Written by Seth Eisenberg
If you have minor children and want to end your marriage, why should you wait? Why should you first be required to participate in divorce education classes, then wait another eight months before getting divorced, as the Coalition for Divorce Reform proposes?
The answer is patience pays off. For most couples on the brink of divorce, evidence-based skills training boosts emotional understanding and connection that can not only lead to reconciliation, but to greater happiness, affection and relationship satisfaction. For families in particular and society in general, that’s a priceless gift.
The challenge for the evolving field of marriage and relationship education is to ensure we make the best use of the brief opportunity we have in classes with couples experiencing marital distress. But we have a good track record, and we’re prepared to step up to the plate to ensure that more children grow up in intact, two-parent households.
For many couples, the decision to pursue separation or divorce comes after months or years of anger and disappointment. Often, as couples stop meeting each other’s needs for closeness, they pursue intimacy outside their marriage. This typically leads to an even greater feeling of pain and betrayal.
Ideally, couples should learn skills for effective communication, problem-solving, and understanding emotions early in life. There’s growing evidence that adding a fifth “R” to our standard educational curriculum – Relationships – is needed. Through personal experience with thousands of people in the troughs of marital discord, I’ve seen that for most, the challenge isn’t changing or replacing the person they married, but becoming a person who has the best chance of fulfilling their most cherished wishes, hopes and dreams. Significant research has shown a strong correlation between skills training and increased marital satisfaction.
The challenge with legislating marriage education is that it can interfere with the fundamental building blocks needed for participants to become quickly open to learning, growing, considering, and eventually sustaining the paradigm shift that is the foundation to improving marital satisfaction. It also conflicts with the belief that marriage and divorce are deeply personal decisions in which government should not interfere. Yet when children are involved, society is too, as taxpayers become immediately responsible for much of the long-term cost and consequences of divorce.
Within the first hour of a typical PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills) marriage education class, the far majority of participants recognize the intrinsic benefits of the course for their own happiness, health, and well-being. A paradigm shift takes place in a marriage education class when participants set aside the need to blame, defend, explain and justify in place of the recognition that the work of a relationship, and much of the basis for personal success, health, and happiness, is connected to creating an environment in which two people can consistently meet each other’s needs for emotional openness and physical closeness, known as bonding. Most, if not all, of what leads to declining marital satisfaction and resiliency (as well as the range of addictions and other self-destructive behaviors) can be traced to the deprivation of the human need for bonding.
As participants recognize the price they’ve paid for not getting their needs for bonding met and the impact on loved ones, they naturally become open to learning skills that improve their ability to confide, listen, embrace differences, and find constructive solutions to the natural challenges of relationships. For most couples at the brink of divorce, the skills built on those new understandings lead them back to each other.
Those lessons are not difficult to learn. In fact, many of the most valuable discoveries adults take away from marriage and relationship education are about letting go of defensive behaviors that interfere with intimacy. This makes it safe to become vulnerable, understanding and accepting of themselves and each other. The results regularly show up through deeper levels of intimacy, connection, improved problem-solving, and stronger feelings of love.
Ultimately, the best way to create a future of strong marriages and families in America is for children to grow up with examples they can one day emulate in their own adult lives. Today, in a society in which fewer and fewer people grow up with those models, we have a national obligation to reverse that trend.
The work of the Coalition for Divorce Reform, in close collaboration with leaders from the fields of marriage and relationship education, domestic violence prevention, and state government, is a long overdue step towards revitalizing the very fabric of neighborhoods and communities throughout our nation.
Seth Eisenberg is President/CEO of PAIRS Foundation and a founding member of the Coalition for Divorce Reform. Learn more at www.pairs.com.