Transcript

261:

The Sanctity of Marriage
Transcript

Originally aired 03.26.2004

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/261

Prologue.

Kassie Hannah

OK, we are ready to begin.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International.

Kassie Hannah

When you guys are ready, we can start. OK, today we will be selecting our bride and our groom for the mock wedding.

Ira Glass

Ms. Hannah's Adult Living class, at Rock Island High School, near the Illinois-Iowa border, has as part of its curriculum a mock wedding. These happen in high schools all over the country. And if you're from a place where they have them, they don't seem like a big deal at all. Today, before Ms. Hannah's class can choose decorations and bridesmaids outfits, before they talk to florists and a caterer, they have to choose a bride and a groom. And the money-on favorite for groom is [? DeAndrew. ?]

Woman 1

Because he's just the most outgoing person, the person that's actually one of the guys-- because we have very few guys-- one of the guys that are actually into it, you know?

DeAndrew ?] is going to be the groom.

Woman 3

I think [? DeAndrew ?] will get the groom.

Kevin

Out of the boys, it's either me or [? DeAndrew. ?]

Ira Glass

This is Kevin, another contender.

Kevin

I think we're running neck and neck.

Stacia

Yeah, he wanted it too, but--

Ira Glass

This is Stacia.

Stacia

I don't know. I think more of the kids in the class will vote more towards [? DeAndrew, ?] because he's the class clown. He makes everybody laugh and everything.

Ira Glass

As for who will be the bride, [? Jackie ?] says the girls talked about it during gym.

?] There's not that much competition, because a lot of girls don't know if they want to be it. I think it's three girls. Me, and Heather, and [? Keena. ?] So we were the only three that really said we want to to be it. And I know a couple people that have said that they didn't want to be in it. I don't think anybody else wants to do it.

Ira Glass

Ms. Hannah uses the overhead projector to walk the class through a budget for the wedding, which is $250, by the way, that the kids will have to raise themselves. Then she takes nominations. Everybody votes on little slips of paper that she hands out.

Kassie Hannah

Is there anyone who has not voted?

Ira Glass

AJ is sent to the chalkboard to tote the results as Ms. Hannah counts the ballots in a style that is less like the Illinois election commission and more like Jeff Probst from Survivor. She basically pulls out each ballot, unfolds it, and reads it.

Kassie Hannah

OK, here we go. [? DeAndrew. ?] AJ. AJ. Kevin. AJ.

Stacia

Ooh, look at AJ in the lead.

Kassie Hannah

AJ.

Aj

Oh, my God.

Stacia

What? Hold on.

Aj

Oh, my God.

Ira Glass

Even AJ looks surprised. But these early returns don't hold up, and in the end it is the predicted favorite, [? DeAndrew ?], who will be mock-marrying [? Jackie. ?] When the results are announced, [? DeAndrew, ?] who admits that he used to have a little thing for [? Jackie, ?] jumps up and sits next to her.

?] Yeah, I'm getting married to [? Jackie ?] [? Thompson. ?] I'm talking six, seven, nine kids.

Ira Glass

Of the 11 juniors and seniors who showed up for class today, one has a baby and one lives with a boyfriend. She's engaged. I asked Ms. Hannah if the idea of this curriculum is to encourage kids to get married. And to my surprise, she says no. She's just showing them how, the same way this class shows them how to rent an apartment, or buy a used car. Even here in small-town Illinois hours from the big city, even the teacher who teaches marriage has complicated feelings about marriage itself.

Kassie Hannah

The students could not believe that I wasn't married when they found out I was not married. Because of all the joy and the fulfilling things that has happened to me since my divorce, I have truly experienced life. And because it has been such a grand experience being on the single side of life, I can honestly tell students that, yes, you can be single and you can be happy. You can be married and you can be happy. Some of us will be happy with the institution of marriage and some of us will not.

Ira Glass

What it means to be married is up in the air right now, and not just because people are fighting about whether gays should be able to marry. The number of women getting married has dropped a third since 1970. People are getting married at a later age than ever before in this country. Fewer households have children, and a fourth of all children are raised by just one parent. The number of couples living together without marrying is 10 times what it was in 1960, over 4.5 million people. So today on our radio show, a look at what it really means to be married today. Our program today, in three acts:

Act One, What Really Happens in Marriages. Like the 15th century explorers and mapmakers, there is a generation of scientists mapping out what happens in marriages, finding out stuff that people did not know about before.

Act Two, The Defense of Marriage Act. Gay marriage can hurt straight marriage. One man explains how.

Act Three, I Want to Be a Statistic. Starlee Kine gets answers about her parents' marriage from her dad after a lifetime of mystery.

That is three, yes, three big acts, each one designed to make your family happier. Plus we have a real wedding band, the Doug Lawrence Orchestra, playing us wedding standards all this hour. Hit it, boys.

[MUSIC - "THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT," THE DOUG LAWRENCE ORCHESTRA]

Act One. What Really Happens In Marriage.

Ira Glass

Act One, What Really Happens in Marriage. OK, here's something that, when you first hear about it, does not sound like it can possibly be true. So let me preface everything you're about to hear by saying that the guy that you're about to hear from is not some isolated crank, but part of a movement, that he and his colleagues, for decades, have been scoring million-dollar grants from the National Institutes of Mental Health. They publish their findings in mainstream scientific journals. Other scientists have replicated their findings. They've essentially created a radically different and eminently helpful way of understanding marriage.

OK, here's what we're talking about. Dr. John Gottman takes couples, wires them up to devices that monitor their breathing and their heartbeats, sits them in front of video cameras, and then asks them to talk about something that they disagree about.

