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October 6, 2001
Column #1049

(first of a five part series)

GIVING ''MARRIAGE INSURANCE'' TO THE ENGAGED

     For two weeks after September 11, divorce applications were being withdrawn in Houston at three times the rate before terrorists hit. When tragedy strikes, ''People stop and think about the most basic things in life - companionship, love and family,'' an attorney said. 

     The numbers then drifted back to normal. 

     Can any reform permanently deepen the commitment of American husbands and wives? 

     Yes. My wife and I introduced two reforms in marriage preparation at our Presbyterian church in suburban Maryland in 1992 that together have almost eliminated divorce.

     The first reform requires any couple who wants to marry to take a premarital inventory, which asks the man and the woman whether they agree or disagree with 189 statements like these:

     At times I am concerned about the silent treatment I get from my future spouse.

     I am concerned that my future spouse sometimes spends money foolishly.

     The inventory results are computer scored and compare what the man and woman said on each item. The inventory can predict with 80 percent accuracy whether the couple will divorce or have a happy marriage. However, the survey is not determinative. What matters is how the couple reacts to the results.

     There is no better way for a couple to get an objective view of their strengths and areas of conflict. A tenth of couples who take an inventory decide not to marry. Studies show that those who break up have the same scores as those who marry and later divorce! Thus, they avoided a bad marriage before it even began!

     One inventory, FOCCUS, has a section on cohabitation which is vital because half of those who marry are living together, and they are 50 percent more likely to divorce. FOCCUS helps couples see they are on thin ice, and should consider moving apart.

     About 400,000 of the 2.4 million couples who marry each year take an inventory. But it is only a tool. What matters is how it is administered.

     The major reform our church pioneered was to train older, solidly married couples to give the inventory and mentor those preparing for marriage. Instead of having a pastor go over the results, in an hour or two, Mentor Couples, whose kids are grown, can spend four or five evenings reviewing every item. This is a lavish investment of time, giving young couples what may be their first exposure to a vibrant, joyful marriage. 

     Every church or synagogue has such couples - but they have never been asked, inspired or trained to mentor others.

     The inventory makes it easy for one generation to pass on its wisdom to the next. One couple we mentored were giving the other the silent treatment. Asked for an example, Liz said, ''We went to a friend of his for dinner, but he got lost. I said, `There's a gas station. Call your friend and ask him where he lives.' He replied, `I know where he lives. I've been there.' We arrived an hour late. I was so disgusted I did not call him for two weeks, and he was so embarrassed, he did not call me.''

     I turned to Bob and said, ''What you did was childish. You should have apologized. Had you done so, your relationship would have grown closer. But you let pride get in your way. So you had two weeks of silence. That's how divorces happen.'' 

     On other items Liz said Bob never shared his feelings, and Bob said she did not understand him. I asked Bob, ''If you don't share your feelings, how do you expect her to understand you? What if she asks you how your day was? What would you say?'' He replied, ''I might say it was great or terrible.'' I said, ''Well, women want detail. `It was great because I got a raise.'''

     ''That's what he doesn't tell me,'' she said. My wife, Harriet, added, ''She wants you to share your thoughts.''

     The next time we met, they seemed happier. ''Is he sharing his feelings with you?,'' Harriet asked. ''Yes! Miracle of miracles.'' Bob added, ''She's stopped nagging.'' Asked about the silent treatment, he replied, ''We haven't done that since you said it was childish.''

     Couples in love want to learn how to make their relationship work. Mentors can teach it.

     Of 302 couples who registered for our course between 1992 and 2000, 21 dropped out and 34 couples broke their engagement before there was a wedding, according to Catherine Latimer, who studied our church's results. But she reports there have been only five divorces and two separations of those who married.

     ''That means there is only a 2.5 percent failure rate over a course of almost 10 years. Compare that to the 50 percent divorce rate,'' Miss Latimer writes. ''This is not just marriage preparation. This is marriage insurance.''  (To learn more, see http://www.marriagesavers.org.)

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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