Giving Hope to a Relationship Third-World Country

Sage EricksonBy Sage Erickson

Picture a third world country: desperate poverty, a daily struggle to survive, widespread suffering, minimal sanitation, and diminished economic opportunities. Now picture the United States. Although the United States has long been known as a first-world country politically and economically, has it become a third world country when it comes to romantic relationships? The evidence of that is everywhere: A divorce rate of 50%[1], an epidemic of unwed childbirth with 41% of children being born to unmarried women[2], and reports of 1 in 10 high school students becoming victims of dating violence.[3] However, the United States wasn’t always like this; most of these changes have happened in the last 40 years.[4]

Unlike several decades ago, today children reside in increasingly complex and often unstable families where they have seen their parents divorce, lived in a single-parent home, and then witnessed at least one of their parents remarry or form a new cohabiting union.[5] This only scratches the surface of the mountain of data documenting U.S. relationship “poverty.”

And the results are not good, with these relational problems affecting us, our families, and our communities in a number of detrimental ways. Indeed, research shows that everyone suffers when relationships fail. Unwed childbearing is correlated with greater poverty and welfare assistance.[6] Children raised outside of marriage have a greater propensity for health risks like headaches, emergency room visits, and domestic violence than children living with married parents.[7] More dramatically, these children have greater risks for depression, truancy, substance abuse and suicide.[8] Why is this? Researchers believe that these and other negative effects might be due to family instability. Family instability varies greatly by birth context.[9] Most children born to cohabiting parents or single mothers experience at least one transition in their lives. And instability (like marital transitions) has negative effects on child well-being.[10] In contrast, children living with two biological, married parents experience better educational, social, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes than children in unstable family models.[11]

The negative effects of failing relationships, however, impact not only children. Employees in failing relationships cost employers money due to productivity declines.[12]  One economist conservatively estimated that family fragmentation costs taxpayers at least $112 billion a year.[13] Furthermore, divorce and separation among adults is associated with lower levels of physical and mental health, increased depression and anxiety, more substance use, and greater risk of mortality.[14] Another aspect of America’s relational problems is the rate of dating violence among teenagers and young adults. Dating violence among teenagers is associated with poor emotional well-being, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts and attempts, risky sexual behaviors, teen pregnancy, and eating disorders.[15] Overall, every aspect of relationship-poverty that characterizes the United States hurts the economy, the community, families, and individual lives.

Because of these circumstances, many Americans lack hope in the ability to form successful lifelong marriages. This overall attitude can be seen clearly in young adults that still value marriage highly, but have less confidence than previous generations that they will achieve it.[16] Having hope is even harder for lower income and disadvantaged populations, where casual and unstable relationships have become the norm.[17]

What can be done about this? Perhaps in order to solve third world problems, we need to look at third world solutions. Education in third world countries can help alleviate suffering and bring new occupational possibilities for each person.[18] Education enables people to help themselves and improve their own situations[19], lifting people out of poverty and into more stable situations. In theory, education is a self-help mechanism that invests in the people, and then the people reciprocate by giving back and improving their lives and surroundings. Since this has been successful numerous times with scholastic education, could the same principle apply to a country that is poor in “relationship” knowledge? (Of course, there are more forces at play than a lack of relationship knowledge. Circumstances like poverty, unemployment, abuse as a child, and substance abuse also make it harder for people to form happy, stable relationships.) But knowledge about how to form good relationships—and how to avoid bad ones—could help. Thus relationship education, where participants learn more about how to have healthy and stable relationships[20], might be able to relieve some of the suffering that comes from failing relationships and help people help themselves. This could be the underlying rationale for why relationship education programs have been receiving public funding over the past decade in the United States.[21] The theory is simple: knowledge empowers.

In summary, there is no doubt that the United States is a first world country and often a leader in technological, scientific, and scholastic advances. However, somehow the quality of the interpersonal family relationships in the United States has sunk dramatically, letting us pose the question of whether the United States has become a relationship third world country. The negative effects of these failing relationships are obvious and multifaceted. The only question that remains is: what will we do about it? Can the United States change this destructive trend and become a relationship superpower and leader in the world? I believe it can, but such changes will require effort. And education just might be the key.

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[1] Kennedy, Sheela, and Steven Ruggles. “Breaking Up Is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980–2010.” Demography 51, no. 2 (April 1, 2014): 587–98. doi:10.1007/s13524-013-0270-9.

[2] Child Trends, E. (2013). Births to Unmarried Women. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=births-to-unmarried-women

[3] Child Trends. (2012). Family Structure. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=family-structure

[4] Cherlin, Andrew J. “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage.” Journal of Marriage & Family 66, no. 4 (November 2004): 848–61. doi:10.1111/j.0022-2445.2004.00058.x.

