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John Yzaguirre, Ph.D.

Ceifin Conference 2008



Family life has changed dramatically over the last few decades in the U.S. as indicated by increased social approval of alternatives to traditional family life, increased separation between marriage and parenthood, increased tolerance for nonmarital cohabitation, and an increase in single parent families. Studies on marital happiness show that in the last decades there has been a decline in marital happiness, less marital interaction, more marital conflict and more work-related stress. On the other hand, we are witnessing the emergence of the Marriage Movement, a grass-roots movement to strengthen marriage and reduce divorce and unwed childbearing. For a detailed description of changes in family life in the U.S. in the last 50 years please refer to the resources listed at the end of this article. The following is a brief summary of the most significant ones:

Two new child-free adult life stages

32% of households have children today (the lowest percentage in U.S. history) vs. 50% in 1960. This reflects a shift from a child-centered marriage to a “soul-mate” marriage. Marriage today is seen primarily as an emotional and sexual partnership and there is an increasing separation of parenthood from marriage. The current tendency is to see marriage as a couple’s relationship designed to fulfill the emotional needs of adults, rather than an institution dedicated to raising children. The U.S. is shifting from a society of child-rearing families to a society of child-free adults.

In a representative survey of U.S. adults published in 2007, 75% said that the main purpose of marriage was the mutual happiness and fulfillment of adults rather than raising children. We are witnessing a growing population of affluent singles, childless couples, and empty nesters.

The life stages before and after having children are no longer seen as brief transitional stages that precede or follow the most significant period of parenthood. They are now portrayed as two distinct and separate stages in the adult life course. The focus in these two new “child-free” stages is on self-improvement and self-investment. People in these stages are highly valued as workers and consumers. The stage before children continues to expand since women delay marriage to get more schooling and work experience and they wait longer before they bear their first child. The stage after children also expands due to lower fertility rates and the extension of adult life expectancy with greater health.

Increase in nonmarital cohabitation

Another significant change in family life has been the sharp increase in the number of cohabiting couples: people who are sexual partners, not married to each other, and sharing a household. Over 50% of all first marriages are now preceded by living together versus virtually none 50 years ago. 10% of couples are cohabiting today. It is estimated that 40% of all children will spend some time in a cohabiting household during their growing up years. Studies in nonmarital cohabitation indicate that those who live together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage.

Increase in single parent families

The trend toward single-parent families is probably the most important affecting children and adolescents. Children in such families have negative life outcomes at two to three times the rate of children in married, two-parent families.

28% of families in 2007 were single-parent families vs. 9% in 1960. 37% of children were born to unmarried women in 2007 vs. 5% in 1960. The number of never-married single mothers is now higher than that of divorced single mothers.  

Children at greater at risk 

The increasing numbers of children being born and living with single parents or unstable cohabiting couples and the high number of children experiencing the divorce of their parents is leading to a generation of children and adolescents at a higher risk for mental, emotional, behavioral, and health problems.

34% of children lived apart from their biological fathers in 2000 vs. 17% in1960. Research studies consistently show that the psychosocial wellbeing of children and adolescents increases when they grow up in a household with biological parents who have a healthy marriage. To help children and adolescents overcome the emotional impoverishment resulting from the lack of stable and nurturing family connections, we need to help parents establish and sustain healthy marriages.

Teenagers’ attitudes about marriage and family

There is a significant increase in the acceptance of alternative lifestyles to marriage by young people today. Only 63% of today’s high school seniors expect to be married to the same person for life. 62% think that living together before marriage is a good idea. 53% accept out-of-wedlock childbearing as a “worthwhile lifestyle”.

The Marriage Movement

On a more positive note, we are witnessing the emergence of the Marriage Movement, a grass-roots movement to strengthen marriage and to reduce divorce and unwed childbearing. This movement includes, but is not limited to the following programs: marriage education, research-based, faith-based, school-based and healthy marriage initiatives.

Education programs

Marriage education programs focus on developing the knowledge and skills for making a wise marital choice and having a successful marriage. A very influential example is The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education (CMFCE). It was created in 1996 by mental health professionals, researchers, clergy and policy advocates. Its directory of programs has increased from 15 in 1997 to 140 in 2000. For further information you can visit:

Research-based programs

David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead established the research-oriented National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in 1997. They publish an annual report: The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America. 

