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Tools to succeed: Decreasing divorce by strengthening marriages

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of two articles.

OKLAHOMA CITY — When Chad Feller came home from work and asked, "What's for dinner?" all his fiancé Misty heard was the criticism, "Why isn't dinner ready yet?"

She'd bristle and snap that she'd been busy with kids all day. Caught off guard, Chad would snap back about how tough his day had been and the fight began.

For Misty, this was how couples communicated.

"I grew up in a house where the fighting was bad," she said. "Nobody ever talked about anything. Yelling was the only way I knew how to deal with (problems). But when we went to the PREP class, it showed me we ... can understand and communicate before we ever escalate."

It's been several years since the Fellers took their first relationship class through the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative — a statewide push to strengthen marriages and families — but it's changed their lives. They saved their engagement, got married and attend a follow-up workshop each year, as a "refresher of how our marriage is supposed to be," Misty said.

"We've tried all these different methods, (counseling, anger management classes) but this was the best, the most usable," Chad said. "Rather than buzzwords and Kumbaya stuff, it was stuff you can actually do, and it really works."

For decades, marital and relationship education was left to churches or private groups that provided expensive counseling sessions or marriage retreats.

But in 1996 when the government reorganized their welfare program, they emphasized self-sufficiency as well as establishing and promoting stable, healthy marriages knowing that low-income families face the highest risks for divorce. Ten years later, a national Healthy Marriage Initiative encouraged more states and community groups to join in the task.

Utah and Oklahoma were the first to create statewide initiatives and dedicate federal welfare funds to relationship classes and healthy marriage programs.

In California and Tennessee, non-profits use federal grants and private donations to teach and mentor individuals, couples and families. And across the country, churches are doing more to prepare couples for marriage.

And despite some initial skepticism, these efforts are working.

Data and anecdotes show that couples are recognizing their relationship missteps, developing better ways to communicate and recommitting to healthy relationships.

Advocates are hopeful that this education, combined with legislative efforts to slow down the divorce process will create a cultural shift where divorce is no longer seen as the first or only option in a struggling marriage, and that couples everywhere can get help before a lack of skills sabotages their relationship.

"Reducing divorce is a big part of the solution and improving divorce is part of the solution too," said John Crouch, founder of Americans for Divorce Reform. "But I've spent long enough trying to improve divorce, and it's not going to fix a majority of cases. We really have to put more into prevention than into trying to do a better job of picking up the pieces."

Utah and Oklahoma

Every time Anne-Celeste Openshaw finishes teaching the first of the three-part class, "How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk or Jerkette," there's always someone waiting to talk to her.

"I now know what I've been doing wrong," they tell her, shaking their head incredulously.

It was only two and a half hours, but the information she shared about dating, the relationship attachment model and the five areas of bonding rocked their world, and often helped them see that they've been the jerk(ette).

"I know it's good stuff," says Openshaw, who has a master's degree in Family and Human Development. "But it's amazing to me how many people don't think of relationships this way."

The class, now in eight counties, is provided through the Utah State University Extension Services as part of Utah's push for stronger marriages, which began in 1998 under Gov. Mike Leavitt and his wife, Jackie. Now called, Utah's initiative is funded through federal welfare dollars — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF — dollars designed to assist needy families so children can be cared for in their own homes, reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage; prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

While three of those goals relate to marriage, too few states use TANF dollars for marriage promotion or education, laments Chris Gersten, a former official in the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services and founder of the Coalition for Divorce Reform, a non-partisan group working to lower the divorce rate through legislation and education.

After he left D.C. in 2005, Gersten started a campaign to encourage states to devote just 1 percent of their TANF funding to strengthening relationships and marriages to reduce the need for future government intervention.

About 10 states responded — including Utah — but as the economy slumped and budgets got tighter, many states dropped the marriage emphasis. Utah kept the allocated 1 percent, and most recently used those funds for a media blitz to spread the word about the classes and services they provide.

"Rather than throwing more and more money towards the effects of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth," said Melanie Reese, coordinator for, "we try to prevent the problems up-front."

Oklahoma's Marriage Initiative came just one year after Utah's but has grown to become the nation's strongest, said Alan Hawkins, a Brigham Young University professor of family life. In the last 10 years, Oklahoma has received more than $30 million in TANF funds, reaching nearly 300,000 adults and 125,000 youth.

Oklahoma's ability to educate couples state-wide comes through its public/private partnership with Public Strategies, a project management firm that, under the state's leadership, oversees classes like "Forever for Real," "Family Expectations" for soon-to-be parents and no-cost weekend retreats for at-risk couples, like foster parents, grandparents raising grandchildren, couples affected by incarceration and financially vulnerable couples.

It was the "Forever For Real" class that helped Theresa and Luke Jordan not become another divorce statistic.

