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Wilmington News Journal Article
Including comments by Peggy Vaughan

Marriage broken? Learn how to fix it

By Gary Soulsman
Wilmington News Journal
September 29, 1998

(Researchers say marriages that might seem irreparable - including the Clintons' - can be saved through hard work and knowing how to resolve conflict.)

With all Bill Clinton's personal and political problems, he is a leading contender for poster boy of the marriage movement.

The marriage movement is a loosely organized chorus of university researchers, family therapists and church leaders who sing a similar refrain. They say American marriages are more troubled than they need to be and that tools now exist to make marriages better, including the Clintons'.

"What faces the president as he tries to repair his marriage is a daunting task," Wilmington psychologist Kevin Keough says. "To have the entire world looking on makes the challenge in front of Bill and Hillary seem almost impossible."

Yet Clinton's stated goal is to work on his marriage and heal the damage he has caused. What the marriage movement offers the Clintons as they approach their 23rd wedding anniversary on Oct. 11 is guidelines for resolving conflict.

"Most of us were never taught how to be married," Keough says. "We don't handle conflict well. We don't know much about respect, humility, perspective-taking or empathy. We don't really live in a culture that's pro-relationship. We live in a culture where people are a means to an end."

One of the lead organizations in this movement is the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education in Washington, D.C., which held its first nationwide conference in 1997. Coordinator Diane Sollee says the group was born from a growing realization that a new approach was needed to combat divorce.

In America, the divorce rate is higher than in any other nation in the industrialized world, Sollee says. And studies of children who've gone through divorce show they're at a greater risk for academic, mental health and medical problems than children from undivorced families. "We've had decades of the 50 percent divorce rate," says Sollee. "That's a lot of toxic fallout."

Though recent census reports show the divorce rate is falling so that only four out of 10 marriages now end, Sollee says the statistic is misleading. It doesn't account for the fact that rates of cohabitation are higher than in the past, because more couples are living together rather than risking the failure of a first marriage.

"Our fear is that the divorce rate will actually go up to 65 percent in the next century," she says.

Researchers, who've conducted 20 years of government-funded studies on marriage, believe they can lower this rate. But that means giving couples the tools to succeed.

The first tool is an awareness that love is rarely sufficient by itself to make a marriage successful. If it were, Sollee says, there wouldn't be so much divorce.

Couples, who start out deeply in love, say it fades as they are overwhelmed by unresolved conflicts. Researchers know the topics couples fight over: money, jealousy, in-laws, communication, housework, sex and the use of time.

Attractions outside marriage are also common for most married couples. This, too, can sabotage a couple's happiness unless addressed.

Yet skills to help couples maintain a sense of closeness are seldom taught, according to experts. And that's the essence of the marriage movement - a call for education in high school, in premarital classes or seminars that couples take as they run into trouble.

One goal of the marriage education movement is to make this information as widespread as driver's education. Classes teach empathetic listening, how to give a spouse the sense of "being heard," ways to control anger and techniques for negotiating points of view. The classes also share information on overcoming the harmful effects of criticism with positive comments.

Florida is the only state that makes marriage education a priority at the government level. As a result of a law passed in May, couples who take a four-hour course before they get married will receive a $32.50 discount on their marriage license. Similar skill-based courses have been mandated for Florida high schools.

Elsewhere, though, the marriage education trend is starting to build momentum, Sollee says. She's now consulting with states that want to write laws similar to Florida's.

"I believe in the near future, that couples will come to accept that the most romantic thing they can do is to walk hand-in-hand into a course on making marriages work," she says. "One day, taking such a course will be as much a part of the wedding tradition as the bridal shower or the bachelor party."

Jolly Clarkson-Shorter, a Newark therapist who teaches marriage movement concepts to couples, believes the ideas are more powerful when couples seek out ways to make relationships stronger as they wrestle with conflict. For that reason, she does not favor state-mandated courses.

Keough says he's shared the marriage education movement philosophy with Gov. Carper, U.S. Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), members of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington and various schools. But so far interest has been limited.

Without question, the Clintons are in a unique situation when it comes to marriage. The details of the president's affair have been shared with a worldwide audience. It has made the private life of the Clintons very public.

"In this culture, sexual behavior is personal," says Wilmington psychologist Alvin Turner. "Now that all this is in the open, we're interested in how the Clintons will resolve their problems. But sex, race and death are topics we don't normally talk about."

Through the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was embarrassed at her husband's adultery. But in another statement she said she's "committed to her marriage and loves her husband and daughter."

With adultery, "you can go down the drain," says Peggy Vaughan of LaJolle, Calif., whose husband, James, had seven affairs. "Or you can learn and make things better."

Vaughan says her marriage, now in its 43rd year, was saved through a commitment to honesty and working through conflict. As a result, she's an advocate of the marriage movement and giving people the skills to head off problems.

"The critical thing is whether the person involved in an affair will answer all your questions. In most cases the spouse will want to tell as little as possible. But you need a commitment to honesty."

Independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr took care of that for the Clintons with all his questions about Monica Lewinsky. Now, says Vaughan, the Clintons need lots of talk, including talk about attractions as they occur.

Attractions are an everyday part of life for most people, says Vaughan, and honesty is necessary to deny illicit attractions their secret power. Such honesty is also needed to rebuild trust.

It took Peggy Vaughan six years to forgive and trust her unfaithful husband. She is glad she saw it through. Her marriage is the best it has been.

She says how well the Clintons do in repairing their intimate life probably depends on how well they practice the relatively unknown skills of the marriage movement.

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