Thursday, May 03, 2007

Premarital Education Discounts Are a Good, Feasible Policy

About a third of married couples take part in premarital education or counseling. Married couples who get premarital education reduce their divorce risk by about a third, among many other benefits. Communities with Community Marriage Policies, in which the town's clergy agree to require all the couples they marry to get premarital counseling, have reduced their divorce rate by an average of 2%, or about 30,000 divorces prevented so far. Most religious marriage counseling is free, and there are free or inexpensive options in most communities. Better marriages and fewer divorces are in the public interest, so most public-minded groups and agencies are very supportive of premarital education.

States can encourage couples to get premarital education by reducing the wedding license fees. The five states that have such policies so far – Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee – give a discount of $20 to $50. This discount is as much a symbol of the state's commitment as it is a serious incentive to get premarital counseling, but it does have an effect.

Alan Hawkins, a family studies professor at Brigham Young, has helpfully reviewed the benefits and costs of state policies encouraging premarital education. He concludes that such policies save money, are politically feasible, and, most importantly, that premarital education improves marriages and reduces the divorce rate.

In Kentucky marriage license fees run about $35. To offer a discount for premarital counseling that would make a difference, we would probably need to raise the initial fee. If the license fee were $50 and the discount were $25 – that is, 50% off for getting an education that will help your marriage – this program could make a difference at almost no new direct cost to the state.

Encouraging premarital education and counseling through a voluntary program and a modest discount from the state is a feasible, helpful, centrist approach to improving marriages – and thus improving public life.

16 comments:

James Robert Ross said...

I'm all in favor. Wish I could do something to help.

Mary Jo T said...

A $25 discount seems negligible when you think of how much weddings cost... Definitely more of a symbolic guesture than anything. And yet symbols like this are important when you think of the few options states have for encouraging strong marriages.

Mark Smith said...

I'm in favor.

I got the "free" version - I only had to pay $100 to the Catholic church that married us (plus something to the organist and singer).

Gruntled said...

Does your state/county not charge for a civil marriage license?

just axing said...

This doesn't strike me as a centrist idea.Premarital education is a good idea. Getting the government involved is not. Especially when it is available for free.I think govrnment should stick to things like building highways and protecting us from foreign enemies.
just axing

Stuart Gordon said...

On this count, it seems to me that the government IS involved. The government issues the license. In the case of divorce, the government mediates and distributes the shared assets. Offering a discount on marriage licenses is the state's act of self-interest to increase the chances of success.

just axing said...

I have not argued that the government isn't or shouldn't be invovled in marriage.In this case I just don't think it necessary. I agree that premarital education is a smart and even a good idea but we shouldn't be taxed for every good idea that pops into someone's head. A discount for one is payed for by taxing another. Churches,libraries, counselors with sliding rates,friends and family can be good sources for pre marital education. The government is already too burdened. Let's each do what we can to help.
just axing

Mike Mather said...

An interesting discussion. I am a United Methodist pastor in Indianapolis, IN. I'm interested in reading the studies that show the benefit of pre-marital counseling -- longitudinal studies in particular. But my (completely anecdotal) experience is that pre-marital counseling (at least by those of us who are non-professional and non-counselors) is not all that helpful. People staying married sounds on the face of it like a good thing -- but it can, in my experience, often be a miserable, unhappy thing - that people stay in because "we should keep our vows." I'm just speaking about this from the perspective of one who spends some time with people in this regard -- I have no studies to back me up.

Also, at our church we are trying something different. Instead of me providing "pre-marital counselling" folks -- we are now starting to give people the real gift we have to offer in the church, I think. That is to say - community. When people are getting married, we now require them to have dinner with others in the congregation. Some of whom have been married a short time. Others who have been married for much longer. I guess what I am trying to say is that my observation is that it is not good advice or even great communication that benefits a marriage most. It is something that is harder to define or put one's finger on (that doesn't mean we shouldn't try). It is, I think, forgiveness and grace that are forged around a table together. That is strengthened by friendship with others (rather than so much of the isolation I see in the lives of people these days). Anyway...

Gruntled said...

Premarital education is good for getting young people who are in love to concentrate on the hard work and material reality of marriage. I find in my class that the material side of marriage is something they simply have not thought about. Most especially, the women often think that having a baby will make their marriage perfect, rather than bring a huge strain on the marriage. Premarital counseling is good for making better marriages -- which is probably the best defense against the misery that some of your intramarital counselees seem to be bringing to you.

Mike Mather said...

Maybe you are right. But almost everyone I have seen has had pre-marital counseling (not from me, I might add!). Since you are a sociologist I'm curious about what data you have that supports your statements. I'm curious about that -- because I, like you, am curious about what will really work. I want to be effective. I want marriage to be strengthened. I (like you) want something that will really work. It's just my observation that pre-marital counseling doesn't really work (and I haven't seen any studies that give data that reveals something different).

Gruntled said...

I don't have a scientific study. What I do have is a decade of teaching family, which has had an unexpected effect of being premarital counseling.

Mike Mather said...

I am sorry to drag this out. And I certainly understand if you want to end this conversation -- it's just that with 21 years of being a pastor and dealing with families in that way I'm just not so confident as I once was as to what is truly effective. I think strengthened families are a very good (and even holy) thing. I just think that pointing the way toward increasing pre-marital education is not necessarily (though it might be) a very good way to achieve that end.

Gruntled said...

I am reminded of a story that my friend Sam Todd told me in divinity school. He was interning at a Presbyterian Church, a welcoming, non-judgmental mainline church. The pastor was counseling an unhappy married couple. He encouraged them to talk about their problems, without telling them what to do. The couple were absent from church for a few months, then came back much happier. The pastor was congratulating himself on the effectiveness of his counseling, until he asked them where they had been. "No offense," the couple replied, "but we didn't think we were getting anywhere with you, so we went to our friend's pastor at the Baptist church. He told us to shape up and commit to making our marriage better, the marriage we had vowed to before God and our friends and family. So we did. He then helped us with some little problems we have been having communicating."

Ambivalence kills.

Mike Mather said...

Aha -- now I am getting a better idea of what you think. Ambivalence may kill, indeed. I think that wrong-headedness also kills. Trying to do something in a way that doesn't work is not a recipe for success. I want clarity on something that will not work. And what I hear you saying is that this will work because you think so. Which I've would have thought would be pretty tough call for a sociologist (though I've never been a sociologist so I could be wrong). Your story may be true -- but I can tell you that I have been with many an abusive couple where the woman who is being abused INSISTS on staying with her husband because of her vows. And that is very deadly as well. And not to recognize that is irresponsible and dangerous as any ambivalence. Ambivalence kills, but so can clarity. I guess what I hear you saying is that you find me ambivalent (I'm trying hard not to be defensive here). What I'm trying to communicate (obviously not too well) is that I honestly don't know what works. And it appears to me that you don't either. But what I want is for us to work at figuring it out -- rather than putting our eggs in a basket just because it sounds like something we would like to be true.

I apologize if any of this sounds overconfident.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Mather,
Are you serious? How can you argue against telling people that keeping their vows is a good thing and that marriage is difficult? No one is arguing that people should stay in abusive relationships. This is a straw man argument and you should know that. Being non judgemental can become an excuse for doing nothing and feeling smug about it. You can do better than this Pastor Mather.
just axing

Gruntled said...

This is a good place to ask about how much of a straw man the abuse argument is. Married churchgoing people are very unlikely to actually hit one another. Still, you might see enough in your counseling practice to qualify as "many." So how many is many? What proportion of your counseling couples are hitting one another, or threatening to?