The New York Times
April 21, 2000
Some States Act to Save Marriages
Before the 'I Dos'
By PAM BELLUCK
he wedding day was set, guests invited, and Linda Santarelli and
Teddy Roland mused about a beach ceremony near their home in
Then they learned of a new state law giving couples a
marriage-license discount if they took a marital education class.
More for the information than the price break, they said, they took
a four-hour class last spring, a month before the wedding. By the
end of it, they were convinced they were moving too fast.
"We postponed our wedding after that just to make sure we could
work a few things out," especially a clash between his Jehovah's
Witness background and her penchant for tarot cards and past-life
regression, said Ms. Santarelli, 41, a massage therapist. "We're
right on the verge of resolving our problems."
That is just what Florida lawmakers wanted when, determined to
discourage divorce, they began pushing Marriage 101. And across the
country, other states want couples who say "I do" to mean "I really
really do" -- and couples who already did to stay married.
The proposals are gaining popularity as states recognize the
high social and economic costs of divorce, and have money to enact
the relatively low-cost plans.
Wisconsin wants to hire a "community marriage policy
coordinator," a kind of marriage czar, who would urge the clergy to
set requirements for engaged couples before marriage, like
mentoring with a long-married couple, and no cohabitation, or a
long waiting period.
Arkansas's governor, Mike Huckabee, a Republican, has declared a
"state of marital emergency" and is exploring a tax credit for
couples taking a marital course.
Utah includes marital skills in high school curriculums; Florida
makes a marital course a high school graduation requirement.
And Oklahoma's governor, Frank Keating, also a Republican, has
just unveiled a $10 million "marriage initiative" program,
including a "scholar-in-residence" to do marriage research and
train people to teach marriage classes at welfare, health
department and even agricultural extension offices.
"Tell me the sense of a system where it is easier to get a
marriage license than it is to get a hunting or driver's license,"
Mr. Keating said, "easier to get out of a marriage with children
than it is to get out of a Tupperware contract. Ours is an effort
to encourage families to appreciate the lifetime commitment of a
marriage contract, to recognize that a marriage that can be saved
should be saved."
The initiatives are attracting support not only from
family-values conservatives, but also some liberals. Critics of the
programs say government is meddling in marriage, even though all
the measures enacted so far are voluntary, relying chiefly on the
bully pulpit and advertising promotions, like Florida's $32.50 off
an $88.50 marriage license.
Some states, like Arizona, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, are using
surplus federal welfare money to finance the programs, since the
welfare act encourages supporting all "two-parent families." Some
critics of the programs say the money should be spent solely on the
With close to half of marriages ending in divorce, states say
they are feeling the effects. David Popenoe, co-director of the
National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, said broken
families were more likely to need public assistance and to lack
health insurance than those that remain intact. The children of
divorced parents are more prone to emotional problems that can lead
to truancy, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy or juvenile
"There's so much money spent in what I call the wipe-up," said
Abbie Vianes, executive director of the Governor's Commission on
Marriage in Utah, which holds marriage skills conferences. "We
spent over $33 million last year in just collecting unpaid child
support. Welfare dollars are used on divorced moms. And there is a
loss to business in worker productivity -- when home doesn't go
right, work doesn't go right."
The marital education efforts also reflect the fact that most
states are awash in surplus cash, Dr. Popenoe said, and that there
are few pressing social and economic issues dominating their
The programs are in effect in about 10 states. The classes
include compatibility quizzes; exercises on listening, expressing
feelings, giving praise and arguing respectfully, and sessions on
financial, religious or family conflicts. Some teachers are
therapists or members of the clergy, but some states train
nonprofessionals to teach, believing couples relate to them
Wisconsin's program, modeled on a program called Marriage
Savers, works through the clergy to encourage couple-to-couple
mentoring and a premarital regimen similar to that of many Roman
"It's ridiculous -- creating a state bureaucrat that's going to
make all of our marriages better," Attorney General James E. Doyle
of Wisconsin said of his state's plans.
"The role of the state is fighting drug-trafficking and crime
and having a good school system. The relationships within my
family, that's my business, not the government's."