John Gottman

From a 15-minute videotape of a couple talking about an area of disagreement, we have an 85% probability of predicting what's going to happen to them in the next four years.

Ira Glass

You mean if they'll still be together.

John Gottman

If they'll still be together or not. And also, if they're together, whether they'll be happy or miserable.

Ira Glass

But that's not all. If he spends another hour or so, and asks them to talk about how they met, what kinds of things they share--

John Gottman

Then it goes up to 94%.

Ira Glass

I should be clear. He doesn't offer this as a service. You can't go to John Gottman, sit with your spouse for a 15-minute videotape, and then have him declare to you on the spot, this will be your marital fate. No. When he says that he can predict, he means it in a more sciencey way. What he does is he videotapes couples, follows their marriages for years, and then once he sees who stays together and who splits up, he goes back and tries to figure out what in the videos might have predicted that. And he has found a whole taxonomy of things that doomed couples do that happy couples don't.

I don't know about you, but when I heard about this, I wanted to understand exactly what Gottman was seeing on those videotapes. And so I went out to visit him in Seattle, to sit with him and watch some of America's unfunniest home videos.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

You might think it would be easy to spot which couples in these videos are heading down the tubes. But in a study where Gottman's videos were shown to clergymen, and therapists, and other people who you would assume would be able to identify this kind of thing, they were unable to predict better than random chance which couples eventually divorced. Take this couple in their early 20s, talking about their finances.

Man

--a month at the most and at the least. Estimate it. Do the math. You don't even sit down and do that.

Woman

You don't even sit down and do it either.

Man

I don't have to. I bring home the money.

Woman

You told me you [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] manage it.

Man

Well, yeah, to that [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] because I've been asking you to do that.

Woman

Because, [UNINTELLIGIBLE], how can I do it until I-- I need to get the first bill to know what I'm working with.

Ira Glass

Watching them, to me, it looks pretty bad. They just don't let up.

Ira Glass

Are they doing good or bad here?

John Gottman

Well, I don't see this as a negative interaction. A lot of people might. But we don't see our predictors of divorce here. We don't see contempt. We don't see him turning away, stonewalling, which is a particular guy thing to do. We don't see her insulting him. It could be a lot warmer, it could be a lot more supportive, but they've got to work this out. Newlyweds have a lot of fights. And this is respectful.

Man

You just know what you know, and you block out everything you hear. You just tell me the same thing. Yeah. That's how I feel.

Woman

I feel like you do that. I feel like I keep telling you, and you only want to hear what you want to hear. You don't hear the good stuff, like I'm telling you--

Ira Glass

The way Dr. Gottman turns what look like the most intimate, meandering conversations into hard data that can be analyzed is really pretty simple. After the video is shot, two women in a tiny room down the hall from Dr. Gottman score the thing moment by moment on side-by-side computers. Every time the husband or the wife on the video shows anger, sadness, defensiveness, disgust, humor, neutrality-- any of 20 different things-- it gets coded in the computer alongside data of their heart rate and their breathing.

Female Evaluator

These people have so much affect going on. It's really hard, because you have to make-- you're watching it in real time. You have to make your decision really fast. Is this person being contemptuous? Or wait, was that criticism?

Ira Glass

Elizabeth Schoettle and Katherine Schwartz spent months in training, learning specific facial expressions, particular kinds of behavior, before they became reliable-- reliable meaning in this case that their codes match those of fully-trained people. I asked them to name the codes that they were punching in out loud as they scored one of the videos.

Female Evaluator

So I went to contempt, and then I went to neutral. You move back and forth all the time. Now, if you look at his eyes, he's on tension. He finished one of her sentences and sort of helped her along, which would be a high validation.

Ira Glass

Every momentary interaction-- affection, anger, stonewalling, contempt-- gets assigned a number, one to four for the good ones, negative one to negative four for the bad ones.

John Gottman

So if they do a contempt, they get a minus four. A disgust, the get a minus four. And the computer just keeps track of when they happen and how long they last. So let's watch this conversation.

Ira Glass

Gottman gets another video, and another couple comes up on the TV in black-and-white, split-screen, one camera is on his face, one on hers, a time code in the corner. They're talking about the fact that he is always late.

Woman

I don't believe you. You are really something.

Man

It's like--

Woman

It's not funny.

Man

Well, you could wake me up.

Woman

No, I don't want to wake you up. You don't like to hear my voice. It's just like the tone of your mother's. That makes me feel real good, too. You don't like to talk to me.

John Gottman

So she's sarcastic and contemptuous. "My tone is just like the sound of your mother. That makes me feel real good, too." That's dripping with contempt, which is one of our best predictors of divorce. She gets a negative score at that instant, that time instant.

Man

Tell me to get up.

Woman

What am I supposed to say? "Please, get up, dear. Would you get up?"

Man

Well, if you asked me to. I mean, that's like--

Woman

Get serious.

John Gottman

Now, think-- he has a lot of choices here. He can say, "I can see why that would really hurt your feelings, my saying that."

Ira Glass

He could back off. He could de-escalate.

John Gottman

Exactly. He could de-escalate. He could hear her pain, which he doesn't.

Ira Glass

So when Gottmann and his colleagues make a little graph of all the scores that the man and the woman are getting, as you might imagine, it drops lower and lower and then just never comes back up. Picture a chart in the newspaper of the Dow Jones Industrial Average heading down, and you pretty much have the idea.

This kind of fight, the kind which gets worse and worse, is one of Gottman's findings for couples heading for divorce. When they argue, it just escalates. They don't take a break, they don't see each other's side, they don't accept influence. That's a phrase that Gottman uses to mean that when one of them says something, it has influence on what the other one is thinking and saying.

