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Strengthening marriages in a skeptical culture: issues and opportunities.

Questions are answered in relationship to Scott Stanley's work in marriage education and in relationship to a variety of sociocultural factors concerning the condition and treatment of marriage issues in contemporary society, including current trends for public sector efforts to strengthen marriages in the U.S. The PREP and Christian PREP approach to marital education is discussed. In addition, recommendations are made for marital interventions in general to local community and church leaders as well as marital therapists.


Can you briefly describe what kind of work you are currently doing in support of Christian marriages?

I am involved in a great many things that have bearing on this. Many are more in the "secular" world, as I am a big believer in the importance of Christians being involved in public policy discussions, research, and planning. I continue to conduct research on the prevention of marital distress and divorce with Howard Markman at the University of Denver, and have been very engaged for some time in research on commitment theory and dynamics. These lines of research have been particularly fruitful in understanding things like cohabitation vs. marriage, and why marriage might play a particularly important role in how men treat women. I am also one of two senior consultants to the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, which, in my view, is the most sweeping, strategic effort being conducted by any state in the nation at this time when it comes to public policy initiatives on behalf of marriage. As part of that work, the public domain efforts have a strong engagement with the private domain of the faith community in Oklahoma. I am often talking to and advising people on both sides of that fence in Oklahoma and around the nation.

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?

Apathy and fear. People have begun to shy away from marriage--not because they do not desire it or seek it, but because they fear that it is not really possible to have a lasting, healthy, and satisfying marriage. Those currently studying the youngest generation say that they have an interesting combination of conservatism about marriage and family, but with a loss of confidence about the ability of any couple to make marriage work as a life-long union. Unfortunately, I think the church has not done nearly enough to take the lead in the culture to (a) assert that God created the desire for marriages that last (which most people seem to have), and (b) to present comprehensive support for people through the life-cycle for building and sustaining strong marriages. The good news is that churches seem to be putting greater emphasis on providing premarital education. This is one key area where the church is in the best possible position to do solid prevention work because so many couples seek faith institutions at the point they seek to become married (Stanley, Markman, St. Peters, & Leber, 1995). With its institutional base, moral perspective, and contact with couples and families at critical times, the church can play a major role in any revival of a culture that broadly supports marriages of quality and stability.

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

I think about this in two ways. For one thing, the church has received a bum rap related to recent stories about high rates of divorce in the Bible belt and/or conservative religious groups. Those findings gained force in the media via a release from the Barna organization. The data as far as they were presented were certainly accurate. However, the data led people to the wrong conclusions in giving the impression that this is evidence of hypocrisy about marriage within the community of faith (especially, conservative faith). In actuality, those kinds of findings have been around for decades, and they are nearly entirely driven by demographic factors such as young age at marriage and poverty (that co-occur in the Bible belt at higher rates) rather than the ways in which faith and practice affect marriage (for example, see Call & Heaton, 1997, about the importance of the demographic variables compared to the religious variables).

The data are quite consistent and clear that people who are more religious (I'm speaking now purely as a researcher rather than using theological terms) tend to have slightly more stable and happy marriages. The closer you get to what people actually practice, the closer you get to much larger effects. In other words, couples who really practice their faith together, and who have faith that supports the special nature of marriage, are likely to be doing quite significantly better in their marriages. I highly recommend Mahoney et al. (1999) on this score, as this is the single best study ever in this area. We recently tested the study's findings explicitly in a large, very well constructed survey in the state of Oklahoma and found that religious faith--and especially attendance--were significantly related to strength of marriages, and in the expected directions, contrary to the impressions given in the media about divorce rates in conservative groups and in the Bible Belt Johnson et al., 2002; available online at

Having said all that, I think the divorce rate in the Christian community is quite high (even if not because of faith, as the media suggested). This is most likely because Christians are highly affected by the broader culture in what they think and how they behave. The dominant culture no longer has as broad of support for marital longevity, and Christians' behavior often mirrors that of the dominant culture. Clergy have become intimidated about preaching and teaching related to marriage and other family matters due to concerns about criticism from their flocks. I think the church, broadly speaking, could do a far better job of putting marriage into a prominent place when it comes to preaching, programming, and public discourse about what really matters most in life. It seems to have been rather important to God in his design.

