Printer Friendly

How to create an America that saves marriages.

Michael McManus and Harriet McManus Founders and Directors of Marriage Savers Michael and Harriet McManus describe their approach to community-based marriage interventions, particularly focusing on churches and ministry organizations. Their marriage mentoring program is described with case examples. The authors' beliefs about why marriages are deteriorating with recommendations of how government, researchers and communities can improve marriages are made. Finally, recommendations for future marital counselors are included.


Can you briefly describe what kind of work you're doing in support of Christian marriages?

In 1996 my wife, Harriet and I created Marriage Savers as a national non-profit group. Marriage Savers has worked with the clergy of 176 cities and towns to create "Community Marriage Policies" with the dual goals of pushing down the divorce rate and raising the marriage rate. How? Marriage Savers trains Mentor Couples to create a safety net under every marriage that can virtually eliminate divorce in local congregations. Here is more detail on these two strategies.

Reduce the Divorce Rate of a Church To Near Zero.

Our core strategy can be summarized in one sentence: Every church has couples with solid marriages, who really could be of help to other couples, but have never been asked, inspired or trained to do so. Marriage Savers has trained 1,500 Mentor Couples across the country and we have written a step-by-step Manual To Create a Marriage Savers Congregation to help other couples in their churches achieve the following six great goals (McManus, 2000):

1. Avoid a bad marriage before it begins by administering a premarital inventory, FOCCUS that can predict with 80% accuracy who will divorce. About 10%-15% who take it decide not to marry. Their scores are equal to those who marry and later divorce. Thus, they have avoided a bad marriage before it begins.

2. Give "marriage insurance" to the engaged. If Mentor Couples administer the inventory rather than pastors, and devote five evenings to talk through scores of relational issues surfaced by the inventory, the divorce rate of those who marry is under 5%. In our home church, Harriet and I have trained 64 Mentor Couples since 1992. From 1992-2000, they mentored 302 couples. Of that number 21 couples dropped out, mostly to break up. Another 34 couples finished their preparation but decided not to marry. Better 55 broken engagements than 55 divorces! But of those who married, there have been only 7 divorces. That's a 3% failure rate over a decade. A 97% chance of success is marriage insurance (Latimer & McManus, And as noted below, other churches have saved an even higher percentage.

3. Enrich every existing marriage with an annual retreat for couples. There are many video series, which can be used to help couples rediscover one another (Gary Smalley, Bruce Wilkinson, David & Claudia Arp's "10 Great Dates," etc.). Couples can also be given REFOCCUS, an inventory to enrich existing marriages during a weekend retreat. A $20 manual outlines scriptures, prayers, responsive readings and a sermon before handing out an inventory that costs only $13.75 per couple with questions on communication, intimacy, commitment, etc.

4. Save 80% of the most troubled marriages by training couples whose own marriages once nearly failed to mentor those currently in crisis, in a "Marriage Ministry." A couple who recovered from adultery can persuade a couple in marital crisis over infidelity that trust can be restored. "We've rebuilt trust. You can too." This is more effective than anything a pastor or counselor might say. We teach how to identify and train these "wounded healers."

5. Reconcile separated couples with a course called "Reconciling God's Way," which is taken with a Support Partner of the same gender, and saves more than half of those who are separated. The abandoned spouse's connection to the Lord is deepened, and his or her confidence is restored, making them more attractive to their estranged spouse. Often marital reconciliation follows.

6. Save four of five stepfamilies with a Stepfamily Support Group where they can learn how to create a truly "blended family." Stepfamilies divorce in 65% of cases, but four out of five succeed in Stepfamily Support Groups. This was evidenced by Marriage Saver Congregations.

Marriage Savers gave awards last year to five churches, which implemented these strategies so well that they have had an average of only one divorce each in 4-6 years! That's a virtual elimination of divorce. They are very diverse, black and white, city and suburban, mainline and evangelical. Three examples:

1. Christ Lutheran of Overland Park, KS, is a church of 1,300 members which has trained a dozen Mentor Couples who have prepared 36 couples for marriage in the last five years, losing none to divorce. The church has also trained "back-from-the-brink couples" whose marriages once nearly failed, to come alongside 10 troubled marriages, all of whom were saved.

2. Bread o f Life in Kansas City, KS, with 140 members, has trained eight Mentor Couples who have prepared 10 couples for marriage, and worked with three troubled marriages, only one of whom divorced. Equally important, Pastor LeRoy Sullivan challenged seven couples who were cohabiting from the pulpit, saying "There are some couples in this church who are living together. That's not God's plan. His plan is that couples should marry or live apart." The result: five couples married and two separated. Bread of Life is transformed from being a church of women and children to a church of married couples and children.

3. Killearn United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, FL, with 3,000 members is probably the largest Protestant church in Florida's capital city. Nearly 150 couples have prepared for marriage since the first Mentor Couples were trained in 1999 by Mike and Harriet McManus. None have divorced! Richard Albertson, a layman who has provided ongoing training, has also created a Marriage Savers team that has worked with at least 30 troubled marriages, only two of whom have divorced, but failed to complete the program. Every couple who completed "Marriage Ministry" and attended "Reconciling God's Way" classes are still married! So there have been zero divorces of those who completed the training.

Reduce Divorce Rates for Entire Metro Areas

Marriage Savers has worked with local clergy to create 176 "Community Marriage Policies" in 40 states where many churches in a city agree to implement these reforms. The independent Institute for Research and Evaluation has invested 20 months to research the impact of Community Marriage Policies to reduce the divorce rate. Its report was sent out for peer review in September, 2003 examining the impact of 121 Community Marriage Policies (CMPs) that were signed through 2000. The Institute, run by Dr. Stan Weed, used two rigorous yardsticks to measure CMP impact:

1. A county's divorce for three years before the CMP was signed is compared with three years afterward, and with the year 2001. This approach eliminates single year aberrations.