John Gottman

Couples who are in what we call the attack-defend mode, where there's escalating quarrels-- we can actually tell from the first three minutes of their conversation. Most couples will divorce very early, an average of five years after the wedding.

Ira Glass

One of these studies had been going on for over a decade when Gottman and his colleagues started noticing a second group of couples from their sample getting divorced. And at first, the researchers could not figure out what was going on.

John Gottman

And our predictions were lousy. We couldn't figure out what was wrong with them, at first. Because they seemed fine. They seemed really pretty neutral. They weren't escalating the quarrel. They stayed together. They were fine. Boom, they divorced. 16 years after the wedding, they're divorcing. And then we're going back and saying, wait a minute. Let's look a little more closely.

And now you can see that there's no positive emotion really going on that's shared. One of them may laugh. The other one doesn't laugh. One of them looks warm and interested. The other one is pulled away. There's just no fun. They don't seem to enjoy each other at all. Those are the couples where, when you go to a restaurant, you see these couples who aren't talking to each other. That's them. They can last a long time being quite unhappy. They can be great parents. But especially when the kids leave home, they're at risk for really falling apart.

Ira Glass

Gottman says that when they started this research, they had no idea which factors were going to be the ones that would predict divorce. Nobody had ever observed couples so closely and then followed them over time to see who stayed together and who did not. Therapists and pop psychologists had all kinds of theories as to what would make a good relationship. They were all completely untested.

They thought that having lower expectations of marriage might make for happy marriages. Turns out to be untrue. They thought that good couples make "I" statements instead of "you" statements. Turns out, no. Many people thought-- including Gottman and his colleagues-- that anger would predict divorce. This idea is actually still around, that anger is destructive to any relationship, that it's against the scriptures, that it should be banned from marriages. In fact, the data shows, happy, stable couples get angry all the time.

John Gottman

But their partners heard the anger. They responded to it. So a person might say, in a good relationship, "Will you shut up and let me finish?" Really angry, right? And their partner would say, "Alright, finish." Angry response. But then the person got to finish. The anger didn't predict anything negative.

Now, in a relationship that wasn't working well-- "Will you shut up and let me finish?" "Oh, I don't get to finish until you finish, is that it?" "Yeah." "Why, that's just like what your mother would say?" "Oh, now I'm like my mother, now?" "Yeah, you are. Yadada, yadada, yadada."

Contempt. An escalation to defensiveness and contempt. And that's the difference. The anger wasn't predicting anything negative, but the escalation-- that was predicting things negative.

Ira Glass

Marriage counseling had been around since the end of the second World War. But in a sense, until the 1970s-- until Gottman and this whole generation of researchers-- it was really a pretty ad hoc business. Therapists would give couples all sorts of advice. Sometimes it was useful, sometimes it wasn't. But it wasn't based on scientific research. Until Gottman's generation, nobody had figured out an effective way to observe real marriages-- successful and unsuccessful ones-- and figure out what the happy stable ones were doing that the unhappy divorcing ones weren't.

Diane Sollee

Where we were-- and it's kind of like when we were in the Dark Ages about health care, and we were bleeding patients.

Ira Glass

Diane Sollee runs what amounts to the preeminent clearinghouse for marriage research and education, called Smart Marriages in Washington, DC.

Diane Sollee

And we were basing our premises on old thinking. And then these guys got all these gizmos-- computers, and video cameras, and heart monitors, and all kinds of gizmos-- and they went at it. And so we got real accurate, for the first time, observational research information about what makes marriages succeed or fail.

Ira Glass

One of the most radical findings in the studies is that the studies threw doubt on the idea that couples should split up if they had irreconcilable differences. All couples have irreconcilable differences, the studies proved-- the ones that stay together and the ones that don't.

Diane Sollee

They found that all couples disagree basically the same amount. And then they thought, well, maybe it's about what they disagree about. And they found, no, it's not that. It's not that some fight about money, and some about sex, and some about-- they found that all couples basically disagree about the same issues.

Ira Glass

Which are?

Diane Sollee

Money, kids, sex, others, and time. And others are things like who you're jealous of at the office, or your in-laws. And time is like, what are we going to do on Sunday with our leisure time? And so if all couples disagree about the same amount and about the same issues, well, then, what is it? And they found that it was that some couples understand-- they don't go to pieces when they're disagreeing. The success of marriage, they found out, was not based on finding someone with whom you agree on everything, and finding your soul mate. It was how you're going to handle the inevitable disagreements that are going to come up, no matter who you marry.

Can I just say-- it's not just me, right? It's hard to hear all this stuff without thinking about your own relationship. And that is especially true when it comes to the videos of happy and successful couples. They can be really humbling. Gottman found that the couples who stay together, when they talk about something they disagree about, for every negative thing that happens between them in the videos, they do five positive things. He queues up another tape.

John Gottman

OK, so these guys are also talking about the problem of lateness and time. He is always late.

Man

I guess I'm--

Woman

I feel kind of like it's dumping on you to discuss--

Ira Glass

She's smiling as she says it.

Woman

--your being late.

Man

No, I mean that's one of my few weaknesses. I do have some weaknesses.

Ira Glass

And he smiles as he says that.

Man

[? But I don't disagree-- ?]

Woman

There isn't much to argue about.

John Gottman

OK, stop there for a second. Notice how she softened her start up. She didn't say, "I am sick of you being late." She started off by saying, "I feel it's kind of picking on you to start off talking about the lateness and that it's your problem, focusing on you." That's sweet.

