The ABCs of Marriage and Relationship Education

Written by Seth Eisenberg

Nearly 30 years ago Virginia Satir, called the “Mother of Family Therapy,” encouraged psychotherapists to shift focus from therapy to education as their primary strategy for helping repair relationships. Fifteen years later, Dr. Marty Sullivan of Duke University’s renowned Integrative Medicine Program began integrating relationship skills training into a holistic approach to promoting health and wellness.

Findings from a five-year study funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, provides significant evidence validating their pioneering examples.

New Paradigm for Marriage, Family, Health and Wellness

Satir recognized increasing rates of marital and family breakdown from the sixties onward as a consequence of transitioning gender roles as couples struggled to create and sustain marriages based on a paradigm that didn’t exist prior to the freedoms and rights women gained throughout the twentieth century. With that transition, the basis of marriage evolved in many Western societies, including the United States, from providing “security, stability and raising children” to meeting each other’s needs for “love and intimacy.”

Understanding this shift is key to considering both the value of relationship education and differences between evidence-based skills training and traditional marriage therapy or counseling. It’s also helpful for reflecting on the origins of homelessness, addictions, increasing rates of poverty, and factors that can lead to violence against the self or others.

A Holistic Approach to Health and Happiness

In the late nineties, Dr. Marty Sullivan, whose early work integrating PAIRS relationship education skills into a holistic approach to helping patients recover from heart disease, said:

“What does coronary artery disease have to do with relationship skills? I think it has a lot to do with that because when we look at the risk factors for coronary artery disease and the psychosocial risk factors, many studies have shown that they are very strong. I think that it is no accident that we have an epidemic in this country of divorce and dissatisfaction in marital relationships and also an epidemic in coronary artery disease.”

In a plenary address to a 1997 conference of policy-makers and practitioners in Washington, D.C., Dr. Sullivan cited Mother Teresa as a motivating influence:

“There was an interesting interview with Mother Teresa when she was traveling in Europe. Someone asked her, ‘What is the worst disease that you have seen?’ They were thinking that this woman had been to India and she was going to talk about Cholera, or leprosy, or AIDS. She thought for a moment and she looked at the press and said, ‘loneliness and isolation in the West.’”

Underlying Impact on Key National Challenges

While the primary target of relationship skills training is typically couples and parents, tools for improving interpersonal communication, emotional understanding, and healthy conflict resolution can have a lasting impact on children of those couples and also others in the community. Relationship education helps people see what’s often below the surface and improve skills for communication, emotional understanding, and constructive conflict resolution.

Many of the national challenges facing the United States are rooted in relationship breakdown. There are few examples of horrific acts of violence being committed by people who have not experienced the breakdown of vital relationships. It’s a factor, too, in a high percentage of suicides of active-duty military.

It’s also rare that men and women who become homeless, fall into poverty, or find their lives hijacked by addictions do not first experience the breakdown or loss of relationships that could have helped prevent the spiral of hopelessness, despair, and isolation.

So how can relationship skills training and principles be integrated into modern approaches to promoting health and wellness?

Seven Principles of Relationship Skills Training

1. It’s Your Ship, You’re the Captain

Relationship education is about helping people find strategies and solutions that fit for their unique circumstances, values and relationship goals. That includes respecting their own personal responsibility for their success and the decisions they make for their lives. Evidence-based skills training provides techniques that are easy to understand and use to develop greater awareness of what lies beneath the surface, navigate typical relationship challenges, and overcome differences that are a natural part of any close relationship.

2. One Mouth, Two Ears

Relationship education provides safe, time-limited structures for conversations that matter, which are often much more about listening than talking. Learning to actively listen with empathy and respect to another person’s perspective and experience –without judgment, defensiveness, blame, or an effort to quickly try to “fix” the issue or the person — makes it safer for intimates to develop greater awareness of themselves and each other.

3. Riding the Waves

Relationship education teaches practical, usable skills for better understanding and safely expressing the full range of emotions, including anger, sadness, and fear. Upsetting feelings held in eventually either implode or explode. Confiding painful feelings to a significant other leaves more room to experience love, pleasure and happiness. Just as powerful waves lose their energy when they break against the shore, the same is generally true of strong emotions when expressed in a safe, structured process.

4. It’s Rarely the Problem that’s the Problem

Relationship education enables distressed couples — with good will towards each other, openness to learning, and a desire for the relationship to succeed — to deal with differences and problems in ways that often lead to greater closeness, understanding, acceptance and commitment. The issues that surface are typically symptoms of communication breakdowns, hidden assumptions and expectations, behaviors that come from holding in upsetting feelings, or lack of skills for constructive conflict resolution.