2. Each CMP city's divorce rate decline is compared with that of three comparable cities in the state, using four characteristics which account for half of the differences in divorce rates: (a) percent of the population which is Catholic, (b) urban, (c) below poverty, and (d) the marriage rate. For example, the Institute found that 15 counties in Florida all had bigger drops in the divorce rate than Tallahassee, a CMP city whose divorce rate fell 12.9%. However, all 15 counties experienced high immigration of Catholics, whose divorce rate is low. But seven counties in northern Florida, with a similar percentage of Catholics as Leon County (Tallahassee), experienced a divorce rate drop of only 13%, one tenth that of Tallahassee. The Institute wrote a letter to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush saying that the 12.9% drop of the Tallahassee divorce rate was ten times that of comparable counties. "To put this in concrete terms, we estimate that 400 Leon County divorces have been averted by the Policy," the Institute concluded.

I have only seen part of the analysis for the first 131 cities that have been examined. In my Marriage Savers Annual Report--2002 (, I reported initial results. Divorce rates have been slashed in eight counties of CMP cities. I will briefly discuss these cities.

1. El Paso had an average of 2,206 divorces a year from 1993-1995. However, there were only 630 divorces in 2001 When population change is considered, that is a stunning 79.5% decline in the divorce rate. Further, its marriage rate has risen 11% since 1998, while the U.S. marriage rate has been falling.

2. & 3. Kansas City, KS and a two-county suburban area also adopted a CMP in 1996, led by Pastors Jeff Meyers and LeRoy Sullivan above. The divorce rate plunged by 53.3% in Wyandotte County, and by a remarkable 63.1% in Johnson County compared to the pre-years.

4. Modesto, CA, the first city to sign a Community Marriage Policy in 1986, has enjoyed a 57.1% decline in its divorce rate. And its marriage rate rose 12% when U.S. marriage rates fell 18%.

It should be noted that it took Modesto 16 years to cut its divorce rate by 57%. By contrast, El Paso and Kansas City slashed their divorce rates by even greater numbers since 1996, or a decade less time than Modesto.

The following are other cities whose divorce rates have plunged in half:
Salem, Oregon -50.4%
Austin, Texas -49.8%
Waxahacie, Texas -47.9%
Yuma, Arizona -47.6%

Not all the news from the Institute for Research and Evaluation is encouraging. Some counties had no decrease in the divorce rate, or suffered an increase. However, the Institute found that on average, divorce rates fall 23.4% in 121 Community Marriage Policy cities/counties over a decade. By contrast, they drop only 10.78% in control group cities. The CMP city divorce rates have fallen more than twice as much as that of control cities. This result is statistically significant.


Staff Only 10 CMP cities have been able to create full-time staff. Eight of the ten experienced divorce rate declines of 11% to 79.5%.

Mentor Couples: The first 70 cities where clergy adopted a Community Marriage Policy only responded to a speech I made. In 1998 we began training Mentor Couples to administer a premarital inventory and to teach exercises to improve a couple's skills to resolve conflict. Starting in 1999, our training expanded from 5 to 12 hours to include alternative ways to enrich existing marriages, save troubled ones, help the separated to reconcile, and stepfamilies to be successful. In 47 of the 92 cities with divorce declines, Marriage Savers provided training to clergy and Mentor Couples. (Harriet and I personally have trained more than 1,500 couples.)

Press Coverage: The Kansas City Star gave excellent coverage to the Kansas City, KS CMP. However, the stories appeared only on the "Kansas Page" of the newspaper, which Missouri readers never saw. In the years Kansas divorce rates fell in half, Missouri's rate fell only 6%. On February 27, 1996, the Colorado Springs Gazette ran a front page story across six columns the day after a Catholic bishop led 70 pastors to sign a CMP in the offices of Focus on the Family. Without any subsequent training or staff, the divorce rate of Colorado Springs fell 21.5%.

A number of dangers to the institution of marriage have been proposed including cohabitation, increased religious heterogeneity, dual career issues, modern mobility, increases in the length of life and others. Over the next decade, what do you believe will be the greatest risks to the institution of marriage?

Most people know that half of America's new marriages are likely to end in divorce, a fact recently confirmed by the U.S. Census Bureau (Kreider & Fields, 1996). Few realize, however, that the marriage rate has plummeted 40.4% since 1970, according to the National Marriage Project's 2003 annual report (Popenoe & Whitehead, 2003).

Why? The culprit is cohabitation, the single greatest threat to the institution of marriage. In 1960, only 439,000 couples were living together outside of marriage. The number who were cohabiting in 2000 soared 11-fold to 4,736,000 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000, March). This is a stunning number. There are only 2.3 million marriages a year in America (National Center for Health Statistics, 2001). Thus, there are twice as many couples living together outside of wedlock at any moment in time, as marry in a single year. Sadly, cohabitation-not marriage, is now the primary way male-female unions are being formed in America. According to Pamela Smock (2000) of the University of Michigan "the percentage of marriages preceded by cohabitation rose from about 10% for those marrying between 1965 and 1974 to over 50% for those marrying between 1990 and 1994," (Smock, 2000, p. 15). Millions of people-particularly women-think that cohabitation is a prelude to marriage. And for many it is. However, Smock (2000) reports that 45% of cohabitations end with no marriage. "The probability of marrying following cohabitation is declining," according to Dr. Larry Bumpass (1994, December) who has been conducting the National Survey of Families and Households at the University of Wisconsin in Madison since 1988. Many people live with one partner, and then another and another and never marry.


