Marriage preparation programs are offered to adolescent, young adult, and remarrying partners to increase readiness for predictable tasks of married life and reduce their likelihood of distress and divorce. Under the broader rubric of relationship enhancement, training workshops, self-help materials, marital therapy, and/or support services are offered to individuals, dating couples, cohabitants, and married couples to improve knowledge of relational issues, interpersonal skills, personal insight, and behavior change. Marriage preparation programs typically target one or more of the following objectives: (1) Prevention of distress, including dating or domestic violence and conflict, and prevention of divorce by altering malleable risk factors (e.g., negative interpretations, conflict resolution skills); (2) competence-building, by enhancing self- and other-awareness (e.g., attitudes and behaviors that improve or erode marriage), knowledge of couple issues (e.g., finances, sexuality, parenting), interactive skills (e.g., communication, problem solving, stress management), and access to resources (e.g., self-help curricula, social services, mutual support networks); and (3) intervention, including individual or couple therapy as appropriate, to resolve conflict, promote healing, teach skills for growth, or to deter partners from entering a high-risk marriage.
During the twentieth century marriage rules changed, but the tools by which couples maintain stability and satisfaction changed little. Today's companionate marriages depend more on couple commitment and effort than on social roles and sanctions. Early in the nineteenth century, newspaper columns and marriage manuals began to replace or augment traditional socialization-to-adulthood by family and church. College and community premarriage courses began in the 1920s and 1930s, followed by the growth of marriage and family counseling and the marriage enrichment movement (Stahmann and Hiebert 1997). Publication of the first extensive outcome studies in the 1970s and 1980s initiated a period of expanded activity and attention to program results (for reviews see Bagarozzi and Rauen 1981; Guerney and Maxson 1990; Schumm and Denton 1979; Silliman and Schumm 2000). University-based programs of twelve to twenty-four (or more) hours significantly improved communication, conflict resolution, and problem solving skills of couples. Although participants were typically nondistressed, educated, middle-class, young adult volunteers, short- and long-term behavior changes and reduced divorce rates demonstrated the potential for divorce prevention and enhancement.
The most recent advancement in marriage preparation began with community-based testing of assessments (Larson et al. 1995) and training programs (Center for Marriage and Family 1995; Stanley et al. 2001). Training of local providers, including mentor couples, dissemination of researchbased curricula, and strengthening of natural support networks shows promise of expanding benefits of laboratory-based programs to the estimated 60 percent of couples who currently participate in some premarital training (Stanley and Markman 1996). The past decade has seen the rise of a marriage movement, including communitybased and state-mandated high school classes, and marriage preparation and support in the United States, Australia, and Britain (Ooms 1998). Some policies and programs have been published to limited audiences (e.g., university, conference, government) and developments can be tracked through the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education web site news archive. On-site evaluations of programs in South Africa (Praetorius 1990), Canada (Boisvert et al. 1992; Farnden and Lyster 1992), Australia (Parish 1992), Czechoslovakia (Novok, and Pulkrobkova 1987), and the United States (Silliman and Schumm 2000) suggest participants enjoy and gain immediate knowledge or skill, yet few studies examine long-term benefits (Center for Marriage and Family 1995).
Components of Successful Programs
Howard Markman, Frank Floyd, Scott Stanley, and Ragnar Storaasli (1988) suggest that programs show impact when participants a) use conflict constructively, employing problem solving rather than withdrawing or overreacting; b) invest in growth; c) display optimism about changes in marriage; or d) remain confident about their abilities to maintain a healthy marriage. These positive outcomes are most typical of programs with one or more of the following traits:
- Strengths-based. A focus on affirming or improving capabilities rather than dwelling on problems tends to build confidence and openness to new learning. Helping partners utilize existing personal, couple, and family assets to meet life's challenges and encouraging their affection, fun, and togetherness sustains romance and cooperation.
- Growth-oriented. Although couples face predictable challenges with each life stage, adjustment rarely follows a prescribed pattern. Couples benefit most from training in inter-personal skills (communication, conflict resolution, problem solving), information (understanding issues such as sex, money, parenting), and insight (appreciating dilemmas of personality, commitment, balancing work and family). Interactive skills help couples talk and listen more effectively, especially under stress. Information about issues enhances understanding and decision making. Insight about self, others, and relationships leads to improved perspective and maturity regarding core values and goals for marriage. No one component is sufficient for a strong marriage, but each complements the others. Experiential learning activities such as discussions, role-play, projects, and simulation games produce more effective learning and practice than lecture or classroom instruction. Activities that help couples help themselves, including quality time together, regular study of issues, knowledge and skill application, sharing in support networks, and celebrating commitments promote expectations of lifelong learning.
- Intensive and extensive. The traditional oneor two-session meeting of clergy and couple to make wedding arrangements can hardly be expected to produce long-term marital adjustment. Even a three- or four-session lecture or video training typically has little impact on attitudes and behaviors. Ironically, these limited efforts may imply that conforming to social ceremony or popular norms rather than lifelong learning, is enough to enjoy lifetime happiness. Research indicates that at least twelve hours, and ideally twenty-four to thirty hours, of intensive training with quality curricula and well-trained staff is needed for couples to understand and master basic skills for marital interaction (communication, conflict resolution, problem solving). A variety of methods better serves a wider variety of experience levels and learning styles. Repetition and rehearsal help couples to reverse old habits and teach healthy new patterns. One-on-one coaching is the most desired and effective skill training. In combination with peer coaching, lecture-discussion, and guided couple learning (e.g., workbook or audio/videotape), coaching can be cost-effective. Homework such as additional reading, mentoring with experienced couples, discussion of issues, or interpersonal skill application, tailored to couple needs and interests, can reinforce and extend learning in workshops. Booster sessions, reteaching and extending lessons throughout the first three years of marriage, can reduce post-honeymoon disillusionment and help couples deal with real-life adjustments (Renick, Blumberg, and Markman 1992). Couples can benefit from education and enrichment at any point but gain most when they begin earlier and rehearse learning often.
- Culturally appropriate. Most marriage education is developed for Western audiences with companionate marriage ideals. However, expectations and interaction in marriage continue to be shaped by traditional ideas as well as diverse expressions of romantic love within ethnic, social, and age groups. Prevention-oriented programs funded by welfare reform and family support funds in the United States (see Oklahoma Marriage Iniative ), Britain (see The Lord Chancellor Department ), and Australia (see Commonwealth of Australia ) typically assist community and religious organizations to reach specific populations of couples. Comprehensive reports on content, delivery, and impact are not available but online summaries suggest several thousand participants receive skill-based training adapted for setting and culture from models such as PREP (see below). Because males tend to be less interpersonally skilled, they tend to gain most from skill training. Differences in maturity, family background, and personal experience create cultural gaps even within social groups that are best bridged by programs that foster openness, dialogue, and skill application.
- Outcome-focused. Effective programs make a practical difference in the lives of participants. Problem solving, conflict resolution, and communication represent teachable skills that translate into everyday behaviors (e.g., mutual respect, cooperation) and perceptions (e.g., marital satisfaction and commitment). Knowledge of sexuality, finances, stress management, and other topics may indirectly improve couple life by shaping attitudes and choices. One-time programs can produce life-long attitude and behavior changes (Stanley et al. 2001), but positive differences more often result from consistent training and self-growth, adapted to developmental needs.
Of the many popular or research-based programs available, the most widely tested approaches include:
- Relationship Enhancement (RE). RE, using a humanistic model that teaches disclosure and empathy skills in a structured sixteen- to twenty-four-hour format, has shown short-term and sustained gains in empathy and problem solving among college students (Guerney and Maxson 1990). Structured training and practice focuses on speaking and listening processes known to be critical to positive interaction and satisfaction for couples. Expressive skills such as speaking for self, sharing negative emotions, and demonstrating affection are often "taken for granted" in relationships. Yet many partners experience difficulty in communicating love in an open, noncontrolling style due to childhood role models, personal maturity, or situational stress. Thus skills in active listening such as acknowledging feelings, clarifying ideas, and taking turns help couples defuse conflicts and demonstrate respect and good will. RE also teaches instrumental skills including problem solving and decision making, more effectively learned in a structured course than by personal experience. RE developed a training program by which lay couples as well as clinical psychologists could successfully teach skills.
- Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP). PREP is the most thoroughly tested marriage education model, offering twelve- to twenty-four-hour training workshops that build upon many of the communication behaviors taught in Relationship Enhancement. In addition, PREP couples are challenged to explore marital issues and the spiritual and personal roots of their commitment. Results with dating, engaged, and married couples in the United States show participants have much lower divorce and dissatisfaction rates than nonparticipants up to twelve years after training. PREP workshops in Germany, Australia, and the Netherlands show a similar pattern of significant gains in communication, conflict management, and satisfaction up to three years after training. (Stanley et al. 2001). Based on cognitive-behavioral theory, PREP focuses on thinking and interacting processes critical to negotiating problem solving and conflict resolution in moment-to-moment and year-to-year tasks of married life. Results of such model programs suggest that dating and marriage education is a wise investment of public or private organization funding (Ooms 1998).