Though Luke thought they were fine, Theresa was struggling with anger and feelings of isolation.

They'd just had their second daughter, who quickly ended up in the hospital with whooping cough. On top of that, Luke got a new job and they moved.

During the free, all-day class they learned the importance of starting phrases with "I" rather than "you", the need to take ownership of their choices and the best "love language" to use with each other.

"Going to a program like this shows that we're all human, and we both have the ability to be more aware of what we're saying and doing to each other, and take a more active role in our relationship," Theresa said. "And just because it's challenging doesn't mean it's a reason to give up. In fact, it's kind of the reason to stay in it. It's going to be challenging in every relationship. (Problems) don't change just because you go out and find somebody else."

First things first

Standing waist-deep in the rippling stream, the fisherman carefully attaches a feathered lure.

"Committed?" he asks rhetorically, as he casts out over the swift water. "I better be, cause when there's a real struggle or when I have thoughts of cutting the line, it's the commitment that makes me stand fast. I hang in because I never want to have to say 'That was the one who got away.' So yes, I am committed to my marriage. Until death do us part."

The commercial then flashes a picture of the man with his left hand outstretched, a gold wedding band glinting in the summer sun.

"Commit to your marriage," he challenges.

The commercial from First Things First is just one way the non-profit group is working to educate and remind couples in Hamilton County, Tenn., about the importance of marriage.

Formed in 1997 to combat divorce and out-of-wedlock-birth rates nearly 50 percent higher than the national average, First Things First provides pre-marital classes, marriage strengthening events and classes for struggling couples, as well as relationship skills courses to high school students and fathering skills classes to new dads. Their newest fatherhood class in the jails is expected to reach more than 325 men this year.

First Things First began with a private grant, later received two government grants and continually fundraises.

It's an investment that's paying off, says Julie Baumgardner, executive director. Hamilton County's divorce rate has dropped 22 percent and teen pregnancy has dropped 44 percent. And a survey of couples in extreme crisis who took the "Maximize Your Marriage" class found that 92 percent — or 462 couples — made the decision to work on their marriage instead of divorce, sparing their children pain and ramifications like increased risks of delinquency, teen pregnancy and future divorces.

After one class for unmarried expectant parents, many of which are low-income, a couple came up to Baumgardner and told her, "Nobody's ever talked to us about the importance of marriage and why it matters to our child."

"What we realized is people don't know what they don't know," Baumgardner said. "We are just trying to reach out to people in every walk of life and help them understand the importance of marriage."

Relationship Skill Center

In the heart of Sacramento, Carolyn Curtis regularly gets calls from reporters wanting to talk about marriage. But they ask about people like Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

They're not really interested in the pregnant, unmarried couples from poor neighborhoods who attend a 20-hour class that boosts their confidence in their abilities to be good parents, plan for the future and have a healthy family.

"About 92 percent of our participants report that their communication improved and they're talking more and arguing less," Curtis says. "Isn't that phenomenal?"

Curtis, the founder and executive director of the Relationship Skills Center, in Sacramento, Calif., is showing the power of engaging a community.

Over the last five years, her group has reached 750 families and nearly 1,200 high school students through parenting and relationship education classes.

Curtis' program relies on TANF funding to provide services (in the case of the parenting class it includes a transportation stipend, dinner, child care and a $100 gift card for parents who complete the class) as well as to hire part-time employees (also TANF recipients) who recruit for the pre-baby couples program from the waiting rooms of Sacrament's Department of Social Services.

Though their program gets referrals from more than 60 social service organizations around the city, there still is room to grow, Curtis said.

"It is so easy to meet people in the social service field and get them involved," Curtis said. "It's not enough. The business community is truly the leaders in our country and we need to get them to embrace this for it to go further. That's where I'm focusing my energy — broadening the number of people who need to know about this."

Before "I do"

Sitting in her childhood Episcopal church, St. Luke's on the Lake in Austin, Texas, newly engaged Laura Williams made the humbling discovery that she fought like a skunk.

When she and her then-fiancé Lance argued, she'd raise a big stink, yell and shout. And the more she shouted, the more Lance (the turtle) retreated into his shell.

"Simply understanding this dynamic helped us immensely when it came to figuring out how to fight in a way that was constructive, rather than destructive," she said.

That discovery nine years ago came during a one-on-one class with Williams' pastor where each took a lengthy personal inventory that asked their opinions on topics ranging from money management to faith, marriage, sex and children.

Williams' pastor reviewed each question with them over a period of six weeks and helped them see ways to work through differences of opinion rather than leaving the issues to become roadblocks later.

"At any point in our lives we have blindness to our own faults," Williams said, "but I think especially when you're young, getting married, you just don't have the life experience and perspective yet to look at yourself with complete honesty…and say, 'Wait a minute, I'm not as perfect as I think I am.'"