5. Love is a Feeling

Relationship education helps people develop their emotional intelligence, including understanding that feelings of love come from the anticipation of pleasure in our interactions with others. If instead of anticipating pleasure, we expect pain, feelings of love are unlikely to survive, let alone thrive. What’s a pleasure changes during different stages and passages of life. Sustaining feelings of love requires learning what it takes in today’s circumstances to stay a pleasure in each other’s lives. And doing it.

6. Marriage is a Contract

Relationship education recognizes that although nearly all traditional marriage vows include the promise to “love ‘till death do us part,” the marriage contract itself cannot be dependent on “feelings” of love, which naturally wax and wane. That doesn’t mean commitment or obligations wax and wane. Emotions are affected by many factors, often unrelated to issues inside our closest relationships. Marriage is the glue that’s meant to hold couples and families together during periods of growth, change and challenge that are a natural part of life.

7. Relationships are Work

Relationship education is built on the understanding that what happens in our closest relationships impacts quality of life, fulfillment, happiness, and the ability to pursue cherished dreams and aspirations. Relationships take regular attention. Without intentionally nurturing relationships, it’s easy to become strangers, for relationships to wither and become vulnerable. Beyond staying a pleasure in each other’s lives, the work of an intimate relationship is to consistently meet each other’s needs for bonding (emotional and physical closeness). Relationship education provides a road map and usable skills for sustaining healthy relationships that are an ongoing source of love, pleasure, happiness, and fulfillment for both partners.

Significant, multi-year research has shown that evidence-based skills training leads to greater marital satisfaction, happiness, and stronger families for the far majority of participants. For singles, relationship skills training can reduce symptoms of distress and anxiety that often lead to isolation, create new possibilities for connection, and improve emotional and physical well-being.

 

 

Comments

  1. Mike McManus says:

    I agree with most of what Seth Eisenberg writes. However,in #5 he defines “Love is a Feeling.” Certainly that is what the culture or Hollywood teaches. But love in Scripture is never defined as a feeling.

    “Let love and faithfulness never leave,” says Proverbs 3:3. That is a decision one can make, not a feeling. I Corinthians 13:4-7, has 15 definitions of love, all of which are an act of the will: “Love is patient…” are you naturally patient? I’m not, but I love Harriet and really try to be patient with her.
    Mike McManus, Marriage Savers.

  2. Kitty Wojcik GPC, CGMS says:

    Dear All,

    We’ve spent literally 40 years trying to strengthen, revitize, fortify and/or promote marriage — and the general public still doesn’t “understand” or “want what we’re selling”?… Could it be that marriage itself, in it’s current state (traditional or not) really IS worse than non-marriage?

    Before you jump on me with a million statistics, here’s what I’m thinking:

    The marriage movement often puts women in a box and says women’s “primary” happiness is in regard to loving a man. That marriage and all that follows makes a women happy.  That having children fulfills a women and that the value unfolds over time.  I believe that and lived my life like that.  But what are women experiencing now that are giving them pause en masse and across socio-economic lines? 

    Marriage and love is good but “what comes after” is really hard.  For instance, the raising of children doesn’t come with directions and women make plenty of mistakes over the course of twenty some formative child rearing years. The marriage movement focuses on troubled relationships but even women in good relationships who have done their very best to love their man and kids, still raise children with problems, resentments, hurts, and disorders.  What comes after marriage is not an easy process and takes a significant toll on both men and women. 

    In the case of women, they cry to release stress and re-group. Crying goes on in households by women of all economic, ethnic, and educational levels. Some women cry a little, some a lot and some over a phase in life, when for instance a loved one dies or a child is sick or economic woes bring on regret or poverty. So even without the husband knowing or hearing the women cry, children in the family see their mothers cry… sometimes for extended periods.  They hear their mother’s lament and they experience their mother’s pain. 

    Could it be that the now-grown up men and women of those women, who love their mothers very much, say to themselves, “I don’t want what my mother (or father) had”? And is it justified?

    Kitty

  3. Walter Lowe says:

    With the emphasis on love and intimacy, one might ask to what end have we placed that focus? When the focus turns inward, erosion is a natural consequence – evidenced by the spiral of hopelessness, despair, and isolation. The men tend to be absent, pursuing “enhanced” identity outside the relationship, while the women’s spiral only accelerates – greased by layers of tears.

