Mentors Help Divorce-Proof Marriages

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Before they were married, Quel and Stacy Williams of Lorton, Virginia, fought hard because both were strong-willed and stubborn.

They were in their 30s and were very much used to getting their own way. "So we had each lived our lives our certain way and wanted to continue doing things our way," Quel said.

Even though neither Quel nor her fiance Stacy knew how to compromise very well, they were still planning to wed.

But a friend told them they really needed to first go to Potomac, Maryland, and meet with Mike and Harriet McManus, marriage mentors expert at teaching skills to divorce-proof a marriage.

Divorce-Proofing a Marriage

For months in 2002, the McManuses mentored the couple.

And Quel believes she and Stacy would have divorced for sure by now without the coping skills their mentors taught them.

"Because I cannot think of how we would have learned those tools without it," Quel said.

Stacy said the mentoring time taught him how to answer questions about marriage like, "what are the ways to make it last? To make it work? How do you do the 10 years, the 15 years, the 30 years?"

The McManuses through their organization Marriage Savers do much more than just mentor individual couples.

They've helped some 1,500 churches train 4,000 marriage mentors, who then counsel those getting ready to wed, newlyweds and couples in crisis.

Mike McManus said it's tapping a hugely untapped resource.

"We have in our pews in every church in America couples who have been through terrible times and they've just never been seen as a resource to the couples in current crisis," he said.

Older Couples, Pastors Can Help

With just a few hours training, the McManuses say older couples and pastors can be taught techniques and methods that divorce-proof marriages.

"We can help churches virtually eliminate divorce in the churches that adopt these reforms," McManus stated. "For entire cities, the divorce rate can come down 50 percent or more."

One of these reforms is churches insisting anyone they marry first get several weeks of premarital counseling. As Harriet McManus put it, "Before you tie the knot, let us show you the ropes."

A major part of this is taking a premarital inventory that can highlight potential danger zones for the couple, like finances or communication problems. Most churches now offer these inventories.

And then there's putting marriage mentors together with young couples like the Williams.

'Community Marriage Policy' Pledge

The McManuses bundled these ideas together in something they call a Community Marriage Policy, in which many of the houses of worship in one town or county all take a solemn pledge.

Mike McManus described what they all swear to: "They will work together across denominational lines to build kind of a compact, a covenant, that they will not do anymore quickie weddings, that they will require couples to go through serious preparation."

Kansas City is just one of 220 communities where houses of worship have enacted a Community Marriage Policy.

Since then, the divorce rate in Kansas City is down more than 50 percent.

Tom Hurt pastors the Oregon City Evangelical Church in Clackamas County, Oregon. He says a Community Marriage Policy there has helped all the churches work off the same page: to "not have people jump from one church to the next, where , 'Okay, that pastor won't marry me quickly, so I'll go to the guy down the street and he'll marry me quickly.'"

Some 10,000 pastors and priests have signed Community Marriage Policies since Mike and Harriet McManus came up with the idea back in the mid-1990s.

Pastor Hurt is among the 173 who signed the one in Clackamas County. It's a county of rugged beauty, much of it tucked up against Oregon's Cascade Mountains or sprawling across the fertile Willamette Valley. But it's also a big bedroom community for Oregon's largest city, Portland. The marriage rate there was going down and the divorce rate was going up when psychologist Steve Stephens put Tom and Liz Dressel together with Mike and Harriet McManus.

Divorce Makes You Less Happy, More Frustrated

The Christian therapist has written a number of books to help makes marriages last -- books like "Lost in Translation: How Men and Women Can Understand Each Other" and "20 Rules and Tools For a Great Marriage."

"God hates divorce. Why does He hate divorce? Because divorce breaks people," Dr. Stephens told CBN News. "Divorce doesn't work. It won't make you happy, I guarantee you -- except in very rare situations, a divorce is going to make you less happy, it's going to make you more frustrated, financially it devastates you."

Dr. Stephens knew the Dressels were as desperate as he is to fight divorce in Clackamas County.

The Dressels were on the verge of divorce themselves back in the 1970s. Liz went to several secular therapists in attempts to save the flailing marriage.

"I went there asking for communication skills, and they kept suggesting I get divorced," she said.

But Liz says she was a little too ornery to just give up.

"We had three kids to raise and I thought, 'This man is not getting out of it. Some way we are going to make it through.'"

Eventually, the two found the hope and skills they needed through church and para-church groups.

Tom said, "We took every class, every retreat that had the word marriage in it, and each one was a building-block, a foundation-stone."

Divorce Rates Drop after 'Marriage Savers' Counseling

In 2001, the Dressels found Mike and Harriet McManus had packaged some of the best marriage help altogether and a community could put it all into action under a Community Marriage Policy. With the help of Dr. Stephens, their own pastor Tom Hurt, and many others, they brought the McManuses to Clackamas County, had a time of training and rounded up 173 churches to sign a Community Marriage Policy. And the results have already been stunning.

"The divorce rate has dropped 17 percent," Tom Dressel said.

The Dressels and Dr. Stephens point out most folks take driver's ed to learn how to drive, but get no such training to prepare them for the much more complicated world of marriage.

"What I find is that a lot of young people, they just don't know how to be married. They weren't given good examples," Dr. Stephens said.

And that's where marriage mentors can be so helpful for young or troubled couples. They can bring back some of that wisdom of past years when most folks lived with extended family around.

As Harriet McManus put it, "The young couples then had the wonderful resources of extended family. You know, you had Uncle Albert and Aunt Hildie who lived right under your roof, and maybe Grandma and Grandpa lived there, too."

Dr. Stephens said mentoring another couple doesn't have to take a lot of time.

"You could just go out to breakfast with them once a month, encourage them, send them notes, recommend books to them. Talk about issues. Tell them 'if you are ever in a big fight, if you are ever frustrated, give me a call.' That to me is what Christian community is all about," Dr. Stephens said.

The Power of Marriage Mentors

The McManuses and Dressels told CBN News mentors end up getting much love and respect from those they mentor.

Quel and Stacy Williams still talk with great affection about the McManuses six years after their months of intense mentoring.

"We call them our spiritual parents," said Quel Williams.

Stacy said just knowing the McManuses are still watching is a reason to keep his marriage healthy and strong. "In a sense, you don't want to let them down," he said.

And Harriet McManus pointed out, mentors she's helped train tell her frequently the mentoring has actually ended up improving the quality of their own marriages.

"After mentoring several couples, they feel their marriage in quality has moved up to a 7, 8 or 9," she said.

Mike McManus said many more churches need to wake up to the need to fight for marriage and against the divorce epidemic.

"We have had one divorce for every two marriages every year since 1970. That's 42 million divorces affecting 40 million children," he said.

Dr. Stephens said the crisis is just as bad inside the Church. "And to me it breaks my heart that we see in churches just as high a divorce rate as we do outside the church. That's not right."

And he pointed out the future of the Church is on the line if the high divorce rate continues. "In situations where Mom and Dad divorce, what I found is that about 75 percent of the time, the children leave the faith."

Mike McManus believes Community Marriage Policies can do much to end the crisis. "It is possible to rewrite the history of marriage and divorce in America with this initiative."

*Original broadcast March 6, 2008.

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Paul Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

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