Written Testimony of John Crouch on Marriage Education in TANF Reauthorization, April 11, 2002

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[Oral testimony, as delivered, is on a separate page]

Testimony of John Crouch on Marriage Education in TANF Reauthorization
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means
Human Resources Subcommittee
April 11, 2002

I am the Executive Director of Americans for Divorce Reform, a small all-volunteer organization that supports a variety of measures to reduce divorce and strengthen marriage. In my day job, I am a divorce lawyer, and it is that experience which motivates my involvement in the marriage movement. I am also trained to teach Relationship Enhancement, a marriage education curriculum, and am on the Advisory Board of the DC-based Smart Marriages coalition.

As a divorce lawyer I have witnessed, and participated in, many of my profession's attempts to improve the divorce process. I have served as Chair of the Arlington County Bar Association Family Law Section and as Co-Chair of the American Bar Association Family Law Section Child Custody Committee, and I currently am involved in starting a DC-area Collaborative Divorce Lawyers Network (www.co-divorce.com) and chairing an ABA committee that is drafting standards for lawyers who represent children. I have been in a position to observe the built-in obstacles to improving the divorce system, to making the ideal of "the good divorce" a reality for most families. These barriers are mostly side effects of things we consider good, in fact indispensable, in our legal system. I have also had to face the fact that for many couples divorce just is not sustainable no matter how you slice it: there is not enough money, not enough of the children's time, to satisfy both parents' basic needs, as long as they insist on going their separate ways. Thus I have come to believe that the most feasible way to reduce the damage divorce does is not to improve divorce, but to reduce it. Of course we must keep doing what we can to improve it, but the rise of marriage education, and a new openness to changing divorce laws, provide new hope for reducing divorces and improving marriages.

Marriage Education Is A Proven Success; Reduces Divorce, Improves Marriages

Marriage education is no untried experiment. The leading programs have been around for many years. At least one of them, PREP, has been used in the public sector as well as the private sector for some years now. PREP is taught in the Army, and has also been taught since 1994 by a county mental health department in Chesterfield County, Virginia. (See attached two-page article on that program, and a study of its effectiveness, Appendix I.)

There is abundant evidence that certain marriage education programs work, and of exactly what it is they do that is effective in strengthening marriages and reducing divorce rates. (Citations and summaries of several studies are attached as Appendix II.)

Even a Libertarian Can See A Role For Government Here

As a libertarian-leaning Republican, I nonetheless support some government provision of marriage education in the TANF context. (1) It can be provided very simply and inexpensively, as in the Chesterfield County program. (2) Divorce and unwed parenthood cause considerable government spending and entail major government involvement in families' lives. (3) Curriculum development, instructor training and accreditation are currently provided or overseen by the private sector. This avoids the need for layers of bureaucracy to handle those crucial tasks, and it also keeps them from being politicized. (4) Governments already provide parenting classes, divorce classes, divorce mediation, and secondary-school Family Life Education. If the only thing missing is marriage, what message does that send?

The Poor Aren't the Only Ones In A Marriage Crisis

Putting funds into poverty prevention programs, such as marriage education, should not be equated with taking money away from the beneficiaries of other programs. Practically all children of divorce are at risk of poverty, becoming single parents, etc., so TANF-funded marriage education programs generally should not have to be means-tested. However, it is appropriate to develop some programs targeted to low-income populations.

Marriage Education Is Not Political

It is unfortunate that since the President's inclusion of it in his budget, recent news coverage has pigeonholed marriage education as a left-right political issue. It is true that it has received some valuable support from think tanks and faith-based public policy groups in recent years, but that is not where marriage education comes from. Marriage education has been pioneered and sustained by people way outside the Beltway, most of whom are not involved in politics at all. They are psychologists, social workers, educators, military chaplains, pastors, and trained lay volunteers, working with actual couples, not political abstractions.

The marriage movement, of which the marriage education movement is a leading part, does indeed arise in large part from think tanks, academics and politicians, but they have come to their pro-marriage position in response to experience, not theory. Some, like me, come to it from our work with divorcing families in the court system. Others, from their work with the children of divorce. Some, from years of academic research that has forced them to change their initial rosy hypotheses about divorce. And many have had their eyes opened by their own divorces or those of family members. From the beginning, this movement has been led by liberals and moderates as well as conservatives. It has come this far without any of the usual left-right finger-pointing and drive-by debate, perhaps because conservatives and evangelicals realize that they have been as fully immersed in the divorce culture as anyone else.


Of all the things the federal government might do about the compelling national problems of divorce and illegitimacy, providing marriage education through time-tested, proven programs is one of the most judicious, effective, non-divisive, fiscally responsible steps it could take.


Chesterfield Co. Program Trains for Marriage

By Patricia Cullen, M.S.N., Chesterfield, Va.

[reprinted from Virginia State Bar Family Law News, Vol. 19 No. 3 (Fall 1999), pp. 3-4]

Family law attorneys live on the front lines of family breakup. On a daily basis, you observe the toll divorce takes on adults and children alike. Sometimes you succeed in helping your divorcing clients reach fair settlements without protracted litigation. In other situations, this is impossible and court intervention is inevitable. Particularly when children are involved, you may often wonder if it is possible, at least in some cases, to prevent the heartache you frequently witness in your role as legal advocate and counselor.

For the past 20 years, two researchers at the University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies, Drs. Howard Markman and Scott Stanley, have been working with their associates to find out whether or not divorce is preventable. During the initial phase of their research, these two psychologists studied newly married couples over a number of years to see who would stay married and who would eventually divorce. They found that the variable most likely to predict marital success was the ability to manage conflict well. In other words, couples who somehow knew how to work out their differences effectively were the couples most likely to remain happily married. Couples who could not find constructive ways to handle typical marital conflicts were far more likely to divorce, no matter how happily married they were at first.

Based on what they had observed in their initial research, the Denver team then developed a couples' class to teach the communication skills all couples need to argue effectively and maintain the fun and friendship which brought them together in the first place. The class is called "Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP)." In a five-year follow-up study, the researchers found that couples who attended PREP had a divorce rate 50% lower than control couples who did not. These findings have been replicated in other studies, both here and abroad, and give cause for optimism about slowing down the divorce rate.

In Chesterfield, the local mental health center began offering the PREP program to county residents in 1994. The class is offered several times a year to married and engaged couples for a nominal fee. The response to this seven-session class has been quite favorable. Clients' written evaluations give the content and instructors high ratings.

The class is education, not therapy. There is no "sharing" of private matters or feelings with other couples. "Marriage education", like other adult education, is designed to teach skills to people who actually want to learn them and have voluntarily taken the initiative to improve themselves. Like adult education, it builds on students' existing skills and life experiences.

In a six-month phone follow-up study conducted last year, 80% of the couples who had participated in the class were still using the communication skills they had learned, particularly a communication skill called the speaker-listener technique. This structured, practical technique is used when couples confront a difficult conflict that could easily escalate into a destructive fight. It slows down the conversation so that each person knows the other is really listening. It is nearly impossible for conflict to escalate when both parties are listening carefully, honestly and openly.

In addition to the speaker-listener technique and other methods for fighting fairly, the Chesterfield class also contains material on problem solving, how to deepen marital commitment, and enhancing fun and intimacy. Each week, couples get to practice new skills in breakout sessions, in which the couples work privately with one of the instructors, who coaches them as they practice their new skills. Research at the University of Denver has shown that practicing with an instructor during class helps couples learn the techniques correctly. Couples are then much more confident about their ability to use the techniques where it really counts - at home.

PREP is one of the best-researched marital education programs in the country. The program is useful to couples who have a good marriage and simply want to "make a good thing better," as well as for couples who are struggling.

Although many couples could benefit from the information and skills presented in the class, unfortunately PREP is not yet widely available. We now know what makes a marriage successful and how to prevent divorce. The challenge is how to get this important information out to the public, so we can begin to reduce our divorce rate. Spread the word.

For more information contact Pat Cullen or Robin Jones at Chesterfield Mental Health Center, cullenp@co.chesterfield.va.us, 804-768-7204.



The Chesterfield follow-up study's results parallel recent research by the developers of PREP, which was presented by Dr. Howard Markman at the Arlington "Smart Marriages" conference this past July. An 18-year follow-up study of PREP showed that six times as many of the people with standard Pre-Cana counseling divorced as did the couples with PREP, and this ratio increased over time. This study is one with a control group and in which there was no "self-selection effect": the couples did not choose which kind of counseling to get; the people running the study chose for them.