Millions Never Marry

First, it has diverted tens of millions from getting married at all. There were 21 million never-married adults (age 18 and older) in 1970 (Saluter, 1993, March). Those numbers more than doubled by 2000 to 48 million never married adults (Casper & Fields, 2000). However, America's population did not double in this time, but rose only 38% (U.S. Department of the Census, 2001). However, the percentage of never-married people from age 30-34 more than tripled, and from 35-44, more than doubled since 1970 (Casper & Fields, 2000):
Age Percent Never Married Numbers in 2000 Males Females
 1970 2000

30-34 7.8% 26% 5,071,000 2,899,000 2,172,000
35-44 5.9% 15.5% 6,932,000 3,981,000 2,951,000

However, these 12 million unmarried Americans are not sexually inactive. Nor are they simply sexually active. In a paper presented to the Population Association of America, Larry Bumpass and James Sweet (1995, May) wrote, "By now about half of the population under age 40 have lived with an unmarried partner-in ten years that will be true for the population under age 50" (p. 65).

Why are so many cohabiting? Drs. Barbara Whitehead and David Popenoe of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University blame the men. They conducted focus group discussions with young, heterosexual unmarried men in New Jersey, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Houston and wrote an essay, Why Men Won't Commit, as part of their 2002 annual report (Popenoe & Whitehead, 2002). It concludes "Men experience few social pressures to marry, gain many of the benefits of marriage by cohabiting with a romantic partner and are ever more reluctant to commit to marriage in their early years" (p. 1). They found that 44% of single men, 20-29, say they would not marry someone unless she agreed to live with him first. While men express a desire to marry at some point, they are in no hurry. The study cited 10 reasons why men won't commit:

1. They can get sex without marriage more easily than in times past

2. They can enjoy the benefits of having a wife by cohabiting rather than marrying

3. They want to avoid divorce and its financial risks

4. They want to wait until they are older to have children

5. They fear that marriage will require too many changes and compromises.

6. They are waiting for the perfect mate and she hasn't yet appeared

7. They face few social pressures to marry

8. They are reluctant to marry a woman who already has children.

9. They want to own a house before they get a wife

10. They want to enjoy single life as long as they can.

Cohabitants Who Marry Are 50% More Likely To Divorce

According to Smock (2000), "Common sense suggests that premarital cohabitation should provide an opportunity for couples to learn about each other, strengthen their bonds, and increase their chances for a successful marriage ... The evidence, however, suggests just the opposite. Premarital cohabitation tends to be associated with lower marital quality and to increase the risk of divorce" (p. 6). "The degree of consensus about this central finding is impressive," says Smock (p. 6). It begins with lower levels of commitment and lower levels of relationship happiness, which are carried into the marriage, if there is a marriage to follow. This will come as a surprise to men who insist on living with a woman before considering marriage. In fact, they are playing with fire. "Marriages that are preceded by living together have 50% higher disruption rates than marriages without premarital cohabitation" (p. 12), according to Dr. Larry Bumpass' analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households (Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1989, August).

Why? There are two theories. First, it is what is called the "selection effect". Those who live together before marriage differ substantially from those who do not. Among cohabiting women, 60% are high school dropouts while only 37% are college graduates. Cohabitants are more liberal, less likely to be religious, and are more likely to be children of divorce themselves. The other and more probable theory about why it doesn't build stable relationships is that the experience of cohabiting changes young adults in ways that are likely to increase their chances of eventual divorce. Smock (2000) explained that "through cohabitation people learn about and come to accept the temporary nature of relationships and in particular that there are alternatives to marriage" (p. 7). Unfortunately, that does not stop them from having children. The number of babies born out of wedlock has soared along with cohabitation from about 225,000 in 1960 to 1,346,000 in 2000. Smock asserts that this rise in "non-marital childbearing is largely due to cohabitation, and not to births to women living without a partner" (p. 7). A stunning 40% of all children will live with a parent in a cohabiting relationship--either before there is a marriage, or after a failed one, according to Bumpass and H. Lu in a 1999 study (Bumpass & Lu, 1999).

With a 37% decline in the marriage rate since 1960, there should have been a significant drop in the divorce rate. In fact, the divorce rate has doubled since 1960, from 2.2 per 1,000 people to 4.0 per 1,000 in 2001 (National Center for Health Statistics, 2001). I should add that the divorce rate has declined somewhat from its peak of 5.3/1000 in 1981 Nevertheless, even with this modest decline in recent years, the overall divorce rate has doubled in the same 40 years the marriage rate has fallen 37%. Why? As the percentage of those who have cohabited before getting married has soared, a greater percentage of those marriages are failing. Cohabitation is thus holding up America's high divorce rate.

Follow up: What do you believe is the cause of high levels of divorce in the Christian community today?

I have asked pastors in scores of cities, "Have you preached on cohabitation?" Only one hand in 50 will go up. The church has been part of the problem. Clergy take one of two equally untenable positions. Most pretend they do not notice the couple has the same address. Though they know the couple is at much higher risk of divorce, they will not say so, rationalizing to themselves, "If they marry here, this will legalize their relationship." But many live-in relationships are not healthy and should not lead to marriage. Other clergy tell couples who are living together, "We won't marry you unless you separate," making marriage preparation contingent on their moving apart. Consequently, such couples simply go down the street to another church. We at Marriage Savers suggest a middle ground position. Tell the couple, "We will not marry you unless you separate. But whether you do or not, we will give you a Mentor Couple who will support you, a premarital inventory that can help you assess the quality of your relationship, and Mentors will teach you communication and conflict resolution skills." Thus, the church takes a proper stand against cohabitation, while allowing their Mentor Couples to help them work on the unique risks that cohabitation has induced. Most do separate for the months before the marriage. This is standing against the sin while loving the sinner.