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?

Rampant "me-ism." I think David Blankenhorn has noticed something profoundly important here. We live in a culture that thrives on messages dominated by individual needs and concerns. As part of this, people no longer see their vow to their mate as part of a commitment to the community, but as more of the nature of an agreement between two consenting parties (Blankenhorn, 1997). Of all institutions, part of the core teaching of the church is that the coming together of the community (two in marriage, individuals in the body of Christ, etc.) has the power to trump break-downs in relationships caused by a focus on me vs. you. It is remarkable to me that the apostle Paul is the writer in the New Testament who writes the most text that emphasizes individual roles and differences while also writing in the most sweeping terms about the power of oneness to trump divisions. For example, Galatians 3:28 (English Standard Version) says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This portrays a very powerful point about what makes for truly healthy and strong churches and marriages: a strength and respect for the union itself as an identity that trumps the focus on the individual. We in the church have much work to do in this regard, but we are also given a very powerful theology to help guide us.

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?

When it comes to the faith community, all of the things you just mentioned. Clearly, this administration is comfortable supporting efforts in both the public and private sectors to strengthen marriage. While the efforts on the latter have to necessarily be carefully thought through and circumspect, there is nevertheless an important role for collaboration between these two sectors in accomplishing good things for more people. In Oklahoma, for example, they are doing tremendous things through both sectors, and the administration through Wade Horn and his colleagues at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) are very aware of the efforts in that state. Again, I would refer people to the website for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative to get a sense for the range of things being attempted. Among other things, they have hundreds of clergy signed on to a covenant about marriage and preparation for marriage. They also had Les and Leslie Parrott in the state for an entire year working closely in various groups and sectors to help support the efforts underway in that state, including the promotion of mentoring programs.

This question is not hypothetical for me, since I actually do give ideas and advice to Wade Horn and others within ACF. ACF plays such a crucial role in all the public sector efforts because ACF is over programs such as TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families; what used to be Welfare) and Head Start--programs that have immense impacts on families. As I see it, there are many crucial elements to turning the direction of American culture when it comes to the growing ambivalence and disregard of marriage:

1. As Wade Horn has noted, the emphasis at least in policy should be on those who choose marriage for themselves, not in forcing or coercing anyone to become married who does not desire marriage. Policies (and I am not aware of anyone suggesting such things, anyway) that coerce people with regard to marriage are nonstarters.

2. Fortunately, if there is any fundamentally good news here, it's simply that most people desire lasting and healthy marriages. Recent research shows this to be true even among the "Fragile Families" where there is poverty and out-of-wedlock births among the young (McClanahan, Garfinkel, & Mincy, 2001)--a group that has been previously written off as just not being interested in marriage. Hence, we are not talking here about forcing something on people that they do not want. Most people want marriages to last, and public and private (and especially faith sector) involvements can work in varying ways to help more couples achieve such goals. But it's become much harder for the average couple (and nearly impossible for disadvantaged couples) to enter into and preserve solid marriages, and that is the way to think about the opportunity before us in America today.

3. The government in particular at various levels should look closely for policies that punish marriage. One of the best things that is happening right now is that thoughtful policy experts are examining such policies with an eye to adjusting the way they currently work so that they no longer punish marriage. Case in point: most low income people believe that they would lose government assistance of varying kinds if they were to marry (Johnson et al., 2002). For example, for many poor women, marrying the father of their child would mean their child no longer has access to medical care through Medicaid. It is not good public policy that what they fear is exactly what will happen for many. Some policy experts have suggested things like disregarding the income of the spouse making less money when calculating income for determination of eligibility for government assistance-at least for a time while a couple get on its feet financially. These are complex policies with many ramifications, so it will take some time and effort for such things to change.

4. I think public and private sectors can do more to provide plausible relationship and marriage education resources to aid people in their goal to build marriages that last. The simple fact is that churches and other institutions can reach many people that government agencies never see, and government agencies can reach many people that the church may never reach (e.g., through TANF, Head Start, High School curricula, etc.). The church could take a leading role in reaching those it has contact with, but it's becoming clear to me that, whether or not churches do this on a broad basis, some key government institutions will. I personally believe that there is merit in many kinds of marriage education efforts. I also believe that, in general, the best practices in this area are those that (Stanley, 2001):

a. Are empirically informed, meaning they include information that is based on solid research about such things as risk factors for distress and divorce.

b. Are empirically tested.

c. Are regularly updated based on ongoing research.