Several well known researchers at different universities have created family institutes and research labs that provide research-based findings on marriage and family life. For example: John Gottman at the University of Washington; Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and Susan Blumberg at the University of Denver; Andrew Christiansen and Thomas Bradbury at UCLA; David Olson at the University of Minnesota. 

The Couples and Marriage Policy Resource Center provides technical assistance and consultation to national, state, and community leaders. It has a special focus on helping low income and welfare populations. In 1995, The Council on Families, a non-partisan and interdisciplinary group of family scholars and writers, released: Marriage in America: A Report to the Nation.

Faith-based programs

The National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage was launched by the U.S. Catholic Bishops in 2005 to offer guidance and resources aimed at promoting, strengthening, sustaining and restoring marriages. For more information you can visit:

The Covenant Marriage Movement, a new, non-political, church-based group made by 31 million people from 35 national Christian organizations was created in 1999. They plan to hold events in major cities to sign a renewed vow to God, each other, their families, and their communities.

Leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church, the National Council of Churches, the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals reached a groundbreaking ecumenical agreement in 2000 to work together to strengthen marriage. They created an ecumenical ad campaign promoting marriage and endorsed a World Marriage Day.

The growth of Marriage Savers, a lay ministry headed by Harriet and Mike McManus has helped 5,500 clergy in 125 cities organize Community Marriage Policies and Covenants. Clergy agree to require engaged couples to undergo four months of marriage preparation, encourage marriage enrichment and intervention programs such as Marriage Encounter or Family Life Weekends or Retrouvaille, create stepfamily support groups, and train lay mentor couples to help engaged couples, newlyweds, and troubled marriages.

School-based programs

As many as 1000 schools in 35 states include marriage education within life skills, family life, domestic science, health, teen pregnancy, and abstinence education classes. In 1998 Florida became the first state to mandate marriage and relationship skills training in all public and private high schools.

The Healthy Marriage Initiative

The Administration for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Services launched the Healthy Marriage Initiative in 2002, to support programs designed to help couples form and sustain healthy marriages with an emphasis on providing strong and stable environments for raising children. These programs are carried out in coordination with many public, faith- and community-based organizations, and private partners. They work with 225 different groups and have provided grants for over $150 million. A Marriage Resource Center was established in 2004 as a clearinghouse of information for the general public, practitioners, policy makers, and researchers: .

New vision: focus on relationships of mutuality

In the midst of the critical changes in family life that we have witnessed in the last decades a significant search for greater emotional connection and intimacy is emerging. Couples are searching for a new vision on how to achieve lasting and mutually rewarding relationships.

The positive impact of the Marriage Movement on marital satisfaction and family strength as well as the new cultural trend to integrate values of commitment over market values gives us reasons to be optimistic about the future of the family. The good news are that successful marriages are skill based and value driven; that there is increasing empirical evidence that couples can learn skills and acquire values in many different formats and settings and that the benefits persist over time.

Through our research and over 25 years of clinical practice with couples and families, my wife and I have developed a vision of the family as a school of relationships of mutuality that sustain family unity. We have created an education program that teaches family members three skills sets involved in the dynamics of unity: empathy, autonomy, and mutuality.

Empathy skills involve learning to accept others as they are, to understand their needs, and to love them concretely as they want to be loved.

Autonomy skills are understood as developing a healthy self that does not ignore, dominate or submit to others but relates with others in a cooperative and egalitarian way. In the U.S. there are three prevailing socio-cultural trends that threaten the development of a healthy self: secular individualism, restless activism, and excessive consumerism. We propose three antidotes for them: a relational understanding of self; freedom from time famine and enjoying a simpler lifestyle.

Empathy and autonomy are necessary to achieve mutuality but they are not sufficient. Mutuality requires interactive skills that aim at building and strengthening relationships and at restoring them when needed. The essential skills of mutuality include: Conflict-free communication; integrating personal differences and restoring unity.

Interactive styles

If we grouped the interactive styles between family members into basic categories, we could describe the primary ones as falling into one of the following groups: Individualism, dominance, codependency or mutuality.

Family members whose primary interactive style is individualistic focus primarily on their personal needs with disregard for the needs of others. In the dynamics between “you” and “I” there is an invisible barrier that we can call indifference, neglect or avoidance. Obviously people with this social orientation fail to generate meaningful relationships with others and often suffer from isolation and loneliness. They act as if they were the only important person.