Ira Glass

In fact, the best couples in Gottman's studies-- when they bring up something difficult, they do it in a way that does not make the other person defensive. Even talking about their disagreements, there's laughing. There's joking. This is important because when somebody feels attacked, feels defensive, their heart rate goes up, and basically, Gottman says, reason gets thrown out the window.

John Gottman

The heart's beating harder. The arteries start getting constricted and contracted. The body starts secreting adrenaline. And people just can't take in information very well. They can't process information. You can want to be a great listener. Once your heart rate gets above that level, you just can't do it. And you tend to get into what we call the summarizing yourself syndrome. You keep repeating your own ideas over and over again.

Ira Glass

And so when Gottman watches these videos, he's intensely aware of when somebody criticizes and what it does to the other person's pulse. Like here-- this wife tells her husband that a guy that they work with also hates his lateness.

Woman

And now I've learned to kind of just expect it and plan around it. Even [UNINTELLIGIBLE] plans around it.

Man

Yeah. He isn't as tactful as you are.

Woman

No.

John Gottman

They're both laughing.

Man

But see then, I can be late but he can't.

Woman

But you see, I think you're just getting back at your mother for all those times she left you swinging on those swings.

Man

You know, you may be right.

John Gottman

Here she goes.

Woman

Yes, and I think you should grow up and not do that.

John Gottman

Now his heart rate is going up.

Woman

I'm not your mother.

Man

I'm conscious of it, but as you say that--

John Gottman

And watch him start stuttering.

Man

--the reality of those times when she'd forget about me for hours-- boy. Well, those were very turbulent times for me.

Woman

See?

Man

Yeah. God, I hated her for that.

Ira Glass

He's looking down.

Man

The message was very clear. The message was very clear. Boy, life's complex. What about those shoes, anyhow?

Woman

These are not fancy shoes. These are old shoes. They're all worn down.

Man

No, they're pretty shoes, too. They're nice.

John Gottman

Isn't that wonderful? Now, there's a repair. Now a lot of therapists wouldn't consider that a repair.

Ira Glass

Because he's changing the subject.

John Gottman

He's changing the subject. A lot of therapists probably would stop this guy and say, hey, wait a minute, we're talking about lateness and your mother. What happened with the shoes? But there-- his heart rate is going down as he's doing that. And she's letting him change the subject and they both laugh about the shoes. And his heart rate goes down. And then they go back to the lateness issue.

Ira Glass

As you might expect, after these researchers noticed all these techniques that happy couples use when they disagree, it didn't take long before they started to try to teach those things to the rest of us. They created marriage education courses, which explained how to bring up a difficult subject without completely alienating your partner, how to keep yourself listening when your partner is criticizing you, how to take breaks when things get too hot-- all the stuff that the good couples in the videos do.

Lots of course like this have sprung up. They generally take just 10 or 12 hours. And Diane Sollee says they get results.

Diane Sollee

And we've spent millions of dollars of tax money researching these things. And we know that with a 10-hour class in this marriage education, we can reduce the divorce rate 50% five years out.

Ira Glass

Reducing the divorce rate by 50%-- or really anything at all by 50%-- is the kind of track record that makes policy-makers take notice. And in fact, it is exactly these kinds of marriage education courses that President Bush's $1.5 billion Healthy Marriage Initiative is providing free for welfare recipients. The Army is spending $1.8 million in courses for military families, a program called Building Strong and Ready Families. The courses are also popular in churches. In fact, studies show that couples learn the techniques better if they're taught by their own clergy.

Some researchers say that this new interest and investment is great, but they caution that while Gottman's study and most of the other marriage studies get interesting results, they're still relatively small as research goes-- anywhere from 30 to 300 couples usually, small enough that you can get random results that really might not have much meaning. One researcher told me that it's not like science has killer airtight conclusions about marriage yet. It's more like we have decent preliminary findings, and the main reason these courses and government programs exist is not that the science is perfect, but that people want answers. They want answers now. They want help. And it seemed like we knew enough to act.

Gottman and a researcher named Bob Levenson have also done a 12-year study of homosexual couples. There were just 42 couples-- a small study for Gottman, who usually gets 130 couples of races and ages to match the demographics of Seattle.

John Gottman

In fact, we've just submitted a research grant application to do that study over again with a larger sample size where we would try to get representative sampling. It's just that it's hard to get funded to do research on gay and lesbian relationships. The government is really not positively disposed to doing that research, and in fact, if you say "gay and lesbian" it will be pulled. It won't even be reviewed by the government. It will get pulled. There are these watchdog organizations.

Ira Glass

So how do you say it?

John Gottman

You talk about commitment in same-sex relationships.

Ira Glass

But why wouldn't they just notice that same-sex means the same thing?

John Gottman

It turns out they have these computer programs that scan the abstracts for keywords.

Ira Glass

I see.

John Gottman

And if you don't use those keywords, then they don't get picked up.

Ira Glass

Well, I hope I'm not blowing your cover here by broadcasting this.

John Gottman

Well, that's the kind of climate in which we're working.

Ira Glass

The study looked at 21 lesbian couples and 21 gay male couples, and compared them to 42 straight marriages of the same length of relationship and relationship satisfaction, as measured on a questionnaire. The researchers videotaped the couples talking about some issue that they conflict about. And they found that the homosexual couples were far better than the married heterosexual couples at bringing up an issue in a non-confrontational way, of listening when criticized. They were less defensive. They were more positive.

John Gottman

The other thing we were able to do with our mathematical modeling was to find that not only do they start differently, but also the influence process in the married couple really moves them toward a more negative direction. The longer they talk to each other, the more angry they get, the more adversarial they tend to get. But in gay and lesbian couples, it's the opposite. The longer they talk about the issue, the closer they get and the more positive they become. So a very, very different process operating in the gay and lesbian couples we studied.

