Marriage is in crisis.
A third of babies today are born out of wedlock. Fewer than a quarter of households are married couples living with their children. Single-mother households increased at five times the rate of married couples with children during the 1990s. Households of unmarried partners grew by 72% over the same period, the U.S. Census recently reported. Couples marrying for the first time today have a 40% to 50% chance of divorcing.
The Census Bureau report tracks a 30-year move away from the married-with-children paradigm. This trend is helping fuel an emerging pro-marriage movement that is aimed at changing state laws to bolster and stabilize marriages and make it harder to divorce.
"The bottom line is successful marriage is a win-win for everyone--for the children, for the married couple, for the entire community," said California Rep. Wally Herger (R-Chico), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee's Human Resources Subcommittee. Herger chaired hearings on marriage and family last month, part of a process to reauthorize the 1996 welfare law. "Obviously, we cannot mandate a successful marriage, but it behooves us to look into ways to promote the positives of marriage."
Under the 1996 welfare law, states can use their welfare funds to promote marriage and family but are not required to do so, said Herger. In last month's hearings, legislators were urged by conservative lawmakers and marriage educators to earmark welfare dollars for marriage-strengthening efforts.
Oklahoma, Arizona, Maryland and Florida have recently passed statewide pro-marriage initiatives (such as offering marriage-education classes, teaching relationship courses in high school, refunding marriage-license fees for completed premarital courses and publishing marriage-skills handbooks). In California, only Monterey County offers premarital courses to low-income couples, said Bruce Wagstaff, deputy director of the Welfare to Work Division of the California Department of Social Services.
The question many policymakers and social scientists are asking is whether or not such premarital courses and marriage-strengthening programs can actually make a difference. (The issue will be discussed later this month in Orlando, Fla., when leaders in the marriage research field gather, organized by the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education.)
"Can you teach people to surrender to marriage?" said David Popenoe, a Rutgers University professor of sociology and co-director of the National Marriage Project, a nonpartisan initiative aimed at promoting marriage stability. "The best answer is nobody really knows."
What marriage researchers do know, said psychologist Howard Markman, director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, is that the seeds of divorce have often been planted before people even marry. How couples communicate and handle conflict is the best predictor of marital distress or divorce, said Markman. Couples who stay happily married disagree the same amount as couples who divorce, said Markman. "It isn't the differences between people that matter, but how those differences are handled."
Markman and psychologist Scott Stanley from the University of Southern Mississippi have developed a premarital education program that is considered one of the best in the country, according to Diane Sollee, director of Washington-based Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, a clearinghouse for marriage research and information.
The program--in use in the U.S., Germany and Australia--is based on the longest studies ever done on marital distress and divorce.
The result is a 12-hour relationship-education course called PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program), which can be taught as effectively by laypeople as by therapists. In a five-year follow-up study of PREP graduates in Germany and the U.S., the rate of divorce was cut in half, said Markman. The program also works for unmarried couples, straight or gay.
"We teach couples critical conflict-management skills--like when things are escalating, call a timeout and then later call a meeting for no more than 15 minutes and define what you are going to talk about," said Markman. "Gentle communication is better than angry harsh communication. We also ban problem solving and trying to change the other person, which gets rid of a lot anxiety."
The second part of the approach, he said, is to inspire and motivate people to invest in their relationship and to make it a priority in their lives. Markman opposes mandating premarital courses or making divorce more difficult because "most people don't file for divorce or even seriously entertain the idea until the marriage quality is severely eroded." He also is concerned that most marriage-education programs have not gone through the rigor of controlled studies to determine their efficacy. But he adds, "If people are going to marry, it is in the government's best interest to make premarital-education classes easily accessible to everyone."
Though there needs to be a lot more research on the effectiveness of different marriage-strengthening tactics, Popenoe said that people are generally hungry for lessons on love. Participants in the National Marriage Project's focus groups last year agreed universally on the need for more education about relationships. "Since the government is doing nothing right now, I think it is worth a try. The joker in the deck is who is going to teach these courses and what are they going to teach?"
Many questions are unanswered and the nascent back-to-marriage movement--mostly directed at low-income individuals--is fraught with debate. Some economists fear pro-marriage programs will poach money from poverty programs.
Sociologists such as Pepper Schwartz, a member of the Council on Contemporary Families, a group formed to educate the public on research about family diversity, worry that "glamorizing marriage" by extolling its virtues and dangling economic incentives will encourage the wrong people to marry for the wrong reasons. "We don't want to encourage people who are transient to each other to marry because they have nothing to build a marriage upon," said Schwartz. "It is a recipe for abuse in the relationship and possibly for child abuse. These people might be pulled together because of a momentary bribe or enhancement . . . not nearly enough to keep a couple together."
More information is available at smartmarriages.com and prepinc.com. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.