People with a dominant interactive style are very aware of others because they are trying to control them and/or impose their views on them. These people act as if they were more important than other family members. They might be aware of the needs of others but they focus primarily on fulfilling first their own needs. They often exhibit discriminatory attitudes and behaviors that prevent or inhibit the development of mutually rewarding interactions with others.

People with a codependent interactive style act as if they were less important than others. They often try to please others, putting aside their own needs, in order to gain much wanted acceptance and approval from them. They often lose their own identity and assimilate themselves into what they perceive that the dominant people want from them.

Individualism, dominance and codependency have in common that they fail to build healthy relationships. People with an interactive style that focuses on mutuality experience something new, they are able to integrate the “you” and “I” into an egalitarian and interdependent “we” that transcends both and fulfills them. This is the only approach that gives equal importance to the needs of others and to personal needs. How do we promote mutuality in the interactions among family members? By promoting the following sets of skills and values:

Empathy: radical acceptance

Accepting others as they are

To build authentic relationships at home the first step is to open ourselves to others and welcome them as they are without trying to change or control them. All of us are a “work in progress” and accepting each other with our limitations does not mean that we settle for mediocrity or stagnation but that we create the conditions for voluntary personal change and ongoing growth. When people feel accepted they often become open to change, however when they feel coerced or negatively judged they often become defensive and resistant to change.

Understanding their needs

How do you know what other family members need from you? Just ask them in a timely and sincere manner. Be realistic about what you can do and when you can do it. There are three universal needs that you can meet almost daily; we call them the triple A: attention, affection, and appreciation:

Need for attention: Through your personal interest, make others feel important.

Need for affection: Through your shows of affection, make others feel lovable.

Need for appreciation: Through your praise, make others feel special and valued.

Loving others concretely as they want to be loved

If you ask other family members, with genuine interest, how they want to be loved, they will tell you. If you respond by treating them as they want to be treated, they will feel loved and prone to reciprocate your love. One of the greatest tragedies we witness in couples’ therapy is to see two people who care for each other show their love in non meaningful or irrelevant ways and instead of being happy, they are miserable with each other.

Summarizing, radical acceptance involves three essential steps: (1) Welcoming others as they are by emptying ourselves and making room for them in our lives; (2) Understanding their needs, by becoming interested in their lives and identifying with them; (3) Loving others concretely as they want to be loved. The first two steps show our sensitivity to others and the last one our responsiveness. Our level of sensitivity and responsiveness determine the strength of our emotional bond with them.

Autonomy: the gift of a healthy self

Autonomy is here understood as developing a healthy self that does not ignore, dominate or submit to others but relates with others in a cooperative way. We propose three strategies to develop a healthy self: a relational understanding of self; freedom from time famine and enjoying a simpler lifestyle.

A relational understanding of self

The self is often defined according to individual attributes, skills and intrapersonal characteristics that differentiate us from other people. A primary objective for the self in a culture of secular individualism is self-fulfillment and independence.

We propose that our true self can be fully expressed when we relate with others in relationships characterized by equality and mutuality. This relational view of self allows us to move from being self-centered to becoming inter-connected with others. It frees us from feelings of isolation, loneliness, and emotional distance from others. What defines us is not what we have or what we do but how we relate with others. This relational understanding of self leads to an experience of unity with others while maintaining our own identity.

Freedom from time famine

Most adults in the U.S. are time-starved, stressed out, sleep-deprived, overworked and under exercised. These conditions prevent or inhibit the process of self-giving and often create an attitude of self-preservation, hostility (perceiving others as a threat to our wellbeing) or dependency (needing or wanting others to take care of us).

We need to shift from living in a crisis management mode, characterized by endless multitasking and rushing and move into living a balanced life centered on living meaningfully in the present moment. The art of living in the present mindfully and heartfully is receiving increasing attention in the field of psychology.

Adults need to master time and stress management strategies to prevent the job getting the best of them and the family getting the leftovers. In our book, Thriving Marriages, we have a chapter, entitled “The House of Self” where we describe how to integrate the seven essential dimensions of life in order to enjoy balance and personal growth.

Enjoying a simpler lifestyle

David Myers, a well known social psychologist, wrote about the American paradox wherein the more stuff we accumulate the less joy we seem to experience. The buying power of people in the U.S. more than doubled from the 50’s through the 90’s and yet people did not report feeling significantly happier.

