Proposed divorce reform legislation challenges the field of marriage education to be sure programs make a lasting, positive difference for couples on the brink of divorce.
by SETH EISENBERG
Why should couples with minor children who want to end their marriages be required to participate in marriage education and wait eight months before getting divorced, as the new Coalition for Divorce Reform proposes?
The answer is that for most couples at the brink of divorce, evidence-based skills training that boosts emotional understanding and connection not only leads to reconciliation, but to greater happiness, affection and relationship satisfaction with each other and greater opportunities for their children. For those families in particular and society generally, that’s a priceless gift.
The challenge for the evolving field of marriage and relationship education is to ensure we make the best use of the brief opportunity we have in classes with men and women experiencing marital distress. For many, the decision to pursue separation or divorce comes after months or years of anger, frustration, distance and disappointment. Often, as couples have stopped meeting each other’s needs for closeness, they’ve pursued opportunities outside their marriage for intimacy, which typically leads to an even greater sense of pain and feelings of betrayal.
Ideally, couples should learn skills for effective communication, problem-solving, and understanding emotions early in life. There’s growing evidence that adding a fifth “R” to our standard educational curriculum – Relationships – remains one of the most important innovations needed to promote future prosperity and save billions currently spent paying for the consequences of family breakdown. Through personal experience with thousands of people in the troughs of marital discord, I’ve seen that for most, the challenge isn’t changing or replacing the person they married, but becoming a person who has the best chance of fulfilling their most cherished wishes, hopes and dreams. Significant research has shown a strong correlation between skills training built on emotional and social learning and increased marital satisfaction.
For the typical marriage educator, facing a couple on the verge of separation or divorce can feel like a daunting responsibility, which is why it’s vitally important that we collectively build on what works and stop doing what doesn’t. It’s no gift to anyone’s children to have parents spend hours in training that doesn’t have a very high likelihood of making an enduring, positive contribution to their lives and families. Collectively embracing that obligation is the beginning of creating a future in which marriage and relationship education becomes as natural a decision as it is today for teenagers and young adults to enroll in Drivers Ed.
The challenge with legislating marriage education is that it can interfere with the fundamental building blocks needed for participants to become quickly open to learning, growing, considering, and eventually sustaining the paradigm shift that is the foundation to improving marital satisfaction. It also conflicts with the belief that marriage and divorce are deeply personal decisions in which government should not interfere. Yet when children are involved, society is too, as taxpayers become immediately responsible for much of the long-term cost and consequences.
Within the first hour of a typical PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills) marriage education class, the far majority of participants recognize the intrinsic benefits of the course for their own happiness, health, and well-being. That’s a very different challenge when facing people who have been mandated to complete a program to receive an external benefit such as a certificate of completion to meet judicial requirements or financial benefits for participating. For their efforts to have a lasting impact, instructors of mandated programs will have to be among the most highly skilled in creating a safe, inviting environment for reluctant participants to become open to reconsidering entrenched attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs.
A paradigm shift takes place in a marriage education class when participants set aside the need to blame, defend, explain and justify in place of the recognition that the work of a relationship, and much of the basis for personal success, health, and happiness, is connected to creating an environment in which two people can consistently meet each other’s needs for emotional openness and physical closeness, known as bonding. Most, if not all, of what leads to declining marital satisfaction and resiliency (as well as the range of addictions and other self-destructive behaviors) can be traced to the deprivation of the human need for bonding.
As participants recognize the price they’ve paid for not getting their needs for bonding met and the impact on loved ones, they naturally become open to learning skills that improve their ability to confide, listen, embrace differences, and find constructive solutions to the natural challenges of life and relationships. For most couples at the brink of divorce, skills built on those new understandings lead them back to each other.
Skills for sustaining intimacy are not difficult to learn. In fact, many of the most valuable discoveries adults take away from marriage and relationship education are about letting go of defensive behaviors that interfere with intimacy, making it safe to become vulnerable, understanding and accepting themselves and each other. The results regularly show up through deeper levels of connection, improved problem-solving, and stronger feelings of love.
Ultimately, the best way to create a future of strong marriages and families in America is for children to grow up with examples they can one day emulate in their own adult lives. Today, in a society in which fewer and fewer people grow up with those models, we have a national obligation to reverse that trend.
The work of the Coalition for Divorce Reform, in close collaboration with leaders from the fields of marriage and relationship education, domestic violence prevention, and state government, is a long overdue step towards revitalizing the very fabric of neighborhoods and communities throughout our nation.
Seth Eisenberg is President and CEO of PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in marriage and relationship education, and a founding member of the Coalition for Divorce Reform.