‘For bet­ter or for worse’ sure does take a lot of work

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Murray and Trudy Grant, who were mar­ried Nov. 25, 1951, have had their share of dis­agree­ments, but never in a mil­lion years would they con­sider di­vorce.

“That’s never even en­tered my mind,” said Dr. Grant, a semi-re­tired doc­tor in Sil­ver Spring, Md. “Whenyou’re­mar­ried,you’ve­made a com­mit­ment.”

Mrs. Grant, mother of five and grand­mother of 11, joked that dur­ing dis­agree­ments in the early years, she would threaten to pack her suit­case and leave.

“But I never did be­cause that would have creased my clothes,” she said with a laugh.

In this se­ries, The Wash­ing­ton Time­sex­am­ines­thechang­ingviews of­mar­riage­and­whatin­sti­tu­tions— such as re­li­gious groups, gov­ern­men­tand­busi­nesses—are­do­ingto pre­serve it.

What do the Grants think about young peo­ple’s at­ti­tudes to­ward com­mit­ment? What is the cur­rent out­look for a re­silient mar­riage, such as theirs?

“Not good. Not good at all,” said Dr. Grant, his words sprin­kled with aBri­tish ac­cent and in­to­na­tion. He’s orig­i­nally from Lon­don.

Dr. Grant is right. The risk for di­vorce in first mar­riages is about 50 per­cent. For sec­ond mar­riages, the rate of di­vorce is even higher.

“It’s true, the risk is about 50 per­cent over­all, but for some seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion, it is much lower,” said David Pope­noe of the Na­tional Mar­riage Project, which an­a­lyzes the state of mar­riage in Amer­ica.

Forex­am­ple,theriskdropsby30 per­cent if the house­hold in­come is more than $50,000; an­other risk re­ducer is some col­lege ed­u­ca­tion; a third one is hav­ing been raised in an in­tact two-par­ent house­hold, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Mar­riage Project.

“We call it the ‘mar­riage gap,’ ” said Mr. Pope­noe, a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­o­gy­atRut­ger­sUniver­si­ty­inNew Jer­sey. “For the col­lege-ed­u­cated seg­ment,the­in­sti­tu­tionof­mar­riage has gained strength. [. . . ] For ev­ery­one else, it con­tin­ues toweaken.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, said Diane Sollee, founder and di­rec­tor of the Coali­tion for Mar­riage, Fam­ily and Cou­ples Ed­u­ca­tion, a clear­ing­house for all things mar­riage-ed­u­ca­tion re­lated.

“With mar­riage ed­u­ca­tion, you havea­much bet­ter chance. [. . . ] It’s like get­ting a user’s man­ual, like you’d get for a flat-screen television,” Ms. Sollee said.

“To­quote[po­et­an­dau­thor]Maya An­gelou,‘When­peo­ple­know­bet­ter, they will do bet­ter,’ ” Ms. Sollee said. “I think we have an obli­ga­tion to at least study up on mar­riage.”

She said mar­riage ed­u­ca­tion is im­por­tant enough that it should be taught in high schools.

But the Grants of the world didn’t go through mar­riage-ed­u­ca­tion classes,andthey’ve­been­mar­ried­for 55 years. True, but it’s a dif­fer­ent world now, Ms. Sollee said.

“So­ci­ety — fam­ily, church, news­pa­pers — didn’t re­ally al­low di­vorce back then,” she said.

Sil­ver Spring, Md. res­i­dent Earl Ross, 75, has been mar­ried to Phyl­lis Sheerin Ross for 45 years.

“When I was grow­ing up, I only knew of one per­son who’d got­ten a di­vorce. It was a dis­tant cousin, and it was quite the scan­dal.”

The so­ci­etal pres­sures, how­ever, didn’t al­ways pro­duce con­tent spouses even if they helped keep mar­riages to­gether, said Gre­gory Kuhlman, who to­gether with his wife of 17 years, Pa­tri­cia Schell Kuhlman, travel the coun­try teach­ing mar­riage-ed­u­ca­tion classes.