I think the pre-eminent source of truth is revelation, not research, so research should be carefully examined in light of revealed truth. However, I think it is also true that there is a striking and clear overlap between teachings in scripture and solid marital and family research. There are no significant conflicts in my view. Yet, research can often shed light on things in more detail than what religious leaders may have otherwise been able to speak to. More importantly, research sometimes points to very important dimensions that are heavily emphasized in scripture, but where those dimensions have, perhaps, not received as much attention from the church as the range and sweep of passages warranted. For example, scripture is replete with warnings and admonitions about how we talk and think about others (Proverbs and the Sermon on the Mount are just two key examples). Three decades of research reinforces how crucial these factors are in all kinds of relationships, and therefore, especially in marriage (Karney & Bradbury, 1995). Not only are negative patterns of interaction that are emphasized heavily in scripture predictive of divorce risk, they are also a prime factor in putting children at increased risk for all kinds of negative outcomes in life. Yet, I do not think that the church has placed as much emphasis on these matters as both scripture and research warrant.

Followup: What should churches be doing to support marriages in their congregation and community?

I think churches could do more in terms of teaching about marriage, leading discussions about the state of marriage in our culture, helping couples come together in small groups that are partly designed to support the deepening of their marriages, promoting mentoring models, and generally looking for ways to come along side and support couples and families at all major crucial developmental stages. This latter point relates to what may be the single greatest strength of what churches can do because of the unique positions that faith institutions have in the lives of people during times of major life transitions (e.g., marriage, birth, maturation of children spiritually and educationally, and death). Many experts have thought that reaching people at times of transition is key for doing prevention work, and the church is in the catbird seat to have access in the lives of people at crucial junctures in life. Further, when the work is well done, it very likely increases the likelihood that couples will seek other services sooner if they start to falter (Schumm et al., 2000).

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?

Obviously, I have strong views on this matter. Before going into my views, it is worth noting that there is far more agreement between our camps than disagreement. Of course, disagreements get more attention because they tend to be more interesting. But they are not always more informative or useful.

For example:

1. We agree on the importance of research informing what we do with couples.

2. We agree on the crucial role of certain kinds of negative patterns of thinking and interacting that undermine marriages over time.

3. More recently, you will note an interesting convergence in our work in that both camps have been emphasizing for some time the importance of both handling the negative side better, but also of helping couples develop and maintain friendship, companionship, and vision. We may use different terms and have different approaches, but these twin forces dominate both models in their current expressions (Gottman, Ryan, Carrere, & Erley, 2002; Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg, 2001; Stanley, Trathen, McCain, & Bryan, 1998).

So, on the matter of skills training, I led the critique of his major paper that generated a good deal of controversy on this subject. This is a paper a reader might wish access if he or she is interested in a serious discussion of the methodological limitations of the work that began that debate (Stanley, Bradbury, & Markman, 2000). It would be hard in this venue to give adequate attention to the scientific issues on this matter, but I will highlight a few.

First, the matter highlighted with significant clarity the key role that measurement and design play in research; that what scientists measure, what they call what they measure, and what interpretations they make based on those factors is very important. Here is one example. The same study that launched the idea that some kinds of skill training should be "abandoned" (their word) also concluded that anger was irrelevant in understanding or helping how couples did over time. Does any reader seriously believe that anger does not matter in marriage? I do not think even Gottman's team believes some of the implications one would get from a cursory read of that paper. This all further highlights the fact that you cannot properly interpret such statements without looking carefully and slowly at what the researchers actually did and how things were labeled.