Now if they're representative, then we heterosexuals have got a lot to learn from gay and lesbian relationships.

Ira Glass

But John, the gay couples and the lesbian couples that you're talking about-- they're simply as good as the very best couples in your heterosexual couples? Or you're saying they're even better than them?

John Gottman

They're even better than them.

Ira Glass

Really?

John Gottman

I mean, when you listen to the tapes, it's unbelievable what they're like. I'll give you an example of this. One gay man said to his partner, "What did you think about the sex this morning? Who do you think initiated the sex this morning?" And his partner said, "Well, you don't really have the kind of body on a man that I find really the most attractive." And the first man said, "I know that. But who do you think initiated sex this morning?"

Now can you imagine a husband--

Ira Glass

Oh, my God.

John Gottman

--talking to his wife, right?

Ira Glass

And saying, "You don't have the kind of body that I find attractive."

John Gottman

That's right. Can you imagine her saying, "Yeah, I know that. But who do you think initiated sex?" So there's so much less deception, so much more honesty, and so much more directness. And I don't know if it's representative. But I was very impressed.

Ira Glass

Gottman still can't explain why the gay couples would be so different. He thinks part of the reason might be that, in general, it's just easier for men to talk to men and women to talk to women. The fact that they communicate so differently makes things harder in heterosexual couples.

Back when I started calling around to marriage researchers, I expected that as a group they would be people who think a lot about our country's 50% divorce rate, like the divorce rate is the Mount Everest that they're all aiming at not just assaulting, but ultimately blasting down into rubble. But in fact, every researcher I called was reluctant to speculate about what all this new research could mean for the divorce rate someday. Could they get it down to 30%? Or maybe 10%? It's just too early to know, they would say.

After some prodding, I did get Gottman to tell me that a significant portion, 15% to 20% of the troubled couples in one of his studies probably were people who should be divorced. Even before their marriages, he said, they never had a basic rapport where they could spend time together easily and comfortably, where conversation just flowed. For everything this research shows about how people can prevent divorce, for everything that it shows about how much happier couples can be if they master certain communication skills, for everything that he can quantify with his video cameras and his heart monitors, in the end, John Gottman still believes in chemistry.

[MUSIC - "BRICK HOUSE," THE DOUG LAWRENCE ORCHESTRA]

See, that's a wedding band. Coming up, it's raining lawsuits. A look inside them-- that's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. The Defense Of Marriage Act.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program-- The Sanctity of Marriage, stories about what that might mean. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, The Defense of Marriage Act. When the White House proposed the constitutional amendment preventing gay marriage, the president explained why it was necessary this way. He said, marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. If activist judges insist on redefining marriage by court order, the only alternative will be the constitutional process. We must do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage.

Well, Adam Felber says he knows just what the president is talking about.

Adam Felber

This gay marriage thing is tearing my wife and me apart. Because of activist judges in Massachusetts and overzealous officials in San Francisco, our union is hanging on by the thinnest of threads. Are Jeannie and I expected to treasure our union solely on the basis of our deep love, personal beliefs, public vows, and the government's blessing? Sorry, Judge Pinkypants, but that's just not good enough, not for us. We need to know that we've got something that's only available to 90% of the population.

Sure, some of us are criminals, murderers even. Some of us have committed rape, beaten children, tattooed swastikas on our bodies, abused animals, bilked the government out of millions of tax dollars, lied under oath, cheated on previous spouses, dishonored our fathers and mothers, failed to keep the Sabbath holy, mowed down pedestrians in our SUVs while intoxicated, coveted our neighbor's stuff, gotten ourselves put on death row, sold military secrets to the Chinese, urinated in public places, beaten up people who looked or sounded different than us, but we're straight. And that means we can get married. And that's special. Or at least it was.

Are some gay people serious about their commitment to each other? Sure, of course. That's not the point. Let me give you an example. Jeannie and I know this couple, these two men. They've been together for years and years, longer than we have. They live on a farm in Pennsylvania and treasure their time together. They are loved by their community, have saved lives as members of the local fire department, and have opened their home to youth groups from the city. They've built a life together based on love and trust. But-- and here's my point-- they're gay. They're both men. And if they're allowed to marry someday, where does that leave us, my wife and me? See what I'm saying? It would cheapen everything we have.

That's why we need a constitutional amendment that will protect marriage for straight people. Unless we have the right to enter that sacred union, violate it, exit it, and enter it again with somebody else over and over, regardless of what crimes we commit-- unless we have that right and gay people don't, then there truly is nothing sacred in the United States of America.

Ira Glass

Adam Felber is a writer in New York, sometimes heard on the radio program Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! His website, where this first appeared, felbers.net.

The opponents of gay marriage are vigorously pushing for state and federal constitutional amendments. And they are fighting in court. But sometimes it seems like they're in kind of a funny position. I don't know if you saw this. I saw them on Larry King the night that the president called for a constitutional amendment last year. And they were on there talking about the Bible, and quoting scripture, and saying that homosexuality is just wrong, that it's a values question. Not for everybody, but for lots of opponents of gay marriage, they think that gays just should not be such a big part of mainstream America.

And the problem is, you can't really argue that in court-- not in this day and age-- not and expect to get very far, anyway. And so we asked Matt Staver, who runs the Liberty Counsel and goes into court for them-- they're the group opposing gay marriage that went into court in California-- to briefly explain to us what arguments he is actually using in court, the legal arguments to defend a traditional marriage clause.

