School and Youth Programs: The Case for Skills
When Florida passed legislation requiring the teaching of "marriage and relationship skills"
to all the high school students in the stae, many were critical and skeptical. They said,
"You can't teach marriage -- it isn't about skills. It's about love, commitment, passion
and compatibility. And, morality. It's a sacred vocation. If it's taught anywhere it should
be taught at church. Or, at home."
This thinking also forms the basis for what we tell engaged couples: "You are entering into
a serious, sacred union. You must love and care for your partner, remain faithful and work
on your marriage." But sadly, if we are honest, we have to add: "Given today's odds, you
about have a 50-50 chance of success." Whether or not we're up front or not about this
50-50 chance, today's young people are pretty much aware of the prevailing odds.
What we have is a nation of romatics talking to a nation of increasingly skeptical kids. They've
learned from watching what we practice, tired of listening to what we preach. Our practice
shows that, we don't actually believe in love and commitment -- and sacred vows. We believe that
marriage is about getting lucky in love and finding the right person. If someone is unlucky
our divorce laws say: "it's nobody's fault." No one should have to live in an unhappy,
loveless marriage. If you married the wrong person - if you didn't get lucky and find
the perfect match - you get a free pass to go out and start over - a no fault divorce. As many
times as you need one.
We need a new approach. New information. A new message. And those that need it most
are our young people - those whom we hope will be the next "marrying and parenting generation."
Even that is questionalbe. Many of them are starting to see "the whole marriage mess" as
something to be avoided. Who can blame them?
They see their parents, teachers, coaches, and ministers as moral and responsible people who,
for the most part, were able to keep their promises and reach their goals except in one area: marriage.
They see the wedding albums. They struggle to understand why this beautiful bride or handsome
groom somehow turned out not to be the "right person" – why this particular couple somehow
"grew apart." Why such beautiful vows and promising love just went and died.
It's easy to see why they might find it easier to question the institution itself than to think they can
somehow be more committed, moral, in love or better able to pick the "right person" than their
parents or grandparents. Maybe, they reason, it's marriage that kills love. "100% of divorces
and custody battles started with marriage!" Many decide they'll just cohabit and out-fox the epidemic.
Or worse, they'll simply resign themselves to low "no fault" expectations for marriage. It's a crapshoot
with 50-50 odds. They'll have one of those "starter marriaes" – if things don’t work out, no problem.
They'll get a no-fault divorce and go out and roll the dice. Try again.
We must get the great good news to these kids that It doesn't have to be this way. They can become
masters of their fate. There is new research-based information that was not available to their parents and grandparents.
It turns out that, yes, marriage is about love, commitment, compatibility, maturity, morality, faith - all of these.
But researchers have dissected these abstract concepts and defined them in ways that will enable kids
to change their odds - keep their love alive and their vows and families intact.
These behaviors - or skills - break down love, commitment, responsibility and fidelity into
manageable behaviors and workable steps. They show what love and commitment look like -
how they behave. And, how they don't behave. Someone said, "Love is that thing that tricks you into
thinking you can do marriage." It's up to us to show those that are in love and want to "do marriage"
how to go about it in ways that will help them - as the years roll by - to fall more in love and make
their marriages stronger. Today, we can teach students the behaviors that predict marital success and
those that predict failure - skills for managing conflict, welcoming and integrating change, setting and
discussing goals, and expressing appreciations. Simple, teachable "stuff". We can help them learn
how to learn the skills and take responsiblity for making it to that beautiful moment of "til death us do part."
That is real romance. Giving them knowledge about marriage will build their confidence and begin to heal
their cynicism and despair.
We teach kids how to earn a living and how to keep their bodies healthy. It is just as important to
teach them how to keep their marriages healthy.
Students also learn that the research shows that these marriage skills are best taught to couples. Accordingly,
even if one or both of them take a course in high school, they understand that once they find the person
they want to marry, they should take a course together - as a couple.
A good marriage education course identifies what to expect in marriage. It provides a detailed road map
of the predictable challenges -- the first two years, the first baby, kids entering school, raising teenagers,
emptying the nest, and the "for better and for worse" events like sickness, success, fame, unemployment,
poverty, commuter marriages, the death of a child or loved one. All are handled better if you have some
idea of what is coming and if you are equipped with skills. Kids in a marriage education class gain the
understanding that it's a great idea to sign up for a refrecher course along the way.
A good marriage education curriculum also includes information on why marriage matters - the benefits
to couples and their children of getting and stayng married. And it spells out why cohabitation does not
provide the protections and advantages of marriage and that, in fact, love, passion and commitment erode
more precipitously in cohabiting unions.
It also appeals to students to learn that the marriage curricula support the ideal of egalitarian marriages
and are based on the premise that both partners will take an active role in creating and preserving the
marriage.The courses are not about rolling back the clock or undermining hard-won rights.
We now have it in our grasp to help young people become part of a marriage renaissance built on new
knowledge and fueled by a new optimism. Many good relationship and marriage curricula have been
developed and there are more in the pipeline. They are manual and exercise-based, and require little or
no teacher training. They are cost-effective. They are being taught across the country in both public and
private schools to children of all classes and races but very much on a random - hit or miss - basis. Too
few decision makers are aware of their existence.
We can continue to tell young people that marriage is important and you should try to make it last 'til
death you do part', but, sorry, half of you are pedicted to fail. Or, we can change things and equip them
Diane Sollee is founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education in
Washington, D.C., and the convener of the annual Smart Marriages Conference (www.smartmarriages.com).
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