In 1996 I received a call from the head of the publishing company that was in the final stages of putting the manuscript into print for my book on the communication skills for marriage success, The Power of Two.
"I want to let you know that we're changing the sub-title. Instead of Secrets to a Strong and Loving Marriage we want to make it Secrets to a Strong and Loving Relationship," my publisher told me. "The M-word is out of fashion. No one talks about marriage any more, here in California especially."
I was appalled. I tried to calm my pounding heart enough to sound businesslike. "Actually, I believe in marriage. I remember what it was like in my twenties to be in relationships. I'm very grateful to be married. The Power of Two is about strengthening marriages."
To his credit, my publisher submitted to my insistence. Marriage indeed has remained what the subtitle of The Power of Two proudly proclaims.
At the same time, my publisher's wakeup call alerted me to the reality that by the mid '90's the institution of marriage had indeed become an endangered species. The average age of marriage was creeping upwards. The percentage of marriages ending in divorce was steadily climbing upwards. Marriage was becoming a dinosaur.
Enter one woman, Diane Sollee.
Trained as a social worker, Diane had been working at AAMFT, the association for marriage and family therapists, when she learned that psychological researchers were studying and teaching the skills couples need for marriage success. Diane tried unsuccessfully to interest her organization in encouraging therapists to focus on teaching these prevention skills instead of just on therapy for after couples found themselves in trouble. No luck.
So Diane declared she would do it herself. She left her secure job to become a lone ranger. Sitting alone at home, attached day and night to her computer and telephone, Diane reached out, first across America and eventually around the globe.
On her own, Diane launched what eventually became SmartMarriages. Singlehandedly, Diane grew an idea into a movement.
The centerpiece of SmartMarriages was a yearly three-day gathering of folks from a broad range of professions who shared a desire to enhance the institution of marriage. By gathering therapists, religious leaders from all faiths, military personnel, government bureaucrats and politicians, journalists, researchers and more all to learn from each other, SmartMarriages conferences inspired us all.
Between the annual SmartMarriages gatherings, Diane nurtured her SmartMarriages membership with daily emails on developments around the globe that might strengthen the institution of marriage.
What was the upshot of Diane's determination to save the institution of marriage?
A miracle happened.
The upward climb of divorce rates turned and headed downwards. Marriage has become again a widely-desired goal.
Above all, Diane promulgated the understanding that marriage is a high-skill activity. Couples who want to do marriage in a safe and gratifying way need to learn the requisite skills.
Because of Diane's determined and persistent efforts, the new and burgeoning field of marriage education was born. With marriage ed, married couples now can do more than survive. They can thrive.
What is marriage education?
Through face-to-face workshops, marriage help books and tapes, and more recently from online courses, couples learn to tame anger so it doesn't taint love. They learn to discuss sensitive issues without criticism, blame or defensiveness. They learn how to heal after upsets instead of harboring grudges. They learn to make decisions collaboratively instead of settling their differences by powering over or giving in. They learn that marriage is NOT about compromise. It's about finding win-win solutions.
When should couples take a marriage education course?
As a kid growing up in snowy New England, I recall my parents' horror when my little sister, her first time on skis, broke her leg. They immediately enrolled all of us in ski school.
Similarly, Diane Sollee realized that there's no need to wait to teach communication in marriage to couples until they feel mired in major marriage problems. We need to teach them the skills they'll need before they head down the steep slopes of challenging marriage situations.
People take drivers ed before they get a license to drive a car. Couples need marriage ed before they get a marriage license.
At the same time, spouses who missed taking a marriage ed course before their wedding need to know that they if they go on a marriage weekend retreat, take a marriage workshop, or sign up for an inexpensive and always-accessible online course at any point in their marriage they can reap the benefits.
Research has established that couples who have taken marriage education classes subsequently fight less, harbor fewer negative feelings about their spouse, end up with fewer divorces, and enjoy more marriage satisfaction.
The bottom line is that by giving birth to and nurturing the marriage education movement, Diane Sollee has turned the course of history. The institution of marriage is now alive and well. What a contribution. Bravo Diane Sollee!
Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a marriage skills website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.
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