THE BLOG
03/23/2012 10:17 am ET | Updated May 23, 2012

How To Teach People Not To Marry The Wrong Person

Divorce sucks for all involved. This is why some believe that staying in a miserable marriage is better than ending a miserable marriage.

To that, I say: Really? Children won't be affected by two parents who fantasize about the other contracting a swift terminal illness? Children growing up in a petri dish of contempt won't be better off living in two separate, non-toxic households?

The Divorce Reform Movement aims to overturn no-fault divorce laws, making it more difficult for couples to get a divorce. State budgets would fund mandatory marital counseling before couples are allowed to legally end their marriages. Divorce Reform advocates believe that the government-mandated process of slowing down a divorce will convince spouses not to become ex-spouses.

To that, I say: Really? Making it harder to divorce will convince those who have fallen head over heels with the secretary, who can't agree on anything, or who are just plain incompatible, that they should stay married? Even more unlikely: lecturing high-conflict individuals about the damage divorce does to children will persuade them to consider the feelings of others?

Instead of trying to fix miserable marriages, why not try to teach people how not to be miserably married in the first place?

Here's my idea: In order to graduate high school, students must take a course in Family Systems.

What's Family Systems, you ask? It's a theory developed by psychiatrist-turned-family therapist Murray Bowen that is taught to graduate students in Psychology. It requires a semester to do it justice, but I'm going to give you the "Reader's Digest" version here.

Differentiation

Differentiation is the ability to feel comfortable having one's own thoughts and feelings. Conflicts happen because people are undifferentiated, meaning they feel threatened by another's thoughts and feelings. When people feel threatened, they usually handle differences in one of two dysfunctional ways:

Some people engage in emotional cutoff. These are the people who don't speak to their siblings for 20 years or who move across the country to get away from their intrusive parents.

Emotional cutoff may reduce tension, but it doesn't resolve the problem. And because you haven't learned to resolve your issues with Mom and Dad, you tend to use the emotional cutoff strategy in other relationships. Hence, divorce.

Other people fuse. They think and feel the way they're told to think and feel in order to be accepted. Or they force others to think and feel a certain way in order not to be abandoned.

The Mafia is a good example of a bunch of really fused people. No one says to the Don: "I have a moral objection to putting a horse's head in the bed of someone I don't know, so I'm not going to do it." No one goes against the family grain because no one wants to swim with the fishes. Hence, parents spawning children who never leave the pack and clobber spouses who don't tow the party line.

Triangles

When two people have problems with each other they attempt to defuse their anxiety by bringing a third party into the relationship. One person has an affair. A couple that has grown apart feels united by focusing on their problem child. Mom forms an alliance with the son, placing Dad on the outs. In all these scenarios, anxiety is reduced, but never resolved.

Multigenerational Transmission Process

Families pass on issues and relational patterns to the next generation. That's why it's common to see addictions winding their way down the family tree. Or sections of extended families that don't speak to each other. Or clusters of parent-child alliances. Or lots of divorces.

Using symbols to denote genders, marriage, divorce, adoption, and relationship styles, people can map out their family's multigenerational transmission process through an exercise known as a genogram. A completed genogram is a psychological blueprint of one's family. Studying this blueprint, a person can quickly spot patterns inherited from previous generations.

If I had known anything about Family Systems when I was dating my ex, I might have predicted the central problem that proved to be our undoing.

I was influenced by distant and emotionally cut-off relationships. In addition, I was adopted and I always felt like an outsider. My ex came from a rich and powerful family of fusers. Remember triangles? His alliance remained with his family, leaving me hanging out at the margins. He and his parents made the decisions that he and I should have been making together.

Guess what happened when I filed for divorce? It was interpreted not just as a divorce from my ex but from his entire family. It was like leaving the Mafia and it led to one brutal high-conflict divorce.

Can a Genogram Prevent a Divorce?

Had I studied the genograms of my family and my ex's family when we were dating, would I have ended the relationship then? Maybe. Maybe not. But I certainly would have not have been as naïve as I was when I filed for divorce, and I might have taken steps to mitigate the destruction that awaited my children and me.

Teaching family systems to high school students would give young people an invaluable tool with which to navigate future relationships and choose compatible life partners.

As a fun and informative exercise, students could pair off and compare their genograms, assessing each other's family dysfunction as well as family strengths.

Would they be compatible spouses? What does each person need to do to resolve problematic issues passed down through the generations to increase the odds of having a successful marriage?

I'm not a teacher and I don't know how feasible it would be to institute a Family Systems curriculum in our public schools. But I do believe that putting dollars into preventing bad marriages makes a whole lot more sense than taking money out of anemic government budgets with the dubious goal of fixing marriages that are already broken. And it might prevent people from forking over their life savings to the family court system.

What do you think? Would a high school course in Family Systems teach young people how to pick the right partners?