Vowing to Save Marriages

Bringing Hope to Marriages

By Rachel Castlen '08
Friday, July 11, 2008

As with many engaged couples, Chris Merrick and Jill Neufeld were apprehensive about taking the proverbial plunge as graduating seniors at JBU. Through the Center for Relationship Enrichment (CRE), however, couples like Chris and Jill can receive information and training that will aid them in their upcoming marriage.

And thanks to a five-year, $2.7 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CRE can provide marriage workshops, seminars, and materials to couples throughout Northwest Arkansas absolutely free. The grant is funded through President George W. Bush’s Healthy Marriages Initiative. According to the Department of Health and Human Services web site, 32 organizations received the Healthy Marriage Demonstration Grant in 2006. CRE is the only organization in Arkansas to receive the grant. The individual grants, which require a 10 percent match from the participating organization, ranged from $300,000 to $550,000 a year with funding expected to be renewed each year for five years. CRE is now in the second year of the grant’s award. Through funding from the grant, CRE has implemented the NWA Healthy Marriages Program, through which they host free events that focus on enriching the relationships of both engaged and married couples. CRE is tasked with serving a sixcounty region in Northwest Arkansas, which includes Benton, Washington, Sebastian, Crawford, Madison, and Carroll counties.CRE's executive director, Dr. Gary Oliver, presents marriage funamentals at a community meeting

Within these six counties, divorce is prevalent. In fact, Northwest Arkansas, which has a 54 percent divorce rate, has one of the highest divorce rates in the nation. The average national divorce rate is 48 percent. On the NWA Healthy Marriages web site (www.nwahealthymarriages.org), CRE states that its “passion is to see a reduction in the divorce rate and an increase in marital satisfaction. We want our community to become known as a place where healthy marriages thrive.”

“I’m very excited with the opportunities [from the grant] to make an impact within our community,” said Ken Eichler, NWA Healthy Marriages Project coordinator. Eichler, whose position was created because of the grant, said CRE has had no trouble finding ways to use the resources that are allotted by the grant and JBU’s 10 percent matching funds. Among other operational costs, the grant pays for program publicity, the use of conference facilities, program materials, and refreshments at each event, allowing couples to attend the conferences free of charge.

Because the grant is federally funded, CRE does not include religious content in its programming. (The grant’s purpose is to assist in the marriages of any interested couple, regardless of religious beliefs.) But while the grant prevents teaching from the Bible, the teachings at CRE workshops strongly align with biblical beliefs. “What we know to be God’s truth is still true even if we don’t read it from the Bible at our events,” Eichler said. “Because these aren’t Christian events, we have a chance to reach couples who need help who would never turn to a religious group. We’re called not just to help Christians, but to help those in need. If we can help couples of any back-ground strengthen their marriages, we are helping our entire community.” CRE’s goal is to reach at least 13,000 couples in Northwest Arkansas throughout the five years of the grant through the following three objectives: (1) provide training for premarital couples; (2) provide enrichment activities for married couples; (3) train Marriage Champions, who are couples serving as volunteer premarital and marriage enrichment educators in community-based small groups.

Training for Engaged Couples

Chris and Jill attended CRE’s Engaged Couple’s Workshop, eight hours of hands-on activities that help couples work through issues they will face during their engagement and into their marriage. For Jill, the workshop helped her consider relationship topics that she hadn’t thought about before, such as expectations that she and Chris had about finances, gender roles, and how they expected to relate to each other’s families. Through the workshop she began to see that the relationship is more about teamwork than she realized. “Marriage seems like such an unknown, new phase of life,” she said. “Preparing intentionally [for marriage] has been good for us, to keep a little bit more healthy expectations.”

Jackson Dunn, premarital and enrichment preparation coordinator for CRE, said that couples are 31 percent less likely to get a divorce if they do some sort of premarital work. Dunn, who leads the Engaged Couple’s Workshop along with his wife Krista, said that there has been an incredible response at the seminars, which sometimes include couples embarking on their second or third marriage“It’s amazing to share, teach, and explain things that you are passionate about,” Dunn said. “We aren’t just reading things out of a book, we are telling people things that have truly impacted us [my wife and me]. We’re just blessed to get to share our hearts with people.”

