As Utahns go back to school, many doe-eyed fiancés will also be sharpening their pencils.
A new law going into effect next month provides a discount price on marriage licenses for engaged couples who participate in formal relationship education classes, either in person or online. The idea is to help strengthen marriages on the front end long before difficulties arise on the back end.
The Beehive State boasts some 23,000 marriages per year. But, according to the Utah Marriage Commission, an estimated 10,000 of those marriage end in divorce. Approximately half of the divorces affect children. Not only do taxpayers foot the bill for unnecessary marital disintegration or out-of-wedlock childbearing — costing an estimated $276 million annually in state services — but researchers have also observed how household stability affects the likelihood that individuals are able to rise out of poverty.
There is now mounting evidence that government-backed relationship education programs improve marriages, particularly among the economically vulnerable. And yet, too often marital relationship education programs are woefully underattended. Research conducted with colleagues at Brigham Young University further suggests that a decreasing percentage of today’s couples are taking advantage of these programs.
Previous estimates of participation levels range from 30 percent of couples, at the low end, to 44 percent at the high end. But our first-of-its-kind study showed that, among a nationally representative group of recently married couples, only 27.6 percent had participated in such programs. Utah’s new law will help, providing a small financial incentive to participate. This is an important start. But the state should consider additional avenues for helping couples survive the vicissitudes associated with even the healthiest of marriages.
First, through educational channels and other means of communication, the state can acknowledge the social science data regarding the benefits of marriage. While no one should be counseled to stay in a destructive situation, most marriages end for soft reasons, including a lack of spousal commitment. In many cases, working through inevitable marital setbacks is in an individual’s best interest. Compared with single, divorced or cohabiting individuals — and regardless of income or race — married couples are more likely to experience numerous economic, physical, emotional and even sexual benefits.
Additionally, the state can make relationship education more accessible. Increasing evidence-based programs and making them flexible, available and tailored to those who can benefit from them may also boost participation and results.
Last, research indicates that a person’s views regarding relationships — including mate selection and marriage formation — can begin as early as adolescence. For evidence-based relationship education to have its optimal impact, research-backed practices and relationship literacy should be cultivated well before individuals begin a marriage. Understanding the long-term benefits of healthy relationships at an earlier age, couples are better equipped to make the kinds of relationship investments that pay off when they reach an age appropriate for marriage formation.
Elevating Utah’s marriage culture in this way improves life for everyone, including the most economically disadvantaged. Economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez linked Utah’s higher-than-average rates of upward mobility to a strong marriage culture. Summarizing their findings in Bloomberg News, journalist Megan McArdle writes that a critical mass of stable marriages produces positive “spillover effects.” She observes: “Chetty et al. didn’t just find that married parents helped their own children to rise; they also influenced the lives of the children around them.” Improving marriages has benefits for all Utahns.
Stephen Duncan, Ph.D., is a professor of family life at Brigham Young University.