By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It seems a bit bizarre and a lot ironic that the Army, part of the mightiest military machine in history, is offering its troops a touchy-feely weekend workshop in romance. Yet eight soldiers and their spouses in various stages of connubial bliss are registered at a San Antonio Holiday Inn for a three-day course in the pleasurable arts. All hope--or so they say this May evening--to command a better understanding of the emotional needs of their companions by building the communication and intimacy needed to enhance their marriages. Hopefully, the sex will get better, too.
There was a time when the Army's attitude about marriage was different. "We used to say, if the Army wanted you to have a wife, we would have issued you one," says a company commander who attended the workshop. But now the Army, like much of the federal government, is in the business of promoting and strengthening marriage.
The Army got it right when it hired Dallas marriage therapist Kelly Simpson to teach romance skills to its fighting men and women. Simpson is attractive but unthreatening, girlish but gracious, farm fresh in her candor but Park Cities in her pinstripes. As she offers an overview of the weekend's activities, a playful smile deepens her dimples. Topics will include differing intimacy styles, the biology of love and ministering to each other's sexual needs. Several couples have previously attended her communication skills workshop, but it can't be easy for soldiers to talk about surrender--sexual, emotional or otherwise.
Simpson gets everybody on their feet, playing a game she calls "suck it up, blow it out." Each couple stands face to face--a drivers license pressed to the lips of one partner. The goal is to pass the license between partners, by blowing or sucking, and thereby mimicking the give-and-take implicit in a cooperative relationship. The spirit of the game is playful, but the sucking, blowing sounds have an undulating, erotic quality. Small wonder it's the last exercise of the evening before the couples retreat to their rooms.
"Each couple will receive a little brown goody bag," says Simpson, who has filled them with baby oil, string, candles and other trinkets in hope they might get creative with the menu of sexual options that will be discussed. "Research shows that the best sex happens in long-term married relationships."
I begin to wish I had taken my editor up on her offer and invited my wife to come along for the ride. Throughout the weekend, it becomes obvious the couples are growing more intimate, staring into each other's eyes during the exercises, listening without interrupting, passing out government-issued Kleenex as they openly recommit themselves to their marriage vows.
"This is not traditional marriage therapy," Simpson later says. "This is marriage education." No attempts are made to heal the inner child, to diagnose dysfunction, to blame Mom for neurotic behaviors. "There is lecturing and group discussions, which create the opportunity to take in information in a less defensive mode."
Marriage education is the centerpiece of the Bush administration's Healthy Marriage Initiative, a controversial social experiment that seeks to use federal welfare funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program to promote marriage and reduce divorce, particularly among the poor, whose children are five times as likely to live in poverty if raised in mother-only households. But family disintegration knows no economic boundaries, and states such as Oklahoma, which has become a national pro-marriage model, are already preaching a get-married, stay-married agenda to couples of every stripe. Simpson hopes to be at the forefront of a broad-based "marriage promotion program" in the Dallas area, using much of the same material she developed for the Army.
Though at first blush, the pro-marriage movement seems the agenda of the family-values crowd--religious conservatives locked in a cultural war with single moms, cohabitants and Hillary Clinton--a body of research from respected social scientists has given renewed zeal to those whose primary weapon had been a few selected verses of scripture. This research suggests that marriage confers undeniable benefits on children, couples and country. It has also drawn together an odd confluence of conservatives, sociologists, marriage educators, fathers' rights activists and divorce-law reformers who have found enough common ground to consider themselves a movement.
But weaving research into sound public policy is another matter. With the election of President Bush, marriage promotion found its champion and is now being touted as a palliative for poverty, a way for unwed mothers to wean themselves off welfare and for distant dads to reconnect with their kids--and a damn attractive family value for the rest of us.
Cynics might call the Bush agenda brilliant politics, the marriage of liberal social science with a conservative pro-family (anti-gay) agenda. Even less jaundiced critics claim the research results are overstated and filtered through an ideological lens that is unrealistic, simplistic and narrow-minded. Several women's groups fear that promoting marriage will coerce some women into abusive marriages and discourage others from leaving them. Advocates for the poor think the failure to marry is more a consequence of poverty than a cause. Liberals believe that valuing marriage over other family structures denies the reality of millions of children who are being raised by single parents, extended families, gay and lesbian couples or movie stars. Libertarians wonder what the hell the government is doing in the marriage business anyway.