Matthew Staver

The defense would be several-fold. Number one, it would look at the marriage laws and ask the question whether or not the government of that particular state has a rational reason, or a rational basis, for classifying marriage between one man and one woman. So if the court can find what it calls a rational basis, then the law is ultimately upheld. You break that down in several ways. Number one, you can look at children.

We already know, for example, from many studies, that children do best when they're raised in a home with a mother and father. So the state could certainly have a rational basis for instituting marriage between one man and one woman to protect children. Now, that may be debatable. But the question is not whether it's debatable or not. It's whether or not the state has a rational purpose, even though it's debatable. As long as it's reasonable or rational, that's enough to uphold the state marriage law.

Ira Glass

In a way, the power of that comes from the fact that-- let's say the other side has their studies which argue one thing, and you guys have your studies that argue something else. You're saying, as long as your side is defendable, you win.

Matthew Staver

That's exactly right.

Ira Glass

In Massachusetts, the problem for people like Matt Staver who oppose gay marriage is that the court said, no, there is not even a reasonable case to be made. There is not a rational basis for the state to give preference to male-female couples in raising children. And the court did this in a kind of interesting way. They said, essentially, our hands are tied. We are bound by our own precedents and by laws that the legislature has passed. Under Massachusetts law, gay adoption is just as good as heterosexual adoption. Gays are equal to straights in custody cases. There is a network of vigorous gender-neutral laws that have already settled this question, and settled it by saying that in Massachusetts, gays are equal parents to straights. So the opponents of gay marriage have even started to lose this test of reasonableness.

The other problem for opponents of gay marriage is that a couple of state courts-- Alaska and Hawaii-- have said that keeping gays from marrying is the most serious kind of discrimination, just as serious as race or gender discrimination. Now, from Matt Staver's perspective, this is an outrageous kind of judicial activism, and here's why.

Matthew Staver

Homosexuality has never been considered a class by any court in the country, such that it actually comes under the equal protection clause. You have to be considered a class. And one of the ways to be considered a class is to be a distinct group that has immutable characteristics like, for example, race-- that's an identifiable group-- and gender-- that's an identifiable group.

Ira Glass

Homosexuals may see themselves as a distinct group with immutable characteristics, but the courts haven't seen them that way in the past. Then Oregon ruled otherwise in 1998. And now that states are shifting on both the big questions like this one and some of the smaller questions, Matt Staver's job has gotten a lot harder. None of the arguments available to him is a slam dunk anymore, like they were in the 1970s.

David Cruz is a law professor at the University of Southern California who follows and writes about these issues.

David Cruz

If they get an occasionally sympathetic judge, they might win a victory. But if they want to make sure that you don't start seeing marriage in state after state, then they need to do something blunt and dramatic. That's why they're asking the nation to amend the constitution, because the arguments for keeping marriage to just a man and a woman are too weak. It's like changing the rules of the game. If you can't win making the arguments that are currently allowed under our constitution, they have to try to change the constitution to just eliminate the need for argument, and just on the face of it say, well, marriage just is this way.

Ira Glass

Hence the push for a constitutional amendment. 13 states banned gay marriage in their state constitutions this fall. And another 18 are considering it.

[MUSIC - "COPACABANA," THE DOUG LAWRENCE ORCHESTRA]

Act Three. I Want To Be A Statistic.

Ira Glass

Act Three, I Want to Be a Statistic. Well, John Gottman may videotape couples as they argue, but nobody observes marriage better than a couple's own kids. Starlee Kine has this story about what marriages stay together and which ones break up, and about her parents' vision of marriage back in southern California.

Starlee Kine

About three months ago, I received a postcard in the mail. On the front was a picture of a kitten staring out at me with big watery eyes. On the back was scrawled a handwritten note. "Dear Starlee, divorced and loving it. Love, Mom. "

My parents filed for divorce this past November. They had been unhappily married for 31 years. My earliest childhood memory is from when I was four years old. My family took a road trip to Oregon. I was sitting in the back next my older sister. My dad was pointing out the window at the trees saying something along the lines of, "Wow, these trees are really something. They're just so tall."

My mom whipped her head around, her eyes already in mid-roll. "For God's sake, Norm. They're not that tall." Then both my parents let out a long sigh.

It was at that moment that I can remember having a thought, maybe the first original thought I ever had. I recall looking up at my parents and thinking, "Well, this just isn't going to work."

Sharon Mckendrick

If we switched, sooner or later, they'd have to unswitch us.

Susan Evers

Mother would have to bring me to California to unmix us.

Sharon Mckendrick

And they'd have to meet again.

Susan Evers

Face to face. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Sharon Mckendrick

Exactly.

Susan Evers

Let's get to work.

Starlee Kine

I watched The Parent Trap all the time when I was a kid. It became a bit of an obsession. I regarded the plan the twin sisters came up with as a blueprint for how to deal with my own family, with one minor change. While the twins in the movie wanted to get their parents back together, I wanted to break mine apart. I'd watch the movie and try to notice how it was done.

It was like following directions somewhere, and then just doing the opposite to get back home. Where you turned right before, you now turned left. Where you turned left, you now turned right. Instead of tricking my parents into being in the same room, my sister and I would schedule my tap and her drum lessons at the same time, so only one of our parents would be able to pick each of us up.

And really, it didn't seem like breaking my parents up was something that should be that hard to do. They fought constantly. For my mom, everything about my dad seemed to irritate her-- the way he ate, the way he slept, even the way his feet were extra long so he had to wear specially sized shoes. All the stories she told of my childhood ended the same way. "I brought you home from the hospital. You were such a beautiful baby. And then your father carried the bags in and forgot to shut the front door. I remember it like it was yesterday."

My dad responded to my mom's irritation by withdrawing more and more from our family. Every day without fail, as soon as he got home from work, he'd get on the phone and talk for hours and hours. At first, they were just regular business calls to his associates. The conversations would be all about work. But then, as the hour grew later, he'd start asking about their kids, about what they were having for dinner that night or their plan for the weekend. He seemed more comfortable taking an interest in the lives of other people's families than in ours. I used to joke to my friends that half the time, my dad wasn't even talking to anyone at all, that if we were to go upstairs and pick up the extension, we'd hear nothing but silence from the other end.

For years, the biggest mystery in my life was how these two people ever managed to end up together. But over time, that question was trumped by a much bigger one, why they decided to stay together for so long. I can't really get the answer from my mom because, to put it mildly, she's a little off-kilter. She's never been officially diagnosed with anything, but even so, she does a lot of things outside the realm of normal people. And over the years, her behavior has become much more extreme. So that leaves my dad.

All my life, I have urged my dad to leave my mom, to free himself of all the unhappiness, and yelling, and erratic behavior. But not only has my dad refused to end the marriage, he's refused to even acknowledge they had any problems. It wasn't until after the divorce finally went through this year that my dad was able to gain any perspective on his marriage. My dad agreed to talk to me on tape to try and explain to me why he and my mom stayed together.

[PHONE RINGING]

Father

Hello?

Starlee Kine

Dad?

Father

Hi, Starlee.

Starlee Kine

I start off by asking him if there was ever a good time in their relationship, or was it really always as bad as I remembered it?

Father

It was always rocky from the start. I don't remember.

Starlee Kine

You don't remember. Did it ever feel right, though? You and Mom?

Father

I have-- I don't know.

Starlee Kine

I mean, from my perspective, it never seemed right. I mean, it's a different perspective. But from what I've always witnessed-- from a very, very, very young age-- it never seemed like you guys were right for each other ever. I remember lots of times when I was a kid, running into your office and trying to tell you to get a divorce. Do you remember any of that time?

Father

I don't recall that at all.

Starlee Kine

Really? Because it wasn't a mystery to us that you guys had problems, obviously.

Father

Well, people who I knew that I had not seen until recently have all-- many of them have made the remark that they felt that your mother was very hard to live with.

Starlee Kine

Yeah, I'll say.

Father

Why they would even know that or say that, I don't know because--

Starlee Kine

Mom had a lot of outbursts around Whittier. Like, lots of fights and craziness. Remember when she tried to buy the house without telling you?

Father

Oh, I remember that. Yeah.

Starlee Kine

What happened there? What happened when she tried to buy the house without telling you?

Father

She forged my name. And then the people sued us. And they got a judgment against her. They couldn't get it against me, because I had no knowledge of it.

Starlee Kine

What was she planning to do with that house? Was she going to tell you that you guys were going to move?

Father

Yeah, she told me on the last day. She said, this is the house we're buying. I said, number one, we can't afford it. Number two, it's ugly.

Starlee Kine

And that is not a good sign of a healthy marriage.

Father

That's true. Not a sign of a healthy relationship. That's right.

Starlee Kine

No. So how did you feel when she did that?

Father

How did I feel? I wasn't very happy about it.

Starlee Kine

No. But you stuck with it.

Father

Yeah.

Starlee Kine

Why?

Father

I just did.

Starlee Kine

Why?

Father

Y is a crooked letter.

Starlee Kine

My dad has always been fond of this answer. Sometimes he likes to mix it up with a, "the grass is always greener" or a "you can't fit a square peg in a round hole." But this one was always a keeper. And as I got older and started asking him all the time why he stayed in such a miserable marriage, my frustration would just grow stronger with each "Y is a crooked letter" answer he gave, especially as my mom's antics became more and more pronounced.

Or as, for example, the day my mom finally took my dad to court, although it wasn't for the reason I'd always hoped it would be.

My dad was born Norman [? Slobodkin. ?] For the first few years of my life, that my last name too. Starlee [? Candy ?] [? Slobodkin. ?] Yes, it was hard to spell and clunky to say. But I could live with it. My mom, on the other hand, could not. In her mind, his name was the only thing that stood between us and a world of endless possibility. She held the [? Slobodkin ?] name personally responsible for all her problems. She'd lie on the couch, a hot towel pressed to her temples, and marvel at how her life had ended up this way. "How will I ever be a diplomat's wife now, with a name like that? And I can forget about First Lady. President [? Slobodkin? ?] Please. The press would eat us alive."

We'd try and point out my dad's lack of political aspirations. But our mom would just wave us away impatiently. And then finally, when she could not stand it a moment longer, she took action. She went to a judge and arranged to have my dad's name legally changed. My dad went along with it to keep the peace. And by the end of the day, my dad had gone from being Norman [? Slobodkin ?] to Norman Kine.

For a little while, this seemed to satisfy my mother. She would happily sign both her and his new name in big flowery loops. But then as time went by, and neither the marriage nor her life seemed to improve, she was forced to confront the real source of her unhappiness-- Norman.

"What kind of a name is that? Can you name one character from literature with that name? Or one great historical figure? I guess I'll have to accept the fact that I'll never be an astronaut's wife or own a fleet of ships. Commandeer Norman. It wouldn't happen in a million years."

And so, once again, a trip to the courthouse was made. When my dad came out, his first name was no longer Norman. It was Richard. He was now Richard Kine.

