A Born Networker
Diane Sollee has put marriage education on the map
by Rob Waters
Diane Sollee clearly remembers the moment she lost her zeal for promoting the gospel of how marriage and family therapy were going to save the world. She was the associate director and conference coordinator at the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), and had been for much of the '80s. A born networker, with a beguiling charm and a gift for instant rapport, she'd found a way to connect with TV bookers, talk-show hosts, and print journalists to turn the sometimes arcane ideas of family-systems theory into easily-consumable material for the mainstream media. Through sheer determination, she'd succeeded in getting marriage therapy an unprecedented level of media attention. If you wanted to appear with Oprah or Phil Donahue, getting Sollee to believe in your work was your best bet.
Then, one day, she was on the phone, promoting a story about how yet another state had agreed to license marriage and family therapists, when the reporter surprised her with an unexpected question: With more and more family therapists plying their trade, why hadn't the divorce rate gone down? Sollee found herself uncharacteristically flummoxed. The question evoked her own growing doubts about the value of therapy in improving couples' lives. "The perception of the public, the press, and policymakers was that you go to a marriage and family therapist to save your marriage," she explains. But when it came to helping couples find ways to stay together, the research seemed to indicate that therapists were highly ineffective.
Divorced herself, Sollee had experienced firsthand the emotional impact of an unraveling marriage on a family. In fact, she suspected that far too many therapists were unconcerned whether people stayed together or not--they saw their mission as increasing the immediate happiness of their individual clients, whatever the consequences for the spouses or children involved. "The reporter's observation brought it all together for me," says Sollee. "I remember just sitting there thinking, 'Wow, if anybody figures this out, this profession is in deep trouble!'"
This rude awakening brought on a period of intense soul searching, Sollee recalls. "I lost my belief that this was the way to help couples and children and families. I lost my faith that I was in the right place to help. I lost the religion completely." What pulled her out of the crisis over her professional direction was learning about a new wave of educational and skills-training programs that took direct aim at the high divorce rate by teaching couples strategies for dealing with marital conflict before they landed in a therapist's office or in divorce court. Soon Sollee was a convert, and even gave the new movement a name: marriage education.
In the late '80s, even as now, marriage education was seen as an extension of the far right's "family values" agenda, and was a hard sell in the liberal-minded therapeutic community. But by being "sneaky and under the radar," Sollee began to spread this gospel by mixing in an occasional divorce-prevention or marriage-skills presentation with the standard fare at the annual AAMFT conference, even though, as she recalls, these were controversial, even heretical, notions to many association members. …