We propose replacing the market values of excessive consumption, supersizing and immediate gratification with a culture of sharing that encourages the praxis of giving to the poor what we do not use or need, buying only what we need and sharing what we have (e.g., talents, knowledge, skills, time, possessions, money, etc.). When we declutter our lives and develop a simpler lifestyle we experience more personal joy and benefit the community.

Mutuality: dynamics of sharing

We have seen how empathy skills can make other members in our family feel welcomed, understood, and cared for. Our autonomy skills give us the initiative to share the best of us with them freely and willingly. Empathy and autonomy bring us closer to each other. Where is the meeting place between “you” and “I”? It is the “living space” created by our mutuality skills.  

Empathy and autonomy are necessary to achieve mutuality but they are not sufficient. Mutuality requires interactive skills that aim at building and strengthening relationships and at restoring them when needed. The essential skills of mutuality include: Conflict-free communication, integrating personal differences and restoring unity. 

Conflict-free communication

Couples today are struggling with lack of time for their personal sharing and when they get together they are prone to reducing their sharing time to solving problems. To remove these inhibitors to authentic communication we invite couples to establish rituals of personal communication where they share meaningful personal experiences without complaining, venting, criticizing or problem-solving.

This type of communication produces mutual understanding and validation and deepens the level of emotional and spiritual intimacy among them. For many couples this means setting aside some time each day where they enjoy an emotionally safe conflict-free sharing.

Integrating personal differences

One of the main differences between successful couples and those who break up is not the type of conflicts that they face but how they deal with them. Unsuccessful couples end up using a fight, flight or freeze response to conflict.

In a fight response they attack their partner with blaming, criticizing, shaming, ridiculing, trivializing or with verbal or physical abuse. In a flight response they try to defend themselves from their partner by engaging in such behaviors as justifying themselves, withdrawing, avoiding their partner or talking about the conflict, isolating, giving the “silent treatment” or making empty promises. In a freeze response they become paralyzed and usually play the victim or submit passively to their partner’s requests.

None of these approaches succeed at solving conflicts. Since the majority of marital conflicts are caused by the differences between the spouses and not by major pathological impairments, we teach them how to integrate their differences with wisdom and respect. We call this approach: the “UVA” response (Understand, Value and Act). We teach couples to first achieve adequate emotional control to be able to dialogue respectfully; then the speaker:

Defines the conflict in behavioral terms: “When you..., I feel...”

Defines the solution in concrete and positive terms: “Next time I would prefer that you...”

The listener responds with an “UVA” response:

Understanding the spouse’s need or expectation: “Let me see if I understood …”

Valuing what the spouse wants or needs, even if he or she disagrees with it.

Acting: committing to a specific and relevant behavior, out of love for the spouse.

This approach allows them to feel understood, valued, and loved and results in a deeper experience of intimacy.

Restoring unity

Nobody can love perfectly 24/7. Sooner or later the experience of mutuality is disrupted by some painful or unfair event that calls for forgiveness and reconciliation. When we forgive we are saying: “I forgive you because who you are is more important to me than what you did.”

Forgiveness is a healing process involving our soul (loving as God loves), mind (restoring the dignity and positive view of the offender), heart (canceling the emotional debt), and will (initiating the behavioral changes needed to restore justice).

Forgiveness activates mercy and reconciliation restores justice in the relationship. The process of restoring unity in the relationship needs to integrate mercy and justice.

From vision to action

Share the good news about healthy families

There is strong empirical evidence that a good marriage enhances personal happiness, economic success, health and longevity. Married men and women in all age groups are more likely to be healthier both physically as well as emotionally than single, separated, divorced or widowed individuals.

Research findings indicate that children and youth who are raised by parents in healthy marriages are physically and emotionally healthier, more likely to achieve greater academic success, less likely to exhibit major behavioral problems, less likely to use alcohol and drugs, and less likely to be raised in poverty than those raised by parents in unhealthy marriages. Today’s young people want strong intimate relationships. We can show them that healthy marriages and families are the best way to achieve it.

Promote a new vision for the changing family

We need to move beyond a self-centered culture that values independence, individual gratification, and short-term personal gain and move towards an interconnected culture that values mutuality as a new way to achieve self-fulfillment, long-term meaningful relationships and community wellbeing. Most people, including unmarried parents, value marriage and want to be married. Children thrive best when raised by both biological married parents, as long as the marriage is healthy.