Second, and far more importantly, regardless of issues about how and when and if couples use specific skills routinely following training, I think the evidence is fairly overwhelming that having couples work hard on such skills training during some key period of time (such as preparation for marriage) causes lasting changes in interaction for the average couple--and lasting changes on patterns of negative interaction that put couples and children at risk for poor outcomes in life (for example, see these studies or discussions: Giblin, Sprenkle, & Sheehan, 1985; Hahlweg, Markman, Thurmaier, Engl, & Eckcrt, 1998; Stanley, 2001; Stanley et al., 2001). Studies of this sort suggest that people benefit from active skills training. If so, whether they regularly formally engage specific skills is not really the most important question. Keep in mind that the Gottman team assertion was based on research that did not include any training or an outcome research component. It was a design merely looking for naturally occurring active listening.

My point is this: Even if it were eventually concluded that most couples do not formally use skills as taught in relationship education programs, this is a different question than whether or not there are lasting benefits for marry couples from having practiced such techniques. Take our Speaker-Listener Technique, for example. When couples practice it, they are practicing behaviors that have much larger meanings: turn-taking, going slowly and more carefully when talking about something difficult, learning to listen to the other instead of preparing a rebuttal when the other has the floor, and so forth. When couples practice such things, they are not just learning skills. They are also learning that each partner is someone with a different and valid viewpoint that is worthy of respect. I think a fairly strong argument can be made for the beneficial aspects of helping couples learn such important messages about the nature of communication with loved ones (Lyster, 1998)--and having them learn such things behaviorally.

Third, and perhaps most important, this particular debate has been unhelpful in another major respect. It focused so much attention on one aspect of well conceived marital education when there has been a great deal of research on the efforts to help couples lower known risk factors related to how they handle their differences and negativity. Different couples will derive differing benefits from different aspects of programs--provided that an educational program or therapy model includes attention to various elements. While our program, PREP, is perhaps best known for the skills training aspects, it also includes modules on friendship, commitment, forgiveness, spiritual beliefs and practices, and expectation clarification. Some couples do not need help with skills. Some, even if they do, will respond more strongly to the information and suggestions about friendship or commitment.

In our ongoing premarital research, couples report the single most helpful aspect of the experience to be the Speaker/Listener Technique training. Eighty percent (80%) rate that as the most helpful element (Stanley et al., 2001). Conversely, in the program evaluation we are conducting for the U.S. Army, the elements that the young married couples say impacted them most were messages related to commitment, investment in the relationship, and the preservation and protection of friendship (Stanley, Markman, Saiz, Schumm, Bloomstrom & Bailey, 2002). Couples at differing points in their development, or in differing contexts, may respond more strongly to different elements of what a provider has to offer. If a couple can talk safely, openly, and clearly about sensitive matters affecting their relationship, they likely do not need skills training. How many couples can do this?

In a context such as therapy, the counselor can tailor what they teach to the specific needs and goals of the couple in front of them. Nevertheless, it remains true that the single clearest finding from many outcomes studies is that we can teach couples how to interact less negatively--and this is a very important outcome. But even it may contain complexities we need to resolve over time. There are some puzzling findings in a few studies suggesting that, for some women, being less negative is only better for the marriage in the short run, and not the long run. It will likely take a decade for researchers to understand this finding better. In the meantime, it makes a great example of how interventions can be informed by ongoing research: If you do skills training with couples designed to interrupt and reduce negative patterns of interaction associated with increased risks of divorce, you want to make sure that women are understanding that the advice is to learn to raise issues constructively, not to be simply "nice." Sometimes, just being nice does not cut it (see Exodus 4:24-26 for a potent little story about a bold female saving her husband's life in a pretty confrontive manner). Male or female, people need to bring up important concerns with their mates, and we can all help more couples to be able to do this in ways that strengthen rather than tear down the relationship.

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?

This has been one of the great delights of my professional life. I get deep satisfaction looking at the sweep and nuances of what scripture teaches and thinking about how those things related to the growing body of sound marital research. The parallels are amazing, and each source has the potential to bring new light to an aspect of the other. For example, it is now a well replicated finding in commitment research that people who are more dedicated to their mates think less seriously and less often about what it would be like to be with someone else (Johnson & Rusbult, 1989; Stanley & Markman, 1992). It was because of that research finding that I began studying Malachi 2:15-16. This passage is noted for the quote of God saying he hates divorce-not divorced people, by the way. Not meaning to get into any complex teachings on divorce here, the point I call attention to is the verse before that famous one, verse 15. In it, it says this (NIV):

[15] Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.

[16] 'I hate divorce,' says the Lord God of Israel, 'and I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,' says the Lord Almighty.

So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.

The word "guard" here is the Hebrew word shamar. Shamar is the word for hedge. This knowledge combined with the clear research findings yields a deeper nuance to this passage that essentially calls us to put a hedge of protection around our commitment in marriage. How we think about and handle alternatives to the path we chose is a crucial element of how couples do over time. Scripture points to this and research highlights it, with the combination of the two leading to a richer, more powerful teaching.

That is but one example among many. Believing that integration can be an enriching experience both for ourselves as well as what we have to teach others, I should also point out that I think working in environments where integrated materials or teachings are not appropriate (or where they would not be well received) can also be very worthwhile. I believe that even in a completely secular setting, helping more couples to build stable and healthy marriages is a good goal. It is one form of doing good to one's neighbor, and it can also be seen as one important element in many overall efforts that give underlying strength to a culture. I believe that this, in turn, ultimately allows the church a better basis to reach people on the spiritual level. When a society is fragmenting and falling into chaos, the opportunities for sharing the gospel are lessened (you can see this thinking in the flow of 1 Timothy 2:1-5). Hence, I am pleased to work with Christians, and I am equally pleased to work in various ways with people who do not share our faith.

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?

I have a pretty short list in answer to this question. I would like to see more research in two specific areas: (a) research to shed more light on the ways in which various materials used in church or other faith-related contexts affect couples (more outcome research), and (b) research that sheds more fight on the various ways that couples can develop and deepen spiritual connection and oneness. I'm quite sure that there are a diverse number of ways couples build great, spiritually connected marriages. Research on this could be used to give other couples more ideas that they may want to pursue.

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?

Be willing to learn from many sources. Give pre-eminence to your faith and teachings, but also look at what others think. Most of us tend to be most comfortable being among people who already think like we do. Broaden your horizons and deepen your connections. I have learned a great deal from people who do not believe many things that I believe about the nature of our world. I think that building such a breadth of relationships is a very Christ-like thing to be doing in this life.


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Johnson, D.J., & Rusbult, C.E. (1989). Resisting temptation: Devaluation of alternative partners as a means of maintaining commitment in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 967-980.

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Mahoney, A., Pargament, K.I., Jewell, T., Swank, A.B., Scott, E., Emery, E., et al. (1999). Marriage and the spiritual realm: The role of proximal and distal religious constructs in marital functioning. Journal of Family Psychology, 13 (3), 321-338.

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McClanahan, S., Garfinkel, I., & Mincy, R. B. (2001). Fragile Families, Welfare Reform, and Marriage. Brookings Institution Policy Brief No. 10, December.

Schumm, W. R., Silliman, B., & Bell, D. B. (2000). Perceived pre-marital counseling outcomes among recently married Army personnel Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 26, 177-186.

Stanley, S.M. (2001). Making the Case for Premarital Education. Family Relations, 50, 272-280.

Stanley, S. M., Bradbury, T.N., & Markman, H.J. (2000). Structural flaws in the bridge from basic research on marriage to interventions for couples: Illustrations from Gottman, Coan, Carrere, and Swanson (1998). Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62(l), 256-264.

Stanley, S.M. & Markman, H.J. (1992). Assessing commitment in personal relationships. Journal of Marriage and The Family, 54, 595-608.

Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Saiz, C. C., Schumm, W. R., Bloomstrom, G., & Bailey, A. E. (2002). Building Strong and Ready Families: Interim Report. Washington D. C.: SAIC, Inc.

Stanley, S.M., Markman, H.J., St. Peters, M, & Leber, B. D. (1995). Strengthening Marriages and Preventing Divorce: New Directions in Prevention Research. Family Relations, 44, 392-401

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.

Stanley, S., Trathen, D., McCain, S, & Bryan, M. (1998). A Lasting Promise. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Inc.


STANLEY, SCOTT M. Address: Department of Psychology, Frontier Hall, University of Denver, Denver, CO 80208. Title: Co-Director, Center for Marital and Family Studies. Specializations: Marital research, commitment, prevention of marital distress, risk factors for divorce and distress.

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Author:Stanley, Scott
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Date:Sep 22, 2003
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