by Seth Eisenberg
“Love is a feeling. Marriage is a contract. Relationships are work.”
Just as the legendary religious sage, Rabbi Hillel, summed up volumes of holy teachings 2,000 years ago with the words, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others,” those 11 words capture the essence of relationship and marriage education.
Feelings of love naturally wax and wane. Marriages built on feelings alone are among the most vulnerable. Emotions are impacted by events, chemistry, and much more that is far beyond the influence of significant others. Although, understanding the logic of love and emotions – the concept that we are drawn to what we anticipate will be a pleasure and generally seek to avoid what we expect will be painful – is motivation to actively and consistently create pleasurable experiences in our closest relationships.
That understanding also influences how we embrace the contract of a marriage. Few would make the commitment ‘till death do us part’ in return for a contract based on feelings alone. The commitment to fidelity, respect, and honor inherent in marriage vows across diverse cultures and generations is an obligation that allows others to be vulnerable, dependent, create the foundation of their lives — and often life itself — in partnership with another person.
Relationship and marriage education is about the work of a relationship: learning to confide and making it safe for others to confide in us, responding with empathy even in the face of disagreement, negotiating differences with a desire for the relationship to win, and understanding emotions in ourselves and others so we can competently navigate the events and experiences of our lives. Understanding these concepts before marriage may profoundly influence the decisions we make about choosing a partner who is open to learning, growing, and actively investing in the work of the relationship while honoring commitments in good times and bad. For couples who have already made a commitment, learning practical skills based on decades of research regularly reflects the decision that a trial-and-error approach to the foundation of our lives too often comes at an unacceptable price.
This month, more than a hundred relationship and marriage education programs grant funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began their fifth, and possibly, final year. Federal grant funding has made services that would typically cost hundreds or thousands of dollars available in many communities at a nominal cost. In many cases, such as in South Florida, the headquarters of PAIRS Foundation, more than 5,000 have participated in free programs regularly offered in both English and Spanish.
As headlines and news anchors continue to broadcast daily reports about the impact of marriage and family breakdown – a root cause of poverty, homelessness, teen pregnancy, increased crime, academic struggles, and the range of addictions – making a commitment over the months ahead to participate in an evidence-based relationship or marriage education program in your community or online will quite likely be one of the most meaningful of your life.
Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.
California Healthy Marriage Coalition
National Healthy Marriage Resource Center
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education