Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Couples Just Don’t Know How to Be Married?

Selling marriage in the mainstream media, no dissent included

Have you read The Marriage Myth story in the Washington Post? The subtitle of reporter Ellen McCarthy's article is "Why do so many couples divorce? Maybe they just don't know how to be married." If you have time, look at it now and see what you think before I tell you my take on it.

What stays with you about the story? Is it the personal stories of Heidi and Kirk, and George and Mindee? What was your sense, after reading the stories, of how promising it might be for couples to participate in marriage education programs? What do you remember from the section on the scientific studies of the effectiveness of those programs?

Three paragraphs into the story, we learn that for Heidi and Kirk, participating in a marriage education program "saved their marriage." By page 9 of the 9-page (from my printer) story, Kirk tells us that talking to Mindee after they participated in the program was "like when you're drowning and you get a fresh breath."

In between, three experts (of sorts) are quoted. One is Diane Sollee, described appropriately by the reporter as "the ringmaster of the marriage education movement." She's quoted over and over again. Wade Horn is quoted, too. He's the person from the Bush administration who got $100 million dollars moved from other Health and Human Services programs into marriage education. The other expert quoted is Howard Markman, the co-founder of one of the most widely used marriage education courses. So in a story that carried on for 9 pages, there was no room for a quote from someone other than a marriage-movement true believer.

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If you make it to the bottom of the 6th page, you will find the first reference to actual scientific findings on the effectiveness of marriage education programs. The Post notes that of 8 programs funded by federal money, "only one improved the quality of the relationship of participants." Keep reading for one additional sentence: "A 2009 analysis of more than 100 academic studies evaluating the effectiveness of marriage education found ‘modest evidence' that the programs can work..."

In my previous post, Marriage and relationship education programs: Do they work?, I described the results of the 8 programs and the 100+ academic studies, based on a close reading of the documents. (McCarthy's "modest evidence" phrase seems to come directly from the one-paragraph summary at the beginning of the review article.) Read that post if you want to know more about the relevant research. The basics are as follows:

  • Across 143 studies of whether couples who took marriage classes had better communication skills, 6 months later, than couples who did not take the classes, the results depended on how the skills were measured. When the couples were videotaped by the original team of researchers while discussing a problem, the ones who took the classes did communicate better than those who did not. But when the couples described their own experiences more generally (indicating, for example, whether their partner insults them during arguments), the couples in the marriage programs looked no different than the unschooled couples.
  • In 8 different locations across the country, unmarried couples spent about 14 hours in marriage and relationship workshops (with additional help from a family coordinator) and another control group of unwed couples did not. Researchers followed up on the couples 15 months later, to see whether they were still together or had married, what their relationship was like, whether they had experienced intimate violence, and what their parenting was like. Across all of the 8 versions of the study, there were hardly any differences between the couples who did and did not participate in the program. Taken individually, in only one of the 8 locations did the program participants fare better than the nonparticipants on more than one of the 14 measures. In none of the locations were the program participants more likely to be living together or married than the non-participants. In fact, in one of the locations, the participants were less likely to be together. In one of the 8 locations, participants ended up significantly worse than the nonparticipants; they were less affectionate and supportive, the fathers were less involved in the parenting, and the mothers reported more severe physical assaults.

Here is the tease for the Washington Post story: "Experts have found that certain behaviors -- especially when it comes to how couples communicated or handled conflict -- have a huge impact on the likelihood that any given pair will remain happily married." Plus, the personal stories included in the article were only from participants who were delighted with the experience.

The Post feature also included a sidebar of tips and resources. Again, Diane Sollee gets her say, and there are two links to her Smartmarriages group. Once more, no alternative points of view are represented.

What Might a Less Blinkered Story Look Like?

The author did acknowledge, when discussing the $100 million spent on marriage education programs, that "whether that's an appropriate use of public funds is a legitimate question." Mostly, though, she took the pronouncements of Diane Sollee and the other marriage-promotion enthusiasts at face value.

Consider, for example, these three nuggets:

  • "‘Everyone wants to get married,' says Diane Sollee."
  • "If you ask Sollee, she'll tell you...that any marriage education is better than none."
  • "One of her [Sollee's] biggest aspirations for the movement is to make it so that an engaged couple would ‘feel it was irresponsible not to take a class together.'"

This is why I wonder whether McCarthy read the studies and reports she mentioned in her story. When so many comparisons have found no differences at all between couples who do and do not take marriage classes; when for some couples taking the classes meant that they were more likely to split; and when one study showed that mothers who had participated in the program were more likely to have experienced severe physical abuse than mothers who had not participated - well, would a reporter who knew all that let Sollee's claims go unchallenged? Shouldn't she have found a professional way of saying to Sollee, "Really, ANY marriage education is better than none? Really, couples should be made to feel irresponsible if they don't take these classes?"

Now let's take a look at the Smartmarriages website that the reporter mentioned repeatedly and uncritically. Go to their section for singles and you will learn that you should marry in your mid-twenties. You will also find a shout out for the book telling singles to settle. (Sollee had already urged all of the members of her listserv to "buy the book for all the single ladies in your life.") Go to the quotes section and you will find a nasty and condescending gem about how dreadful and pathetic it is to be a bachelor. There is also a quiz in which debunked myths are counted as correct answers. Did the Post reporter study the website or just link to it?

There Actually Was a Wisp of an Intriguing Idea in the Article

The Post article claimed to be exposing a myth about marriage, but in doing so, continued to perpetuate the other standard myths - for example, that marriages have "the power to affect everything from personal income levels to mental and physical health." And, "all things being equal - children raised in two-parent homes fare, on average, better than those who grow up in single-parent households." (The one about personal income is true. I've knocked down the others in Singled Out, Single with Attitude, and in the posts such as this one.)

The marriage myth discussed by McCarthy is the belief held by so many disillusioned married people that they just picked the wrong person. "What if you just didn't know how to be married?" As a social psychologist trained to be sensitive to pinning too much on individuals and their personalities and not enough on other factors such as situational ones, I find that a fascinating question. Taken to its extreme (which McCarthy doesn't), it suggests that we could randomly assign people to marriage partners, and they'd do just fine as long as they were trained properly. So far, the data on the power of these marriage training programs are underwhelming. Still, it was a fun question to ponder.

 

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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