Counseling Today, Features

Marriage Maintenance

Jonathan Rollins June 2, 2006

Romance is ruining marriage in America.

OK, that’s an overstatement if not an outright inaccuracy. But according to Mark Young, co-director of the Florida Marriage and Family Research Institute at the University of Central Florida, romance — or rather what he labels the “myth of romance” — really does contribute to the high divorce rate in the United States. Approximately one out of every two marriages in the United States ends in divorce, and the divorce rate is closer to 60 percent in Young’s home state of Florida.

One of the contributing factors, says Young, a professor and coordinator of the counselor education program at UCF, is the fallacy that romance should be a constant in marriage, and if it’s not, then it’s time to bail out. The reality is quite different, he says. “Romance is like the Fourth of July,” Young says with a laugh. “It comes around once a year and is quite exciting, but friendship (between a couple) is the real answer to a good marriage.”

Chasing after the mirage of constant romance often leads people to seek out affairs, Young says, but a lack of romance is rarely the root problem in a relationship. “The problem is a problem of maintenance,” he says. “It’s more of a deterioration that leads up to people being disillusioned. What really makes or breaks the marriage is the day in and day out communication.” According to statistics Young cited from the Family Research Council, 78 percent of all couples who seek counseling indicate that communication is a problem in their relationship.

Andrew Daire, Young’s co-director at the Florida Marriage and Family Research Institute and clinical director of the counselor education program at UCF, says society’s increasing complexity is putting more strain on marriages. “But I personally believe (the divorce rate) has to do with what I call the ‘fast food mentality’ of our culture,” he says. “It’s that mentality that if you don’t like what you have, then you just move on and get a new one instead of dealing with the challenges.”

Stronger marriages, stronger families

UCF operates a community counseling clinic that sees approximately 1,500 clients per year, according to Young. In many instances, parents drop off their children for psychotherapy, he says, when the real problem is the family unit itself. In fact, helping children — particularly those from at-risk families — was the impetus for Young and Daire to create the Florida Marriage and Family Research Institute in 2003.

The institute’s mission is to facilitate the development of research and clinical initiatives to better support couples, marriages and families. It applied for and received a three-year demonstration grant in 2003 through Promoting Safe and Stable Families, a program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. The grant, which expires Sept. 30, was used to establish the institute’s Stronger Marriages and Stronger Families Program. The program provides brief couples counseling, weekend marriage and couples education workshops, premarital counseling and follow-up groups, as well as whole agency training and an annual conference for direct service providers. The program, with Joanne Vogel serving as project director, is also in the process of identifying best practices through research initiatives.

“We have seen hundreds of couples in our clinic and in marriage enrichment programs using counseling students in their practica and internships,” Young says. “I believe our project and (similar) initiatives would be of interest to other counselors. One reason is that couples work has become a specialty area for counselors, and they can now receive specialized training. Another is the growing research in that area and funding that counselors might wish to apply for.” Young notes that another federal program, the Healthy Marriage Initiative, provides more than $100 million per year for marriage promotion, and he hopes that more counselors and counseling programs will pursue these and other similar grants.

Why has the federal government taken such an interest in what it terms “healthy marriages”? “The research says people who are married do better in all sorts of ways,” Young explains. “They have fewer illnesses, they live longer, their children do better in school. That evidence has hit people on both sides of the political spectrum.”

At the same time, Daire points out that the Healthy Marriage Initiative and similar programs are not trying to force people to get married but rather providing support for those who do. “The research is clear and solid,” he says. “When marriages fail and kids are raised in high-conflict environments or in divorced households, they are much more likely to suffer whichever ill you want to throw a dart at, such as poor school performance or involvement in the juvenile justice system.”

Marriage education vs. marriage counseling

The Stronger Marriages and Stronger Families Program was the only counselor-led effort of the seven demonstration projects funded through the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program in 2003. While each of the six other projects focused exclusively on marriage education as opposed to marriage counseling, the Stronger Marriages and Stronger Families Program provided both services, in part to compare the efficacy of the two approaches.

As Daire admits, some critics question the overall value and effectiveness of marriage counseling and therapy. But he looks at the debate from another angle. “Marriage counseling is really the emergency room,” he says. “The success rate is going to be less at this point than if the couple did preventative treatment. We’re pretty much the trauma unit.”

Young backs that theory up, explaining that a problem typically crops up in a married couple’s relationship six years before they seek counseling to correct it. “People learn to adjust to bad situations,” he says. “They learn to avoid it because they think it’s going to go away. … You have to have a very positive attitude to be a couples counselor because couples come in very discouraged and distressed. The counselor’s job is to lend hope.”

Even so, based on preliminary observations in the Stronger Marriages and Stronger Families Program, it appears that couples counseling will prove to be just as effective (if not more so) than marriage education, Young says. The better news, he says, is that both approaches typically led to significant improvements in the relationships of couples who participated in either counseling or enrichment/education activities through the Stronger Marriages and Stronger Families Program.