The study showed that people who were trained by their own clergy and laity using the PREP program improved a lot in how they talk about problems -- but people trained by PREP clinical staff at the University of Denver only improved a little. People in "naturally occurring" church premarital counseling show a sharp decline in how they communicate, probably because the counseling gets them talking about tough issues for the first time but does not necessarily give them any additional skills for doing so. Over the years, the difference in marriage quality between PREP couples and couples with standard Pre-Cana counseling increases greatly. "Negative verbal communication" increases between the period immediately after marriage and the time five years into marriage for both groups, but it increases much more for the non-PREP couples. PREP couples had considerably less negative verbal communication at five years than they did before marriage.

The study also showed that couples learn the communication skills permanently and use them. They do not do the "speaker-listener technique" in their daily lives, because that would be ridiculous, but they use this and other techniques effectively at times of high conflict. Using the techniques learned together in PREP, even when it doesn't lead to a solution, helps couples feel that they are working as a team. Couples in PREP counseling reported that communication skills were the best part of the training. 78% of males and 75% of females say this. Wives like the technique because they know their husbands are listening and understanding. Husbands like it because it breaks up wives' monologues. The research indicated that men are just as interested in and good at conversation, intimacy, etc. as women, but they avoid it because it leads to conflict, which they want to avoid or solve quickly. They want safety and rules for conversation, and limits on its length.
--John Crouch



By Scott M. Stanley and Howard J. Markman, of the University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies; (303) 759-9931; http://members.aol.com/prepinc
Full article available at http://www.smartmarriages.com/hope.html
Some updated references added by witness. Some marked "in press" have since been published.

[Author Note: Preparation of this brief was supported in part by National Institute of Mental Health, Prevention Research Grant, Grant 5-RO1-MH35525-12 Long Term Effects Of Premarital Intervention. Requests for information on the research underlying this chapter can be sent to the authors at the Center for Marital and Family Studies, Psychology Department, University of Denver, Denver, Colorado 80208.]

Outcome studies attempt to assess the comparable effects of various approaches to preventing or reducing marital distress and divorce. Here is a brief review of findings on three of the most widely used programs for couples--programs that are used both maritally and premaritally (from Silliman, et al., in press). These three programs are among the most commonly researched, used, and recognized in the couples' psycho-education field:

Relationship Enhancement

RE, an empathy-building social learning program of 16-24 hours, is one of the most extensively tested skills building programs in existence. This program based on a Rogerian communication model shows impressive results for a wide variety of types of couples (DeLong, 1993). While the program has been used for treating a wide array of problems, it is use with premarital and marital couples is the focus here. Related to this use, several treatment groups of college-age, dating couples gained significantly in empathy skills (e.g., Ridley, et al., 1982) and problem solving skills (Ridley, et al., 1981) from pre to post-test and relative to control groups.

One six-month follow-up found disclosure and empathy gains for RE participants relative to a lecture-discussion control group (Avery, et al., 1980), while another found communication, but not problem solving skills retention for experiential vs. discussion group couples (Ridley, et al., 1981). Sustained gains in self-disclosure were not evident at follow-up in comparisons of participants and non-participants in another study (Ridley & Bain, 1983). Heitland (1986) observed significant pre to post-test differences on listening, expression, and problem solving for college and high-school participants in an eight-hour RE workshop, relative to control group couples. Meta-analytic research on many major marital programs (RE, CC, Engaged Encounter; Giblin, Sprenkle, & Sheehan, 1985) found RE to have the strongest effect sizes of those tested.

Couple Communication

Like RE, CC is one of the older and best researched skills-based programs for couples. While the program can be used in a variety of formats and settings, most of the outcome research on CC has studied the effects of the 12 hour, structured skills training program, with most samples being married couples from middle-class backgrounds (Wampler, 1990). There is evidence suggesting the relevance of the material for couples at various stages and with various backgrounds (Wampler, 1990). Studies also show clear gains in communication behavior post-training (e.g., Russell, et al., 1984).

Wampler (1990) reviewed studies on CC, noting strong gains in communication quality following training, but also noting that these effects diminish over time. Gains in individual functioning and relationship quality are more durable, although the longest term follow up assessments are well less than a year in duration (Wampler, 1990). CC is used by clergy, lay leaders, therapists, business personnel, and chaplains in all branches of the U.S. armed forces. Presenters of CC can use the approach individually with couples or in group settings. The program was redesigned and updated in 1991.

Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program

PREP targets changes in attitudes and behavior that are specifically related to risk and protective factors in a wide array of marital research. The rationales for PREP and programs like it are specifically supported by 1) studies that predict marital success and failure, 2) outcome research on program effects, and 3) survey research on what couples say are the most relevant topics of prevention. PREP primarily targets [factors] that are highly predictive of marital success or failure, and that are amenable to change.

PREP offers a 12-hour sequence of mini-lectures, discussion, and interpersonal skill practice in week night, weekend, or one-day formats (Markman et al., 1986; Stanley, et al., 1995). Topics of focus include communication, conflict management, forgiveness, religious beliefs and practices, expectations, fun, and friendship (Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg, 1994). Also, strategies for enhancing and maintaining commitment have come to play an increasingly larger role in the kinds of cognitive changes attempted in PREP (e.g., Stanley, Lobitz, & Dickson, in press). Both secular (or non-sectarian)and Christian versions of PREP are available (Stanley & Trathen, 1994). As is true of other programs, PREP is not exclusively focused on skills training. PREP also includes an extensive assessment focus in the form of in depth exercises about expectations and beliefs that will affect marriages.

PREP has been more extensively researched regarding long-term effects than other programs--with most of the research using premarital couples. The most recent study on it (Stanley, Markman et al., 2001) reports on the results of the dissemination of an empirically-based, premarital education program within religious organizations. The following major results are discussed with respect to premarital prevention: (a) Clergy and lay leaders were as effective in the short run as our university staff; (b) couples taking the more skills-oriented intervention showed advantages over couples receiving naturally occurring services on interaction quality; and (c) couples reported that the communication skills components of premarital education were the most helpful.

In the long term study in Denver, program effects have been tracked using both self-report and observational coding of couple interaction (Markman et al., 1988; Markman et al., 1993). The following are a sampling of findings from this research project. Three years following intervention, the PREP couples maintained higher levels of relationship satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, and lower problem intensity than matched control couples (Markman et al., 1988) . PREP participants demonstrated significantly more positive interaction up to four years post-intervention, including greater communication skill, support/validation, positive affect, positive escalation, and overall positive communication relative to a matched control group. PREP couples also showed greater communication skill, positive affect, and overall positive communication than couples who had declined the intervention years earlier (Markman, et al., 1993). More significantly, clear group differences were obtained up to four years following intervention on negative communication patterns (e.g., withdrawal, denial, dominance, negative affect, etc.), with PREP couples communicating less negatively than both matched control couples and decliner couples. These kinds of differences are very important because such patterns are strongly correlated with marital distress, violence, and breakup (Holtzworth-Munroe, et al., 1995; Markman, Floyd, Stanley, & Storaasli, 1988; Gottman & Krokoff, 1989). The follow ups with the Denver sample also revealed a statistically greater chance of premarital breakup among control group and decliner couples than PREP couples, with similar, though non statistically significant, trends for divorce and separation four to five years after training (Markman, et al., 1993).

In a pre-post design using random assignment, Blumberg found PREP more effective than Engaged Encounter in building positive communication, problem solving, and support/validation behaviors at post-intervention (reported in Renick, Blumberg, & Markman, 1992). Similar research programs in Germany (Hahlweg & Markman, 1993; Hahlweg et al., 1997) and Australia (Behrens & Halford, 1994) have demonstrated significant gains in communication, conflict management, and satisfaction at post-test, with the former sample showing a maintenance of communication and satisfaction gains at one and three year follow-ups. Furthermore, the most recent data from the Germany project show that, at the five year follow up, PREP couples have a divorce rate of 4% vs 24% for the control couples (Hahlweg, personal communication, February, 1997). VanWidenfeldt et al., (1996) did not obtain the same kinds of positive findings. However, interpretations of these results are problematic because the PREP couples had been together significantly longer than controls, the PREP couples had been together an average of nine years prior to intervention (making generalizations to prevention difficult), and a differential dropout rate led to the control couples being increasingly select for couples doing well over time.

On a further encouraging note, Giblin, et al., (1985) conducted a meta-analysis of marital enrichment outcome research. In general, they found strong evidence for a positive effect across a number of programs, with those taking such programs being generally better off than about 70% of those not taking such programs. Further, they found that the measures that tended to demonstrate the strongest effects (those perhaps most sensitive to capturing the effects of such programs) were behavioral (e.g., objective coding of interaction). Lastly, they concluded that the programs showing the most promising effects were those utilizing behavioral rehearsal (e.g., skills training). ... Their results suggest a wide variety of couples and families can benefit from such programs, and in fact, they found some of the strongest effects for those in greater need.

