THE BLOG
06/26/2010 05:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 4,000 Word Story on Marriage Education, Washington Post Only Quotes True Believers

Have you read The Marriage Myth story in the Washington Post? The subtitle of reporter Ellen McCarthy's article is "Why do so many couples divorce? Maybe they just don't know how to be married."

Three paragraphs into the story, we learn that for Heidi and Kirk, participating in a marriage education program "saved their marriage." By page 9 of the 9-page (from my printer) story, Kirk tells us that talking to Mindee after they participated in the program was "like when you're drowning and you get a fresh breath."

In between, three experts (of sorts) are quoted. One is Diane Sollee, described appropriately by the reporter as "the ringmaster of the marriage education movement." She's quoted over and over again. Wade Horn is quoted, too. He's the person from the Bush administration who got $100 million dollars moved from other Health and Human Services programs into marriage education. The other expert quoted is Howard Markman, the co-founder of one of the most widely used marriage education courses. So in a story that carried on for 9 pages, there was no room for a quote from someone other than a marriage-movement true believer.

If you make it to the bottom of the 6th page, you will find the first reference to actual scientific findings on the effectiveness of marriage education programs. The Post notes that of 8 programs funded by federal money, "only one improved the quality of the relationship of participants." Keep reading for one additional sentence: "A 2009 analysis of more than 100 academic studies evaluating the effectiveness of marriage education found 'modest evidence' that the programs can work..."

In a previous post, Marriage and relationship education programs: Do they work?, I described the results of the 8 programs and the 100+ academic studies, based on a close reading of the documents. (McCarthy's "modest evidence" phrase seems to come directly from the one-paragraph summary at the beginning of the review article.) Read that post if you want to know more about the relevant research. The basics are as follows:

  • Across 143 studies of whether couples who took marriage classes had better communication skills, 6 months later, than couples who did not take the classes, the results depended on how the skills were measured. When the couples were videotaped by the original team of researchers while discussing a problem, the ones who took the classes did communicate better than those who did not. But when the couples described their own experiences more generally (indicating, for example, whether their partner insults them during arguments), the couples in the marriage programs looked no different than the unschooled couples.
  • In 8 different locations across the country, unmarried couples spent about 14 hours in marriage and relationship workshops (with additional help from a family coordinator) and another control group of unwed couples did not. Researchers followed up on the couples 15 months later, to see whether they were still together or had married, what their relationship was like, whether they had experienced intimate violence, and what their parenting was like. Across all of the 8 versions of the study, there were hardly any differences between the couples who did and did not participate in the program. Taken individually, in only one of the 8 locations did the program participants fare better than the nonparticipants on more than one of the 14 measures. In none of the locations were the program participants more likely to be living together or married than the non-participants. In fact, in one of the locations, the participants were less likely to be together. In one of the 8 locations, participants ended up significantly worse than the nonparticipants; they were less affectionate and supportive, the fathers were less involved in the parenting, and the mothers reported more severe physical assaults.

Here is the tease for the Washington Post story: "Experts have found that certain behaviors -- especially when it comes to how couples communicated or handled conflict -- have a huge impact on the likelihood that any given pair will remain happily married." Plus, the personal stories included in the article were only from participants who were delighted with the experience.

The Post feature also included a sidebar of tips and resources. Again, Diane Sollee gets her say, and there are two links to her Smartmarriages group. Once more, no alternative points of view are represented.

What Might a Less Blinkered Story Look Like?

The author did acknowledge, when discussing the $100 million spent on marriage education programs, that "whether that's an appropriate use of public funds is a legitimate question." Mostly, though, she took the pronouncements of Diane Sollee and the other marriage-promotion enthusiasts at face value.

Consider, for example, these three nuggets. (Continue reading here).