Healthy Relationships Help Build a Stronger America
When the Bush administration announced its $1.5 billion "healthy marriage initiative" earlier this year, it set off a controversy. Senate hearings on the value of marriage? What's going on, people asked.
As a marriage and family therapist who has worked with struggling couples in the Philadelphia area, I know we're not automatically transported to "happily ever after" once we say "I do". As in other American cities, about half of the marriages here end in divorce; other marriages survive, but not happily.
That's why in January I agreed to coordinate a steering committee of the Greater Philadelphia Healthy Marriage Coalition, a regional group rooted in the Rev. Herbert Lusk's nonprofit People for People Inc. In my way, I - and the coalition's members - am trying to strengthen families and preserve marriages.
Sound familiar? It's what the government is trying to do.
When faced with marital problems, many couples struggle along with a "wait-and-see" or "let's-hope-for-the-best" attitude. They don't think of turning to therapy or the faith-based community for support.
What they should be asking is: What do we want our marriage to be? What should the marriages of our children be like? Should I try to keep my marriage together, or be open to multiple marriages?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the five-county Philadelphia region, with more than three million people over the age of 15, has a marriage rate of 50 percent. The national average is 54 percent.
In 2000, 36 percent of Philadelphia's population was married. There were 39,323 divorced males, 7.3 percent of the city's population, and 63,552 divorced females, or 9.7 percent.
If we add to that number the divorced people from Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties, the region had more than 235,000 divorced people. Research shows that with premarital intervention, we could have prevented at least half those divorces.
What I have learned from working in the trenches is that people just don't know how to work through their differences, address their anger, or have an enjoyable relationship. While love is magical and mysterious, there also are tools that can be used to nurture the relationship and help partners work through their problems.
Based on statistics gathered from my practice, about 40 percent of the people who seek help are on the brink of divorce. About 60 percent of that group reconciles after taking a marriage education class - but that requires hard work and commitment.
So, why do I support the work of the Greater Philadelphia Healthy Marriage Coalition and believe that the government's bipartisan marriage initiative is a good idea? Marriage does the following:
It protects children. Growing up without two parents doubles the risk of school dropout, job difficulty and teenage parenthood. In the Philadelphia area, there are more than 100,000 households where children are growing up with only one parent.
It improves adult well-being. Adults who are married live longer and have more income.
It reduces family fragmentation, which can cause significant public cost. One third of all children do not live with their biological fathers, and many fathers do not support their children financially despite government efforts to secure child support payments. (Consider this statistic: As of December 2002, nearly 19,000 Philadelphia men were in prison, leaving behind many children.)
If we teach people what a good marriage is, and how to have one, we might improve the quality of life for all family members, including children. That is a social goal that most people would not argue with.
The government's marriage initiative is one way for us to build a stronger American society, one family at a time.
Rita DeMaria (DrRita@marriagedoctor.com), Ph.D., is a member of the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia and director of its Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills program.
For more information on programs run by People for People Inc., call 215-235-2340 or go to www.peopleforpeople.org.