Should Schools Teach Teens How To Be Good Spouses?

Clearly there's a movement to get people -- with the help of teachers and counselors -- to think before marrying or divorcing. It sounds like a good idea, but do marriage prep courses work?
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If we take classes to learn the skills we need to survive in the world at large, as well as the working world, should we take classes to learn how to be a good spouse, too?

About a week ago, Utah Rep. Dixon Pitcher introduced a bill that would require would-be spouses to wait at least three days after obtaining a license before getting married, unless they took premarital training first. Wyoming introduced a similar bill; couples that didn't attend three hours of marriage counseling would have to wait a year before getting a marriage license. Other states have tried to pass legislation that would require counseling before couples could divorce.

Clearly there's a movement to get people -- with the help of teachers and counselors -- to think before marrying or divorcing. It sounds like a good idea, but do marriage prep courses work?

Yes and no, according to a 2010 Brigham Young University study, which examined about 50 such classes around the country. Yes, the classes significantly increased couples' communication skills. No, the classes didn't improve relationship quality or satisfaction.

As one researcher noted, "Engaged couples are so in love that they can't be more satisfied. Their heads are bumping against the ceiling."

Maybe trying to talk sense into young lovers who are about to walk down the aisle is too late. Perhaps we should start talking about what makes for a healthy marriage in high school; at least that's what the majority of responders in an informal survey Susan Pease Gadoua and I offered as part of our research for our book, "The New I Do," indicated.

Is there a place for marital education amid algebra, environmental ed and world history classes?

Some high schools already offer that. In 1998, Florida became the first state to require a class on relationships and marriage for high school students, part of a larger plan to encourage marriage skills by discounting marriage licenses for couples that take a premarital skills course. The mandate hasn't had much impact because "loopholes in the law make it easy to avoid changing the education curriculum," according to the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Loopholes or not, many see a need for such high school classes. In 2000, long-time teacher Marlene Pearson was asked by the National Marriage Project to review the effectiveness of several marriage and relationship programs used in schools. As she says in her study, "Can Kids Get Smart About Marriage," youths are:

Confused and misguided about the differences between sex and love, living together and marriage, manhood and fatherhood. They get little help or accurate information from their elders. The Baby Boom generation, veterans of the sexual and divorce revolution, has little to say, and certainly not much good to say, about marriage. This leaves young people like my students with few clues as to how they achieve a goal they almost universally seek. They have to try to figure it out by themselves. But the sad truth is that it is hard to figure out marriage on your own. Most young adults in most societies across the world are able to depend on the teachings and traditions of the larger community in life matters as consequential as finding a lifelong mate and getting married. But very little guidance is available in our society today, and what guidance there is comes from Hollywood and Madison Avenue. As a result, young adults are floundering and often failing in their personal and family lives.

But are high schools -- most of which have had to lay off teachers and staff because of budget cutbacks and are struggling to boost academic scores to keep up with new legislation -- the best place to teach kids about marriage? As a spokesman for the Florida Education Association noted, "Were schools designed to do this much socialization and values clarification? Many teachers would argue it would be great if they could focus more on academic subjects and worry less about these."

At one point, eight other states besides Florida addressed statewide school-based marriage education. Initiatives failed in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. South Carolina dropped a program after using it for five years.

South Dakota uses the Connections curriculum, which focuses on marriage and relationship communications skills; a 2004 study of the program found marginal success -- some students felt somewhat more negatively about divorce and somewhat more positively toward premarital counseling. But because it was an elective class, the students who most needed to learn marital skills didn't benefit because they didn't sign up for the class.

Are teenagers good subjects for learning marital skills anyway? Maybe, especially if you look at them in love. Adolescents "are often more focused on how they feel about the relationship and what they are getting out of it rather than a mutual process that includes how the other person feels about the relationship," according to Brenda McDaniel, assistant professor of psychology at Kansas State University, who has been studying how 18- to 20-year-old dating couples handle conflict.

But the bigger question is, what marital skills do we teach and what kind of marriage are we talking about? "Traditional" marriage, as the Heritage Foundation stresses? What do we teach teens who are gay or lesbian, or kids who are being raised by choice mothers or have two fathers or two mothers? What message will we send teens if schools promote a husband-wife marriage as the only healthy -- or "real" -- relationship?

Should we be teaching teens how to be a good spouse? And, if so, what do we teach and who should do it?