Dallas marriage therapist Kelly Simpson hopes to spearhead the "Texas initiative," a broad-based Dallas effort to promote marriage and strengthen relationships by offering classes such as those she developed for the Army.
Dallas marriage therapist Kelly Simpson hopes to spearhead the "Texas initiative," a broad-based Dallas effort to promote marriage and strengthen relationships by offering classes such as those she developed for the Army.
Mark Graham

Just Get Married!

"Then there was the guy who loved his wife so much, he almost told her." --Anonymous

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.

As yet, there is little evidence of the pro-marriage movement in Texas, but our turn is coming. "We are getting pressure from the White House that we really need to do something in Texas," says Larry Brendel, regional program director for the Administration of Children and Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Texas conservatives are pushing bills this legislative session supporting marriage promotion as well as covenant marriage--a kind of über-marriage that eliminates simple no-fault divorces. A small but zealous group of family law attorneys claim they defend marriage in the courtroom on behalf of clients who are contesting their divorces. But when Brendel thinks about "doing something in Texas," he thinks about supporting, among others, Kelly Simpson, who hopes by the end of the year to launch what she calls the "Texas initiative," a nonprofit community-wide marital coalition of the willing.

That the federal government might fund relationship skills courses such as Simpson's that seek to educate couples in a variety of sexual styles--"gourmet sex, adventuresome sex, a quickie, self-care"--would seem to at least give the religious right pause. Only somehow, it doesn't.

"It's just not a liberal-conservative issue," Simpson says. "I see it as a necessity to help our culture raise healthy, happy, well-fed children. What's so controversial about that?"

"I never knew what real happiness was until I got married; and then it was too late." --Anonymous

I am happily remarried and have been able to achieve what marriage educators and social conservatives claim is a myth: a good divorce. Although I was no monument to matrimony when my ex-wife threw me out, I remember standing on the front porch and peering through the living room window at my son Adam, who was only 2 and staring back at me, crying. As a lawyer, I had done some divorce work and had represented too many dads who out of irresponsibility (theirs) or vindictiveness (theirs and/or their wives) had no relationship with their kids after the divorce was final. Staring at my son, I promised myself I would never be one of those dads. Anger subsided, civility returned and my former wife filed for divorce alleging no-fault grounds, which enabled us to share custody of our son for 16 years. Through remarriages, career changes and the birth of my second son and first daughter, we have attempted to keep Adam, now a college sophomore, at the center of our concerns. So when I look at the research, which states that on average children and parents in married families are happier, healthier, wealthier and generally less pissed off than those who live in single-parent homes, I think about Adam and wonder if the marriage movement is overstating its case.

Diane Sollee, the director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education and head cheerleader for the marriage movement, does her best to convince me otherwise. She coined the term "marriage education" in 1996, the year she first organized her Smart Marriages Conference, which trains marriage educators in a dizzying assortment of relationship skills courses. She sees the movement more as a "marriage renaissance" and paints herself as a liberal feminist, which is disarming, coming from a woman who regularly lunches with Republicans.

Of course, Sollee has learned to be politic, since the history of the marriage issue is riddled with the sullied reputations of those who came before her. First came a young Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who in 1964 as LBJ's assistant secretary of labor was branded a racist for a report he wrote that pointed out the strong correlation between single mothers in the black community and poverty. Dan Quayle didn't fare much better when he castigated TV's Murphy Brown for glorifying single motherhood and in turn was roasted by women's groups and the media. Attacks such as these silenced liberals and weak-kneed policymakers who refused to discuss the "M word." "The furor stopped the conversation. We couldn't talk about marriage," says Theodora Ooms, senior research analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, which conducts research related to economic issues for low-income families. "We liberals were not about making moral judgments, particularly about poor people. We were trained in a culture that said that every lifestyle was equally good, and that every family form should be celebrated."

Conservatives held no similar compunction. Their very fiber was set against what they perceived was the moral relativism of the counterculture. They were only too happy to play to their base and preach the virtues of family, which could only be gleaned the traditional way: from two heterosexual parents married and living under one roof. Some conservatives hoped to restore the family to its former patriarchic dominance with Mom out of the workplace and back in the kitchen; others embraced fatherhood, which had been severely dissed by radical feminists who claimed the only value men had as parents was providing an additional revenue stream. Again the research proved them seriously wrong.

But rather than simply advocate for child well-being or responsible fatherhood, conservatives attacked single mothers, out-of-wedlock births and divorced couples, casting them as moral failures. And who wanted to listen to that preaching other than the choir?

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.

"Going to marriage counseling is like teaching gun control at Parkland hospital on Saturday night. It's just too late." --Dallas divorce lawyer

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.