“Theroleswerevery­de­finedand for a lot of peo­ple mar­riage was ter­ri­bly con­fin­ing,” Mr. Kuhlman said. “Now we live in a so­ci­ety where there is no stigma as­so­ci­ated with di­vorce. [. . . ] We have choices.” ‘A strong bond’

And in a so­ci­ety of choices, the best way to pro­mote re­silience in mar­riage is to be ed­u­cated about mar­riage — the ben­e­fits of it, the stages it goes through and the best way to be­have and com­mu­ni­cate with a spouse, Ms. Sollee said.

“You can re­duce the di­vorce out­come by 50 per­cent by tak­ing an eight-hour mar­riage-ed­u­ca­tion course,” Ms. Sollee said. “That’s pretty ex­cit­ing.”

The Kuhlmans, who call their pro­gram Mar­riage Suc­cess Train­ing, of­fer a full-day work­shop for about $495 per cou­ple. Dur­ing the day, cou­ples learn com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, con­flict res­o­lu­tion, what to ex­pect in the dif­fer­ent stages of mar­riage, how to keep sex in­ter­est­ing and is­sues per­tain­ing to in-laws.

“It’s a way to help build re­silience from the start,” said Mr. Kuhlman, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Brook­lyn Col­le­ge­oftheCi­tyUniver­si­ty­ofNew York sys­tem. “Prob­a­bly the big­gest word for cou­ples is ‘in­ten­tion­al­ity.’ They have to be in­ten­tional about keep­ing the bond be­tween them strong.

“A strong bond doesn’t just hap­pen.”

Ms. Sollee agreed. Peo­ple who think it’s a mat­ter of find­ing a per­fect match and then coast­ing through their re­la­tion­ship are in for a rude awak­en­ing, she said.

“All mar­riages go through dif­fi­cult stages,” she said. “There will be times when you dis­agree about what’s fun, sexy, sad, de­press­ing, and it’s im­por­tant to know that th­ese stages are nor­mal.”

Clau­dia Arp, who writes and teach­esabout­mar­riageen­rich­ment with hus­band David, said many young peo­ple to­day have un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions, partly be­cause they grewupinabro­ken­home­and­have not­seena­mar­riageat­work­through dif­fer­ent stages.

“Many cou­ples to­day don’t re­al­ize that a mar­riage goes through dif­fer­ent sea­sons,” she said.

The Arps, who have been mar­ried for 44 years, founded Mar­riage Alive In­ter­na­tional in 1983.

Mr. Kuhlman calls the first sea­son the “high phase,” the ini­tial few month­sofamar­riagein­which­cou­ples are so ex­cited about be­ing to­gether they need lit­tle else than each other’s com­pany to stay happy. But within the first year of mar­riage, the “re­al­ity phase” sets in, Mr. Kuhlman­said.He­wantstoe­d­u­cate cou­ples about mar­riage be­fore this hap­pens, and his tar­get par­tic­i­pants are­cou­pleswho­plan­tomar­ryinthe next six to 12 months.

Stud­ies by re­la­tion­ship re­searcher John Gottman, founder of the Seat­tle-based Gottman In­sti­tute, have shown that each neg­a­tive state­ment that a spouse makes has to be coun­ter­acted by at least five pos­i­tive state­ments from that same spouse. If it’s not, neu­tral state­ments will start be­ing in­ter­preted as neg­a­tive.

So if the hus­band says, “I need to go to the store” — which is a neu­tral state­ment — the wife could in­ter­pret it as “he just wants to get away from me,” if the pos­i­tive to neg­a­tivecom­mu­ni­ca­tion­hastipped be­low the 5-1 ra­tio, Mr. Kuhlman said. If the 5-1 ra­tio is main­tained, the wife might in­stead think: “He’s so nice to of­fer to go to the store.”

