One Wealthy Couple's Mission To Save Marriages, En Masse

May 31, 2014
Originally published on May 31, 2014 5:29 pm

At a church in South Dallas, in one of the poorest parts of town, the room is packed with hundreds of couples. They're sitting, holding hands and staring into each other's eyes.

Their hosts, multi-millionaire couple Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, are on a mission: to save marriages. They're trying to saturate the city with relationship counseling at workshops like this one, aiming to reach couples who wouldn't or couldn't otherwise afford to attend conventional marriage counseling.

Harville Hendrix is working the crowd, joking and trying to ease the tension. "How many of you came because you just wanted to be here?" he asks. Most of the hands shoot up.

Then he asks, "How many people were dragged here?"

Hendrix, 78, is a silver-haired self-help guru who has sold millions of books that dissect why couples fight. Now he and Hunt, his wife, are traveling to schools and places of worship across Dallas, giving free marriage workshops in English and Spanish.

Gabby Palma is here with her husband, Luis Romero. She's practicing telling him what she appreciates about him — how he wakes up early every day to go to work as a contractor. His role is to listen and act like a mirror, repeating what he hears.

"Mirroring" is one of the techniques people learn at these workshops. Another skill is what Hendrix calls the "safe conversation."

"The thing that scares most couples — and where they hurt each other most — is when they talk," says Hendrix. "So we, in the safe conversation, help couples learn how to talk, and as they talk in this way, they begin to relax."

Palma says the technique has helped her and Romero — their relationship had become violent and she and the kids moved out.

"We were really scared that my husband would be locked up, my children would be taken away and our family would have been completely destroyed. Just because we did not know how to communicate in an effective way," she says.

At one point, the crowd shouts, "You are amazing!" in unison. Loud affirmations and hugging requirements are also part of the therapy, which can make these workshops seem campy.

But Bill Doherty, a marriage therapist and professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, says the exercises shouldn't be dismissed.

"Its respectable mainstream work. It's not flaky or goofy," he says.

Doherty says techniques like "safe conversations" aren't revolutionary, but that Harville and Hunt package it well.

"What most people do, in getting into a serious conversation, is make mistakes right from the beginning, like [saying] 'I don't know why you feel that,' then it's just downhill from there on in," he says. "So these are structured, sensitive ways to get into — and stay with — a delicate conversation."

Workshop participant Darrell Young says he's using listening and empathy skills so he doesn't repeat the violent mistakes of his first marriage.

"We fought every weekend. Grand Prairie police knew us by name, that's how bad it was," Young says. "At that time, all I knew was be heavy-handed, force her to listen to [me]."

Because of that, he says, he was determined to do things differently this time around. He's attending the workshop with his second wife, Kayla Young, who says that she had been mimicking the example set by her mother, who was married five times.

"The first years of our marriage guess who I was? I was [like] momma. Just always aggressive, like 'Oh, well you know what? I don't need you!' " Kayla says. "Because that's what I saw. A woman married five times equates to, 'I don't need a man,' you know? So it was like a light bulb went off."

Skeptics might see these workshops as a publicity stunt — a way to sell more books. Harville and Hunt both reject that idea.

"No, no, the fact is, we care about this whole city," Hunt says. "Harville had the idea of taking what is in the therapy office, that people have to pay a lot of money for, and making it ... simple and disseminating it into the culture."

The couple has spent thousands of dollars on four workshops so far, and they have at least three more in the works.

Therapist Bill Doherty says that he doubts Harville and Hunt are doing it for the money.

"These folks, they have a high profile," he says. "Harville's been on Oprah more times than any human being except Dr. Phil, I think. And they have more money than they need. And, you know, they're getting older. I think this is a legacy project for them."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

So far as we know, there's no app yet to try to aid a marriage that's in trouble. Counseling remains the traditional option, but many people are reluctant to go. Relationship know-it-all's Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt - no, not that Helen Hunt - know that some people are reluctant to talk to a therapist. So they hold mass marriage counseling sessions all across Dallas. Lauren Silverman, from member station KERA reports on a unique kind of couples counseling.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: At a church in South Dallas, along the city's poorest part of town, a room is packed with hundreds of couples. They're sitting, holding hands, staring into each other's eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORKSHOP)

HARVILLE HENDRIX: So how many of you came because you just wanted to be here?

SILVERMAN: That's Harville Hendrix, joking with the crowd to ease tension. Most of the hands shoot up in response to his question. Then, he asks, how many people were dragged here?

HENDRIX: How many of you are the dragees?

HELEN LAKELLY HUNT: Yay for the dragees.

SILVERMAN: Hendrix is a silver haired, 78-year-old, self-help guru who's sold millions of books dissecting why couples fight. Now, he and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt, are traveling to schools and places of worship, across Dallas, giving free workshops in English and Spanish.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORKSHOP)

GABBY PALMA: (Spanish spoken).

SILVERMAN: Gabby Palma is here, practicing telling her partner what she appreciates about him - how he wakes up early, every day, to go to work as a contractor. His role is to listen and act like a mirror, repeating what he hears.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORKSHOP)

LUIS ROMERO: (Spanish spoken).

SILVERMAN: Another skill is what Hendrix calls the safe conversation.

HENDRIX: So, we in the safe conversation help couples learn how to talk. And as they talk in this way, they begin to relax.

SILVERMAN: Gabby Palma says the technique has helped her and Luis. Their relationship had become violent, and she moved out with the kids.

PALMA: We were really scared that my husband would be locked up, my children will be taken away, and our family would've been completely destroyed just because we did not know how to communicate in an effective way.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORKSHOP)

HENDRIX: You are amazing.

AUDIENCE: You are amazing.

SILVERMAN: Loud affirmations and hugging requirements are also part of these workshops, which makes them seem campy. Here's what one mainstream academic thinks of this approach.

BILL DOHERTY: It's respectable, mainstream work. It's not flaky or goofy.

SILVERMAN: Bill Doherty is a marriage therapist and professor of family and social science at the University of Minnesota. He says techniques like safe conversations aren't revolutionary. But Harville and Hunt package them well.

DOHERTY: These are structured, sensitive ways to get into and stay with a delicate conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORKSHOP)

HENDRIX: You know, the first thing is, to your partner...

SILVERMAN: Workshop participant Darrell Young says he uses listening and empathy skills, so he doesn't repeat the violent mistakes of his first marriage.

DARRELL YOUNG: We fought every weekend. Grand Prarie police knew us by name. That's how bad it was. At that time, all I knew was be heavy-handed, force her listen to you.

SILVERMAN: Here's Young's second wife, Kayla.

KAYLA YOUNG: The first years of our marriage, guess who I was? I was mama. Just always aggressive. Like oh, well you know what? I don't need you because that's what I saw. A woman married five times equates to I don't need a man.

SILVERMAN: Skeptics might this as a publicity stunt, a way to sell more books. Harville and Hunt both reject that idea.

HENDRIX: No, the books have been sold.

HUNT: No. The fact is, we really care about this whole city, and Harville had the idea of taking what is in the therapy office, that people have to pay a lot of money for, and making it even simple and disseminating it into the culture.

SILVERMAN: Therapist Bill Doherty also doubts it's about money.

DOHERTY: These folks, they have a high profile, you know (laughter). You know, Harville's been on Oprah more than any other human being except Dr. Phil, I think. And they have more money than they need. And they're, you know, they're getting older. I think this is a legacy project for them.

SILVERMAN: The couple has spent thousands of dollars on four workshops so far. And they have at least three more in the works. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.