Friday, May 23, 2008

Potomac couple embarks on a mission to save others’ marriages

Community-wide approach used to reduce divorce rate

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Mike and Harriet McManus travel around the country training groups of churches to implement Community Marriage Policies, in which churches agree to focus on driving down the divorce rate in the community.
Ted Yadlowsky of Owings Mills has marriage on his mind with his current girlfriend, but those thoughts were tempered by memories of a previous failed marriage.

So he sought out marriage mentors: Mike and Harriet McManus of Potomac.

In 1996, the McManuses founded Marriage Savers, an organization that enlists clergy members to try to slash the divorce rate in the country — about 50 percent, according to The Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education. The McManuses also pair longtime married couples with the newly engaged to try to get them talking about their relationships before they tie the knot.

‘‘It gives them permission to talk about issues that, in the glow of romance, they might not discuss,” such as spending money and time management, Harriet McManus said.

Many churches encourage couples to undergo pre-marital sessions, but Mike McManus says the church doesn’t go far enough to drive down divorces. ‘‘I think that pastors become inured to the problem. They tend to think there’s nothing that can be done,” he said.

Yadlowsky underwent a pre-marital education session through the Catholic Church, but he said he and his ex-wife were going through the motions. ‘‘Our plan was to get married within two months,” Yadlowsky said. ‘‘We looked at it as, ‘How do I get through this really quickly?’”

He said he would often give the ‘‘politically correct” answers rather than delve into deeper issues.

He said he sees marriage in the future of his current relationship and is using the mentoring as a way to open discussion lines between him and his girlfriend — dealing with issues like the couple’s differing styles of spending and saving.

Yadlowsky said his previous marriage lasted about five years. ‘‘Had I done something like this before our marriage, we would have never gotten married,” he said.

The clergy of 223 cities and towns have adopted a Community Marriage Policy.

‘‘The strategy is to use the people within the church and equip them to be marriage savers,” Mike McManus said. ‘‘We travel all over the country training groups of churches to take these steps.”

As part of a Community Marriage Policy, couples who are set to tie the knot are given a pre-marital ‘‘inventory” to start discussing common issues. Marriage enrichment events are held for couples who are already married, and the churches agree to help restore troubled marriages by setting them up with couples who were once in the same position and ‘‘made it through.” A special program for stepfamilies has also been developed, and the program also focuses on reconciling separated couples.

According to McManus, the strategy works. In Modesto, Calif., the first community in the country to enact a Community Marriage Policy, the divorce rate has been cut in half since the city signed the agreement in 1986, McManus said. Loudoun County, Va., has signed on. Montgomery County, however, has not.

Staving off relationships that aren’t working before marriage is one important aspect of the Community Marriage Policy, said McManus’ wife, Harriet, who is also involved with the organization. She and her husband mentor younger couples, and of the 58 they have mentored, nine have decided not to marry.

‘‘In my mind, that’s an avoided divorce down the road,” Harriet McManus said.

The McManuses also make the case against co-habitation, encouraging couples not to live together before marriage. The attitude of ‘‘trying the shoe on” often undermines the concept of a long-term commitment, they said.

Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Washington-based Coalition for Marriage, Families and Couples Education, agrees. The organization works to bring research about marriage and families to couples.

Some research shows that men can ‘‘slide” into a marriage after living with a girlfriend, actually increasing chances for divorce, Sollee said. ‘‘It’s almost dishonorable to break up with you after living with you for four years,” Sollee said.

However, ‘‘co-habitation is not the death knell” of a relationship, she said. Couples must become educated about the realities of marriage and accept that there is no perfect couple, she said.

‘‘The most important thing that they need to understand is that [disagreeing] is normal,” Sollee said. ‘‘It doesn’t mean I’m with the wrong person.”