"Premarital counseling didn't give us all the answers," she continued, "but it did help give us the tools to prepare for the road ahead in a way that would support unity."

Kansas Pastor Jeff Meyers won't even sign a marriage certificate for couples in his congregation at the Overland Park Christ Lutheran Church until they've taken a six-month marriage class.

He focused on marriage, not just the wedding, which is why couples can't even talk photographer/music/flowers details until after they've stopped living together, if needed, completed a 60-page workbook, and filled out a 150+ question inventory — like the one the Williams took.

Meyers then pairs the couple with an older mentor couple who reviews their answers and helps them work through disagreements, while sharing insights from their own decades-long marriage. The mentor couple also checks in at three months, seven months and one year after the marriage for continued support.

"No one wants to go into this stuff blind," Meyers said. "Most people are extremely thankful to have support, guidance and confidence."

And it shows. Meyers has performed 200 weddings and knows of only two divorces.

The idea of using a pre-marital inventory and an older mentor couple was pioneered by Mike and Harriet McManus — founders of — in their suburban Presbyterian church in Washington D.C. in the late '90s. Over a decade, the McManus' prepared 288 couples for marriage using an inventory, 58 of them deciding not to get married, most likely preventing a future divorce.

The inventory is the first part of the McManus' Community Marriage Policy, which has religious leaders in an area sign a compact that they'll quit doing "quickie weddings," and require marriage preparation for engaged couples.

In cities where marriage policies have been adopted, the divorce rate dropped by about 17.5 percent in seven years. In Austin, Texas, and Modesto, Calif., the divorce rate dropped by 50 percent, McManus said.

"If you think about this as a pugilist, you have a left hook and a right hook," McManus said. "The right hook is to do a better job on the pastoral side of things, better prepare couples for marriage, strengthen existing ones, help separated reconcile and help step-families be successful. Political strategy is the left hook."

Going forward

From 2000 to 2010, taxpayers paid more than $1 trillion to take care of the problems resulting from family fragmentation, according to a 2008 study, "The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States."

In comparison, only $600 million in federal funds were used to bolster healthy marriage initiatives — just 0.06 percent.

"This is one area where we could actually prevent problems, rather than just trying to help them out when the problems arise," Hawkins says. "At some point you have to try and build fences at the top of the hill, rather than buy more ambulances at the bottom of the hill."

Hawkins has studied various marriage education programs across the country and is encouraged by what he says are small, but positive, and encouraging results.

In the "Building Strong Families" review site in Oklahoma, couples who received the program were 20 percent more likely to be together after three years than those who didn't.

In Hamilton County, Baumgardner said they already know of eight men who took their prison fathering class and have been released, landed a job and are active in their kids' lives.

On a global scale, these changes may seem small, but they matter dramatically in the lives of these people's children, and they save the state and federal governemnts thousands of dollars in avoided problems.

"This is a pay me now or pay me later kind of thing," Baumgardner says. "If we are all about the next generation and the future of our children, if we do not do something on the prevention side, we are going to be in some very serious trouble."

Bill Coffin is quick to agree. A former special assistant for marriage education in the federal Administration for Children and Families for nine years, he knows the national impact of fragmented families, yet he's encouraged by the preliminary reviews of marriage and relationship education programs, which he hopes continue to grow.

"(Sometimes) I feel guilty because there are couples starting off who are going to have problems, some of whom are going to end up divorced, separated, in therapy. And they could say, 'If some folks knew what … healthy relationships were all about, why didn't they tell us?'"

Some people may not speak up because they worry that by promoting strong marriages and two-parent families, they — as a divorced person — will seem hypocritical. Yet, Gersten says these individuals may actually be able to better drive home the severity of the issue.

"We have to find a vehicle where a divorced congressman or divorced governor can say, 'I'm for protecting children," he said. "This legislation (or class) is significant and maybe if this had been around when I got divorced, maybe it could have saved my marriage."

But it still doesn't make the discussion easy, says Carrie Gordon Earll, Senior Director of Issue Analysis for CitizenLink, the policy arm of Focus on the Family.

While everyone recognizes the pain of broken families and fatherless homes, everyone also knows someone who's been divorced and they don't want to offend or hurt feelings.

"One of the hurdles will be to get people to see when you're talking about divorce reform, we are not talking about preventing people who are in really bad, dangerous marriages from still being able to protect themselves," she continued. "What we're talking about is raising the bar so that couples know their marriage is worth fighting for."


* Federal Healthy Marriage Initiative -

* Coalition for Divorce Reform -

* Americans For Divorce Reform -

* Second Chances Act -

* Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project -

* Retrovaille -


* PREP -

* Love Thinks -