Furthermore, Marriage Savers has prepared materials to help churches address this sensitive issue with their Mentor Couples, and we train Mentors how to handle it (Buettner, Buettner, McManus, & McManus, 1999, December). For example, Mentors ask the members of the couple if they are having frequent arguments over money. Cohabitors are likely to acknowledge arguing over "my money" vs. "your money," and what is the proper share each pays for rent and food. Our Mentors suggest that those arguments would largely dissipate if they moved apart until the wedding. Mentors make a case that in moving apart, their wedding day becomes very special, a fresh beginning for their marriage. And Mentors say, "If you want God's blessing you need to consider playing by His rules." This approach usually works, with the couples separating for a few months until the wedding.

George Barna conducted a poll with a large sample nearly 4,000 adults and asked if they had been divorced (Barna, 1999, October/ December). He found that though 11% are currently divorced, 25% of all adults have experienced at least one divorce. However, 37% of those ages 53 to 72 and 34% of "Boomers" have endured a divorce. Remarkably, only 21% of the unchurched were divorced, the same as Catholics and Lutherans. However, Mainline denominations--Presbyterians, Episcopalians and United Methodists divorced at a 25% rate, the same as the U.S. average. No denomination's divorce rate was higher than the Baptists (at 29%). However, 34% of those who attend mostly evangelical nondenominational churches have suffered dissolution. Barna (1999, October/December) also found that "divorce is much less likely in the Northeast than elsewhere. Only 19% of the residents of the Northeast have been divorced, compared to 26% in the West and 27% in both the South and Midwest" (pp. 1-2). Why? The Northeast has the nation's highest percentage of Catholics, who divorce at a lower rate. Barna's poll is corroborated by divorce data gathered state-by-state. The region with the lowest divorce rate is the Northeast where more than 40% of the population is Catholic. Massachusetts has a divorce rate one-third that of Baptist Oklahoma. In 1998 there were 2.2 divorces per 1,000 residents in Massachusetts, vs. 6.5 per 1,000 in Oklahoma and 6.8 per 1,000 in Nevada, the highest divorce rate of any state.

To put it differently, virtually all Protestants have higher divorce rates than Catholics, as well as the unchurched. Why? In 22 years of writing my column, "Ethics & Religion," my conclusion is that most churches are "wedding factories." Polls reveal that three-quarters of Americans get married in churches or synagogues. Thus, organized religion has access to most couples. Yet America's divorce rate is higher than that of any nation (other than Russia and Estonia). Demographers measure the divorce rate as the number of divorces per 1,000 people in a year. By that measure, there were 4.6 divorces in Estonia, 4.7 in Russia and 4.3 in the U.S., according to a table published by The Washington Post (October 4, 1997). By comparison the rates in other nations were 3.3 in Britain, 2.7 in Norway, .8 in Spain, 1.0 in Poland and .4 in Italy. Estonia and Russia had a 65% increase in their divorce rates in 1996 compared to 1991 when the Berlin Wall fell. In that time, the U.S. rate fell 1.1%. It should be noted that a higher percentage of Americans marry than any other nation, despite the U.S. decline in the marriage rate. In 1996, there were 8.8 marriages per 1,000 in the U.S., vs. 5.6 in Britain, 5.9 in Russia, 8.1 in Taiwan, 6.8 in Poland, and 4.9 in Italy. Americans grind out weddings without much thought as to whether they will be successful. Most marriage preparation has little impact. Meeting with a pastor several times is the extent of marriage planning. Attending a few lectures or watching a set of videos is of little value. Two-thirds of those marrying do not take a premarital inventory. Without one, a couple has no objective view of their strengths and issues, which need resolution. A major reason why marriage preparation is non-demanding is that Protestant pastors are hoping the couple will join the church. This is not an issue for Catholic priests, whose churches are ten times larger than the average Protestant church. Also, Catholic dioceses typically require 6 months to a year of marriage preparation during which couples take a premarital inventory and meet with older couples to discuss relational issues. During that time weak relationships will break up short of marriage. This tendency is one reason why Catholics have lower divorce rates. Protestants have no minimal preparation period and usually do not require the taking of an inventory or meeting with an older couple. However, Protestants do agree in Community Marriage Policies which require at least four months of marriage preparation, the taking of an inventory, and are led by Mentor Couples (this is one reason for CMP's tendency to push down divorce rates).

If the inventory is administered by a long-term, happily married couple, a bridge is built across the generations. The inventory can give the Mentor Couple an X-ray of that couple's relationship, so that they can help the younger couple grow by focusing on the issues that have surfaced. For example, if the man is giving the woman "the silent treatment," she may have never complained about it, for fear of "rocking the boat." However, she will answer honestly if asked on an inventory whether she agrees or disagrees with the statement: "At times I am concerned about the silent treatment I get from my future spouse." The inventory report compares what the man and woman said on each issue. Mentors can then ask the young man to explain his behavior. They might add, "The silent treatment doesn't work in a marriage. It can damage intimacy and trust." Mentors can also teach skills on how to resolve conflict. Yet not one couple in 7,000 getting married in America has a Mentor Couple to pass on their wisdom.

