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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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Which is when the marriage movement got smart. "Instead of arguing against single parenthood, they fine-tuned their message and made it pro-marriage, more positive," says Stephanie Coontz, a historian and national co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. "But the institution of marriage is not the monopoly it once was. Fewer people are getting married. There is a worldwide revolution in family forms. The marriage movement says nothing about how we should deal with the 40 percent of kids whose parents are divorced or not married." Coontz, possibly the marriage movement's harshest critic, does agree with research that says marriage is likely the optimal family arrangement, but she is quick to qualify her position. "Look, there is no question that two parents who cooperate are better than one, but the benefits of marriage for both adults and kids disappear in high-conflict marriages or low-conflict but contemptuous, silent marriages."
As a marriage therapist, Sollee says she dealt with these couples and saw her profession fail them. "We couldn't fix the marriage, so we decided that love had died or they married the wrong person," she says. "Then we became divorce counselors, helping people to break up better." Because she lived in the Washington area, she had easy access to all the new research that was being conducted, which is when she experienced the "epiphany that changed my life." That research showed that all couples--whether they divorce or remain married--argue frequently over all the same things: sex, money, kids. And the best predictor of whether they stay in love is how they manage those disagreements. If they avoid conflict and shut down, love will fade. But if a couple can be taught the skills to manage their conflicts (which is the gist of every marriage education seminar) "and still be able to make love with their partner at night," Sollee says, they can reap all the emotional, financial and physical benefits the research says marriage has to offer.
Despite the research, the U.S. divorce rate remains abysmally high, more than one-third of all children are born out of wedlock and 40 percent of all children do not live with both biological parents. That "disconnect" between research and reality, Sollee says, was the reason she made it her mission to educate the public. In late June, she will host the seventh annual Smart Marriages Conference, which will present 200 speakers who will lecture to more than 2,300 participants from more than 30 countries on such topics as "Hot Monogamy," "How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk" and "Preventing and Treating Couple Violence." Seminars promoting marriage and reducing divorce are offered from both faith-based and secular perspectives. The federal government will be there, and Wade Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families who spearheads the president's Healthy Families Initiative, will present his keynote speech titled "Going to the Chapel." Sollee calls him "a Republican version of Ralph Nader," but women's and welfare rights groups opposed his Senate confirmation even after he reversed his controversial position that married couples should be given priority for welfare benefits over single parents. A Bush favorite for his responsible-fatherhood advocacy, Horn told the Senate committee that he now believed in promoting marriage "at the front end" by providing low-income couples marriage counseling and relationship skills.
"The government is excited about these courses because they are about education," Sollee says. "They are not intrusive, no one is forced to go and you don't have to be able to diagnose mental illness in order to teach them." That they offer a cheap, quick fix may be appealing to the government, which is always looking for cheap, quick fixes. These courses seem perfectly well-intentioned, and the couples who take them certainly claim to benefit. But questions remain about their effectiveness, particularly in the long-term and particularly for low-income couples who might have trouble lifting themselves out of poverty by taking a 12-hour course in Hot Monogamy.
To look at 21-year-old Gilbert Martinez, who holds a baby carrier in one hand and a pacifier in the other, you wouldn't think that in 1999 he was listed as one of San Angelo's 10 Most Wanted. To look at his 3-year-old Isaiah bounding into his arms at Healthy Families in downtown San Angelo, you couldn't imagine that Martinez had a 10-gram-a-day coke habit, which he financed by transporting a half-pound of cocaine into West Texas each week. To see his girlfriend Jessica Amador look lovingly at their sleeping newborn Elijah, you couldn't imagine the degree of deception and double-dealing faced by anyone who got too close to Martinez or his drugs.
"At 16, I had access to it all," he says. "Cocaine, my own crew. I drove a BMW and didn't even have a license."
It would have been easy not to care about his sons; his own dad never cared about him. When his father got drunk, he would get violent and claim he wasn't even Martinez's father. "That hurt me a lot," Martinez says. It was easy running drugs because he had the run of the neighborhood. It didn't matter if he came home at night, drove to Dallas where his cousin was connected, got kicked out of school for fighting. Martinez might have been short and wide, his face chubby, his features flat, but the girls liked him just the same. Although he would show them a good time, he was too "greedy" to care about any of them--not even Amador, the big-eyed 14-year-old who seemed to enjoy him for more than his drugs. She lived with her mom; hardly knew her dad, who had a habit of never showing up for his promised visits. Amador says she never had much of a childhood, really. Her mother stole it from her when Amador was 8, putting her in charge of her two stepbrothers. Somebody had to take care of them while her mother worked two full-time jobs. Between feedings and diaper changes, Amador was too tired to go to school and fell seriously behind.
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