Over time, she grew to resent her responsibility, which is why she was so attracted to Martinez. He was fun-loving and irresponsible. "I just needed someone to treat me nice," she says. But when she became pregnant, Martinez turned unkind and told her no baby was going to make him change. "I had a lot of friends who had kids and didn't care," he says. He did cut down on the number of girlfriends in his life, but nothing made him want to settle down: not getting busted, not the drive-by murder of his cousin in Dallas. Not even the birth of Isaiah.

After dropping out of school, Amador prepared to raise her baby alone. It was at the hospital where she was introduced to Healthy Families of San Angelo, one of 12 "demonstration sites" for the Texas Fragile Families Initiative, which offers technical assistance and evaluations for programs working with low-income families and fathers.

Although Amador says "I didn't want anybody in my business," particularly since she had to commit to the program for five years, she quickly saw its value. "My caseworker would make home visits and just hold my baby for 30 minutes so I could take a shower." Martinez, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with the program. "I just thought they were cops."

Texas Fragile Families grounds much of its work on studies that debunk the notion that the failure of the poor to marry is a character flaw or moral failure. This research offers persuasive evidence that most unmarried parents not only feel that marriage will be better for their children, but they also expect they will likely marry each other. The problem is, most never do. Because more than half of the mothers are living with the fathers when their children are born, and many fathers are also providing financial support, the birth of the child may provide a window of opportunity--a magic moment, as marriage advocates like to call it--when it might be fortuitous to intervene.

But this is where the Bush administration splits with many poverty rights groups. The Bush agenda sees marriage as a means of lifting people out of poverty and would dedicate $300 million in federal welfare funds each year for the next five years primarily to fund marriage education projects and research. Groups such as Fragile Families worry that limited welfare dollars are being squandered on untested projects that neither cure poverty nor stabilize families.

Policy analyst Theodora Ooms tends to disagree. "Clearly, two poor people can be just as poor if they are together," she says. "But the legal commitment of marriage seems to make a difference in generating wealth. People behave differently when they are married. Husbands work harder; people save for their futures together. Men start drinking less. And there is recent research that says marriage also brings these benefits to low-income people."

But to hold out marriage education as a solution to poverty seems naïve at best and pulls money and focus away from proven methods of eliminating poverty: education, job training, child care. Some marriage-promotion initiatives tacitly endorsed by the feds such as West Virginia's program, which offers an extra $100 a month to a family on welfare if the mom marries the father of her children, seem downright dangerous. "The line between government encouragement and coercion is indistinguishable, particularly when the message is targeted against the poorest of the poor," says Sherry Leiwant, a senior staff attorney at the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund. "And when that message is that marriage will redeem a woman from poverty rather than her efforts, it's not only patriarchic, but it also encourages women to enter and remain in abusive relationships."

More benign by comparison is legislation pending in the Texas House, which seeks to draw down federal dollars for a "Healthy Marriage Development Program." Classes offered for welfare recipients may include both pre- and post-marriage counseling, parenting and "active lifestyle skills." The bill's sponsor, Representative Arlene Wohlgemuth, a social conservative from Burleson, who was unavailable for comment, offers up a glimpse of the bill's ideological bent by specifically listing course subjects such as "honoring your spouse" and "abstinence for all unmarried persons, including abstinence for persons who have previously been married." Although the idea of preaching celibacy to the sexually active seems as ludicrous as it does untimely, the extra $20- to $60-a-month stipend welfare moms might receive for taking the courses could boost class participation.

The Texas Fragile Families Initiative doesn't believe it has a shot at federal funding because it doesn't promote marriage per se. Rather, it directs its efforts toward child well-being and making low-income men in particular more marriageable. "Marriageability means increasing the marriage stock of low-income men and women," says Carlos Ramo, workforce development coordinator for the Texas Fragile Families Initiative. "We hope to do this by encouraging education and employment as well as building parenting and relationship skills." Few women rich or poor would view felons, drug addicts and immature, unemployable dads as good prospects. Small wonder they choose to pass on that magic moment.

Jessica Amador was smart. She understood from Healthy Families that her son needed his father. "I would watch them play and talk and Gilbert would read him books. I wanted to encourage that." When Amador chose Isaiah and Martinez over caring for her stepbrothers, her mother threw her out. But Martinez took them in, which caused Amador's caseworker to make her home visits at Martinez's house and convinced him to join the Monday-night dads' group. "I figured what the hell, I'm changing anyway. And it turned out to be real cool. Eating chicken, shooting hoops, hanging out. I met a lot of dads who were going through the same stuff as me."

"We focus on couples working together on what is best for the child," says Gardner Wiseheart, director of the Healthy Family dads' program. "By creating empathy for the child, the parents feel more connected."

Martinez learned how to hold his baby, how to make a bottle and change a diaper. And the more love he felt for his son, the more love he felt for his son's mother.

