Patty Howell is the vice president of operations and media relations for the California Healthy Marriage Coalition, a non-profit with the goal of promoting marital health through relationship education. She has written several research booklets on the importance of marriage in society. She received the 2010 Smart Marriages Impact Award from the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education.
What is the goal of your organization?
It is the goal of the California Healthy Marriage Coalition to saturate California with access to relationship education classes. We aim to create awareness as to the importance of healthy marriages for couples, their families and society. Classes would be offered throughout the state in hundreds of different locations- sometimes in schools, community organizations like community centers or counseling centers, or in faith based organizations.
But the organization is not faith-based?
Absolutely not. The curricula we offer are not faith-based. We are a federal grantee and you can’t cross that line.
How should couples go about communicating better?
I think the first place to start is to recognize that doing what comes naturally generally doesn’t work very well. The relationship and communication skills that we know really work for couples are not taught at our parent’s knees. The stuff we see modeled in our family and on television throughout most of our lives might seem natural to us, but they are not highly functional skills.
A good place to start is to recognize communication skills have to be learned. This is why it’s important for us to get relationship skills into classrooms for kids, at least for high school kids, and through all the different institutions of society. Everybody needs this stuff. We all need to learn how to handle conflict when it occurs. There is conflict in every relationship, whether it be your spouse or your colleagues or anybody in your life.
Why should marriage be an issue the government gets involved in?
The government is involved in divorce already, because each divorce costs taxpayers about $30,000 in terms of increased need for social services related to divorce. That amounts to $12 billion a year for California. That’s a big number. That’s half of our state deficit. So the state is already involved. We’re involved in clean up. And clean up is always much more difficult and costly than prevention.
What about the kids?
Oh it’s incredible, the impact on kids’ health. Their math and reading scores fall behind. There is a big educational impact. Their social skills and social relationships are damaged. Their chances for getting into college are lowered, and that has an impact on the likelihood that they’ll have successful careers and their future income. Their likelihood of being able to form and sustain healthy marriages for themselves goes down.
Who would have access to this education?
We have courses for everyone over the age of 15, from gay couples to youth to singles. Everybody is in relationships with all kinds of people, so we need to be skilled at having successful relationships with all the kinds of people in our lives. It isn’t like I want to give this to the top 3 percent of Californians, or the bottom 3 percent. Everybody needs it.
I’m looking for cultural change here, widespread cultural change so that you and everybody you know and everybody I know and everybody in the state has access to relationship skills. Just like we need to learn how to drive a car before we get a license, you know, we need to learn how to do this.
Do you believe at least some divorces are preventable because couples just don’t communicate?
It’s not just that. They don’t know how to work together as a team to handle the difficulties of life. You fall in love in your twenties or something, and you do so because you’re attracted to each other and so on. But life comes along. Life includes job loss, health problems, kids, deaths in the family and you need to have the kind of skills we teach in order to be able to handle these problems successfully without damage to the relationship.
Did you feel your parent’s relationship affect you later in life?
Yes it did. Somehow or another I got a very clear picture as a child about how very much your life was determined by who you’re married to and how good that was. I just really saw that vividly. And at some point early in my life I made the decision to have a really good marriage. I just got that that was central to how good your life felt.
And did it happen?
It didn’t, actually. I divorced after four years from my first husband. I didn’t know what it took.
When I started my relationship with the man I’ve now been with for 33 years, my husband, we embarked on a lot of learning. With marriage education and relationship education programs we got really good at it and we have a great marriage. It was a fantastic investment.