[5] Brown, S. L. (2010). Marriage and Child Well-Being: Research and Policy Perspectives. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(5), 1059–1077. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00750.x

[6] Lichter, D. T., Graefe, D. R., & Brown, J. B. (2003). Is Marriage a Panacea? Union Formation Among Economically Disadvantaged Unwed Mothers. Social Problems, 50(1), 60–86.

Moore, K., Redd, Z., Burkhauser, M., Mbwana, K., & Collins, A. (2009). Children in Poverty: Trends, Consequences, and Policy Options. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/?publications=children-in-poverty-trends-consequences-and-policy-options-april-2009

[7] Bloom B, Cohen RA, Freeman G. Summary health statistics for U.S. children: National Health Interview Survey, 2009. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 10(247). 2010.

[8] Cox, Roger D., and Martha J. Cox. “Children in Contemporary American Families: Divorce and Remarriage.” Advances in Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics 5 (1984): 1–31.

[9] Kelly Raley, R., and Elizabeth Wildsmith. “Cohabitation and Children’s Family Instability.” Journal of Marriage and Family 66, no. 1 (February 1, 2004): 210–19. doi:10.1111/j.0022-2445.2004.00014.x-i1.

[10] Fomby, Paula, and Andrew J. Cherlin. “Family Instability and Child Well-Being.” American Sociological Review 72, no. 2 (April 1, 2007): 181–204. doi:10.1177/000312240707200203.

Cavanagh, Shannon E., and Aletha C. Huston. “The Timing of Family Instability and Children’s Social Development.” Journal of Marriage and Family 70, no. 5 (December 1, 2008): 1258–70. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2008.00564.x.

[11] Brown, S. L. (2010). Marriage and Child Well-Being: Research and Policy Perspectives. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(5), 1059–1077. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00750.x

[12] Turvey, M. D., & Olson, D. H. (2006). Marriage & Family Wellness: Corporate America’s Business? Life Innovations, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.healthandperformancesolutions.net/hpsu_trainings/Marriage_Family/Corporate_America_Business.pdf

[13] Scafidi, B. (2008). The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-ever Estimates for the Nation and for All Fifty States. Institute for American Values.

[14] Amato, Paul R. “Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments.” Journal of Marriage and Family 72, no. 3 (June 2010): 650–66.

[15] Ackard, D. M., Eisenberg, M. E., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2007). Long-term impact of adolescent dating violence on the behavioral and psychological health of male and female youth. The Journal of Pediatrics, 151(5), 476–481. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2007.04.034

[16] Wilcox, W. B. (2010). When marriage disappears: The retreat from marriage in middle America. In W. B. Wilcox & E. Marquardt (Eds.), The state of our unions: Marriage in America 2010 (pp. 13-60). Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project & Institute for American Values.

[17] Tach, L., & Edin, K. (2011). The relationship contexts of young disadvantaged men. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 635(1), 76–94.

Gibson-Davis, C. M., Edin, K., & McLanahan, S. (2005). High hopes but even higher expectations: The retreat from marriage among low-income couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67(5), 1301–1312.

[18] Cremin, P., & Nakabugo, M. G. (2012). Education, development and poverty reduction: A literature critique. International Journal of Educational Development, 32(4), 499–506. doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2012.02.015

[19] Tarabini, A., & Jacovkis, J. (2012). The Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers: An analysis of a hegemonic link between education and poverty. International Journal of Educational Development, 32(4), 507–516. doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2012.02.014

[20] Halford, W. K., & Snyder, D. K. (2012). Universal processes and common factors in couple therapy and relationship education. Behavior Therapy, 43(1), 1–12.

[21] Hawkins, A. J., & VanDenBerghe, B. (2014). Facilitating forever: A feasible public policy agenda to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships and enduring marriages. Charlottesville, VA: The National Marriage Project.

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  1. Thank you Sage. Your voice, perspective and long term work is very meaningful to overcoming challenges that will require America’s best and brightest to embrace strengthening marriages and families as an urgent national priority.

    From about 40,000 hours working in this field and insights from many of the visionaries who first recognized the root cause of the emerging divorce epidemic in the 60’s, 70s and 80s, there’s little mystery to what happened and how, for most, we can reverse trends that have, more than anything, impacted generations of America’s children, many of whom are now themselves aging adults.

    In short, as women gained increasing freedoms in the United States over the past century — from the right to vote, more freely pursue education, and earn a living — the basis of marriage shifted from “security, stability and raising children” to meeting each others’ needs for “love and intimacy.”

    It’s no surprise that many well intentioned adults over recent decades stumbled and bungled clumsily through that transition as most were unconsciously incompetent when it came to the knowledge and skills needed to sustain love and intimacy in what were increasingly peer relationships between equals. Those relationships were very different from what men and women had learned from the examples of previous generations. The question became, “Where were they supposed to have learned the skills needed to sustain love and intimacy in a peer relationship?”

    Many equally well-intentioned professionals tried to help by offering primarily faith-based approaches to strengthening marriages and families. In many cases, those solutions came from people with little (sometimes none) experience of their own when it came to sustaining love and intimacy. They taught what they knew and likely prayed fervently that their efforts would make a difference. As Mother Theresa said best, “Prayer without action is no prayer at all.”

    Without oversimplifying, the overwhelming initial response to marital and family breakdown in America was the equivalent of teaching biblical values to reduce traffic accidents and fatalities. Generations of clergy, the people to whom many first turn during moments of challenge in their familial relationships, thought the solution was to deepen their congregants’ respect for meaningful religious tenets and practices. While for many, those values are the foundation of lives of faith, integrity and spiritual serenity, what they didn’t recognize is the practical skills couples desperately needed to transform negative cycles of distance and despair into positive cycles of closeness, acceptance and healing.

    Imagine if instead of teaching someone how to use seat belts, check their gauges, yield to allow right of way, maintain proper braking equipment, keep watch for tire pressure, vehicle speed, other cars, pedestrians and other basic rules of vehicle and road safety, society had approached those issues from a religious context?

    While marriage and relationship education may begin with knowing how to talk and listen to each other, for those skills to be accessible when most needed, skills for deepening emotional understanding, intelligence and literacy are vital and often a completely missing foundation necessary for marriage and relationship education to have lasting value.

    As I suspect you know, in much of the third world, women are typically generations away from the freedoms of American women. Many of those countries still treat women as property, certainly not as peers to their husbands. The price women pay for leaving abusive, unfaithful, and/or disrespectful relationships can be destitution or death. The basic right to choose who to love and marry that almost every women takes for granted in America is virtually nonexistent for millions of their peers in the third world. Falling in love with the wrong person or exploring affection or intimacy with the wrong person are issues that lead to women dying every day far from the shores of America. And in some cases, even in America.

    After seeing taxpayers invest over a billion dollars in marriage education, my perspective is that the greatest barrier to making marriage and relationship education more widely accessible and embraced in America has to do with our collective work as a field in which anyone can create a program, certify people to “teach out of a box” and, for the most part, measure success pretty much the same way we’d measure the success of a popular film, comedy show or restaurant, meaning, “How did you feel when you were leaving?”

    When we as a field establish more rigorous research criteria for evaluating the lasting value of the programs offered to the public at various stages of life and relationship (teens, premarital, distressed couples, etc.), we’ll have made a major leap forward.

    When we as a field have the resources and structures in place to conduct meaningful research that is not significantly influenced, directed and/or manipulated by the curriculum developers themselves or others with a stake in the process and/or findings, we’ll have made a major leap forward.

    And when we as a field recognize that there are hundreds of thousands of places for people to go in America for religious and spiritual guidance, but that marriage and relationship education itself needs to be primarily based on evidence-based skills training, with respect that each person’s decisions about their own relationship (and life) values and vision is a separate issue from teaching skills for sustaining love and intimacy, we will have made a major leap forward.

    Until we reverse the epidemic of marriage and relationship breakdown, we need to make relationship skills training as common and skills-driven as drivers education. Until then, we will continue to see millions of people impacted by the devastation of broken homes and families every year that didn’t have to be. At the same time, we will continue to see more and more young people less interested in marriage, not because of the values and potential of marriage, but because of what they saw as an example of marriage in the homes and families in which they were raised by parents with the best of intentions, but no relevant example of how to succeed in an area that is the very foundation of our lives, homes and communities.

    • Merrill Weinheimer says:

      Really insightful remarks Seth.

      Sage does have something in identifying the failures in marriage as a source of challenges in the workplace, an ability to live peaceably and in a law abiding manner.

    • Sage Erickson says:

      Thank you for your comment Seth! I like the idea of having relationship education be as common as drivers education. And I agree that if relationship education is going to work, it needs to be founded on correct, evidence-based principles. You say that relationship education should not just focus on communication skills like talking and listening to each other, but on skills for deepening emotional understanding, intelligence and literacy. What specific skills are you referring to here?

      Additionally, you bring up the point that religion is not a good fix for our nation’s relationship problems, comparing it to trying to solve driver safety issues with religion. While I agree that relationship education should be based on scientifically proven principles, I personally feel like religion still has a place when we are talking about marriage. Religions generally advocate for values like not having sex outside of marriage. If most people in our country today did not have sex outside of marriage, then many of the relationship problems we are currently suffering with would be alleviated (like unwed childbearing and the consequences of that). Of course I am not advocating for religious principles to be pushed upon the general population, but I am acknowledging that some religious values can be beneficial when solving problems around marriage.

  2. Sage Erickson offered a very interesting thesis – that with regard to marriage, the U.S. has become a third world country. She is right.

    One example is that our 41% unwed birth rate is 20 times greater than Japan’s 2% rate! Japan’s divorce rate is also half that of the U.S. Result: on international math tests, U.S. kids score 31st out of 31 counties – at the absolute bottom, while Japan is #8. Japan is #3 on reading while we are about 23rd. Why? Kids from intact homes do well, while those from broken homes score poorly.

    Sadly, only 46% of American teens live with their married mothers and fathers according to Pat Fagan of the Family Research Council, and they do well on international tests. But more than half are from homes where their parents “rejected each other” as Fagan puts it, by either not marrying or by divorcing. Their kids do poorly academically and are likely to repeat their parents’ mistakes.

    Ms. Sage suggests that the answer is better education, “a self-help mechanism that invests in the people.” Specifically she proposes increasing the “knowledge about how to form good relationships.” This makes sense, particularly in public schools which offer “sex education,” and generally do not teach skills about how to “have healthy and stable relationships,” as she puts it. There could be no more important addition to high school education than teaching teenagers how to build relationships with the opposite gender based on respect, good communication and skills of conflict resolution – while actually abstaining from sex.

    However, Ms. Sage does not write about improving public education, but cites the increased investment by the Federal Government in adult relationship education in the past decade. As a newspaper columnist I applauded that initiative when it was launched by the George W. Bush Administration. However, it has not proven to be effective. Federal funds have given hundreds of millions of dollars to better train couples in relationship skills. Sadly, there is little evidence of success.

    On the other hand, churches who marry four out of five couples – could do a much better job of relationship education. And houses of worship have a vested interest, even a commitment to help couples succeed. How? In the 1990s, my wife and I trained couples in healthy marriages in our home church to be Mentor Couples who helped prepare 288 couples for marriage with two key steps:

    • Couples took PREPARE, a premarital inventory with 150 items covering all aspects of relationships ranging from the silent treatment and conflict resolution to in-laws, faith, sex and finances. That gave Mentors a way to help young couples talk through issues unique to their relationships.
    • Mentors also taught skills of communication and how to best resolve differences. The major reason marriages fail is that couples have not learned to resolve their differences in ways that are mutually respectful. Fortunately, that can be easily taught!

    Of 288 couples our Mentor Couples prepared for marriage in the 1990s, 58 decided NOT to marry, a big 20%. Studies show that those who broke up after taking an inventory had the same scores as those who married and later divorced. So they avoided a bad marriage before it began! But of the 230 couples who did marry in the 1990s, we know of only 17 divorces. That’s better than a 90% success rate over two decades – virtual marriage insurance.

    Two decades ago, my wife and I created Marriage Savers and have trained Mentor Couples in thousands of churches in 230 cities. In addition to marriage preparation, we teach several ways to enrich existing marriages, to restore those in crisis, help the separated to reconcile, and enable those in re-marriages with stepchildren to be successful parents and partners. An independent study of our work to create “Community Marriage Policies” with these five reforms by the Institute for Research and Evaluation concluded:

    • Divorce rates fall. On a city-wide basis, if scores of churches sign a Community Marriage Policy, divorce rates fall an average of 17.5% according to the Institute’s study of our first 114 cities. Nearly a tenth slashed divorces rates in half such as Austin, Kansas City, Salem, OR, Modesto, CA and El Paso. In fact, divorces fell 79.5% in El Paso from 1996-2001. Result: for the last 4 years, El Paso has had America’s lowest crime rate! There were only 5 murders in 2010 in a city of 665,000 while Washington DC, with 47,000 fewer people, had 132 murders. Austin had America’s 4th lowest crime rate. About 100,000 marriages have been saved from divorce in our 230 cities.

    • Cohabitation rates fall by one-third compared to cities without Community Marriage Policies – a bigger impact than on divorce rates.

    • Marriage rates rise in some cities. In contrast to the 57% drop in the marriage rate nationally, Evansville, IN had a 14% increase in its marriage rate in only 8 years, and Modesto’s marriages doubled from 1,300 to 2,600 – though that was partly due to a population increase.

    Based on this experience, I agree with Sage Erickson that America could “become a relationship superpower and leader in the world.” However, that will not happen, unless America’s 350,000 congregations learn from this experience.

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