“Re­silience is based on pos­i­tiv­ity —pos­i­tivecom­mu­ni­ca­tion,”he­said.

It’s in the first cou­ple of years that mar­ried cou­ples are at the big­gest risk of di­vorce, Ms. Sollee said.

“No­body knows it. Peo­ple think they’re at the high­est risk for di­vorce af­ter seven years, but it’s ac­tu­ally the first two,” she said.

Another­hugestres­soris­the­birth of the first child.

“So­many­cou­ples­drif­ta­part­dur­ing that time. They’re good par­ents, but of­ten to the ex­clu­sion of their mar­riage,” Mr. Arp said. “They need to be in­ten­tional about re­con­nect­ing.Theyneed­tomake­time­for each other.

“The mar­riage will not wait un­til the kids grow up, but the kids will wait for you to grab some time.”

Mr. Kuhlman sug­gests that cou­ples need 12 to 15 hours a week of un­di­vided, non­stress­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The good stuff

All this seems pretty grim: The in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage is weak­en­ing, young chil­dren can in­flu­ence mar­riages neg­a­tively, the “high phase” of mar­riage will fiz­zle quickly, dis­agree­ments and low points in mar­riages are in­evitable no mat­ter how good the match. It sounds like all work and no fun.

“I think this is one of the main prob­lems. We don’t talk enough about the ben­e­fits of mar­riage,” Ms. Sollee says.

And there are many. Some stud­ies sug­gest that mar­ried cou­ples have bet­ter sex and are hap­pier. Oth­ers, such as the Na­tional Mar­riage Project, show that mar­ried cou­ples do much bet­ter fi­nan­cially. Forex­am­ple,mar­ried­men­make10 per­cent to 40 per­cent more money than their sin­gle coun­ter­parts with sim­i­lar ed­u­ca­tion and job his­to­ries, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Mar­riage Project.

“Make the mar­riage have ben­e­fits for you,” Mr. Kuhlman said. “Stay on the right side of the 5-1 ra­tio and don’t for­get about sex. Keep it fresh and in­ter­est­ing.”

Also, when look­ing at the ben­e­fits of mar­riage, it can be help­ful to look at the al­ter­na­tive: sin­gle life or mul­ti­ple mar­riages and di­vorces.

“There are a lot of costs as­so­ci­ated with switch­ing part­ners — emo­tional and fi­nan­cial,” Mr. Kuhlman said.

The fi­nal ob­sta­cle to life­long mar­riagere­silience­often­hap­penswhen the chil­dren are in their late teens or ready to move out.

“The kids might have acted as a buf­fer. They were all you talked about,” Mrs. Arp said. “Now, you have to re­con­nect.”

She and her hus­band wrote “10 Great Dates to En­er­gize the Mar­riage,” aimed at help­ing cou­ples re­con­nect.

“The dates are de­signed around mar­riage-en­rich­ing themes,” Mrs. Arp said.

One­date­sug­gest­slook­ing­backto the time when you first met and fell in love.

“Mag­i­cal things hap­pen when cou­ples start talk­ing about the first date and plan­ning their wed­ding,” Mr. Arp said.

Mrs. Arp added, “It’s a re­dis­cov­ery. It’s a, ‘Now I re­mem­ber why I mar­ried you.’ ”

And if you can make that last empty-nest tran­si­tion, your mar­riage has a very good chance of be­com­ing an “as long as we both shall live” com­mit­ment.

“Once you’ve reached 60, you’re not re­ally at risk for di­vorce any­more,” Mr. Pope­noe says, adding thatthe­di­vorcer­ateinthatage­group has not changed much since 1960.

So, if you’re in your sixth decade and still mar­ried: “You’ve made it,” he says.

Michael Con­nor / The Wash­ing­ton Times

55 years later: Even when times were tough, Murray and Trudy Grant re­mained com­mit­ted to a suc­cess­ful mar­riage.

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