"Forty-four percent of our families end up getting married," Wiseheart says. "But it's not because we tell them to; it's because they realize it's what is best for their child."

Both Martinez and Amador have earned their GEDs, both are working and neither is on welfare. But broach the subject of marriage and Martinez cringes. "What if it didn't work out? I would have to get divorced. And I sure don't want some other dude raising my kids."

"I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury." --George Burns

They met through friends at work in Dallas. She was 19 and naïve; he was 34 and divorced. He was persistent, and even though she didn't want to get involved with an older man with two kids, she finally gave in. "Mark refused to take no for an answer," recalls Christi Beach. "I think he just hated being alone." Christi admits that she did love him, at least in the beginning, though it's hard to remember the good times after all that's happened over the past 13 years. Never did she imagine she would fall victim to divorce-reform crusaders and their pro-marriage morality play. Never did she think she would be stuck in a loveless marriage with a man who refused to change.

"Mark would do this thing where he would get mad and stay mad for days at a time," she says. "You never knew what set him off because he refused to talk about it. He would just get all silent for days."

Things got worse in 1993, after she got sick and the doctors told her she couldn't have kids. She wanted to adopt, but he refused, she says. "He wasn't very compassionate and would get angry again." They both decided to divorce; she packed her bags, a lawyer drew up papers. A few months later they decided to reconcile: He agreed to consider adoption, and she didn't want to put his kids through the agony of a second divorce. "Right away, he reverted back to his old position," she says. "He let it be known that adoption was out of the question."

Caring for another child, she admits, would have been difficult for someone who needed so much attention himself. Six knee surgeries had made him overly dependent on both her and pain pills. When he couldn't have either he grew irritable, difficult and controlling. "All he wanted to do was watch TV 24-7," she says. "He would make me feel guilty for just wanting to get out of the house."

They agreed that living in the country might be good for them, and they bought 24 acres outside of Canton. But he kept his job with Sprint in Dallas and would return home on weekends; alone she had time to think. She took a job at a nearby cafe, baking pies and pastries. It had been years since she felt appreciated, and the long hours she worked were no bother, except to her husband, who grew jealous and repeatedly insisted she quit. When she finally did, she resented him for it and questioned what, if anything, she was getting out of the relationship. "I had no feelings for the man," she says. "I was having panic attacks every Friday before he came back from Dallas. One day on the phone, she told him she couldn't take it anymore. She wanted out, a divorce. "For years I had begged him to go to a marriage counselor, but he wouldn't. I had just gotten past the point of caring."

Because they had no children, a divorce should have been fairly simple. Only problem was, Mark didn't want one. "It rocked my world," he says. "I just didn't see it coming." The way he tells it, they never fought, they never argued and in the days before she left, "she was telling people we were best friends." That the Beaches might have benefited from some marriage education, something to enhance their communication skills, seemed as apparent to him as it did absurd to her.

One night, he grew so distraught that she wouldn't reconcile, he brought a loaded shotgun into the bedroom where she was resting and handed it to her, saying, "Here, just shoot me. You're killing me anyway."

That was the last straw: She filed for divorce on December 3, 2001, but only alleged "no-fault" grounds in her petition. Even though Christi and Mark were married before a justice of the peace and had never been active churchgoers, Mark went through a crisis of faith. "Basically, he got real religious on me," Christi says.

"Scripturally, what she was doing was wrong and unfair," says Mark, who searched the Internet for like-minded souls. He found Emergency Marital Technicians, a group whose Web site describes it as a team that "literally arrive[s] on the scene of a marital accident" and applies various "para-marital" procedures--legal, emotional, spiritual--to resuscitate the broken marriage and enhance reconciliation. (The group also will be lecturing at the Smart Marriages Conference in June.)

Lubbock lawyer David Moody provided the legal triage. Part of the divorce-law reform wing of the marriage movement, he is driven by religious convictions as well as his considerable skills as a litigator to "defend marriage in the courtroom." In the 1997 legislative session, he also worked with Representative Wohlgemuth and other conservatives to repeal no-fault in Texas in cases where minor children were involved. The bill never got out of committee, but Moody still believes divorces should only be granted when a marriage has been destroyed by the infidelity, criminality or abandonment of one of the parties. No-fault divorces (where one party just wants out) are often frivolously granted, he contends. "Seventy-five percent of all divorces are low-conflict marriages. They are a result of one spouse being unhappy and thinking divorce will give them happiness. Studies point out that divorce does not make people happy."

This research plays right into the hands of social conservatives who believe that no-fault divorce is a too-easy exit strategy for a self-absorbed counterculture that scoffs at such virtues as commitment and self-sacrifice. Now they had proof positive that the elusive search for happiness brings misery not only to children, but also to adults, half of whose first marriages are expected to end in divorce. The divorce-law reformers hope to reduce that misery by making divorce more difficult to obtain.