In sharing their hearts, the Dunns are also providing couples with practical tools to make marriage (or even remarriage) a success. Along with the lessons taught at
the seminar, the event promotes discussion between couples about vital topics in a constructive way. Couples talk about emotional security, conflict management, decision making tendencies and finances. For example, each person evaluates whether they are a spender or a saver when it comes to finances, and then couples engage in lengthy discussions about their short- and long-term financial goals. At the workshop, couples receive a guide to help them talk about things in a deep and safe way. As couples talk about expectations in ways that provide a good starting point for marriage, watching and listening to couple’s interactions is “music to my ears,” Dunn describes.

Training for Married Couples

The CRE provides information about healthy marriages through online resources, small group mentorship and seminars, and tools that help equip those who wish to
enrich their marriage. Marriage seminars hosted by the CRE focus on the needs of married couples and cover topics including healthy communication, conflict management, household responsibilities, financial responsibilities, and sexual relationships. Online resources include assessment questionnaires, book recommendations, articles, and online videos on marriage-related topics, ranging from infidelity to communication to conflict management.Couples spend time talking through emotional security, expectations, and other marriage issues at a CRE event.

Greg Smalley, Northwest Arkansas Healthy Marriages program director, said that the goal of learning to understand emotional intelligence is unique to CRE conferences. Although there has been incredible research about the benefits of individuals understanding emotional intelligence, it had not been applied in the marriage context. CRE wrote their curriculum to include that valuable component. “Emotional and relational intelligence is the ability to be aware of, recognize, and understand our own feelings and those of others, and to constructively manage those emotions in ourselves and in our relationships,” Smalley said.

While CRE wishes to instill foundational truths that can aid couples on the path toward a healthy marriage, CRE does not cast a blind eye to more serious relational troubles. Information about spousal abuse is available at all CRE seminars, and teachers strongly encourage couples to seek help if they are in abusive relationships. The issue is even addressed on the Healthy Marriages web site, which reads: “To end the cycle of domestic violence, services must be provided to victims and perpetrators with victim safety the key priority.”

To Smalley, strengthening marriage goes beyond simply helping couples to get along. He describes it as a legacy issue, saying that as much as a healthy marriage
impacts a couple, it also impacts the couple’s children, and it ultimately benefits the community.

Marriage Champion Training

In addition to offering workshops for couples, CRE encourages couples to take an extra step in strengthening their marriages by entering into marriage mentorships led by volunteer Marriage Champions. To become Marriage Champions, couples must have been married for a minimum of five years and must take an assessment to determine that they have a healthy marriage. Marriage Champions are recruited typically through CRE’s live events, but they can also be recommended by their pastors. They then are trained by CRE to facilitate small groups of engaged and married couples who go through two to four weeks of CRE’s marriage enrichment curriculum. Smalley estimates that CRE has trained more than 190 individuals to work as marriage champions.

Tim and Brenda Love, who have been married for 45 years, couldn’t wait to become marriage champions after attending their first CRE conference in June 2007. Brenda describes herself as a CRE “groupie” with devotion, gusto, and support for the CRE “band.” Her husband, Tim, simply prefers the term “volunteer.” The Loves have taught marriage conferences for a number of years, and they have been impressed with CRE’s curriculum, which they say is both applicable and realistic. Healthy Marriages Events often host 200-300 couples from the Northwest Arkansas community

The Loves’s small groups have comprised a wide variety of participants, from newlyweds to couples in 15-year marriages, even parents attending with their married children. Most couples are introduced to a small group after getting information through Healthy Marriages workshops or seminars. The Loves believe that the CRE programs will enrich any couples’ relationship, no matter what stage it is in or how many years the couple has been together. “It makes a good marriage better and a dead marriage alive,” Tim said.

The Big Dream

In connection with its Healthy Marriages Initiative, CRE commissioned the Barna Group to conduct a survey of relationships in Northwest Arkansas. The results of the study indicated that although a high number of couples believed they had good relationships, they also had low expectations for marriage and a high divorce rate.

“Marriage has taken a beating; it has lost its rightful place of honor,” Smalley said. Smalley’s perspective is that saving marriage is about more than just helping couples stay together; it’s about a husband and wife who are thrilled to be married to one other. That thrill, he says, will accordingly shape the entire family and the
generations to come.

When the five-year grant comes to a close, CRE will again survey couples in Northwest Arkansas, expecting to see that the conferences, workshops, and training have made a measurable impact on the longevity and health of marriages. It’s the impact, after all, that matters to the CRE staff.

“Let’s dream big,” Smalley said. “Let’s eliminate divorce.”

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