    Perhaps this also has to do with changes in our understanding of “family,” which the marriage has traditionally been the center of. In the past, we would have several generations living in close proximity – if not even in the same household. Having the grandparents around was often a blessing, in spite of all the “mother-in-law” jokes that tend to circulate. Although that older generation might also be a cause of different crying, it was a generation that had already done its own crying as well. Children (and their parents too) could often appeal to a “higher court” in the settling of family disputes, and the community was usually peppered with supporting relatives. Grandfathers picked up the slack and filled in gaps for the fathers/husbands.

    Even in the hard times of the Great Depression, families depended on each other for support. However, during the post-WWII booms, the nuclear family unit began to erode and crumble. The grandparents became a problem for the independent identity of the young family unit parents, and these elders were moved into “senior centers” or their own living spaces. Many of them even chose to remove themselves – in America Florida and Arizona became senior citizen “dumping grounds” and “escape havens” as the new social class group of “snow birds” moved south for the winter, seeking its own independence.

    At the same time, the feminist movement encouraged women to recognize their roles as house slaves, urging them to throw off the shackles of the vacuum cleaner, stove, and washing machine. Masculine values became the recognized norm, and women were encouraged to seek fulfillment as a man would.

    (My mother, a stay-at-home-mother with five children and one or two foster children to care for, objected to the pleadings of the feminist movement. She always said she would not lower herself to the level of a man. She instituted a division of labor within the household and she enjoyed not having to regulate her life according to the whims of bosses and production schedules.)

    Today we all have the freedom to pursue our individual interests, joining the army of individuals to “be all you can be” by ourselves, and our sense of community seems to revolve around external and material aspects of life without a clear sense of community responsibility and membership that extends from the basic family unit. Thus, a local sports team can win a “national championship” and the local residents, wearing the team colors, trash the community in personal celebration. It’s enough to make strong men cry as well.

    Of course, it is not a disgrace for people to participate in roles that create a sense of partnership in the marriage relationship as well as to seek identify fulfillment outside the home. However, the perception in our culture (and many others that I have experienced) indicate that masculine roles (and by extension masculine values) are preferred in general.

    Certainly a man can be a “house-husband” or fulfill such roles as nurse or court stenographer, but the general perception by other males is that such a person is fulfilling a “lessor” role in the community. I’m not saying I approve of this, – but it is the reality. An unfortunate situation that makes women cry. The men should be crying over it as well, but that would certainly put their manhood in doubt.

    Although I am just an English teacher, I look at how our language reflects the culture when we pair up concepts: rich/poor, wise/foolish, strong/weak, true/false, pass/fail, win/lose, etc. In these examples, the “preferred” item always comes first (good/bad).

    Does it make sense if we reverse the order? Are masculine values preferred? We do say boys and girls, males and females, men and women, doctors and nurses, etc. The one time the female is in the preferred position is on the wedding day – bride and groom. On that day the female is first because she has caught her man and made a success of her life!

    Of course, the next day they are husband and wife and the hierarchy is “restored.” (At home they may be “mom and dad” because she is responsible for the nurturing that takes place there.) This is not something I endorse, but we shouldn’t deny this reality. It won’t change by itself!

    In my 101 classroom we read Natalie Angier’s “Why Men Don’t Last: Self-Destruction as a Way of Life,” where she observes such differences and the concepts related to them (http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/17/health/why-men-don-t-last-self-destruction-as-a-way-of-life.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm). It is interesting that she notes that women are greater risk takers than men. Men will take risks related to their physical well-being; while women take even more serious risks related to emotional and psychological health. If men fail, they are dead and gone. If women fail, they have to deal with the failure and then try to continue on – usually on a path soggy with layers and layers of women’s tears shed for generations.

    In order to find value, women are qualifying for the pole position at the Daytona 500 – thus attempting to prove themselves by taking masculine style risks. Such feats are celebrated in the culture, which only encourages more women to try to find their value through such “adrenaline rush” activities.

    As Angier has noted, these days it is difficult for males to understand their roles as well – the young boys who took the survey and said that males need to be strong and independent also said they needed to be caring and supportive. How can they do both?

    Another one for the teardrops is Bel Kaufman’s “Sunday in the Park” showing just how confusing this can be for a male – as well as the stress it puts on a marriage relationship: http://fictiondaze.blogspot.com/2004/06/sunday-in-park.html My heart goes out to the husband stuck in the middle of these conflicting social roles.

    Please pass the Kleenex.

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