A Mission To Remedy Marriage: The Marriage Movement wants to combat divorce by teaching couples the skills to live happily.

Sunday, August 6, 2000
By Murray Dubin - Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

First comes the engagement ring. Then comes the wedding ring. And then comes the suffer-ing.

No, no, marriage doesn't have to be painful, insists therapist and relationship educator Rita DeMaria, one of a growing legion of soldiers deploying to fight divorce in the "Marriage Movement." "Being single is a choice that most people do not choose," says DeMaria, director of the Relationship Center in Spring House. "People want to be married."

A Marriage Movement statement of principles was signed on June 29 by 100 scholars, civic and religious leaders, elected officials, and family and relationship professionals, including DeMaria. Among its points:

  • The "unwed-childbearing revolution has failed" because "more births to unmarried mothers has not led to greater freedom . . . for women."

  • "The decline of marriage weakens civil society and spreads social inequality."

  • "Marriage is not a conservative or liberal idea, not a plaything of passing ideologies."

  • Supporting marriage "does not require turning back the clock on desirable social change, promoting male tyranny, or tolerating domestic violence."

DeMaria says, "People are happiest in stable, fulfilling marriages," and if people need help in having marriages like that, well, she and other educators can help teach the skills to bolster relationships.

Her father was in the Army, and she grew up in Japan, Turkey and Ethiopia. The family moved to Horsham when she was a teenager, and DeMaria was a cheerleader at Hatboro-Horsham High School. She is 47, mother of two and married 21 years to John DeMaria, whom she's known since college.

Her family was close, but her parents' marriage was hurt by her father's drinking and occasional violence. She has asked her mother why she didn't leave. "She said to me: 'Rita, I didn't have the same options you did. There were no shelters. Where would I go?' "My mother's choices and expectations were different in 1951 than mine are now. We are redefining relationships. People need new skills, and they can learn them."

The skills that DeMaria and other relationship educators say they can teach include structuring conflict, enhancing communication, and listening with empathy. They will try to make you understand that there is relationship knowledge that few are born with, and that "if we love each other, everything will be OK" is a myth.

"What are the warning signs of a troubled marriage?" she asks. "Do you feel entitled to ask for what you want? How do you deal with anger? What do you really need to know? What do you do if you're stuck?"

Marriage and relationship education and enhancement courses to teach these skills are meeting nationwide in churches, hotels and conference rooms. While not as popular as bowling, working on your marriage became a common couple pastime in the 1990s and shows no signs of slowing down. The growth of classes and workshops is proof, says DeMaria, that couples want to stay married and sometimes need help to do so. DeMaria teaches a 16-week course called PAIRS - Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills.

"Some people have never seen a good marriage."

Supporting marriage is a good idea, and the Marriage Movement proponents are well-intentioned people with noble intentions, says Frank Furstenberg, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist. It's just not going to be much help. It's not because they dislike marriage that Americans are marrying later, or not marrying at all, he says.

"People are responding to the prospect of marriage . . . with a great deal of uncertainty, and that uncertainty is well-founded. It is not based on a shift away from family or marriage, but a feeling that people don't have what it takes to make a successful marriage. And that's because the standard of success has risen. We want marriages to be gratifying and satisfying and intimate.

"That's part of the cultural product of modern society. To the extent that we have placed more demands on marriage, people look at it with a more discerning eye." He agrees that a couple today may need skills and tools to be happily married, but "it also requires a good deal of other elements not entirely governed by choice. "The modern ethic is to grow and develop. Self-development and -scrutiny may not be the enemy of marriage, but it is not the friend.

"And that's just one element. The task of a successful marriage has become more exacting. We cannot invent or devise the same kind of strictures that stopped people from leaving marriage. It was very difficult for women to leave a marriage, and it was difficult for marriages to break up because of community sanctions against divorce. "We just don't live in a society that organizes itself around that kind of stigma anymore."

Rita DeMaria respectfully disagrees. The fatherhood movement. Marriage education movement. Faith-based marriage movement. Relationship education in high schools. Divorce-law changes. More pre-marital counseling. All of these strands have gotten longer and thicker in recent years, and the Marriage Movement is the ball of yarn they have formed.

"The Marriage Movement has made people much more likely to talk about marriage, and that's a good thing," she says. "We are making marriage more of a public issue. If we strengthen marriage, we strengthen families. Divorce just doesn't fix things the way people think."

Couples can be helped to be stronger and happier. And she asks: "How many marriages do you want your children to have?"


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