Many years ago, I was leading a marriage enrichment workshop with a handful of dual-earner couples who had recently become parents. A big focus was on sharing the “second shift” by fairly dividing housework and child care. But the session that couples seemed to appreciate the most introduced basic skills to help them listen better and resolve difficult conversations more peacefully.
In follow-up interviews six months later, an attractive young couple reported that their participation in this workshop had been a “last-ditch” effort to save their marriage, after repeated attempts at marriage counseling. Asking why they felt happier and more optimistic about the future of their marriage after the workshop, they said, “Maybe counseling tried to go too deep for us. We just needed to learn how to communicate with each other better and not always get into fights. The straightforward skills just worked for us to help turn this around.”
How many couples could find their well-being catalyzed with just a little more relationship education, motivation and effort?
This isn’t always where we focus. More often, our public attention is drawn to the couples whose relationships fall apart. In all things, entropy is the natural (dis)order of things. As anyone with household cleaning duties intuitively understands, coasting only takes us in one direction — downhill.
The same force is at work in marriages today. Yet what begs for more attention is not how marriages dissolve today — after all, entropy will always be at work — but rather how marriages stay ordered and strong.
No matter how powerful the love that originally pulled two people into orbit, the attractive force eventually weakens without continued investment.
The private becomes public
Spurred by the financial costs to society of widening family instability, the federal government has provided grants since 2006 to support preventative educational programs that help fathers stay involved with their children and couples sustain healthy relationships. A 2020 congressional report spearheaded by Utah Sen. Mike Lee, “A Policy Agenda for Social Capital,” highlights these policy efforts.
The report emphasizes how our “associational life” — our families, communities, workplaces and religious congregations — is “critical to forming our character and capacities, providing our lives with meaning and purpose, and addressing the challenges we face in an increasingly disconnected world.”
Utah consistently ranks as the state with the highest social capital, with recent U.S. census figures confirming 93% of couples in the state are married — by far the highest in the nation.
Given that, Lee rightly argues the state “provides an aspirational vision of what could be elsewhere.”
Even so, for some, Utah might seem an unlikely candidate for building the premier public policy model for supporting healthy marriages and engaged fathering. But under the coordinated efforts of the Utah Marriage Commission and Healthy Relationships Utah, the state has built an impressive, publicly funded initiative to strengthen the most fundamental unit of civil society.
The reality is that knowledge about how to form and sustain healthy relationships is no longer baked into broader society in a way that feels like common sense. Not to mention that couples face summit-high expectations that can potentially cripple natural potential in the relationship. For these reasons, the need to work on our relationships has never been greater.
Utah Marriage Commission
These two state-level initiatives are housed under the same roof — literally — in an old cottage just off the Utah State University campus. This co-residence in a modest home-office reflects the close partnership between HRU and UMC, although they remain distinct organizations. With relatively modest funding since 1998, the Utah Marriage Commission has reached an estimated hundreds of thousands with its wide array of digital outreach services. UMC’s manager, Kiersten Wilson, is a mother and grandmother who brings remarkable energy to strategizing ways to implement the commission’s mission to increase the number of Utah children growing up in stable, healthy, two-parent families.
In contrast to Healthy Relationships Utah, UMC emphasizes easily accessible, brief educational offerings over more intense programmatic education and formal curricula. Offerings are delivered via a digital platform, StrongerMarriage.org, and include podcasts, webinars, blogs, YouTube videos and guidebooks to reach a busy, digital-native audience.
Its impressive list of webinars often features qualified couple counselors who take up timely and sensitive topics, from “Coping with Race-related Stress and Trauma” and “Mixed-Faith Marriages,” to “Bridging the Libido Divide.” For those seeking help on sensitive matters, a private, on-demand webinar is easy to access, with services for all income brackets (and with intentional focus on more disadvantaged individuals and families).
UMC’s “Stronger Marriage Connection” podcast is hosted by David Schramm, USU associate professor and family life extension specialist, and marriage and family therapist Liz Hale. In their second episode, featuring Bill Doherty, he spoke of the headwaters of the Mississippi River near his home, noting that if you get in a canoe there but don’t paddle, you are pulled slowly by the current to the Gulf of Mexico. Doherty went on to emphasize that marriages will drift without conscious and intentional effort.
Wilson wants to make UMC’s website the go-to, one-stop resource center for Utahns in all stages of relationships and in all different circumstances (including Spanish-speaking and same-sex couples).
The needs are almost limitless, but Wilson is undaunted in her desire to provide comprehensive education for all who want it. The organization is actively building connections with other like-minded offices, professional groups and services, including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s new Office of Families.
UMC provides free vouchers (a $35 value) for Utah engaged couples to take ePREP — a brief, online version of the most researched couple relationship education program in the world, PREP. And the commission’s website lists Utah vendors who will help engaged couples save thousands of dollars on wedding products and services when the couples invest in at least six hours of formal premarital education or three hours of premarital counseling.
The commission was formed in 1998 by then-Gov. Michael Leavitt, with first lady Jacalyn Leavitt playing a key early role. A set of governor-appointed marriage scholars, practitioners and other professionals from across Utah direct the commission’s work, including five Utah legislators from both sides of the aisle.
After operating largely on federal funds from the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program shared with the state every year as a block grant, new funds have recently been added from a portion of marriage license fees set aside by the Utah legislature to support the commission’s work.
Healthy Relationships Utah
Compared to these easily accessible, brief educational offerings for families, Healthy Relationships Utah prioritizes live, facilitator-led, evidence-based educational programs for youth, young adults, couples, co-parents and fathers. Most of these classes include six to 12 hours of formal curricula.
Cooperative Extension Vice President Brian Higginbotham has provided the strategic leadership for HRU since its inception in 2006. Though trained as a marriage and family therapist, he has focused his professional career on increasing access to high-quality, preventative educational programs for Utah residents.
HRU has about 34 part- and full-time class instructors, or “facilitators,” located throughout Utah — with degrees in family studies, human development, psychology or social work, and supplemented through 200 hours of professional training and supervision. These facilitators receive modest salaries typical of human service professionals. Over the past 16 years, the initiative has used roughly $37 million of federal and state grants (averaging $2.3 million a year) to teach more than 5,000 classes that reached nearly 100,000 youth and adults with a variety of relationship-strengthening curricula. Last year, HRU offered nearly 400 classes.
Courses include the popular one on healthy dating, “How to avoid falling in love with a Jerk or Jerkette,” developed by John Van Epp; the six-hour course has been taken by more than 50,000 Utah youth and young adults. “Love Notes,” developed by The Dibble Institute, differs from many typical sex education curricula, since physiology and sexual behavior are presented in the context of building healthy romantic relationships rather than just a biological or health phenomenon. The class includes lessons on proper pacing of relationships, how to know if a relationship is healthy and deciding rather than sliding through relationship transitions. Research has shown that “Love Notes” can measurably reduce the odds of teen pregnancy, something that most sex education programs struggle to achieve.
I observed a “Love Notes” class taught last September in a Utah County residential treatment facility for female adolescents. The conversation about different kinds of intimacy was peppered with so many personal stories of sexual harassment and assault, I found myself thinking how difficult it must be for these young women to absorb new possibilities given their ugly early experiences around sexuality. But in combination with their access to counseling, this kind of a focused curriculum has a good shot at making a difference for these vulnerable young women.
Nearly half of U.S. marriages — and about a third of Utah marriages — involve a spouse who has been married before. This explains why “Smart Steps for Stepfamilies” is another popular HRU program, with a seven-session curriculum for remarrying couples who have children from a previous relationship. Developed by Francesca Adler-Baeder at Auburn University, the curriculum has helped more than 7,000 Utah adults learn how to build a thriving stepfamily as they tackle the tough issues of stepparenting, co-parenting across households and nurturing the couple’s relationship under unique stresses. HRU also provides educational resources for parents thinking about or going through a divorce, and many of its programs are streamed, as well.
More than 10,000 people take HRU’s courses each year. Along with the popular “Love & Logic” course, I was struck by HRU’s program for incarcerated fathers offered in about 20 jails around the state. The class facilitators talk animatedly about their work with almost Pentecostal fervor, sharing inspiring experiences with participating men. The men in these classes can get pretty emotional about their children and wanting to be better fathers, while incarcerated and when they are released.
Behind the scenes is a small team of researchers, headed up by Kay Bradford at USU, who collects data and crunches evaluation numbers. Dozens of peer-reviewed journal articles report the effects of these various relationship education programs.
Over the past 25 years, a few other states have tried to integrate relationship education policy into state government. But only Utah’s efforts have survived and sent roots down deep into the public policy soil. So, Utah is unique among states in supporting a state-level public policy effort — now embedded in statute — that provides relationship education services to its citizens, an initiative that now appears to have a model for financially sustaining the operation and an on-going relationship with the legislature.
Utah doesn’t have a monopoly on excellent, publicly funded, relationship education programs. Over the years, I have visited many excellent programs in other states, such as MotherWise, serving 400-500 low-income pregnant women and new mothers in the Denver area last year. The 12-hour program draws on a well-researched “Within My Reach” curriculum designed with sensitivity around how past trauma can impede learning and change. In addition to information on caring for and connecting with babies, the class teaches key relationship skills, and alerts some to the reality that they are currently in a dangerous relationship, and it helps them make plans for exiting the relationship safely, if they choose.
