Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 111 (March 2001): 18-20.
In the past ten years a promising trend has taken hold. Divorce rates have leveled off, premarital sexual activity rates are declining, and surveys show that hopes for future marital satisfaction and permanence among the young are high. A 1997 Louis Harris poll, for example, revealed that 94 percent of college freshmen considered a happy marriage among their most important life goals. And more than three–quarters believe present laws make divorce too easy to procure. Americans are seriously interested in reviving a culture of stable marriage.
Part of this renewed interest has been stimulated by public policy makers who, recognizing the troubling social, emotional, and economic legacy of divorce, have decided to act. Determined to test new ways to encourage lasting marriages, they have directed many of their efforts toward encouraging marriage preparation programs in schools and churches. Florida has taken the lead here. Finding that “the state has a compelling interest in educating its citizens with regard to marriage and, if contemplated, the effects of divorce,” the Florida Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act of 1998 provides a discount on marriage license fees to couples who take marital preparation courses. The state has also commissioned a scholarly evaluation of such courses, and has mandated high schools to incorporate marriage instruction as part of an existing required course in life management skills.
The push for high school marriage preparation is especially encouraging. But it would be more effective if the leaders of the marriage preservation movement—in Florida and elsewhere—saw marriage education in its broadest light, as an introduction to the history, cultural richness, social utility, and civic meaning of marriage as an institution. Unfortunately, what passes for marriage preparation in the thousands of schools and churches around the country that currently offer it to teenagers is not marriage preparation at all.
In a recently published report entitled Hungry Hearts: Evaluating the New Curricula for Teens on Marriage and Relationships, I examined ten self–proclaimed marriage preparation programs used in over two thousand middle and high schools across the country. These curricula focus almost entirely on building “relationship skills”—a form of communications training that presents students with a set of scripts designed to foster honesty, tact, negotiation, sympathy, and compromise in interpersonal confrontations. This training is not exactly in how to make better marriages; it treats marriage as a form of relationship and teaches “relationship enhancement” in general—whether at school, at work, in dating, or in the family setting.
Indeed, several programs were not only reluctant to distinguish marriage from other intimate relationships, they even avoided using the word “marriage” in their lessons. Among the most striking examples was Lori H. Gordon’s PEERS—a twenty–six unit high school course in self–exploration and relationship dynamics that only very rarely refers to marriage, although the author is a widely known expert on marriage, and in her dedication page expresses her desire to “improve [young people’s] chances for giving and receiving love, and eventually enjoying a happy marriage.”
Curiously, of those few curricula that did use the word “marriage” liberally, two spent much of their time issuing to young people strong warnings against getting married. Such was the case with the American Bar Association program, Partners, which centered heavily on marital conflict, domestic violence law, and divorce. Similarly, David Olson et al.’s Building Relationships contained a multitude of dismal warnings to teenagers about the “risks” of marriage, among them: “In this country, getting into a bad marriage is much easier than getting out of one.”
There is nothing wrong in itself about warning young people against precipitous marriages, or giving them instruction in communication skills. Indeed, there may even be a powerful argument for communication skills training as an integral component of marriage preparation. In Reweaving the Tapestry: Toward a Public Philosophy and Policy for Families, Don Browning and Gloria Rodriguez aptly observe that in promoting communication skills training, the marriage movement pursues what in the field of political philosophy “Jürgen Habermas calls ‘discourse ethics,’ the rules and skills governing communication for solving problems and facilitating joint action.” “As societies become more differentiated and pluralistic,” the authors say, “we must all learn more fair and effective ways of communicating—in business, in government, and in everyday practical relations, but first of all within marriage and family.”