Many in the marriage movement, rather than eliminate no-fault and return to a system that might exacerbate conflict and be a boon to private investigators, advocate a more modest position: requiring a longer separation period before filing for divorce. That would leave more time for reconciliation and relationship skills education where the parties might learn to minimize conflict and at least make divorce easier on their children.

Legislation proposing covenant marriages such as the House bill introduced by Wohlgemuth this session attempts to incorporate some of these concepts. If couples opt for a higher-octane covenant marriage, they are agreeing to divorce only in the event one party is legally at fault (adultery, abandonment). Not only must they receive pre-marital counseling, they also must submit to reconciliation counseling before divorce, even if they are the victim of domestic violence. Not surprisingly, women's groups strongly oppose the bill.

"We don't think counseling is a good thing in cases of domestic violence," says Barbra McLendon, public policy director with the Texas Council on Family Violence. "Statistics show that battering is really on the rise when a woman tries to leave an abusive relationship. Why create opportunities for the batterer to have access to his victim?"

Although Louisiana was the first state to pass covenant marriage legislation in 1997, it's not the coupling of choice for most Louisianans. "Only 3 percent of all couples are choosing it," says researcher Theodora Ooms. "I don't think it is a useful intervention because people who choose it are probably less likely to need it." David Moody is not lobbying for covenant marriage legislation, preferring to fight his no-fault battles one case at a time. In the Beach case, he convinced state District Judge Tommy Wallace in Canton to appoint an attorney ad litem to represent society--"a groundbreaking case," he says, for those who want to save their marriages. "Society has an interest in determining whether a marriage was productive to society." Apparently society also had an interest in getting paid, because the attorney ad litem withdrew from the case after Mark Beach ran out of funds.

But that didn't stop Moody, who, rather than petition the court for marriage counseling, filed for a pretrial injunction asking that the court compel reconciliation, which would include compelling "physical availability...at times mutually convenient."

"I would like us to share the same household again," Mark testified. "I'd like us to start romancing again."

"But don't you want your wife to be happy?" asked Christi's attorney Paul Elliott. "Do you believe that her happiness is staying in a marriage she doesn't want to be in?"

"I believe we make choices, and I believe she could be happy if she chooses to be."

The Dallas 5th District Court of Appeals chose not to agree with Mark, affirming that a duty to reconcile under Texas law was tantamount to Christi becoming an indentured servant "for life," which is why she decided to leave her marriage in the first place.

"I am a conservative and pro-family as well," says attorney Elliot. "But choosing Mark Beach as a poster boy for the marriage movement was a mistake. He pointed a shotgun and asked her to pull the trigger. He was abusive. He was controlling. Bad facts make bad law."

Christi Beach has moved to Austin, where she has started a new life and is contemplating going to culinary school. Besides money, only one thing is holding her back. She is still married to Mark, who continues to contest his divorce. A jury trial likely will hear the case in late summer, nearly two years after the couple separated.

"If their philosophy is to make divorce more difficult to obtain, they have done that," Christi says. "But it's so obvious our marriage is not going to work. So why not be done with it?"

"In the beginning, marriage was just another way of dating to me. Now I have a relationship that is going to last the rest of my life."

--Geraldo Rivera, on getting married for the fifth time in August

My wife and I had a fight the other night over the ending to this story. I wanted to conclude on a political note, stating that despite my fears about government seeing marriage as an anti-poverty program, about the government legislating morality, about it sticking its nose into every bedroom in America, marriage promotion was well on its way. "How's this for a last line? 'If the Bush administration could convince us that we needed to go to war in Iraq, it should have an easy time selling us on marriage.'"

She thought I was nuts. "How can you equate national security with marriage?"

But this thing could be just as pervasive. "Can you imagine the kind of bumper stickers we will be seeing?" I asked. "'Just say yes'...'Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.'"

"I thought this was about marriage education and relationship skills. What's so horrible about teaching couples how to get along?"

"As long as it's voluntary, nothing."

"How can you be against marriage?"

"As long as it doesn't take away from the programs that really help poor kids, I'm fine with it. Really."

"You're sounding defensive."

I felt defensive, as if my work was under attack. My old style of argument was to turn and run, to avoid conflict rather than confront it. But now I knew better; I was in a healthy marriage. I had to engage and stay engaged. Listen actively, not blame or criticize, not complain without making a request for change. "I hear what you're saying," I said. "The Bush line was below the belt."

She seemed to appreciate the validation, no slouch to self-help lingo herself. "It must be hard not to feel protective about your work."

I agreed, and we hugged each other. Kelly Simpson would have been proud. If I could only get my hands on one of those "little brown goody bags" Simpson passed out in her romance workshop, we could hone our skills even more.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >