Teaching the skills for saving a relationship–in high school

Last November I wrote about the Divorce Reform Coalition. The aim of this movement is to revamp our no-fault divorce laws. Before divorcing, couples would be required to undergo marriage counseling (funded by the state) and wait for an 8-month “cooling off” period. This is in hopes of saving a relationship that doesn’t have any major dangers and could benefit from therapy. The movement has been picking up steam lately, and publicity.

Last week, Huffington Post contributor Pauline Gains wrote an article criticizing the Divorce Reform Movement’s proposal. Gains’ complaint is that mandating therapy won’t do any good in saving a relationship that is done for.

To [mandatory counseling], I say: Really? Making it harder to divorce will convince those who have fallen head over heels with the secretary, who can’t agree on anything, or who are just plain incompatible, that they should stay married?

And to that argument, I say: You’re right. There are some situations where a couple is better off divorced (read “should I get a divorce?” to find out more). Some relationships are, for better of for worse, over. Counseling will not make these people love each other again, stop abusing each other, or repair the deep emotional wounds that have broken their union.

Gains’ mistake is that these marriages are not the ones that marriage reform advocates are targeting. In fact, extreme and irreconcilable marital problems make up only a small fraction of all reported reasons for divorce.

It’s the little things that make a great marriage, and it’s the little things that are the leading cause of divorce. The most commonly cited reasons for divorce are: lack of communication, difficulty resolving conflicts, feeling distant or “out of love”, and disagreement over finances. Of course when you’re marriage is experiencing these problems, it can feel like it’s the end. At the same time, all these issues have the potential to be resolved via counseling.

Contrary to Gains’ belief, saving a relationship is possible in most situations. You can learn the skills to communicate, increase positivity and make mutually satisfying decisions. This is the foundation for Power of Two online program. It’s supported by numerous studies and years of data that show counseling has a significant impact in marital happiness (a new study just came out Tuesday!).

Of course, instead of having to work on saving a relationship, it’s always better to learn solid marriage skills before you start having problems! In the second half of her article, Gains makes this very proposal: “Instead of trying to fix miserable marriages, why not try to teach people how not to be miserably married in the first place?” She proposes that all high school students take a course in Family Systems as a graduation requirement. Family Systems is a college class taught by psychiatrist and family therapist Murray Bowen. The ideal curriculum would teach students psychology of relationships, problem-solving and common pitfalls, and how to navigate their own thoughts and feelings with those of others.

I think this is a great idea. We teach elementary students “life skills” classes where they learn how to be active listeners, share and get along with each other. The goal is to prepare them to be functional members of their class. Why does this formal social education end there? Childhood through teenagerdom is where we learn the foundations of how to interact with others. Teaching a course on psychology, relationships, conflict resolution and emotional intelligence would be invaluable for young adults for all their future relationships, romantic and otherwise.

I think we should take this idea very seriously. What do you think?

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