When Justin Johnson saw the flier at his son's preschool — a picture of intertwined wedding rings promoting a program called "Marriage For Keeps" — he kept walking.
"It looked like marriage counseling and I thought, 'Well, we don't need that,' " said Johnson, 31.
Then he talked with his sister-in-law, who raved about the program, and his wife, Katherine, who suggested it might be useful. Even fun.
Not that they needed it, of course. They were fine. Content. Happily married.
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They signed up anyway, in part for the free meals and gift-card incentives. A few months later, the Johnsons are one of nearly 800 Kansas couples taking part in a landmark, long-term national study on marriage.
"It's had a huge impact on us," said Justin Johnson, an unemployed aircraft worker. "It's common sense, really, but no one ever teaches you this stuff. You get married and everything's supposed to just work itself out. That's a joke."
Kansas is one of eight sites participating in the research, which is expected to reveal new information about whether intensive classes on communication, managing conflict and other skills can benefit couples and keep families together.
The yet-unpublished study involves low-income couples and is being administered by Catholic Charities in partnership with Newman University and other educational, religious and social-service groups. It was funded by a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Though they can't yet reveal their findings — the study will continue into 2012 — local couples and researchers say early results are astonishing, perhaps even life-changing.
"The idea is pretty simple: Strong, healthy marriages benefit families, children and society as a whole," said Michael Duxler, director of the Marriage For Keeps project and an associate professor of social work at Newman.
"But how you get there is not so simple.... This (project) seeks to find out what programs or practices work, how they work, and what impact they can have."
'It's amazing how much I didn't know'
Katherine Johnson met Justin when she was 15. Married almost eight years, they have twin 7-year-old girls, Jaylee and Jordyn, and a 4-year-old son, Kyler. Justin also has a 10-year-old son from a previous relationship.
As part of the study, the Johnsons attended a 12-week class designed to teach couples to fight right, among other things. Says Katherine: "It's amazing how much I didn't know."
She learned, for instance, that her tendency toward "negative interpretation" often leads to arguments.
"Justin would come home and say, 'Hey, did you run the dishwasher yet?' and I would hear, 'Why haven't you run the dishwasher yet?' " Katherine said.
"I saw it as this personal attack like, 'What have you been doing all day?' And he just wanted to know if the dishes were clean or dirty."
In a group setting with other married couples, the Johnsons learned the speaker-listener technique, a form of communication that seemed awkward at first but became part of their natural routine. Using that technique, the speakers speak only for themselves (saying 'I feel' rather than 'you always'). Statements are kept brief and then the speakers stop and let the listeners paraphrase what they heard. Once the speakers have been heard, they yield the floor to the listeners.
As part of the study, couples in the "treatment group" also take part in family activities, learn relaxation strategies, take classes on money management and meet regularly with a family support specialist. Researchers visit their homes and their children's schools. Their results will be measured against other couples not enrolled in the programs.
"I think society sees marriage as something that's disposable, expendable. If it's not working, just give up," Katherine Johnson said.
"We're learning that it really is a lot of work, and it takes a lot of time and attention. But it's worth it."
The usual arguments
Marty Banuelos and his wife, Treva Carley, are middle-aged newlyweds. They entered their marriage madly in love but also knowing the sting of divorce.
"You don't want to make the same mistakes," said Carley, a retired nurse. "You don't want to go through that experience again."
Even so, they found themselves embroiled in predictable arguments — over her teenage kids, his grown ones, budget issues, the family calendar. Treva would sign them up to volunteer at church; Marty would balk at all their commitments.
Marriage For Keeps classes taught them how to listen and resolve disagreements. They knew the program was helping when one day, during an argument in Walmart, Treva held up her Coke bottle and announced, "OK, I have the floor."
She made her case, passed the bottle to her husband and listened as he made his points. The technique seemed cheesy in the class videos and probably looked a bit odd in the store, Marty said, "but it worked. By the time we left the store, we were joking and laughing about it."
Duxler, the Newman University researcher, says a couple's ability to deal with conflict "seems to be the linchpin for whether the marriage is fulfilling and prosperous."
"It's not how often you fight or the kind of fights you have, but how you deal with conflict that is key," he said.
The current study hopes to show whether programs aimed at teaching conflict resolution and other relationship skills pay off over time, possibly even lowering the rate of separations or divorces.
"The chance to look at this in a very empirical, research-based way is incredibly exciting," Duxler said.
Results of the study could influence how Kansas delivers social services and how readily available marriage education programs become across the state. The study is closed to new couples, Duxler said, but officials hope to eventually replicate some of the programs.
Katherine Johnson said she supports free classes and counseling for every couple, though she realizes that would be costly. Too many people enter marriage without support or instruction, she said, like taking a newborn home from the hospital with little more than good wishes and a free diaper bag.
"When you're starry-eyed and in love, you think it's going to be easy, but nothing is that easy," she said.
"My grandparents have been married almost 50 years, and they don't have all the answers.... If there's one thing I've learned from participating (in the study), it's that no one has it all figured out. It takes love and commitment and work."