Following the wedding, most churches offer nothing to nurture or offer care for the marriages. Not one church in 1,000 has an annual retreat to enrich existing marriage. Perhaps only about 100 churches have trained "back-from-the-brink" couples whose marriages once nearly failed to mentor those in current crisis. Yet Retrouvaille, a weekend retreat run by lay Catholics, that has been attended by 70,000 couples in crisis, routinely saves four out of five marriages. Why? Retrouvaille is led by wounded healer couples, who feel led by the Lord to share how they overcame adultery, alcoholism, abuse or whatever nearly drove them apart. Very few churches have strategies to help separated couples reconcile or to help stepfamilies be successful.

David Blankenhorn recently suggested that a shift in how partners see marriage has occurred. He noted that couples today often see the partners as bigger than the marriage. In the past, partners saw the marriage, and faith or community-based commitments to marriage, as bigger than themselves. What are the consequences of this shift in values away from faith or community-based covenants?

David Blankenhorn is absolutely correct that today's young couples believe their partners are more important than the institution of marriage. That's why so few couples seem able to live the vows they exchanged on the altar of God. Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher (2000) summarize many studies in their book, The Case for Marriage. They report a 1993 poll which asked if a couple with young children "should not get divorced even if they are unhappy," 61% of Americans said this was a view they 'No longer believe in." Years ago, the norm was that couples did stay together "for the sake of the children." Today divorce is seen as a solution to ending conflict, which adults believe is harmful to children. However, the authors cite a study that even children from high conflict marriages which stuck together had an average GPA of 3.6 while teens from divorced high-conflict families had an average GPA of just 2.4. Further, two-thirds of those divorcing are not in high conflict marriages (Waite & Gallagher, 2000). Waite analyzed the National Survey of Families and Households and found that "86% of unhappily married people who stick it out find that, five years later, their marriages are happier ... In fact, nearly three-fifths of those who said their marriage was unhappy in the late '80s and who stayed married, rated this same marriage as either 'very happy,' or 'quite happy' when re-interviewed in the early 1990s" (p. 148).

The Bush administration, under Wade Horn, is searching for ways to support marriages in America today. Marriage interventionists have tried to assist marriages in a variety of ways including church-based marriage enrichment, pastoral counseling professional counseling, marriage mentoring, and pre-marital counseling. If you could make a recommendation to Wade Horn today, what would you recommend his office attempt to make a difference in marriages?

Dr. Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, was a founding member of the Marriage Savers Board. He is impressively convincing the DHHS to create a "Healthy Marriage Initiative." First, he persuaded President Bush to add a $300 million federal program to promote marriage as a part of welfare reauthorization. The bill has now passed the House twice, and at this writing in August, 2003, it is expected to pass the Senate in May or June as part of the reauthorization of welfare reform.

Dr. Horn has made a second important innovation, changing existing federal grant programs so that they encourage marriage. The largest of these existing federal funding streams is called the Safe and Stable Families Program, which has $385 million appropriated in FY 2002.

One of the areas for which funding can be sought is called "Community Marriage Initiatives." It sounds familiar! Here is one particularly encouraging goal for which funds can be sought:

Establish partnerships with community and faith based organizations to train couples to be mentors and to train leaders to organize "marriage saver" programs in their area. These Community Marriage Initiatives will include marriage preparation programs, marriage enrichment programs, programs for "back-from-the brink" couples and programs for stepfamilies.

What else could Wade Horn do?:

1. Update divorce data, which has not been credible since 1997 and has not even been collected since 1998. There used to be five people working on marriages and divorces at the National Center for Health Statistics (part of the DHHS). The Clinton Administration fired them. To my knowledge, no new people have been hired by the Bush Administration. While some data on marriage is available from Census, there is no longer state-by-state data on divorces and no national data on the numbers of divorces in the United States since 1998. There is also none of the analysis that the National Center of Health Statistics used to provide on length of an average marriage that ends in divorce, or the number of children involved.

2. Require states to spend some of their TANF money on marriage. The stated goals of welfare reform legislation are to "reduce out-of-wedlock births" and "increase the number of two-parent families" in the states. Promoting marriage is the obvious solution, but few states do anything. Why? The DHHS oversees TANF.

Follow up: What should churches be doing to support marriages in their congregations and community?

Make marriage a priority in the church. Marriage was God's first institution, but all too often, it is the local church's last institution. Church members could usefully answer this question: Who is in charge of marriage in your church, other than the pastor, who is in charge of everything? Most important activities in a church have lay leaders with an assigned responsibility such as Sunday school, the choir, urban outreach, missionaries, and adult bible study. However, no lay people take responsibility for marriage preparation in an average church, or for enrichment, or for saving troubled marriages. We suggest that couples with different marital histories be assigned responsibility. Place couples in solid, long-term marriages in charge of marriage preparation. Those whose marriages once nearly failed could lead a ministry to help those in current crisis. Couples in stepfamilies could create a "Stepfamily Support Group," to help those marriages succeed. These various couples have quite different but parallel tasks. Their first duty is to become trained on what can be done, and then to train other couples to help.

Marriage Savers regularly provides this sort of training at three different kinds of events. Churches send a pastor and up to three Mentor Couples to a National Training To Create a Marriage Savers Congregation that we usually hold twice a year. Alternatively, churches may send up to five couples and a pastor to one of the regional trainings we conduct around the country, after the signing of a Community Marriage Policy, listed on our Travel Schedule on our Web site (see Or if a church organizes a dozen other churches for training, Marriage Savers will come to any community. Finally, we are creating a video series so that any congregation could train couples in their home church that will be available in 2004.

John Gottman has proposed that training couples in communication skills is not as effective as marriage interventionists have believed. For example, he found that "master" couples who have demonstrated the ability to create a strong marriage only use the skill 4% of the time. Consequently, there is a debate among marriage interventionists about the utility and efficacy of communication skills training. Where do you fall on the current issue?