What Couples Report About Their Satisfaction With Premarital Training

Separate from data on effectiveness from outcome studies, most couples report high satisfaction with their experience in preventive/premarital programs. In a nationwide random phone survey, 35% of couples marrying in the past five years had premarital counseling in a religious context, and 75% of these couples reported that this preparation was helpful to them (Stanley and Markman, 1997). The Creighton University report on premarital preparation in the Catholic church found that, within the first four years of marriage, 80% of the individuals surveyed reported the training as valuable (Center for Marriage and Family, 1995). Sullivan and Bradbury (1997) found that approximately 90% of couples who taken premarital training would choose to do so again--though there were no differences between those who did and did not have some premarital training on marital outcomes. Couple satisfaction with preventive interventions is an important measure of outcome. While the studies on program effectiveness are complicated and open to various interpretations, there can be no doubt that couples who take part in preventive [training] come away valuing [it].


Avery, A.W., Ridley, C.A., Leslie, L.A., & Milholland, T. (1980). Relationship enhancement with premarital dyads: A six-month follow-up. American Journal of Family Therapy, 3, (8) 23-30.

Cullen, P. (1999). Can we stem the tide of divorce? Chesterfield County Program Trains for Marriage. Virginia State Bar Family Law News, Vol. 19/3, 3-4. (attached).

Fowers, B. J., Montel, K. H., & Olson, D. H. (1996). Predicting marital success for premarital couple types based on PREPARE. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 22, 103-119.

Giblin, P., Sprenkle, D.H., & Sheehan, R. (1985). Enrichment outcome research: A meta-analysis of premarital, marital, and family interventions. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 11 (3), 257- 271.

Hahlweg, K., Markman, H.J., Thurmaier, F., Engl, J., Eckert, V. (1996). Prevention of marital distress: Results of a German prospective-longitudinal study. Manuscript Submitted for Publication.

Larsen, A. S., & Olson, D. H. (1989). Predicting marital satisfaction using PREPARE: A replication study. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 15, 311- 322.

Markman, H. J., Renick, M. J., Floyd, F., Stanley, S., & Clements, M. (1993). Preventing marital distress through communication and conflict management training: A four and five year follow-up. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 1-8.

Ridley, C.A., Jorgensen, S.R., Morgan, A.C., & Avery, A.W. (1982). Relationship enhancement with premarital couples: An assessment of effects on relationship quality. American Journal of Family Therapy, 10 (3), 41-48.

Russell, C.S., Bagarozzi, D.A., Atilanao, R.B., & Morris, J.E. (1984). A comparison of two approaches to marital enrichment and conjugal skills training: Minnesota Couples Communication Program and structured behavioral exchange contracting. American Journal of Family Therapy, 12, 13-25.

Stanley, Scott M., Howard J. Markman, Lydia M. Prado, P. Antonio Olmos-Gallo, Laurie Tonelli, Michelle St. Peters, B. Douglas Leber, Michelle Bobulinski, Allan Cordova, Sarah W. Whitton, 2001: Community-Based Premarital Prevention: Clergy and Lay Leaders on the Front Lines. Family Relations: Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 67­p;76. (Summarized in sidebar to attached Cullen article.)

Trathen, D. W. (1995). A comparison of the effectiveness of two Christian premarital counseling programs (skills and information-based) utilized by evangelical Protestant churches. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Denver, 1995). Dissertation Abstracts International, 56/06-A, 2277.

VanWidenfelt, B., Hosman, C., Schaap, C., & van der Staak, C. (1996). The prevention of relationship distress for couples at risk: A controlled evaluation with nine-month and two-year follow-ups. Family Relations, 45, 156-165.

Wampler, K.S. (1990). An update of research on the Couple Communication Program. Family Science Review, 3 (1), 21-40.

Wampler, K.S., & Sprenkle, D.H. (1980). The Minnesota Couple Communication Program: A follow-up study. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 42, 577-584.

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Originally posted and maintained by Americans for Divorce Reform; now maintained by John Crouch. You can call me at (703) 528-6700 or e-mail me through my law office's web site.