Opinion: A silver anniversary celebration for the Utah Marriage Commission
Should the government be involved in marriage matters? It benefits Utah families and the state as a whole when marriages succeed
It wasn’t your typical silver anniversary celebration event. No bride and groom stuffed into a wedding dress and tuxedo strategically altered to accommodate some well-earned midlife-midriff bulges. Family and friends weren’t gathered in the family home toasting the beaming couple’s marital success and telling stale family jokes. And there were no sappy but heartwarming vow renewals.
No, this silver anniversary celebration took place in the reception room at the Utah state Capitol building next to the governor’s office. And it was filled with current and former legislators, the current lieutenant governor, a former governor and first lady, and other dignitaries, with members of the press asking them questions. It was the public celebration of 25 years of work by the Utah Marriage Commission and its mission to provide Utahns with free, research-based educational resources to help them form and sustain healthy relationships and stronger marriages. I serve as the day-to-day manager of the commission and confess to having a jack-o’-lantern-sized grin on my face during the hourlong event.
Jackie and Mike Leavitt, former first lady and governor, kicked off the event, remembering that they had just celebrated their 25th anniversary when they announced the formation of the Marriage Commission back in 1998. They just celebrated their own golden anniversary this past summer. Jackie Leavitt played a crucial, active role with the commission early on and today remains the honorary chair of the commission.
The early years of the commission were filled with marriage conferences, governor proclamations, and celebrations of “Gold Medal Marriages” (50-year anniversaries) and the longest married couples in Utah. The commission recognized couples who overcame severe challenges and struggles and stayed committed through the ups and downs of marriage. It created a VHS video (remember those relics?) to give to couples when they applied for marriage licenses — a wedding gift of principles and skills to help them get off to a good start in their marriage.
In 2004, the commission was placed in the Department of Workforce Services to take advantage of federal TANF, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, funding that came to the state each year. A major purpose of TANF is to increase the number of children growing up in stable, healthy, two-parent families.
During these years, the commission reached thousands of Utahns as funds were provided to universities and community agencies to offer relationship and marriage education classes, produce and distribute a Utah Marriage Handbook, and host marriage conferences. The commission’s online presence at StrongerMarriage.org began to grow.
In 2013, the Marriage Commission was formally put in statute and transferred to the Department of Human Services, although it continued to be supported primarily with federal TANF funds. The conferences, classes and celebrations continued, as thousands more Utahns were learning principles and skills to help them improve their marriages and remarriages.
During this period of growth, the commission also helped with some important legislation. For instance, Jackie Leavitt played a key role in promoting a bill that provided for a marriage license discount. Engaged Utah couples can get $20 off their online marriage license fee when they complete six hours of approved premarital education or three hours of premarital counseling. Utah is one of 10 states providing this incentive.
Also, in 2021, current Marriage Commission chairwoman, Rep. Melissa Ballard, sponsored a bill that further clarified the scope and responsibilities of the commission. The bill also designated Utah State University Extension — with its mission to translate research into programs and resources to improve the lives of individuals, families and communities throughout Utah — as the host for the Utah Marriage Commission. The commission has thrived in this new organizational environment.
These past few years the commission has established a large and growing presence in the online world to meet the needs of a younger, busy, digital generation. For example, about a year ago, the commission launched the regular Stronger Marriage Connection podcast in partnership with KSL podcasts, with co-hosts Dr. Dave (Schramm) and Dr. Liz (Hale).
The commission is currently growing access to a portfolio of free, research-based, online-and-on-demand relationship education courses to help Utahns in many diverse circumstances with different challenges. It underwrites for Utahns the leading relationship assessment tool in the world. Its social media growth has exploded, too, offering simple tips and tools to help singles and couples prepare for and strengthen their marriages. And the Commission is helping to promote participation in an upcoming statewide virtual date night, “Enjoy the Journey,” on Feb. 9, 2024, during National Marriage Week, sponsored by USU Extension.
In her remarks at this silver anniversary celebration event, Ballard noted how much more open the younger generation is to relationship help. “I’ve noticed with my own (young adult) children, they are much more willing and eager to have support, help, counseling and resources, (more) than was ever available (in the past).”
“It’s not a failure to have disagreements. It’s not a failure to go through rough patches. It’s not a failure to have heartache. It’s not a failure to have financial troubles. It’s part of life, and it’s part of marriage.” — Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson
Beyond the specific educational resources supported by the commission is a meta-message from the commission’s website that relationships take learning and growth and patience. “It’s not a failure to have disagreements (in your marriage),” Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said during her remarks. “It’s not a failure to go through rough patches. It’s not a failure to have heartache. It’s not a failure to have financial troubles. It’s part of life, and it’s part of marriage.” The commission wants to have Utahns’ backs when it comes to working through the inevitable challenges of marriage.
Should the government be extending its impersonal reach into such personal matters? It’s an important question, and several speakers at the silver anniversary celebration event touched on this sensitive issue.
Former Utah Gov. and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt argued yes: “I became a bit of an expert over time — as anyone who works in government does — of what happens when families fail, and who it is that ultimately does society’s work attempting to make up the difference between a healthy family and an unhealthy situation. It is often the state.”
Economists label the public costs of private decisions “externalities,” and they can be steep, with one study estimating those costs in Utah at nearly $400 million. Mike Leavitt reaffirmed that the government — the people collectively — need to help when families fall short of giving their children the stability they most need. And he oversaw the billions of federal dollars for these services each year when he was secretary for Health and Human Services. But that public responsibility to help struggling families is at the heart of the rationale for public support for preventive efforts to provide children stable homes with two parents in a healthy relationship.
A reporter at the event asked who pays for the Utah Marriage Commission. Dr. Brian Higginbotham, USU Extension vice president, outlined commission finances. For many years, primary funding came from federal TANF funds, as mentioned above. Higginbotham also has been highly successful at obtaining millions of federal and state grant funds to support marriage and relationship education (and fathering, co-parenting, divorce and parenting education, too). Also, when couples apply online for a marriage license, $20 of that fee goes to the commission to support its educational efforts (but couples who invest in premarital education get a $20 discount).
Moving forward, the commission now is seeking sponsorships for some of its services and products and as a 501(c)3 organization associated with Utah State University now hopes to find generous donors to be able to expand the services.
There was no champagne flowing at this silver anniversary event, just cold cider in plastic cups outside the reception room in the echoing halls of the state capitol. But it didn’t dampen the spirits of those in attendance who were celebrating the accomplishments — past and future — of the Utah Marriage Commission.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Rep. Melissa Ballard was misidentified in a photo caption.
Alan J. Hawkins is manager of the Utah Marriage Commission and an emeritus professor of family life at Brigham Young University.