- Couples Communication Program (CCP). This family systems–based model helped couples develop better awareness of their own and partner emotions and ideas (Miller, Wackman, and Nunnally 1983). Although couple gains in CCP are not as dramatic as behavior-change programs, increased understanding of personal and partner ideas and feelings has been shown to improve communication and satisfaction among dating and married couples.
- Safe Dates. An ecological model, incorporating individual skill training, peer monitoring, and community awareness enhanced the success of this program in preventing dating violence among at-risk and violent middle school students (Foshee et al. 1998). A theater production and ten-session curriculum analyzed consequences of dating violence, gender stereotyping, and conflict management skills. Community-level activities included a crisis line, support groups, resources for parents, and training for service providers.
Several research-based books also became bestsellers. Clinical psychologist John Gottman (1999) most recently summarized his ground-breaking research in Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. The book provides quizzes, exercises, and illustrations to support building a positive history, fostering mutual admiration, engaging rather than withdrawing from conflict, accepting a partner's influence, coping with unresolvable conflicts, and creating shared meaning.
Many practitioners use the PREPARE survey (Olson, Fournier, and Druckman 1989), a 125-item inventory of each partner's attitudes and practices in fourteen issue areas (e.g., communication, sexuality, money, leisure, religion). PREPARE's profile (similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses relative to happily married couples) helps professionals coach couple discussion and skill learning. Like other widely used assessments such as FOCCUS (Williams and Jurich 1995) and RELATE (Busby, Holman, and Taniguchi 2001), couple participation in the process reduces the feeling of being analyzed and helps couples focus on issues perceived as relevant priorities.
Widely used approaches such as Caring Couples (Hunt and Hunt 1999), Marriage Enrichment (Dyer and Dyer 1999), and Saving Your Marriage before It Starts (Parrott and Parrott 1999) offer positive anecdotal reports but have not been systematically evaluated. For some couples, such insights and skills clearly enrich and revitalize, whereas for others information without intensive skill training may create unrealistic expectations and frustrated role performance (Berger and Hannah 1999).
Other Factors Influencing Marriage Preparation Success
Although research is beginning to reveal programs with promising potential, much remains to be done. Couples at high risk for distress, including those with personality disorders, individual or family problems with sex, violence, depression, and high-stress environments probably require more or different training than the well-adjusted middle-class volunteers in evaluation studies. Likewise, couples who cohabit and those who remarry are at higher risk for divorce and face issues—such as marital adjustment and parenting—not typical of first marriages. Programming and support targeted to high-risk partners is needed. In addition, relatively little is known about how couples sustain a legacy of positive adjustment in stressful conditions or reverse cycles of abuse and discord. Understanding the role of individual and couple resiliency in the learning and application of training could also improve marriage preparation program effectiveness.
Application of skill training and overall couple adjustment no doubt varies according to the attitudes, behavior norms, and support in a couple's family and community. Community marriage policies adopted by many religious and community groups encourage broader support for couples to stay together, avoid violence, and develop support and enrichment networks via mass-media campaigns to build awareness of marital strengths and resources (McManus 1993). Public and organizational policy initiatives aim to reduce domestic violence and encourage healthy marriages. In addition, employers and community organizations can commit to reducing demands that stress families, promoting fidelity and respect for marriage, supporting couples in crisis, and providing opportunities for continued learning. Educational providers, such as churches and schools, can commit to teaching interpersonal and problem-solving skills to children and teenagers, and to requiring premarital training for couples. Such steps toward reinforcing skills and social support could make a great difference for couples, but they remain largely unused and untested.
Marriage preparation includes efforts of professionals and lay persons to help partners build skills and awareness for satisfying marriages. Although many couples find happiness and positive interaction without strong parental or professional training, evidence suggests that quality training would enhance interaction and adjustment for most couples. Only a few research-based approaches (e.g., PREP, RE, PREPARE) have been widely implemented and most offered by national organizations in the United States and Australia vary in focus and quality (Silliman and Schumm 2000). Thus providers and couples benefit from understanding these best practices: (1) Effective programs teach how to communicate, problem solve, and resolve conflict and help couples learn about and discuss money, sex, parenting, and other issues; (2) programs of twelve to thirty hours with trained providers, follow-up classes, research-based learning materials, and evaluation are best equipped to facilitate change with couples; and (3) families and community organizations such as churches, clubs, and schools can enhance the transition-to-marriage by early skill training and modeling as well as ongoing support.
The benefits of vital marriage to both individuals and society's health and well being commends the expansion of higher-quality marriage preparation programming, targeted to general and special audiences.
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