Love is everlasting, and hope springs eternal. But can marriage survive? Despite the odds, Paul Friedman, founder of The Marriage Foundation, vows to make marriage work.
If you go by the numbers, marriage is in crisis, with over half of first unions in the U.S. ending in secession by one partner or the other, followed by the frequently un-civil court-supervised process of divorce. Support for troubled marriages is ubiquitous, in the form of couples counseling, relationship retreats, self-help shelves stacked with books on understanding, pleasing, and pleasuring your partner, and a steady stream of magazine articles listing 13, 27, or 41 ways to stay together and avoid doing the splits. And yet divorce remains endemic. Even with the job market improving—an event you’d think might benefit marriages on the rocks—the divorce rate is actually likely to increase with the recovery, according to an article published last week on The Huffington Post, because couples “can finally afford to pull the plug on their marriage thanks to the rebounding economy.”
As a twice-divorced and currently unmarried man who counsels friends informally on relationships, I found myself wondering if there were alternative approaches to saving troubled marriages, and what wisdom, if any, these unconventional methods might offer. This led me to contact a Facebook friend, Paul Friedman, founder of The Marriage Foundation, to find out more about his passionate mission to save marriages using the principles of science. I asked Paul some questions, and here are his answers.
Q: Marriage, in all its forms, remains the central, foundational structural unit of our society and for most people still constitutes the ultimate validation of an intimate relationship. Yet, in a society keenly focused on success, we fail miserably at marriage, with the divorce rate for first marriages at 50% and for second and third tries even greater. What’s wrong with this picture? Why are we collectively so bad at marriage?
A: Isn’t it crazy? If 50% of all the commercial airplanes that took off crashed, we would never quit experimenting, tinkering, and testing until we discovered a safer way to fly, right? Yet society mystifies marriage as something outside the realm of science and holds out a happy lifelong partnership as some kind of elusive, mostly accidental accomplishment that depends as much as anything else on the luck of the draw. The Marriage Foundation says, “No.” Neither luck nor chemistry is the secret to a successful marriage. Instead, it’s science. We apply the scientific method to marriage and define its goals, identify the flawed perceptions that obscure those goals, and isolate the behaviors that derail a couple’s efforts to achieve those goals. We also include what we consider the spiritual component of marriage in our approach, regardless of the couple’s religious backgrounds. We’re even creating a “university of marital science” to continuously improve both our efforts and our results.
Q: We live in a culture that frowns on quitters, and yet our legal system in many states makes it easy to end a marriage, and divorce no longer has the societal stigma it once did. In your opinion is getting divorced quitting and giving up on marriage—a failure to persevere—or simply a healthy way for two people to move on from something that just isn’t working for one or both of them?
A: The legal system bothers me, but unfortunately we can’t change it. We have to change marriage from the inside. My first attempt to do something about divorce was to become a mediator. I saw an opportunity to reduce the tensions and mitigate the legal costs of splitting up families, so I got my mediation ticket and began a business. My intention was to build a string of mediation centers, enabling me to be helpful and make money at the same time. A few years in, I had my watershed moment. I met with a couple who, in my opinion, had everything they needed to have a great marriage and just shouldn’t have been considering divorce. I could blame the legal system for making divorce easy, or I could try to pioneer a way to make staying married easier. I took a leap and asked the couple to hold off on their divorce, and I started researching how marriage works from a scientific and rational perspective. As I dug deeper, my focus became defining the goals of marriage, prioritizing them, and showing couples how to reach those goals and then maintain them. And my conclusion was that in most cases, marriages fail due to a lack of knowledge, not a lack of good intentions, or one or the other partner being a quitter.
Q: Some marriages suffer grievous wounds, such as infidelity or emotional abandonment, that can quickly lead to the death of the relationship. It’s clearly easier for most people to walk away when this happens than to try to work things out with the one who caused the injury. Do you believe there is a value—for both one’s personal development and for society at large—in trying to save marriages that have been severely damaged, or are partners in these cases better off cutting their losses and parting ways?
