The following essay reflects on and continues A New Conversation on Marriage. These words of advice from Susan Dutton, Founder and President of Smart Relationships, first appeared, in part, at www.familyscholars.org.
Marriage is work.
Husband and father Ben Affleck said while accepting the Oscar for Best Picture:
"I want to thank my wife for working on our marriage for ten Christmases... it is work, but it's the best kind of work, and there's no one I'd rather be working with..."
Granted, many men would be thrilled to do this marriage work with the beautiful Jennifer Garner, but Affleck's reminder that a healthy and lasting marriage demands work is meaningful to all of us.
Training in relational wellness and emotional intelligence is needed now more than ever in America. Families are in crisis, with a persistent 50 percent divorce rate and skyrocketing rates of unwed childbearing which now make up more than half of all births to women under thirty. There is no serious argument among family scholars that these trends do not bode well for our future.
From my perspective as a leader who works to strengthen families, I believe it is critical for all us to work together to strengthen the institution of marriage and the evolving American family. From single parents, to cohabiting adults, to those married and remarried, the challenges are great and complex.
Let's consider the true story of a single mother we'll call Sally, working for a Fortune 500 company. She is under pressure to perform and to compete against young, unmarried workers. Sally summons the courage once to say that extra work on evenings and weekends is difficult, but her boss asks sarcastically if she is on the "mommy track" or the "career track." Being salaried she is not paid extra for the overtime. Her children's father is neither involved nor paying child support, and Sally is not near immediate family. She has to pay even more for childcare to work the overtime.
Because she's doing her best to maintain stability for her children, Sally spends all her free time either keeping up the home, or interacting with her children. She is continually stressed, and worries that she is not able to do an adequate job on any front, at work or at home. Sally is relatively young, but her own needs for a social and romantic life are unmet. She feels guilty that her sons are growing up without a father, but also wants to avoid having a parade of men troupe through their lives.
After six years, Sally does meet someone, remarries, and brings a stepfather into the boys' lives. We'll call him Bill. The stepfamily dynamics are much tougher than expected, and the marriage has significant challenges. Bill hides serious financial misdealing that threatens the family with bankruptcy. He has a bull-in-the-china shop approach to step parenting that drives a wedge between Sally and her sons, previously so close. He is unwilling to get any education about how to navigate stepfamily life, or how to build a strong marriage. He withdraws from the relationship emotionally and sexually rather than deal with the issues.
After 19 painful years, Sally divorces Bill. Her boys are grown and gone, but now there is a daughter from the marriage. Life as a single parent is easier this time. Sally is older and wiser, and though she does not receive child support, Sally does share parenting with Bill, and has time for a social life. Her employer allows her to work a 30-hour week, which lets her balance work and home more easily. Although money is tight, she can make ends meet. Sally has also benefited from the tremendous amount of relationship education to be had. Her emotional intelligence is much higher than it used to be, and her life is full and rewarding.
As a coach I often see couples that are struggling to make their marriage fulfilling. Even when it is a first, intact marriage, they need help navigating the daily challenges of work and family life, parenting young children, sharing the load, and learning to relate in a way that builds connection. So many couples don't seek to be educated before they get into deep trouble. By the time they come to me, they have a long road to rebuild trust and affection.
When the couple is in a stepfamily arrangement, the challenges are even tougher. Children do not want to bond to a "new" parent. They have conflicted loyalties, and are threatened by closeness between their natural parent and a step-parent. Blended family life requires even more education to skillfully navigate the challenges.
These challenges are near to my heart. Not only do I work with them every day, but you see, I am Sally. That's why I'm so passionate about helping others avoid the rocks I've stumbled over. My boys have grown to become loving men, and my beautiful daughter is still growing, but I feel for her as she deals with the challenges of her family life. Right now she's against marriage, and it's hard for me to convince her otherwise when it's so easy for her to challenge me with the divorce. I'll need other voices to help persuade her that it's still the best choice.
From Hollywood to Washington, I see signs that America may finally be ready to come together on marriage. President Obama has challenged us to strengthen marriage for low-income Americans, whose children are most at risk. But the challenge should extend to us all when I estimate that only about 30 percent of current children will grow up with their own married parents.
The challenge is so large that it will take all of us working together to make a difference. The tools and educational resources exist, but to implement them as broadly as is required, we must collectively agree to spend the money and the effort required:
1. To meet the needs of the single parent and his or her children. With the wage gap still persisting, and our highly mobile society, single mothers in particular face financial and logistical challenges.
2. To help cohabitating families form strong and lasting relationships, whether because marriage is denied or because it is avoided out of fear, or financial considerations. These families include older couples, same sex couples, and many of our young couples who are currently having children.
3. To strengthen married couple families. This includes specialized help for the growing number of remarriages.
4. To better prepare the children of today to become adults that are fully equipped to form safe, stable, nurturing families for the next generation, especially if they have not received such modeling at home.
If you work in education, the public sector, the media, health care, social services, counseling, a religious organization, business, philanthropy, or the legal and correctional arena, I need your help! Together we can get the necessary resources out to the children and families of today, so we can build the strong, married families of tomorrow.
Will you join me?
Susan Dutton is a signatory to "A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage." You are invited to read the Call and become a signatory today.