Nevertheless, there is a problem when high school courses on marriage, in their focus on facilitating communication, ignore those issues particular to marriage and especially relevant to teenagers—for example, the ways in which premarital behavior is likely to affect whom a person marries and whether the marriage will be successful. Perhaps it is a sign of the decay of courtship customs (if we mean by courtship not simply dating, but the conscious, formal process of mate selection) that only one curriculum, Richard Panzer’s excellent RQ: Building Relationship Intelligence, broaches the subject of teen dating as a rehearsal for mate selection and marriage, or urges premarital sexual abstinence on teens. Indeed, all the other curricula blithely ignore data suggesting that patterns of early sexual involvement and serial pair bonding during the adolescent years are likely to have a negative impact on young people’s ability to settle into happy, permanent unions. An especially egregious example is Charlene R. Kamper’s Connections: Dating and Emotions (ostensibly a companion course to her Connections: Relationships and Marriage), which contains only one reference to marriage—and this only in the Foreword to the Teacher’s Manual. No attempt is made in this program to set teenage dating in the broader context of courtship and marriage. And the program’s mild warnings against premature sexual involvement seem unduly resigned to teen promiscuity.
In pretending that there is no connection between current dating behaviors and young people’s ultimate goal of happy, permanent unions, many high school marriage programs do nothing to discourage the kind of casual sex that hardens young people and foments distrust between men and women. But worse, in addressing the challenges of sexually intimate relationships as generic communication problems, these programs may lead young people into believing that communication “skills” are all that it takes to make marriages work. There is little convincing evidence that such skills—e.g., “I statements,” “anger rituals,” and active listening techniques—are the secret to enduring marriages. In a study of newlyweds published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, marriage therapist John Gottman and colleagues found that most successful marriages owed little, if anything, to such skills. What evidence we have on successful marriages tends to support the notion that commitment, not communication skills, promotes marital happiness. Researchers Paul Amato and Allan Booth recently found, for example, that couples who entered marriage with “favorable attitudes toward divorce tended to experience declines in relationship quality,” whereas those who maintained the view that marriage is for keeps “tended to experience improvements in relationship quality, or at least a slowdown in the gradual decline in marital happiness and interaction that characterizes many marriages.”
If attitudes and ideals about marriage are so important, then it would make sense for marriage educators to introduce students to the ways our culture has viewed and promoted this institution. Yet most of these programs instead focus on marriage solely as a private emotional bond, the principal goal of which is self–actualization. Absent are reflections from the fields of sociology, anthropology, or history, and few programs offer literary or aesthetic inspiration that might present marriage as beautiful and encourage teenagers to strive for an enduring, self–forgetting love.
To some extent, the idea that communication skills are the basis of marriage preparation is just part of a general shift in education from teaching cultural narratives and ideal forms to providing technical information and psychotherapeutic advice. In preparing our children for marriage, at least, we would be well–advised to buck this trend. In an age of expressive individualism, as models of marital stability become increasingly rare and young people are uprooted from their culture, marriage educators would do well to go beyond relationship talk, and to persuade young people that marriage is a spiritual, moral, and civic vocation, a universal institution deeply rooted in culture and human instinct, and not just one among many relationships.
In fact, there are resources on the market that offer such a deeper understanding of marriage. The Art of Loving Well, a literary anthology of romance and marriage by Nancy McLaren et al., is a wonderful program for young adolescents, enabling them to explore their life goals, sexual values, and family relationships in an aesthetically satisfying context, and at an emotionally safe distance. The American Library Association offers a set of arts and humanities–oriented programs on love, courtship, and marriage. Entitled Courtly Love in the Shopping Mall, these programs could easily be adapted for schools and churches. Finally, Leon and Amy Kass’ book on courtship, Wing to Wing: Oar to Oar, is a welcome source–reader for older high school and college age students. An in–depth exploration of the evolution of Western ideals of courtship and marriage, the book offers profound reflections on the all–important ontological and spiritual dimensions of mate selection and marriage.
It is heartening that such resources are being made available. It will be even more heartening when those responsible for teaching marriage preparation begin to use them more widely.
Dana Mack is director of the Childhood
and Adolescence Project at the Institute for American Values. She is the author
of The Assault on Parenthood (Encounter) and editor of the forthcoming The
Book of Marriage: The Wisest Answers to the Toughest Questions (Eerdmans).