successful relationship, the thinking goes, then they must be abnormal or deficient in some way. But this "it's natural" theory is a myth. Few people get enough information about how to create a strong and enduring marriage through absorption alone. Most need additional information and education to build a truly satisfying marriage.
- Marriage is a private matter. Some people believe the marriage relationship is too private to share with others. They feel it isn't proper to share their marital issues with anyone outside the marriage or to participate in an educational setting where others might see that they need help. Couples with this attitude deprive themselves of the many resources available to improve marital happiness, including the experiences of fellow participants in marriage enrichment programs.
- Marriage enrichment doesn't help. Some couples believe that marriage enrichment programs are "feel good" experiences that might help briefly but don't help in the long run. In fact, research shows the best marriage enrichment programs help couples improve their marriages in a deep and lasting way.
Which Marriage Enrichment Programs Work?
Self-help is one of the first places many couples turn to for enriching their marriages. Many good books are available, including The Seven Habits for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman, Fighting for Your Marriage by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg, and Strengthening Couples, by David and Amy Olson.
Those who advocate self-help alone, however, should know that research tells us many marriage enrichment programs show benefits greater than self-help approaches. The most effective programs tend to be highly structured, meaning they focus on teaching specific skills, including communication, problem solving, adaptability, and conflict resolution. They also teach the importance of commitment, love, forgiveness, and friendship.
Some of the better-known and scientifically evaluated programs are listed below. Look for these in your community. If they are not available, see if you can bring them to your community. Each program has its own approach and methods. Learn about the programs, then decide which one best suits you.
For a comprehensive list of marriage enrichment centers and programs, check out the Smart Marriages website at http://www.smartmarriages.com/index.html.
The Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment (A.C.M.E.) was founded by David Mace in 1973. Its approach is to help couples become more aware of their individual and partner needs. It also teaches problem-solving skills and communication skills. Both weekend retreat and ongoing weekly meeting programs are available. Workshops are held in group settings, which Mace believes enhances the learning of all couples. A.C.M.E. goals include helping couples learn to work as a team, communicate in warm and caring ways, and openly share marital experiences.
Research on A.C.M.E. is not extensive, but what has been done shows that A.C.M.E. improves couple communication and agreement, intimacy and trust, conflict resolution, and a sense of equal partnership.
For more information about A.C.M.E., call 1-800-634-8325; website:http://www.bettermarriages.org .
In the late 1960s at the University of Minnesota Family Study Center, a group of graduate students developed a program to help couples make the transition between engagement and early marriage. This was the beginning of what became the Couple Communication marriage enrichment program.
This program has three main objectives: (1) communicate more effectively about day-to-day issues, (2) manage and resolve conflicts, and (3) build a more viable and satisfying relationship. It teaches eleven skills for accomplishing these main objectives. The programs are offered in both private and group settings.
Research shows that this program increases a couple's relationship satisfaction and improves communication and problem-solving skills. It has been shown effective for couples of all ages and socioeconomic groups.
For more information about Couple Communication, call 1-800-328-5099;http://www.couplecommunication.com
Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP)
PREP helps couples learn better communication and conflict management strategies, understand one another's expections, and build commitment, fun, and friendship into their relationship.
One of the main communication skills PREP teaches is the "Speaker-Listener Technique," where one partner holds the floor and the other is the designated listener. Couples take turns restating each other's feelings, following the Speaker-Listener Technique rules, which include: (1) mind reading is not allowed, and (2) the listener can only restate what he or she hears, and (3) the listener cannot rebut.
Research has shown PREP to be effective in preventing marital discord and helping couples have more satisfying relationships. Long-term studies show that PREP couples have lower rates of divorce, higher marriage satisfaction, and less problem intensity than couples who didn't participate.
To learn more about the PREP marriage enrichment program, write to the Center for Marital and Family Studies, Psychology Department, University of Denver, Denver, CO 80308; website: http://www.prepinc.com.
Many religious organization sponsor marriage classes or seminars. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides a 16-week course titled "Marriage and Family Relations." Other faith groups appoint mentor couples to work with newly married couples to help them make the sometimes difficult adjustments during the first year of marriage.
Promoting Marriage Enrichment in the Community
The Proclamation calls on citizens to promote government and community efforts that strengthen marriages and families (¶ 9). Here are some ideas about how to do this from Diane Sollee of the Coalition for Marriage, Families, and Couples Education:
- Support establishment of a marriage and family coalition, initiative, or commission to coordinate faith-based and secular efforts to strengthen marriages and families. For example, the State of Utah has a Commission on Marriage that sponsors marriage seminars and promotes marriage education.
- Encourage, support, and promote private, non-profit, and faith-based efforts, such as community marriage policies and community marriage covenants.
- Support marriage education programs in high schools, youth groups, county courts, extension offices, county mental health agencies, hospitals, military installations, child-birth centers, etc. Make marriage education skills programs widely accessible in county and community service agencies for couples of all races and classes and at all stages of relationship on a subsidized, voucher and/or sliding-scale fee system. A variety of research-based, highly cost-effective curricula already exist that can be implemented in high schools and other programs, such as those for couples making the transition to parenthood.
Written by Bradley Owens, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
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