A: What a great question! My answer has two parts. The first part is personal: I believe it is easier on the heart to do the work it takes to climb out of the hole you got yourself into, than to dig a new hole and suffer the consequences of ending up down there over and over again. I’m also a believer in Winston Churchill’s motto, ‘Never, never, never give up!” The second part is universal. Life is a free will game. We’re not here to tell people what to do, only to educate them in the science of how a healthy marriage survives and thrives so they can use that knowledge as they desire. The fact that the divorce rate increases for second and third marriages is evidence of the principle that those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it. I feel for people who have gotten divorced and want badly to start over again and be happy, and we’re trying to provide the tools to either right a sinking ship or, if the ship has already sunk, ensure people smoother sailing ahead. As for things such as infidelity and emotional abandonment, they’re serious offenses, and the key is to address and ultimately redress the behaviors that bring them on, which we believe to be curable.
Q: “Irreconcilable differences” is the catch phrase used in court filings everywhere for why two partners can no longer stay married. Do you think it’s the differences themselves that can’t be squared, or do the partners perhaps lack the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual tools to reconcile—a process that requires conciliation, cooperation, trust, and faith?
A: We avoid blame like the plague in our society, so the legal minds came up with “no fault” divorce. It’s a clever concept, but it fails to address the truth that both partners are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of their marriage. The problem I have with “irreconcilable differences” is how this concept applies to parenting. Children are generally the ones hurt most in a divorce, and if their parents can’t figure out how to cooperate, then co-parenting becomes a battleground for the exes and a nightmare for the kids. Calling the reason for splitting “irreconcilable differences” may take some of the conflict out of divorce, at least linguistically. But it fails to acknowledge the feelings of hurt and betrayal that accompany divorce, which obviously must be dealt with outside the courts. If I could change anything about the legal system right now, it would be to have the courts encourage couples to get training along the lines of what The Marriage Foundation offers before they divorce. Many couples got married in the first place because they shared a set of values, and those values haven’t changed. A good set of behavioral tools can help partners re-access those values and the core beliefs they have in common, and give them a chance to stop the train before it’s too late.
Q: Many couples stay in their marriages for the sake of their children, while others separate to remove their children from violent and abusive or emotionally unhealthy situations. What, in your opinion, is the best thing for the kids?
A: This is a tender spot for me because I lost a child and consider my divorce as the reason for his death. Imagine you’re a kid, and you travel to a hostile planet with two bodyguards, who then turn on each other, leaving you to fend for yourself. My loss is the very reason I started The Marriage Foundation; to protect children by protecting marriage. Knowing what I know now, if I could do it over again I would have stayed in marriage hell for the security of my children. But suffering of any kind is never the best solution. I believe the best solution is to make marriage as close to heaven on earth as possible for both partners. And I can confidently say, based on my experience with countless couples, that if I had then the tools we’re providing now, my marriage would have been happy. Bad marriages don’t endanger children. Bad parents do. Protecting your kids from a psychopath or an abuser always comes first, and if the only way to do that is to get out, then by all means get out. But arguing and fighting? These are behaviors we have the power to change. People who give in to their emotions impulsively have no idea how much power they have to control their minds.
Q: Are there any circumstances—such as emotional abuse, domestic violence, marital rape, or sexual abuse of children—that in and of themselves justify divorce, and at what point, if any, does it make sense for partners to throw in the towel?
A: I don’t equate leaving a sick and dangerous situation with throwing in the towel. It’s wrapping your kids in a warm blanket fresh from the dryer. And protecting children is the number one consideration. Also, preserving your marriage isn’t going to cure your partner’s behavioral disorders. But setting aside vacating because of violence and such, being married requires you to learn about your own mind, to enable you to discern the difference between outrageous behavior and outrageous reactions. It’s my hope that this fundamental psychological education will one day be part of our middle school curriculum. For now, I’ve tried to lay it out in our book Breaking The Cycle. The basic premise is that the missing ingredient in an unhappy marriage is almost always scientific education. When a couple knows what to do to bring happiness, they resolve to make it happen.