By the time I was in college, my parents seemed to lead altogether separate lives. My mom started to go to a lot of self-help seminars. And my dad now seemed to be working at all hours of the day. My mom got an apartment that my dad didn't know about. And most shockingly, she began seeing another man. They went on a trip to Europe together in secret, my mom telling my dad that she'd gone to Palm Springs to visit her mom.

They seemed to have perfected a schedule that entailed neither of them being in the same house for more than 10 minutes at a time. My mom went back to school and got her credentials to become a substitute teacher, which my dad also didn't know about. It was all so bizarre and extreme that I didn't even know where to start explaining it. I imagined calling my dad up in the middle of the night to break the news to him. "Dad, there's something I have to tell you. For the past few years, mom has been leading a double life. She has a secret apartment and a secret boyfriend. She is also a substitute teacher."

My dad, however, found out about it on his own. He hired a private detective and had my mom followed. And it was at that point that my father took what was, to him, the next logical step. Rather than putting an end to a marriage that he hadn't been happy in from the very start, he instead did the opposite. He put all of his energy into saving it.

My dad started buying my mom presents all the time. They went to museums and for long drives up the coast. They sat up late at night and made plans for the future. This would go on for a while. But then I'd hear from my mom that things weren't working out, and that they were definitely going to do it-- get a divorce.

A week later, I'd call my dad to see how he was holding up. And he'd tell me everything was going great. They were together again. This back and forth-- my hopes intermittently fulfilled then crushed-- went on for two whole years.

It got to the point that the only way I could tell if they were separated or not was by calling my dad's cell phone to see whether it said to leave a message for Richard Kine or for Norman [? Slobodkin. ?] When they were doing well, he was Richard. When they weren't, he went back to Norm.

I asked my dad what he was thinking during this time. And he tells me that he'd decided to be the attentive loving husband that he'd never been before. So again, I ask him why.

Starlee Kine

It's quite a mystery why you fought so hard to keep this marriage together that you guys were never happy in. Like, never.

Father

Because I felt that I was primarily responsible for her unhappiness.

Starlee Kine

That's not true, Dad.

Father

Well, I'm just telling you. You're asking me a question. I'm giving you an answer.

Starlee Kine

I know. I just don't want you to feel that way.

Father

Well, I mean healthy people don't feel unhappy without a reason.

Starlee Kine

Yeah. But unhealthy people--

Father

Yeah.

Starlee Kine

And there it was, the reason my dad stayed with my mom for so long. He didn't see her as being different from a normal person. He wasn't even thinking about it that way. He just saw her as his wife. And right or wrong, he had to stick by her. For him, that's what it meant to be married.

Father

Let's say, for an example, a person, male or female, gets into drugs or alcohol. So you say, what did I do, maybe, to cause this person to drink? What did I do to cause this person to become unhappy? To become moody? To become lethargic? To lose interest in life?

Starlee Kine

And you're saying that's what happened with you?

Father

I was convinced that I was a contributing force, yes. Give me half a second here. Hold on.

Starlee Kine

At this point, my dad's other line rings. And he has to take the call. So he hands off the phone to his new girlfriend, Ruth.

Ruth

Hi, honey. How are you doing?

Starlee Kine

I'm OK. Are you listening to all this?

Ruth

Yes, it's very interesting. Some things I knew, some things I didn't know.

Starlee Kine

Ruth and my dad have actually dated before, 34 years ago, before he had ever met my mom. They were engaged to be married, but Ruth broke it off because she hadn't felt ready. Then a few months ago, my dad looked her number up, and things took off from there.

Starlee Kine

Were you surprised when my dad called you up?

Ruth

Yeah. Oh, yeah. I just went, "How come you're calling?" And he goes, "Well, I'm divorced." I go, "Is it final?" And he goes, "Yes." I go, "Are you sure?" Because I didn't want to get into anything like that, you know? And he goes, "Yes, definitely. It's final." And so I go, "OK, well, then come around some time. And I'd like to hear what happened." And he said, "Oh, I'm only two miles away." So I go, "Well, then you can take me out to dinner."

Starlee Kine

Ruth is really, really nice. But the thing that gets me is how much she seems to like my dad. Now, because of her, he has this whole new life.

Father

My days are totally different. I wake up and there's breakfast on the table. I get a phone call from somebody during the day-- "How are you doing, love?" I'll call the person up, I'll say, you know, "I have to go to here, or there, or Timbuktu. You want to come along?" "Oh, sure." It's normal.

Starlee Kine

Yeah. Normal is good, though, right?

Father

Yeah. Normal is fine.

Starlee Kine

For the first time, my dad is discovering what it's like being with someone you like, someone you respect and who respects you, someone who is nice to you. My mom seems much happier these days too. When I talk to her, it's like a huge burden has been lifted from her shoulders.

In August, Ruth and my dad are going to Germany on vacation. It's my dad's first trip out of the country. He doesn't even have a passport. When I ask him which name he'll be putting on it, Norman or Richard, he just laughs and says, "Either one."

Ira Glass

Starlee Kine.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program is produced today by Sarah Koenig and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, and Jane Golombisky. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Kelsey Dilts.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free. Recently, we've actually noticed on eBay the This American Life secret decoders that we were offering a few years back on our program are now selling for over $150 each. And I've got to say-- not to drive the price down or anything-- at our website, thisamericanlife.org, you can get the decoder plus four of our old shows that have secret coded messages in them for a third of the price. And the proceeds benefit public radio instead of some guy in Kalamazoo. You can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who reminded me just this morning--

John Gottman

Well, you know you don't really have the kind of body on a man that I find really the most attractive.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass.

John Gottman

Will you shut up and let me finish?

Ira Glass

Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

John Gottman

Oh, I don't get to finish until you finish, is that it?

Announcer

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