At a class last October in a nondescript downtown Denver office, moms arrived with babies, strollers and diaper bags. Many took advantage of free Uber rides paid for by the umbrella nonprofit organization, Thriving Families. What seemed like a large classroom quickly becomes tight with about eight moms, five babies in carriers, and all the accompanying baby gear.
The instructor, Collette, a mom (and grandmother) herself, launched into a lesson on communication skills that can deescalate conflict, such as taking time-outs and other ways to slow down and structure a potentially heated discussion before misunderstandings derail the conversation. Teaching without notes, Colette keeps constant eye contact with the moms and occasionally bounces a participant’s baby on her hip.
There was no shortage of group participation; this was real life for them. I was surprised at how well moms could juggle fussy babies and still stay engaged in the curriculum throughout the class. (For moms with older children, an onsite day care center allows them to concentrate more fully on the class, with a break for a healthy lunch buffet partway through.)
Sometimes I find myself wondering whether classes like this really have sufficient “oomph” to lift participants above their challenging circumstances. But I could sense a positive dynamic among participants in the class and support services, reflecting a powerful family support system for moms going through stressful times; it was a real lifeline for some. One participant offered a ride home to another at the end of class instead of calling Uber.
University of Denver research professor Galena Rhoades has published encouraging results for MotherWise, including improved relationship skills, lower rates of unintended pregnancies and a significant reduction in low-weight and pre-term births, especially among Hispanic women.
Trickle-up cultural change
I have visited other relationship education programs in Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama and talked with many more program administrators across the country. I’ve reviewed, summarized and meta-analyzed all the studies on these government-funded programs. The body of research is impressive. But I confess that even after all this, my optimistic and pessimistic sides are still fighting with each other. Half of me delights in the solid education these needy individuals and couples are getting to help them “paddle upstream” in their relationships, not just let fate have its way.
But another part of me wonders if we are expecting too much. How can classes, most with an average dosage of only about eight hours, overpower the cultural forces and personal challenges that laugh heartlessly at distressed couples’ aspirations for strong and stable relationships? And even if these programs are more potent than my skeptical scientific self easily allows, how can we reach families in the kinds of numbers that could really move the needle on healthy, stable families more broadly?
If nothing else, it seems clear that one meta-message sinks in and sticks with class participants and online learners: healthy relationships aren’t natural, they take work, but you can learn how to make them better, and there are good resources to help you learn. These educators are passionate, quixotic, hope-mongers for healthy relationships — permeating hope that seeps in and motivates imperfect efforts to work on imperfect relationships, and not just passively accept the status quo.
In terms of the broader conundrum, I do think these government-supported relationship-strengthening efforts — even though they only reach a small slice of people each year — can have expansive impact through leaven-in-the-loaf, culture-level change.
We are cultural creatures and flow with the cultural currents. And we need those currents to move in the right direction. The U.S. government, under both Republican and Democratic stewardship, has been experimenting on a small scale with what can be done to help individuals and couples more directly gain the knowledge and skills needed for healthy relationships. Combined with all the other, indirect policy efforts to improve the social and economic soils in which committed love can take root and grow (think: good jobs, educational access and success, drug treatment and so forth), I do hold out hope that these government-funded educational efforts can reach beyond participants alone to nudge the broader culture towards smarter relationship formation strategies and fighting relationship entropy.
Usually, culture trickles down from the advantaged to the disadvantaged. But if government efforts to enhance family stability among those who are least successful at accessing its benefits can yield modest success — and they are — maybe all this good education will defy social gravity and trickle up into the broader cultural conversation to change attitudes and behaviors.
There are smart people who disagree with me about whether public support for relationship education is a good way to address family instability. But despite the headwinds, I think we need to continue proactively seeking to address the problem of family instability — in a way that delicately balances potential collective gains with individual freedoms and diverse values in a multicultural society.
We know a lot about how healthy relationships are formed and we know what knowledge and skills and virtues sustain them (with work). But we often underestimate how much effort it really does take to translate knowledge into behavior in a way people can apply in their day-to-day, stressful lives.
This is the big picture I try to see when I’m observing these relationship education efforts in Utah and elsewhere. Yes, forever takes work — but the good news is that we can all learn how to nurture the beauty of sustained relationships better.
Alan J. Hawkins recently retired after 33 years as a professor of family life at Brigham Young University. Since this article was written, Kiersten Wilson, the manager of Utah Marriage Commission, has stepped down, and Hawkins began a new role managing the Utah Marriage Commission on July 1.