The New York Times

 April 21, 2000

 Some States Act to Save Marriages Before the 'I Dos'


he wedding day was set, guests invited, and Linda Santarelli and Teddy Roland mused about a beach ceremony near their home in Loxahatchee, Fla.

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 poor.

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 delinquency.

"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 agendas.

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 better.

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 Catholic churches.

"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 view.

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 covenant option.

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 single man."

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 be repaired.

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 1,000 people.

"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 divorce.

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 in 1997.

Do marital classes work? Not enough research exists, experts say.

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 of marriage.

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 to us."

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 feelings."

Copyright, The New York Times, 2000

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