John Gottmann, is incorrect in saying that training in communication skills is unimportant. George Gallup polled couples who had divorced, asking what was the cause of their divorce (McManus, 1995). He found that 5% divorced due to physical abuse; 16% due to drug or alcohol abuse; and 17% due to adultery, although there was some overlap. The overwhelming cause of divorce cited by those who went through it was "incompatibility." Related to that were arguments over money, family or children (10%). "However, stated differently, three-fifths (57%) of marriages failed due to poor communication or conflict resolution skills" (McManus, 1995), I wrote in Marriage Savers. Of course, all of those couples thought they had good communication when they married. More likely, they found one another physically and sexually attractive, which gave them the impression they were compatible.

The good news is that communication skills can be taught, as evidenced by the documented success of the PREP program (Stanley et al., 2001). Further, intensive premarital preparation with a premarital inventory and Mentoring Couples training young couples in conflict resolution skills at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, MD, had only a 3% divorce rate over a decade, as noted earlier (Latimer & McManus, 2003).

Explain to the readers how you integrate your faith/theology with your approach to marital intervention. How do you approach marital interventions and marital research in respect to your faith?

I believe the most important verse in Scripture with regard to marriage is Ephesians 5:21: "Submit to one another in reverence for Christ." Southern Baptists do not agree with this, even though the rest of Ephesians 5, starting with "Wives, submit to your husbands ..." explains what mutual submission is all about. Nine verses are devoted to telling men how they are to submit, loving their wife as Christ loved the church (dying for her) and only 3 verses summarize the woman's role. Significantly, many states with high percentages of Southern Baptists have very high divorce rates, such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama (Maher, 2002).

On the other hand, there is much wisdom in the proverb, "The couple that prays together, stays together." The late Dr. David Larson, founder of the International Center for the Integration of Health and Spirituality, formerly the National Institute for HealthCare Research, has written, "Couples who are religiously committed are protected against divorce." Or as he put it less reverently, "If you want to die early, don't go to church. Play golf on Sunday." In 1981, the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co. conducted a survey that found the most religiously committed people are the happiest in their homes and at work and the least likely to get divorced (1981). To determine their level of religious commitment, people were asked if they not only attended religious services regularly and prayed, but felt that God loved them, and if they read the Bible, attended church social events, and had "something you call a religious experience." Some 60% of the most religious, if unhappily married would "try to reconcile the problem at all costs," only 33% of the least religiously active would do so.

Marriage Encounter, a weekend retreat run by couples in renewed marriages, that has been attended by 2 million couples-is built on the thesis of mutual leadership and responsibility. It effectiveness has not been thoroughly studied. But a doctoral thesis by Rev. George McIrath, found that while only 55% said they came from "good marriages," (45% were "average" or "unhappy"), "fully 80% to 90%" of attending couples said that Marriage Encounter "demonstrates clear effectiveness when its participants are involved in rigorous and controlled pre-and post-weekend research."

Equality of the sexes and mutual submission is central to the job of being a Mentor Couple. That mutual respect-and a loving marriage-is what we are modeling for those we prepare for marriage. It is also the core innovation for troubled marriages. This approach replaces the failing "expert" approach of most churches. The pastor marries the couple, so he is expected to provide marriage preparation, or any help if their marriage falters. A couple with marriage difficulties is told by many clergy they should see a Christian counselor. Why? Their success rate is less than 20%, according to Diane Sollee, former Associate Director of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy and now head of Smart Marriages. Mentor Couples whose own marriages once nearly failed, save 80% to 90% of the marriages they work with, the mirror opposite.

A man and woman who have rebuilt their marriage are a living model of the importance of mutual submission. They acknowledge they have both contributed to the pain of their marriage at an earlier stage, and they have both sought forgiveness and learned to show love for their mate when they did not feel like it, but were biblically submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. At a training for mentors in Reading, Pennsylvania, I asked if there were any couples whose marriages were once on the rocks, who might be willing to share with the group how they rebuilt their marriage. A couple met with me during the break. A man I'll call Pete said, "I got into alcohol, drugs and pornography and found myself at age 34 sitting in a local jail cell for statutory rape with a teenager. I faced the possibility of 5 years in prison. I gave my life to the Lord in that cell, praying, 'Lord I have made a mess of my life with my management of it. I give it to you, and ask you to help me out of this mess."' His first answer to the prayer is that his wife did not leave him, though the newspaper ran a story with his picture, profoundly embarrassing "Alice" and their teenage children. He was released on probation, and now has an excellent marriage. Imagine a couple suffering from adultery in your church meeting with Pete and Alice, who were able to re-build a marriage after statutory rape. Wouldn't that make their adultery crisis seem manageable?

Put simply, why do marriages fail? Selfishness. Why do the best ones succeed? Selflessness. How do we move a troubled marriage from selfishness to selflessness? By showing the couple in crisis a walking parable, a couple who has moved from selfishness to selflessness, who can tell their inspiring story to that couple in crisis. If the issue is alcoholism. The older couple can say, "We went through alcoholism for 10 years in our marriage. I was the drunk," the man might say. "My wife was disgusted and embarrassed. But she persuaded me to go to AA, and we can say hope can be restored in a marriage after alcoholism. We know. We have done it. You can do so too. Let us tell you how we rebuilt hope in our marriage and then let's pray about your situation." Those who have "been there, done that," have more credibility than any "expert" whether he is a pastor or counselor.