The program is currently comparing results from two of the direct services it provided: Stronger Marriage and Stronger Couples 16-hour enrichment workshops, which were based on David Olsen’s Prepare/Enrich model, and six one-hour sessions of brief couples counseling based on Young and Lynn Long’s Integrative Approach to Couples Counseling. “The next step,” Young says, “is to determine which treatment is best for which couple at which time.”

As Young explains, marriage education tends to be a programmed approach that takes couples through a step-by-step process in a group format. A “preventative” approach, it usually touches on multiple relationship topics (communication, finances, sex, conflict resolution, relationship expectations, etc.) regardless of whether participating couples view the topics as problem areas in their marriages.

Marriage counseling, on the other hand, involves just the counselor and the couple (although group counseling can also be used, especially as a follow-up or reinforcement tool). The focus in couples counseling is finding a resolution to a central issue, Young says, rather than providing a broad overview of marriage and relationship topics. “Most of these marriage education programs are being provided by volunteers and paraprofessionals,” he says, “while an expertise in family dynamics and couples dynamics is really necessary for marriage counseling.”

But neither Young nor Daire tries to downplay the benefits of marriage education. Some counselors feel threatened by the field of marriage education, Daire says, but they should realize that its focus is exactly that — education, not counseling. Besides, he advises, marriage education is a great complement to traditional couples counseling because of its preventative approach. “Relationship education is a viable modality in working with clients,” Daire says. “I would encourage counselors to really embrace it and try to get trained on the different curricula that are available.” Counselors in private practice may find relationship education materials especially helpful with some of their clients, he adds.

Trying to reframe the challenges of marriage

In working with the Stronger Marriages and Stronger Families Program and trying to secure additional grants for the Florida Marriage and Family Research Center, Daire has been struck by the genuine need to market the benefits of both marriage counseling and marriage education to the general public. The reluctance of couples to engage in “maintenance activities” for their relationship has surprised him.

Daire and Young both mention a demonstration project in another state in which couples were invited to attend an all-expenses-paid marriage enrichment retreat at a bed and breakfast for a weekend. While more than 4,000 people were invited, only 42 signed up to participate. “People are complaining that they need tools to help them in their marriages,” Daire says, “but it seems like if you build it and offer it for free and even offer incentives, they don’t come. … More time and money is spent on maintaining our cars than our marriages. People make sure their cars get their oil changed four times a year, but many of them won’t consider going to a marriage conference.”

Daire acknowledges that it’s sometimes exasperating how quickly couples will contemplate divorce without giving any consideration to marriage education or counseling. Somehow, he says, that mindset has to be changed.

Daire was recently reading a newspaper article in which an elderly gentleman was interviewed. The man said it was surprising to him just how preoccupied members of the younger generations are with trying to “find” their soul mates. In actuality, he said, soul mates are created by going through the trials and tribulations of marriage and relationships.

“That really reframes the challenges of marriage not as a bad thing,” Daire says, “but as something that can strengthen our relationship.”

For more information on the Florida Marriage & Family Research Center and its Stronger Marriages and Stronger Families Program, visit www.ucfcounselored.org/families.

 

SIDEBAR:

Relationship danger zones

Spouses of all stripes can be excused if they harbor some seeds of concern as they approach their seventh year of marriage. After all, the phenomenon known as the seven-year itch is lurking around the corner, just waiting to lay waste to even the most solid of unions. But if they can only weather the storm, they can take some comfort in knowing that it should be smooth sailing after that. Right?

According to Mark Young, coordinator of counselor education at the University of Central Florida and co-director of the university’s Florida Marriage and Family Research Center, couples don’t need to feel any undue dread about the “unlucky” seventh-year anniversary. If the seven-year itch was ever anything more than a myth, he says, it likely doesn’t apply now, mainly because many couples are waiting until they’re older (and oftentimes more established, settled or mature) to get married.

That’s the good news. The bad news? Couples should expect to confront several “danger zones” during the course of their marriage, usually related to developmental pressures. According to Young, these stress points often coincide with:

  • The birth of the first child. “There’s a complete reorientation,” Young says. “You now have a triangle in your relationship.” This is an especially important time for couples to seek counseling, he says. “No one is really prepared for the 24-hour nature of a child,” Young says. “It’s not like a Labrador retriever.”
  • Children becoming teenagers. Couples end up spending the great majority of their time talking about or dealing with issues related to their teenagers, Young says, while often completely ignoring critical maintenance activities in their marriage in the process.
  • A woman turning 30 or a man turning 40. These are “dangerous times,” Young says, because of what’s going on inside the head of the individual who is reaching a self-perceived milestone age.
  • The empty nest years. So much effort has gone into raising the children that when they’re gone, a husband and wife can feel like two strangers living in the same house. At the same time, spouses who have remained together “for the sake of the kids” often feel that it’s finally “safe” to get divorced once their children are in college. “In fact,” Young says, “it’s pretty devastating.”
  • Retirement. Young recounts what one woman told him about how difficult it was to suddenly have her husband home all day, every day. “I’ve been cooking his eggs for 30 years,” she said, “and now he wants to tell me how to do it.”

— Jonathan Rollins