John and Sue (not their real names) told me they were on the brink of divorce. Their 10 years of marriage had been marked with a long history of conflict and problems. After repeated attempts to improve their relationship, they continued to struggle.
As a last-ditch effort to save their marriage, they decided to participate in a marriage and relationship education class I taught in the community. John and Sue showed all of the signs of a distressed and unhappy couple. They appeared to be discouraged and hopeless. Neither partner wanted to end the marriage, but they were very unhappy.
Their children also suffered, as they regularly witnessed this marital strife (and corresponding high stress levels in the family). As John and Sue began the class, they told me they had little hope of saving their marriage, but decided to try one last time.
It is important to understand that marriage and relationship education is different from marital therapy. Marriage education is a class with larger groups of participants, whereas marital therapy is typically done with the couple and a therapist.
Marriage and relationship education teaches skills like healthy communication, conflict resolution, understanding expectations/roles, and strategies to maintain higher levels of commitment. Therapy deals with very specific problems facing the couple, and the therapist guides the couple to work on these issues.
Both marital therapy and marriage education are beneficial, and both play an important role in helping couples and families. Regarding John and Sue, at the end of the eight-week marriage education course, they decided to stay together.
Currently, I am serving as the chairman of the Utah Commission on Marriage, which facilitates marriage and relationship educational opportunities throughout the state (strongermarriage.org). This includes courses that anyone can take to enrich his or her family life.
I like to use the metaphor of a garden to understand marriages and relationships. Any successful gardener knows that to have a beautiful and productive garden, you must have knowledge about plants and gardening. You also need skills and abilities to help plants thrive. Successful gardens require work and continuous effort. They need healthy soil, fertilizer, water, and constant care to keep out the bugs and weeds.
Often, couples lack the knowledge and skills (soil, water, sunshine, fertilizer) to help their marriages grow and to deal with the inevitable problems that arise (bugs and weeds). These skills must be learned and practiced -- I don't think they come naturally.
The education opportunities offered in Utah help individuals and couples learn and master the skills that form and maintain healthy relationships.
Here's the good news! Research by scholars at Penn State and Brigham Young University show that marriage and relationship educational efforts in Utah are making positive differences for couples.
The example of John and Sue illustrates that by taking the time to learn and grow as a couple, beautiful relationships can continue to grow and thrive.
Paul Schvaneveldt is on the faculty of the Weber State University department of child and family studies. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of WSU.