Correspondence concerning this article may he sent to Michael J. McManus, Marriage Savers, 9311 Harrington Dr., Potomac, MD 20854. Email:

Empirical study of Christian marriage and religious marital interventions is seriously lacking. In your opinion, what are the most important studies that need to be conducted to advance our understanding of Christian marriages and Christian marriage interventions?

There has been an acute lack of research to back up every assertion made in this paper about how Mentor Couples can be "marriage savers," and how the divorce rate can be reduced at the community and church levels. Fortunately, one of the last things Wade Horn did at the National Fatherhood Initiative, before he become Assistant Secretary of the DHHS, was to get Marriage Savers a $50,000 grant to research the effectiveness of Community Marriage Policies. As noted earlier, the Institute for Research and Evaluation led by Dr. Stan Weed in Salt Lake City has evaluated all 144 Community Marriage Policies signed through 2000. It found that "divorces plunged in numerous cities," though some had an increase. Its report was in peer review in Spring, 2003, when this article was written. What needs additional research is why eight cities were able to slash their divorce rates in half, while others actually had an increase in their divorce rate. Our hope is that local researchers in communities, which adopted CMPs, will study the practices of their community and congregations. How many have trained Mentor Couples? How many couples have been trained in communities with varying results? What percent of them are actually mentoring couples? What do the mentees think of this intervention?

More broadly, the single most effective intervention to save troubled marriages is Retrouvaille, which has been attended by perhaps 70,000 couples (see Anecdotally, its directors in 20 cities have told me that the weekend retreat, run by "back-from-the-brink couples"--saves four out of five marriages. But there has never been a rigorous study of Retrouvaille. Its apparent success has never been documented by a credible research project. It would not be difficult to write to the 2,000+ couples who have attended in metro Washington or 3,000+ in Detroit, to see how many of them are still together, and what they saw as Retrouvaille's role. Similar studies are needed of Marriage Encounter, which was once attended by 100,000 a year, but now is down to the 15,000/yr range. Other analysis is needed to examine the impact of Family Life Weekends, which are growing in attendance by more than 25,000 couples per year. With what result? There are many video series available to enrich existing marriages, such as those by Gary Smalley, Gary Chapman, Bruce Wilkinson, David & Claudia Arp, and Family Life. Which are the most effective? Why? Others, such as "Choosing Wisely- Before You Divorce," try to halt discussion of divorce and move couples to work at their marriages, appears to help many marriages. Some 7,000 churches have bought that series. With what result? Another set of workbooks and videos is "Reconciling God's Way," which can be used by just one spouse who wants to save a marriage. How effective is it? All we have now is anecdotal information.

Another area where research is needed is at the local church level. Why have five churches had only six divorces in five years? To find out, I have obtained a research grant for Stan Weed to do a follow-up study after he completes his work on Community Marriage Policies. I think what he will discover is that churches which have trained Mentor Couples to make certain types of interventions, such as administering a premarital inventory and talking it through over five sessions--have a great impact in preparing couples for a lifelong marriage. I think he will find that back-from-the-brink couples can also be very effective in saving troubled marriages.

There are two widely-used premarital inventories: PREPARE and FOCCUS. They are now used by perhaps 800,000 couples a year. With what result? Which is the most effective? Why? Under what circumstances are they best used--by a pastor or priest, or by a mentoring couple? There has been no independent study of either instrument, to my knowledge.

Beyond the need to research existing work to save marriages, research is badly needed on how to make a case to those having babies out-of-wedlock--that they should consider marriage to give that child a protected environment in which to grow up, and for their own happiness as adults. There is not even any significant experimentation being undertaken in this field. "Fragile Families" research suggests that the best time to make a case with such couples is just before or just after the birth of the child. At the birth of the child, 50% are living together and another 30% are romantically involved, and most say they are open to marriage (Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Well-being). We at Marriage Savers have been trying to obtain funding to train mentoring couples at inner city churches to reach out to the pregnant mothers and offer to give the mother and father of the child an inventory, and training to resolve issues of communication and conflict.

Another area for research is why clergy are so reluctant to deal with the issues of marriage, divorce and cohabitation. Surely Scripture is clear that God hates divorce. That must mean He loves marriage. Yet many have never preached on these issues. Are their own marriages so shaky, they feel insecure in addressing the issue? Perhaps the problem is that seminary training in this field is virtually non-existent for most clergy. As a syndicated columnist, writing "Ethics & Religion" since 1981, I have had the privilege of traveling widely in this nation and examining many efforts to prepare, enrich or save marriages. Many of the best innovations have been piloted at a single church. However, my 2000 Manual To Create a Marriage Savers Congregation, summarizes these interventions, and how to plant them in individual churches across America.

If you were to give advice to someone who is training to work with marriages, what is the key piece of advice you would like to share?

First, of course, marry well. I gave a Commencement Address on this subject to Samford University in which I said that my four decades as a journalist convinced me that sociology backed up the Scriptural admonitions to "flee fornication" and remain chaste till marriage--quite the opposite of what the world suggests, to sleep around and live with someone first. By that I mean take a premarital inventory and meet with a Mentor Couple to discuss the issues that surface. Follow the scriptural admonition by Paul: "Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil" (I Thess. 5:21-22). (Regrettably, however, I noted in my address that if Samford graduates went to their own churches for such preparation, they would not find it. I challenged the parents and faculty at Samford to create that opportunity. It has not been done so yet.)

Second, attend every possible marriage enrichment opportunity with your spouse, such as Marriage Encounter or Family Life Weekends. This can be done at least annually to refresh your own marriage.

