Tools to succeed: Decreasing divorce by strengthening marriages

Published: Sunday, July 15 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Sitting in her childhood Episcopal church, St. Luke's on the Lake in Austin, Texas, newly engaged Laura Williams made the humbling discovery that she fought like a skunk.

When she and her then-fiancé Lance argued, she'd raise a big stink, yell and shout. And the more she shouted, the more Lance (the turtle) retreated into his shell.

"Simply understanding this dynamic helped us immensely when it came to figuring out how to fight in a way that was constructive, rather than destructive," she said.

That discovery nine years ago came during a one-on-one class with Williams' pastor where each took a lengthy personal inventory that asked their opinions on topics ranging from money management to faith, marriage, sex and children.

Williams' pastor reviewed each question with them over a period of six weeks and helped them see ways to work through differences of opinion rather than leaving the issues to become roadblocks later.

"At any point in our lives we have blindness to our own faults," Williams said, "but I think especially when you're young, getting married, you just don't have the life experience and perspective yet to look at yourself with complete honesty…and say, 'Wait a minute, I'm not as perfect as I think I am.'"

"Premarital counseling didn't give us all the answers," she continued, "but it did help give us the tools to prepare for the road ahead in a way that would support unity."

Kansas Pastor Jeff Meyers won't even sign a marriage certificate for couples in his congregation at the Overland Park Christ Lutheran Church until they've taken a six-month marriage class.

He focused on marriage, not just the wedding, which is why couples can't even talk photographer/music/flowers details until after they've stopped living together, if needed, completed a 60-page workbook, and filled out a 150+ question inventory — like the one the Williams took.

Meyers then pairs the couple with an older mentor couple who reviews their answers and helps them work through disagreements, while sharing insights from their own decades-long marriage. The mentor couple also checks in at three months, seven months and one year after the marriage for continued support.

"No one wants to go into this stuff blind," Meyers said. "Most people are extremely thankful to have support, guidance and confidence."

And it shows. Meyers has performed 200 weddings and knows of only two divorces.

The idea of using a pre-marital inventory and an older mentor couple was pioneered by Mike and Harriet McManus — founders of MarriageSavers.org — in their suburban Presbyterian church in Washington D.C. in the late '90s. Over a decade, the McManus' prepared 288 couples for marriage using an inventory, 58 of them deciding not to get married, most likely preventing a future divorce.

The inventory is the first part of the McManus' Community Marriage Policy, which has religious leaders in an area sign a compact that they'll quit doing "quickie weddings," and require marriage preparation for engaged couples.

In cities where marriage policies have been adopted, the divorce rate dropped by about 17.5 percent in seven years. In Austin, Texas, and Modesto, Calif., the divorce rate dropped by 50 percent, McManus said.

"If you think about this as a pugilist, you have a left hook and a right hook," McManus said. "The right hook is to do a better job on the pastoral side of things, better prepare couples for marriage, strengthen existing ones, help separated reconcile and help step-families be successful. Political strategy is the left hook."

Going forward

From 2000 to 2010, taxpayers paid more than $1 trillion to take care of the problems resulting from family fragmentation, according to a 2008 study, "The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States."

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