The critics of other states' marital programs echoed that
The marital plans are less controversial and morality-tinged
than the covenant marriage laws enacted in Arizona and Louisiana
that allow couples to sign rigid marriage contracts permitting
divorce only because of adultery, abuse, abandonment, imprisonment
of a spouse or long marital separation. In Arizona and Louisiana,
only about 3 percent of couples are estimated to have chosen the
Critics of the covenants object to forcing couples to choose
between two types of marriage contracts, and they say they fear
that children could be trapped in bad marriages.
Diane Sollee, a marriage therapist, self-described feminist and
founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education
in Washington, says the initiatives have support because new
research shows marriage is, frankly, good.
"The experts used to be saying -- and I was one of them -- that
women do better single than married and that marriage doesn't
really matter for kids," Ms. Sollee said. "Now the research is
coming in, and it says whoops, we weren't right. Married women do
better on everything you can measure: children's well-being, sexual
satisfaction, financial well-being. And men do much better married
than single -- in the same job a married man is paid more than a
William J. Doherty, professor of family social science at the
University of Minnesota, said research suggested the emotional
fallout for children of divorce did not fade, but worsened with
time, causing them "trouble getting into stable adult
relationships." And, Dr. Doherty said, most divorces happen in
marriages without severe conflicts, suggesting the marriages could
Dr. Doherty helped write a bill just passed by the Minnesota
Legislature that allows $50 off a $75 marriage license if couples
take a 12-hour premarital class.
The bill was vetoed by Gov. Jesse Ventura, who said government
should not be involved in marriage counseling. The Legislature may
override the veto.
The Wisconsin plan, signed into law last fall, drew criticism
because it says the marriage coordinator would work with the
clergy, but does not mention secular figures who perform marriages.
A Wisconsin organization, the Freedom from Religion Foundation,
sued to block the plan, calling it unconstitutional.
An amended bill that includes secular language has passed the
Assembly and awaits action in the Senate.
Some in Wisconsin lampoon the idea of a marriage bureaucrat, but
few make fun of marriage initiatives in the Bible Belt, where
divorce rates, counterintuitively, are highest. In 1998, Arkansas
had the third-highest rate (6.1 per 1,000 people), behind Nevada
with 8.5 and Tennessee with 6.4. Oklahoma, which had some counties
where divorces exceeded marriages in 1998, was fourth, with 6 per
"I don't know if it is a matter of our religious background
leading more people to get married rather than simply living
together," Chris Pyle, Arkansas's director of family policy, said,
"or that people in Arkansas marry fairly young. Also, the education
levels, I would suspect, are low," another factor correlated with
In New York (with the lowest divorce rate -- 2.5 per 1,000) and
New Jersey (3.1), marriage initiatives have not come up.
Connecticut (2.9) defeated a bill to require premarital counseling
Do marital classes work? Not enough research exists, experts
Michael J. McManus, founder of Marriage Savers, which has
persuaded the clergy in 124 cities to sign covenants agreeing to
set premarital requirements, says divorce rates have decreased
significantly in at least 25 of the cities. But divorce has also
declined slightly nationally and Mr. McManus said he had not
tracked couples who actually participated in Marriage Savers.
A study by Howard J. Markman and Scott Stanley, psychologists at
the University of Denver who developed a marital skills program,
found participants were half as likely to be divorced in five years
Utah's marital conference has buoyed the 10-year marriage of
Layne and Jennifer Brown of Riverton.
"Most people wait until they're sick to go to the doctor, but
you really need to go in for those check-ups," said Mrs. Brown, a
teacher. "That's kind of what this is. It's not going to save a
marriage that is falling apart. But so many couples don't even
realize they've lost their marital relationship until the kids are
gone and they look at each other and say, 'You know I don't like
you very much anymore.' We're determined that's not going to happen
In Florida, where couples must take at least a four-hour class
or wait three days after obtaining a marriage license, an in-depth
class helped Mindy Felinton, an animal rights lawyer in Boca Raton,
resolve a dispute with her fiancé about how hot or cold the house
should be. But they ultimately broke up before marriage because he
hated her dogs.
But O. J. and Evelyn Whatley of Hollywood, Fla., found their
10-session course eye-opening.
"Before the class we'd have all kinds of screaming fights and
then the only way it would end is if she left the room or if I left
the room," said Mr. Whatley, 30, a broker. "We still have those
kinds of fights. But when it's something that's significant, we
have a framework for discussing it and respecting each other's
Copyright, The New York Times, 2000