Third, read aloud with one's spouse the book, The Mystery of Marriage by Mike Mason. It was written during his year of engagement and a year after his wedding, and is remarkably wise and beautifully written. Read other books cited in this paper, most notably, The Case for Marriage by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher and The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, which provides evidence of the harm of divorce to children, based on Wallerstein's study of 100 children of divorce over 25 years! It is the only longitudinal study of divorce's impact on children. The "unexpected legacy" is that the impact of divorce hits the children of divorce most cruelly when they themselves try as adults to bond to someone of the opposite sex and are usually unable to do so. Of the 100 adult children of divorce, 60 married and 24 divorced, leaving only a third still married!

Finally, I urge anyone training to work with marriages to begin mentoring programs in your own church. This will give you a hands-on feel for both the difficulties (of recruitment, for example) and of the blessings (many avoided divorces).

Marriage Savers has demonstrated that churches can make a radical difference in saving marriages both in local congregations and at the community level across the nation. These lessons need to be taken to America's 380,000 congregations. Nothing could be more important for the health and stability of our children and generations to come. If more young people join this great cause, the ripples of their contribution to marriage will touch the lives of unborn generations.


Barna, G. (1999, October/December). Christians Are More Likely to Experiance Divorce than Non-Christians. The Barna Report. See

Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Well-being, Princeton University (Wallace Hall, 2nd Fl., Princeton, NJ 08544), Fragile Families Research Briefs. Social Indicators Survey Center, Columbia University, from

Births, Marriages, Divorces and Deaths: Provisional Data for 2001, National Vital Statistics Reports, National Center for Health Statistics, Vol. 50, No. 14, September 11, 2002, and earlier reports.

Buettner, R., Buettner, F., McManus, M., & McManus, H. (1999, December). Mentors Guide For FOCCUS, revised 2003, Marriage Savers.

Bumpass, L.L., Sweet, J.A. & Cherlin, A. (1989, August). The Role of Cohabitation in Decline Rates of Marriage, based on A National Survey of Families and Households, NSFH Working Paper No. 5.

Bumpass, L.L. (1994, December). The Declining Significance of Marriage: Changing Family Life in the United States, Working Paper #66 of A National Survey of Families and Households, Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Bumpass, L.L. & Sweet, J.A. (1995, May) Cohabitation, Marriage and Union Stability: Preliminary Findings from NSFH2 National Survey of Families and Households., Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison. NSFH Working Paper No. 65.

Bumpass, L.L., & Lu, H. (1999). Trends in Cohabitation and Implications for Children's Family Contexts in the U.S. CDE. Working paper No. 98-10. Center for Demography & Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Casper, L., & Fields, J. (2000). America's Families and Living Arrangements: U.S.

Kreider, R.M. & Fields, J. (1996). Number, Timing and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: Current Population Reports, issued February, 2002, U.S. Census Bureau, page 17.

Latimer, C,. & McManus, M. J. (2003). How to give premarital insurance to premarital couples. From

Maher, B. (Ed.). (2002). The Family Portrait. Family Research Council

McIlrath, G. Assessing Marriage Encounter. Doctor of Ministry thesis for the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.

McManus, M. J. (1995). Marriage savers: Helping your friends and family avoid divorce. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

McManus, M.J. (2003). How to Create a Marriage Savers Congregation. Marriage Savers: Potomac, MD.

National Center for Health Statistics. (2001). Births, Marriages, Divorces and Deaths: Provisional Data.

Popenoe, D., & Whitehead, B. D. (2002). The state of our unions: The social health of marriage in America, 2002. Retrieved from The National Marriage Project Web site:

Popenoe, D., & Whitehead, B. D. (2003). The state of our unions: The social health of marriage in America, 2003. Retrieved from The National Marriage Project Web site:

Saluter, A. (1993, March). Marital Status and Living Arrangements. Current Population Reports, Population Characteristics P20-478. U.S. Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census.

Smock, P.J. (2000). Cohabitation in the United States: An appraisal of research themes, findings and implications. Annual Reviews Sociology, 26, 1-20.

Stanley, S.M., Markman, H.J., Prado, L.M., Olmos-Gallo, P.A., Tonelli, L., St. Peters, M., et al. (2001). Community based premarital prevention: Clergy and lay leaders on the front lines. Family Relations, 50, 67-76.

Connecticut Mutual Life Report on American Values in the '80s: The Impact of Belief. (1981). Research and Forecasts, Inc., commissioned by Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co.

U.S. Census Bureau (2000, March). Current Population Reports, Series P20-537; America's Families and Living Arrangements.

U.S. Department of the Census. (2001). Statistical Abstract of the United States, p. 87, table 117.

Waite, L.J., & Gallagher, M. (2000). The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially. Doubleday, pp. 142-14.


McMANUS, MICHAEL J. Address: Marriage Savers, 9311 Harrington Drive, Potomac, MD 20854. Title: President and Co-Chair, Marriage Savers. Degree: A.B., Duke University, 1963. Specializations: Marriage public policy; ethics and religion.

McMANUS, HARRIET E. Address: Marriage Savers, 9311 Harrington

Drive, Potomac, MD 20854. Title: Co-Founder and Co-Chair,

Marriage Savers. Degree: AA, Pine Manor College.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Rosemead School of Psychology
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:McManus, Harriet
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Theology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
Previous Article:IT takes a village to save a marriage.
Next Article:The SYMBIS approach to marriage education.

Related Articles
Marriage takes work as well as romance.
The SYMBIS approach to marriage education.
Hope-focused marriage: recommendations for researchers, clinicians, and church workers.
Marriage proposal: religious right, political allies launch crusade to alter constitution.
The calculus of love.
Dobson Declares war for marriage amendment.
Marriage: institution or relationship?
Marriage bonus in D.C. pilot.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters