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Marriage Enrichment

The Marriage Movement, Developments, The Future Of Marriage Enrichment

Marriage enrichment is a form of primary prevention in the area of human relationships. Begun in an organized way by David and Vera Mace in the mid-twentieth century, its objectives are to promote a mutual commitment to growth in the marital relationship; to develop and agree on a communication style of talking and listening that works for enhancement of the marital relationship; to learn how to use conflict in creative ways that helps, not hinders, the marital relationship, including the sharing of feelings; and to develop and maintain a desire for and the presence of intimacy in the marital relationship, utilizing a variety of positive interaction skills.

Marriage enrichment takes place when couples deem their marriage of primary importance. These couples are intentional about their marital growth and choose to do something about it. Couples who commit to an ongoing marriage enrichment group, through which they can practice quality interactive skills with each other and in the presence of other caring couples, tend to have more successful marriages. The longer the process is of practicing the skills that enhance the marriage, the greater the potential for behavioral change (Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg 1994).

Marriage enrichment programs teach spouses interpersonal skills in communication and conflict resolution. Couples can, in a group process, help couples. A sense of safety develops when the group's couples have a mutual commitment to growth. The individual couples in the group begin to recognize their issues are common to other couples.

Marriage enrichment uses multiple techniques to provide opportunities for couple growth. The focus of most enrichment events is each couple's marriage. Given the approach's effectiveness, its leaders most often help couples apply the material via experiential learning techniques. One such technique is the couple dialogue, where one spouse turns to the other and talks about their relationship while other couples in the group listen. This exercise provides a very different dynamic from a typical group discussion. It also encourages the couple to affirm good communication skills. Much of marriage enrichment depends upon peer relationship in a supportive environment.

A married couple provides the leadership for some marriage enrichment programs. In the A.C.M.E. (Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment) model, couples are required to be trained as leader couples. They serve as facilitator participants and need not be experts on marriage. As they lead, they work on their own relationship and bring their issues to the group through their public dialogue. The leader couple's vulnerability encourages openness for the other couples. This couple revelation to other couples through the means of couple dialogue is the most disarming and effective tool for growth offered in marriage enrichment. In other marriage enrichment models, leadership couples recite scripted material, but for A.C.M.E. dialogue and interaction are authentic and powerful.

The marriage enrichment group focuses on strengths and growth. The guidelines suggested to couples by A.C.M.E. emphasize this positive focus:

  • Sharing is voluntary; no individual or couple will be asked to share, nor will it be their turn after the couple next to them shares.
  • Each spouse speaks for self; this illustrates equal partnership in the marriage.
  • Each spouse shares his/her own experience; conversation or sharing is from the individual's perspective regarding the marriage.
  • Focus is on the couple's relationship; regardless of the issue, the focus is turned to the impact on the couple or on either spouse.
  • No advice or counseling is given; each couple is working on their own marriage, no experts are present.
  • Celebrations and concerns are shared first; spouses or couples need to first share and manage preoccupying concerns. Any joy or good experience in the life of the couple is also shared during this brief segment of the group meeting.
  • Confidentiality is essential; to build trust, couples are encouraged to let each couple's conversation or dialogue remain in the group.

Many couples are reluctant to participate in marriage enrichment programs because they think, by doing so, they are admitting some grave faction in their relationship. It is not uncommon for couples to say "we are not having any problems," "we do not need counseling," or "we are doing all right."

Marriage enrichment is not counseling and is probably contraindicated for couples who are going through serious relationship problems. Counseling or even giving advice to another couple is discouraged in the A.C.M.E. leader training. Marriage enrichment is not primarily for problem marriages, but it is for married couples who want their marriage to grow. Both members of the couples need to attend since marriage enrichment concentrates on the growth of the relationship. It is couples working on their own relationship alongside other couples working on their relationships.

Marriage enrichment is a process that over time creates positive changes as the couple practices healthy interaction skills. Marriage enrichment events serve as the beginning of the process for many couples. Once the couples see the benefits of the approach taken in marriage enrichment, they want to know how they can keep the healthy process going. It is then that they are ready for a marriage enrichment group that meets once a month.

Couples who want to work on their marriage begin by determining whether counseling or marital enrichment would be best for their relationship. Some brief guides regarding marriage enrichment and marriage counseling are suggested for couple consideration (Smith and Smith 1989). If a couple chooses to be involved in marriage enrichment, it usually means that:

  • The couple wants to face or deal with whatever is unsettling in their relationship and they believe they have a potential for growth.
  • The couple can identify their issues without the aid of professional assistance.
  • The couple is intentionally motivated to work on their marriage. They believe they have enough positives going for them to make their marriage work.
  • The couple is open to new learning opportunities and interaction skills that assist them with their issues.
  • The couple is able to identify their issues and willing to address the issues, one at a time.
  • The couple recognizes that anger is a given in healthy relationships. Therefore, they mutually work on ways to deal with their anger so that it does not build up and destroy the relationship. In contrast, they use their anger as a positive tool to get closer to the feelings behind the anger.

If a couple wants to improve their marriage through marriage counseling, it can mean that:

  • The couple senses that something is wrong in the relationship, but they tend to avoid facing it. Either or both of them may deny there is a problem.
  • The couple finds it difficult to identify the problem.
  • The couple feels overwhelmed by all of the negative verbal and nonverbal expressions in the relationship and feel it is not worth the effort to continue in the relationship.
  • The couple does not feel good about talking about the issues with their partner because it is too painful or useless, or they cannot agree on the issue.
  • The couple becomes anxious when a problem comes up because their pattern has been that the situation always gets worse.
  • The couple becomes so angry that they want to hurt each other more than they want to focus on the issue itself.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationships