Marriage enrichment is a form of primary prevention in the area of human relationships. Begun in an organized way by David and Vera Mace in the mid-twentieth century, its objectives are to promote a mutual commitment to growth in the marital relationship; to develop and agree on a communication style of talking and listening that works for enhancement of the marital relationship; to learn how to use conflict in creative ways that helps, not hinders, the marital relationship, including the sharing of feelings; and to develop and maintain a desire for and the presence of intimacy in the marital relationship, utilizing a variety of positive interaction skills.
Marriage enrichment takes place when couples deem their marriage of primary importance. These couples are intentional about their marital growth and choose to do something about it. Couples who commit to an ongoing marriage enrichment group, through which they can practice quality interactive skills with each other and in the presence of other caring couples, tend to have more successful marriages. The longer the process is of practicing the skills that enhance the marriage, the greater the potential for behavioral change (Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg 1994).
Marriage enrichment programs teach spouses interpersonal skills in communication and conflict resolution. Couples can, in a group process, help couples. A sense of safety develops when the group's couples have a mutual commitment to growth. The individual couples in the group begin to recognize their issues are common to other couples.
Marriage enrichment uses multiple techniques to provide opportunities for couple growth. The focus of most enrichment events is each couple's marriage. Given the approach's effectiveness, its leaders most often help couples apply the material via experiential learning techniques. One such technique is the couple dialogue, where one spouse turns to the other and talks about their relationship while other couples in the group listen. This exercise provides a very different dynamic from a typical group discussion. It also encourages the couple to affirm good communication skills. Much of marriage enrichment depends upon peer relationship in a supportive environment.
A married couple provides the leadership for some marriage enrichment programs. In the A.C.M.E. (Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment) model, couples are required to be trained as leader couples. They serve as facilitator participants and need not be experts on marriage. As they lead, they work on their own relationship and bring their issues to the group through their public dialogue. The leader couple's vulnerability encourages openness for the other couples. This couple revelation to other couples through the means of couple dialogue is the most disarming and effective tool for growth offered in marriage enrichment. In other marriage enrichment models, leadership couples recite scripted material, but for A.C.M.E. dialogue and interaction are authentic and powerful.
The marriage enrichment group focuses on strengths and growth. The guidelines suggested to couples by A.C.M.E. emphasize this positive focus:
- Sharing is voluntary; no individual or couple will be asked to share, nor will it be their turn after the couple next to them shares.
- Each spouse speaks for self; this illustrates equal partnership in the marriage.
- Each spouse shares his/her own experience; conversation or sharing is from the individual's perspective regarding the marriage.
- Focus is on the couple's relationship; regardless of the issue, the focus is turned to the impact on the couple or on either spouse.
- No advice or counseling is given; each couple is working on their own marriage, no experts are present.
- Celebrations and concerns are shared first; spouses or couples need to first share and manage preoccupying concerns. Any joy or good experience in the life of the couple is also shared during this brief segment of the group meeting.
- Confidentiality is essential; to build trust, couples are encouraged to let each couple's conversation or dialogue remain in the group.
Many couples are reluctant to participate in marriage enrichment programs because they think, by doing so, they are admitting some grave faction in their relationship. It is not uncommon for couples to say "we are not having any problems," "we do not need counseling," or "we are doing all right."
Marriage enrichment is not counseling and is probably contraindicated for couples who are going through serious relationship problems. Counseling or even giving advice to another couple is discouraged in the A.C.M.E. leader training. Marriage enrichment is not primarily for problem marriages, but it is for married couples who want their marriage to grow. Both members of the couples need to attend since marriage enrichment concentrates on the growth of the relationship. It is couples working on their own relationship alongside other couples working on their relationships.
Marriage enrichment is a process that over time creates positive changes as the couple practices healthy interaction skills. Marriage enrichment events serve as the beginning of the process for many couples. Once the couples see the benefits of the approach taken in marriage enrichment, they want to know how they can keep the healthy process going. It is then that they are ready for a marriage enrichment group that meets once a month.
Couples who want to work on their marriage begin by determining whether counseling or marital enrichment would be best for their relationship. Some brief guides regarding marriage enrichment and marriage counseling are suggested for couple consideration (Smith and Smith 1989). If a couple chooses to be involved in marriage enrichment, it usually means that:
- The couple wants to face or deal with whatever is unsettling in their relationship and they believe they have a potential for growth.
- The couple can identify their issues without the aid of professional assistance.
- The couple is intentionally motivated to work on their marriage. They believe they have enough positives going for them to make their marriage work.
- The couple is open to new learning opportunities and interaction skills that assist them with their issues.
- The couple is able to identify their issues and willing to address the issues, one at a time.
- The couple recognizes that anger is a given in healthy relationships. Therefore, they mutually work on ways to deal with their anger so that it does not build up and destroy the relationship. In contrast, they use their anger as a positive tool to get closer to the feelings behind the anger.
If a couple wants to improve their marriage through marriage counseling, it can mean that:
- The couple senses that something is wrong in the relationship, but they tend to avoid facing it. Either or both of them may deny there is a problem.
- The couple finds it difficult to identify the problem.
- The couple feels overwhelmed by all of the negative verbal and nonverbal expressions in the relationship and feel it is not worth the effort to continue in the relationship.
- The couple does not feel good about talking about the issues with their partner because it is too painful or useless, or they cannot agree on the issue.
- The couple becomes anxious when a problem comes up because their pattern has been that the situation always gets worse.
- The couple becomes so angry that they want to hurt each other more than they want to focus on the issue itself.
The Marriage Movement
The true pioneers of the marriage enrichment movement are David and Vera Mace and Father Gabriel Calvo. The Maces, primarily David, helped to establish the Marriage Guidance Council in England following World War II. After coming to America to teach in 1949, David Mace began to work with the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) and the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (later to become the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, AAMFT). In the early sixties, the Maces began to define and shape marriage enrichment work, and by the early seventies, they launched a new organization, the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment (A.C.M.E.), a nonprofit, nonsectarian organization.
In January 1962, Father Gabriel Calvo began the Roman Catholic Marriage Encounter program in Spain. Father Calvo recognized that to make a difference in the families and the lives of the children in those families, one would have to start with the primary relationship of the couple. This organization came to the United States in 1967 and has remained connected to the Roman Catholic Church. However, other religious bodies have taken on the marriage encounter concepts and adapted them to their religious perspectives (Hof and Miller 1981). Both Marriage Encounter and A.C.M.E. seek to be change agents for couples who want their marriages to flourish. Although they differ in approach, they are similar in their emphasis on couple growth.
Research provides insight into a better understanding of why marriages succeed or fail (Gottman 1994); what makes a marriage worth fighting for (Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg 1994); and the impact of unresolved anger on the relationship (Williams 1993, 1997). David Olson (1998) has provided inventory or questionnaire tools to assist clergy and premarital counselors in determining the readiness of the engaged couple for marriage. This inventory is called PREPARE/ENRICH. Other inventories, tests, or questionnaires have been used as well, such as RELATE (a self-scored inventory) and FOCCUS (facilitating open couple communication, understanding, and study). These tools help engaged couples learn more about their differences and similarities in preparation for marriage.
A plethora of other helpful books and products provide a supplementary resource for any couple interested in learning how to have a better marriage. Some book titles include: The Heart of Commitment (Stanley 1998), The Essential Humility of Marriage (Hargrave 2000), The Power of Two (Heitler 1997), Getting Ready for Marriage (Mace 1985), Fighting for Your Marriage (Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg 1994), Couple Communication II, Thriving Together (Miller and Miller 2000), Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts (Parrott and Parrott 1995), The Second Half of Marriage (Arp and Arp 1996), The Good Marriage (Wallerstein and Blakeslee 1995), Passionate Marriage (Schnarch 1997), Empowering Couples (Olson and Olson 2000) and Close Companions (Mace 1982).
Two major conferences provide showcases that bring many of the therapists and marriage enrichment leaders together. The first A.C.M.E. International Marriage Enrichment Conference (IMEC) was in 1988. Because David Mace died in 1990, the Second IMEC was held in 1996, many years later than initially hoped, in Fort Worth, Texas. Then in 1997, the Smart Marriage conference was held in Washington, DC. The IMEC venue emphasizes couple participation, plus training for professionals. The Smart Marriage emphasizes programs for professionals and entrepreneurs.
In England, the marriage guidance program spearheaded by David Mace has changed its name to Relate (in the United States there is a premarital inventory called Relate; the two are not related). Also, in England, Couples for Marriage Enrichment (CME) was formed through the inspiration of the Maces. The CME is a similar organization to A.C.M.E., but quite different from Relate (in England). In Australia, the Maces helped form the Couples for Marriage Enrichment Australia (CMEA). The Maces introduced marriage enrichment to many countries and wrote more than thirty books on the subject. The only cultures the Maces did not work with were in the Middle Eastern countries. The Maces were honored by the United Nations in 1994, the International Year of the Family, as recipients of the Family Patron Award. A new wave of interest in marriage enrichment interest began in South American countries, Africa, and several European countries at the end of the twentieth century. Throughout the world, a primary A.C.M.E. goal is to have groups wherever possible to help fulfill the A.C.M.E. slogan of "building better marriages, beginning with our own."
Many religious bodies have seen the need for more emphasis on marriage enrichment. National Marriage Encounter holds an annual conference for its members. Some denominations conduct regional conferences each year. These events, usually built around a theme, tend to design a product on the topic for its participants.
Not all approaches to marriage enrichment are the same, however. Some organizations approach marriage enrichment from a companionship approach, as the Mace model does, with both marriage partners being equal. Other approaches, primarily religious, emphasize that the husband is the head of the house and therefore gets the final vote. This one-vote system, as it is sometimes called, is also prevalent in Middle Eastern countries. Individuals or couples who want to investigate possible models should explore the approach taken by a particular group when choosing an affiliation with any organized effort in marriage enrichment.
The Future of Marriage Enrichment
At the same time that popular magazines describe a decline in marriage, primarily because of the increase in cohabitation or the postponement of marriage, there is a resurgence of interest from the family therapists and family professionals. In a sense, marriage has become a priority for many societies because of the high cost of divorce and its impact on children. This greater emphasis on the health of the marriage and the preparation for marriage will, in the long run, benefit couples. Findings suggest that a happy marriage is conducive to a long, healthy life, (Waite and Gallagher 2000).
Researchers have focused on problem marriages and ignored the special needs of racial minorities, remarrying couples, and cohabiting couples. But a concerted emphasis has begun to address issues of marital health and growth for the broader population. This interest in marriage enrichment and education is overdue. It is welcomed by the existing organizations that have served as the pioneers in the field. Ideally, the new marriage movement and the pioneer marriage enrichment movement will join hands in promoting couple strengths. The potential positive outcome of this resurgence is that more couples will marry with a realistic understanding of the work involved in building a strong marriage. They will also recognize the impact the couple relationship has on the children who are nurtured in their homes.
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