Rules of Engagement

Before Saying 'I Do,' Many Couples Are Seeking Help in Resolving Inevitable Conflicts -- to Better Their Odds Against Divorce

By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006; Page HE01


When Jeannine Calandra and Zachary Butterfield got engaged last year, they decided to work on their marriage, not just their wedding.

So when the Arlington computer programmers began researching boutique hotels in Mexico, they also signed up for a premarital education course called PAIRS, an acronym for Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills. They hoped the seven-month course would help them reconcile their very different backgrounds and manage the conflicts that help torpedo more than 40 percent of first marriages.

Zach Butterfield and Jeannine Calandra
Zach Butterfield, right, and Jeannine Calandra (Len Spoden - Freelance)

Calandra, 31, the oldest of three siblings, grew up in an exuberant, close-knit Catholic family. Butterfield, 32, an only child raised by a single mother in an observant Jewish family, rarely saw his father after his parents separated when he was 2. Both agree that the PAIRS course, which cost $2,400, helped them resolve several touchy issues, including where to live and how to spend their leisure time.

While most people who attend premarital counseling take a religiously themed course, such as the Pre-Cana classes usually required for marriage in the Roman Catholic Church, a growing number are flocking to secular therapists for short-term couples counseling before their wedding. Some sign up for courses that last about four sessions, although longer versions are available. The cost of these courses ranges from $350 to more than $2,000.

"These programs have grown amazingly in the last few years," said Chicago psychologist Jay Lebow, who adds that more than 40 groups currently offer premarital education. The best, said Lebow, an adjunct associate professor at Northwestern University, have a long track record and are grounded in empirical research about the characteristics of marriages that succeed and those that fail. They include PAIRS, which is headquartered in Reston; PREP, a program developed by psychologists at the University of Denver; and Relationship Enhancement, based in Bethesda.

Like Calandra and Butterfield, many who sign up were born between 1965 and 1976, a period when the divorce rate doubled. A substantial number grew up in divorced families and are eager to avoid repeating the mistakes of their baby boomer parents. In some cases, participants are over 40 and have been divorced at least once.

"People get married on the basis of romantic love, which is a necessary but not sufficient foundation for marriage," said social worker Rob Scuka, executive director of the group that operates Relationship Enhancement. "What too many couples may ignore in the midst of true bliss are deep underlying issues that end up blowing up in their faces" once they're married.

No Perfect Soul Mate


One of the first things many premarital therapists do is to explode persistent myths that help sabotage marriages: that love is the most important predictor of marital happiness; that shared interests are a bulwark against divorce; and that true soul mates don't fight.

All are false, researchers have found.

"That's why people feel so set up," said Diane Sollee, founder of Smart Marriages, a marriage education clearinghouse based in the District. She notes that psychologists have found that all couples disagree about the same amount -- it's the way they manage conflict that distinguishes satisfied partners from miserable ones.

Unhappy couples and those who divorce tend to resort to what John Gottman, a Seattle psychologist and one of the pioneers of the study of marital behavior, calls "the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse": criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. They get stuck in negative, destructive patterns, have fewer positive interactions than happy couples and are unable to resolve problems.

Linda Peterson Rogers, a marital therapist who practices in Falls Church, said one of her goals in premarital counseling is to teach couples acceptance and a recognition that personality characteristics -- such as a tendency to be disorganized or late -- probably won't change after marriage.

Scuka said he tells couples that if they can't come to a satisfactory resolution, each partner has to decide how important the issue is. Chronic lateness may not be something worth breaking up over; chronic debt might be.

"Couples can and do have very great differences, but the key is a spirit of mutual accommodation," said Scuka. "The problem comes when it's clear one person's primary agenda is getting their needs met."

Many premarital courses teach self-awareness and empathy coupled with conflict resolution skills, said Northwestern's Lebow. Couples are told what to expect in marriage and use role-playing to learn to communicate effectively while avoiding destructive tactics like name-calling and withdrawal.

Among the techniques: using "I" statements, as in "I need you to ask me about my day" instead of "you" ones, such as "You never ask me what kind of day I had."

PREP, a program developed by Denver psychologist Scott M. Stanley and his colleagues, is widely considered one of the most successful premarital programs. The program, which has been widely replicated, is the basis for a statewide experiment now underway in Oklahoma to provide premarital education to engaged couples there. Researchers have found that couples who took a PREP course before marriage rated their relationships as happier and were less likely to break up during the next five years than nonparticipants.

But researchers caution that PREP and similar courses do not inoculate participants against marital misery or eventual divorce.

"It's easy to oversell these programs," said Chicago's Lebow. "They have a nice effect, but it's not life-changing. They are not going to fix an incredibly bad choice" or a relationship that's deeply troubled.

Even proponents say it's impossible to tell whether a selection bias is at work. It may be that people who agree to sign up for premarital courses are more willing to work on their marriages than those who don't.

To Marry -- or Not?


While many engaged couples sign up for counseling to reduce the risk of future problems, therapists also see unmarried couples who are already having serious difficulties.

Scuka estimates that 10 to 20 percent of premarital couples he works with decide to break up. "One of our jobs is to reinforce for a couple that they are making the right decision by getting married -- or that this is potentially a big mistake," he said.

Often one partner, usually the woman, is having doubts she wants to air or is seeking help extricating herself from a doomed union. The most common issue, said PREP's Stanley, is "conflict that isn't going well -- that's a big one," followed by significant and seemingly irreconcilable differences in background, values or whether to have children.

Minneapolis marriage therapist William Doherty said he recently worked with one such pair: a lawyer who accused his fiancée of being superficial when she complained he did not talk enough about his feelings.

"It turned out he had been skeptical and wanted to have them talk in front of a therapist," said Doherty. The man, Doherty said, subsequently broke the engagement.

Samuel Gee, 41, said he was worried he and his fiancée, Veronica Faison, 30, seemed stuck when they sought help last year from a Relationship Enhancement therapist in Montgomery County. "We were running into problems communicating, and I usually wound up yelling and she wound up crying," Gee recalled.

Therapist Joan Liversidge helped them learn to listen to each other and take a "timeout" when arguments escalated, techniques they now apply on their own. Fights that used to linger, Gee said, now get resolved. And the couple, set to marry at the end of March, agree that they argue less -- and more productively.

"Once we started doing counseling, I felt like I was being heard," Faison said. "That kind of opens the door to other things and has made me feel much more confident" about the future.

Calandra and Butterfield, who are to be married in a civil ceremony March 11 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, say they are still grappling with a major issue: the religion of their future children. Butterfield said he first assumed Calandra might agree to raise any children as Jews because "Jeannine's not big on Catholicism."

For now, they are observing holidays of both religions together. "We haven't quite figured that one out," Butterfield said. ·