A review of decades of marital research suggests that healthy marriages have in common their high levels of commitment, marital satisfaction, good communication and conflict-resolution skills, emotional intimacy, and fidelity. In other words, healthy marriages and families are those who develop and sustain healthy relationships. 

Here I have presented a new vision on how to achieve family unity by teaching empathy, autonomy and mutuality skills and by embracing such values as long-term commitment, radical acceptance, relational self-fulfillment, sharing, intimacy, and unity.

Expand education and support programs

Given the prevailing socio-cultural trends that weaken marriages and families, we need to promote healthy marriages and strong families in all levels of society by expanding educational and support programs. There are many effective and user-friendly programs that can train marriage and family educators in major social “portals” such as churches, high schools, hospitals and community centers. For a complete directory of programs visit  

The empirical evaluations of marriage education programs indicate that they are both well received and have generally positive and lasting outcomes. Among the most well known programs are:

  • Relationship Enhancement, RE by Bernard Guerney, Pennsylvania State University.
  • Couple Communication, CC by Sherod Miller, University of Minnesota.
  • The Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program PREP, by Howard Markman and Scott Stanley, University of Denver.
  • The Marriage Survival Kit by John Gottman, University of Washington
  • We Can Work It Out by Clifford Notarius, Catholic University of America
  • Training in Marriage Enrichment, TIME by Don Dinkmeyer and Jon Carlson
  • Prepare/Enrich by David Olson, University of Minnesota
  • Foccus/Refoccus by Barbara Markey, Creighton University
  • Relate by the Marriage Study consortium
  • Marriage Savers Churches & Community Marriage Policies (CMP) by Mike Mcmanus
  • Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts (SYMBIS) by Les and Leslie Parrott
  • Marriage Encounter, Engaged Encounter & Retrouvaille
  • Caring Couples Network by Richard Hunt and the United Methodist Church
  • Marriage Enrichment – Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment (ACME) by David and Vera Mace.
  • Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills, PAIRS by Lori Gordon
  • Imago by Harville Hendrix
  • Thriving Marriages by John Yzaguirre and Claire Frazier-Yzaguirre.

In our post-conference workshop we presented one of our training programs: Thriving Marriages. For those who were unable to attend and are interested in using our program we suggest reading our book Thriving Marriages for a detailed description of its components and contacting us at

Thriving Marriages uses the “RIPE” approach: Relevant, Inspirational, Practical and Effective.

  • Relevant because it responds to the most critical needs of families today by offering a vision and praxis for building unity in the family.
  • Inspirational because it integrates empirically-based research findings with a contemporary spirituality of unity.
  • Practical because it has immediate and concrete application as part of a premarital preparation, marriage enrichment, parenting education, and/or healthy lifestyle program.
  • Effective because those who apply it consistently report significant and lasting positive changes.

We are optimistic about the future of the changing family because we are witnessing the powerful development of a Marriage Movement that provides quality education programs that strengthen families and because most people want to learn the skills and to live the values involved in building unity in the family.


Child Trends Research Brief: What is “Healthy Marriage” Defining the Concept. Washington, DC: Child Trends, 2004.

Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education; Institute for American Values; Religion, Culture, and Family Project, University of Chicago Divinity School: The Marriage Movement. A Statement of Principles. New York City: Institute for American Values, 2000. 

Doherty, William: Take Back Your Marriage. Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart. New York: The Guilford Press, 2001. 

Halford, K., Markman, H., Kline, G. & Stanley S.: Best Practice in Couple Relationship Education. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, July 2003, Vol. 29, No.3, 385-406.

Myers, David: The American Paradox. Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 

National Healthy Marriage Resource Center:

National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. and

Pew Research Center Reports on Family and Relationships from 2005 to 2008.

Smart Marriages. The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education.

Sollee, Diane: The Emerging Field of Marriage Education: Creating Smart Marriage for the Millenium. Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, 2000.  

The Healthy Marriage Initiative:

The National Marriage Project: The State of Our Unions. The Social Health of Marriage in America. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey: The National Marriage Project, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008.

Waite, L.J. & Gallagher, M.: The Case for Marriage. Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

Yzaguirre, John & Frazier-Yzaguirre, Claire: Thriving Marriages. An Inspirational and Practical Guide to Lasting Happiness. New York: New City Press, 2004.


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