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Should you study a Marriage Curriculum before being allowed to legally marry?

If only "graduating" couples could legally marry, would the divorce rate decrease?

As a marital and divorce mediator, I deal mainly with couples that have decided to separate, or have long been unhappy in their relationship and want to know if there is still a chance to salvage their marriage. Whether I meet them in NYC or New Jersey, I mostly get to meet people who can’t seem to make their marriage work.

I never, ever ask them: “What about the vows you took when you got married”? The “till death do us part” part. The reason I don’t ask them is the same one the minister or rabbi who married them doesn’t give them the “Divorce 101” crash course a week before they take those vows: when people marry,  in most parts of the free world, they exercise their free-will by making one of the most important decisions of their life, and they make it mostly with they hearts. People, nowadays, are free to marry the people they love. For most, it’s not an economic decision or a social partnership anymore.

So, while the minister or rabbi gets to see two people who can’t live or function without each other and who need not pass “Relationship communication mastery”, “Parenting Skills and responsibilities”, “Financial Planning” or “Family conflict management” to legally or spiritually enter their togetherness, I get to see two people who can’t live or function together because they have jointly failed one, two or all four courses. And are out of “love” for each other. Could one thing be related to the other? Could staying “in love” have anything to do with being a successful student and graduate of the marriage curriculum?

The problem I see is that, whether you’ve married at church, city hall or both, neither religion nor the law will keep your marriage together once you begin the day-to-day skipping-that-turns-schlepping through married life. You live your married life within society, better said, within YOUR COMMUNITY, and church or law have very little impact on the health of your marriage, even if the church is a big part of your life.

Now, if you and your spouse are part of a community that embraces the role of the church in family life, you may say that it is the church that keeps you together. In my opinion, what keeps two faith-driven people together is the fact that BOTH of them share this belief, this commitment to certain spiritual values. If only one of you had it, and the other did not, it would have not been truly a part of your family’s life or its success.

It’s not a surprise that people who share more common values have a better relationship than those who don’t, or share a couple that are not essential in both of their lives. If you both like hiking, it’s great, and will certainly increase your connection, as is liking medieval art, or contemporary sculpture, high-end fashion, living a vegan lifestyle, practicing yoga etc. However, these are things you have in common – that you, hopefully, have each liked, individually, even before you met, or that you have embraced willingly and happily once you became a couple. Marriage is a transfer of values, true, but what it mostly needs, assuming there already is LOVE, is a common understanding of key, elementary knowledge of what turns out to represent the four main “marriage makers or breakers”, which is what I call the “Marriage Curriculum”.

I have come to believe that the high percentage of marriages that end in separation, with spouses claiming they have fallen “out of love”, have failed at most or all of these “common core” (in lack of a better word) elements of “married life” knowledge and skill: Relationship Communication; Managing Family conflict; Financial Planning and, perhaps most importantly, Parenting Skills, as becoming parents is by far the biggest change the couple goes through, after marriage.

Marriage has changed so much throughout the past decades. In the Unites States, pretty much everyone is now allowed to legally marry the person they love. I emphasize the word legally, which, I believe, plays a key role in my argument.

Legal marriage that ends in divorce has the biggest impact on the former spouses’ future economic opportunity, and it affects their children’s social and economic lives as well. Almost half of American families experience poverty following a divorce, and 75 percent of all women who apply for welfare benefits do so because of a disrupted marriage or disrupted domestic partnership.

The consequences of failed marriages are so big, on so many levels, that one has to ask this question, again and again, until a few institutions will take on the mission to re-think legal marriage and its effects upon divorce: should ALL people who wish to legally marry go through and PASS a Marriage Curriculum?

In theory, no one stops two people from living together under a mutually-agreed arrangement, that may or may not include conjoined finances, spending time with each others’ families, taking on mortgages together etc, but once you are legally married AND, most importantly, once you want to TERMINATE a legal marriage, you do not usually get away with your social, emotional and economic status unchanged.

Since its inception, legal marriage has been an instrument of building or preserving wealth and insuring legal paternity of heirs, geared, also, towards the welfare of the resulting children. Legal marriage has never been meant to be a romantic or spiritual instrument through which people can preserve, build and enjoy their love for each other.

There are aspects of legal marriage that are societal in nature and economic in purpose, and these aspects can be taught and learned, so that the number of marriages that begin from the heart and end because of factors that had little to do with love in the first place, begins to decrease.

Otherwise, it would be very wise to conclude that, at a 50% divorce rate in most Western societies (that’s 1 out of each 2 marriages for first marriages), legal matrimony is just bad business all around, for the couple, for the family and for society.

And to quote Elizabeth Gilbert’s well-documented book on marriage, “Committed”, the more liberal legal marriage got, the higher got the rate of divorce. “Because here comes the single most interesting fact I’ve learned about the entire history of marriage: Everywhere, in every single society, all across the world, all across time, whenever a conservative culture of arranged marriage is replaced by an expressing culture of people choosing their own partners based ON LOVE, divorce rated immediately begin to skyrocket. […] As LOVE becomes the currency of the institution, […] people will begin clamoring for the right to divorce once that love has died. […] To infer that the PURPOSE of marriage is to create a state of happiness has never before been an assumption in human history. […] So this transformation of marriage from a business deal to a badge of emotional affection has weakened the institution considerably over time – because marriages based on love are, as it turns out, just as fragile as love itself.”

And to also quote my mentor, a NY-based family therapist and esteemed divorce and family mediator, with over four decades of experience, “marriages mostly fail in the first two years because of conflict in the spouses’ extended families (read parents-in-law), mostly fail in the first five years because of poor communication in the relationship, which includes incompatibility of values and different life styles that are not mediated to create a common, family lifestyle. After the five-year mark, they either fail because of economic stress or because of the conflicting visions over the lifestyle changes brought on by parenthood.” 

To this thought-provoking statement, I want to add that love is sufficient to keep people together for a lifetime, with or without the marriage certificate, provided, I believe, that:

1. The two partners share essential life values and transfer other personal values willingly and happily, to each other, once they are married;

2. They learn together, and never cease updating, the key elements of the 21st century Marriage Curriculum….relationship communication, financial planning, managing conflict and parenting skills.

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